Motor Racing: Campese's new boy racer

Andrew Baker discovers that the great Australian is still spoiling for a sporting challenge
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In the furore surrounding the Arrows grand prix boss Tom Walkinshaw's decision to invest in Gloucester rugby club, the success of its mirror image - a rugby star's investment in motor racing - has passed almost unnoticed. But if the plans of the former Wallaby great, David Campese, work out, his protege, Mark Webber, could be racing against Walkinshaw's grand prix team by the turn of the century.

Webber, who is 20, was the convincing winner of last weekend's Brands Hatch round of the British Formula Three championship, which is a shop window for would-be Formula One stars. The young Australian's mature performance - he started from pole position, led every lap, and lowered the track record by three seconds - impressed regular observers of the series, and will have made waves among grand prix teams, not least because Webber led home the championship favourites, Peter Dumbreck and Jonny Kane, who both drive for Paul Stewart Racing, the offshoot of the Stewart grand prix team.

Campese, who was Down Under searching for sponsorship while Webber was proving his potential at the Kent circuit, seems to take just as much pleasure in the success of the youngster on the track as he ever did in his own exploits on the field. "It's fantastic that Mark has a win in Formula Three under his belt now," he said from New Zealand last week. "And he's the one doing it, not me. It's just a shame that more people in Australia aren't interested in supporting him - for some reason companies here don't seem interested in backing a young man in achieving his dream."

Webber, who drives for the Aussie-owned Alan Docking Racing team, mixed delight with his first win in F3 with concern that his budget may not allow him to complete the season. "Australian Yellow Pages have been great with their support," he said. "And after the win the profile is getting higher and higher. But I need to find some more money to keep going. I need Australia to wake up."

Campese is doing all that he can, and clearly enjoys the challenge of selling a young talent as much as he enjoyed selling dummies in his heyday on the rugby field. "I've been putting a lot of work in," he said, "speaking to plenty of people about Mark. We have the Olympics in the year 2000, and I've approached a few people to do with that and said, `Here, put your logo on the side of the car, get it seen all over the world.' I mean, this guy could be in Formula One by 2000."

This is not pure hype, for all of Campese's relish of his new role. Jaimes Baker, assistant editor of Autosport, who watched him at Brands Hatch, believes that Webber has every chance of developing into the genuine article. "Last week's win was no fluke," he said. "I've no doubt he can repeat the form later in the season. He has really taken everybody by surprise, and I'm sure he'll be right up there for the rest of the season."

But in the commercially sensitive world of modern motor racing, performance on the track is not all: a driver needs to know how to sell himself, and it is here that Campese can most usefully advise his young charge. "David helps in all sorts of ways," Webber said. "He tells me how to present myself well to business contacts and the media - he has so much experience in so many fields and that's great for me when I'm just starting out. He's an ambassador with a great name in Australia."

Campese, who also looks after five other young sportsmen, has found a kindred spirit in Webber. "He comes from Queenbeyan in New South Wales like me so he's got to be a good sort of fella," Campese said. "Off track he's a nice guy, he's not afraid to talk to anybody and that is important. When he's down in Australia I take him around with me and he's not shy, I can tell you that."

Webber has certainly made no enemies in the pit lanes of Britain. "He's a very popular guy," Jaimes Baker said. "And he's in a great position as one of Campese's chosen few. I can't believe a man of Campese's stature would allow his protege to run out of money." Keep rattling the tin, Campo.