Mark Webber: Life in the faster lane
Brian Viner Interviews: The Australian Formula One driver talks a good race but the points to match his talent have eluded him. This season he aims to prove the wheel deal
Friday 10 March 2006
Mark Webber begins his fifth season as a Formula One driver in Bahrain on Sunday having only once known raw fear at the wheel of a car. It was not in the driving rain at Spa, nor entering the hairpin at Suzuka, nor exiting the tunnel in Monte Carlo, but on the A41 near Aylesbury, just a few days ago.
"It's a dual carriageway, and this bloke came towards me on the wrong side of the central reservation. I was in the left-hand lane, and suddenly he shot by me in the right-hand lane. I rang the police and they said they'd had another call 30 seconds before. It was scary, mate. And it reminded me that when your time's up, it's up."
Webber - a tall, lean, rather dishy and hugely engaging Australian, brimming with healthy Antipodean candour - is reflecting on mortality in a bar named after his compatriot Alan Jones, the last Australian to win the world championship, 26 years ago. The bar is deep in the Williams compound near Wantage in Oxfordshire. It is a suitably grey day for thoughts of death; outside in the relentless drizzle, a windsock hangs disconsolately from a pole, and even the topiary mechanics making a topiary wheel change to a topiary racing car look miserable.
It's a far cry from the heat and dust and excitement of Bahrain, where Webber aims to show his paymasters Frank Williams and Patrick Head, following a disappointing 2005 season, that they have the right man on board.
There was friction in the relationship last year, and directly after the Turkish Grand Prix Webber was seen in earnest conversation with the Sauber-BMW boss Dr Mario Theissen. I don't suppose they were discussing the best place to buy Turkish delight?
"Yeah, he asked me about my contract. I could have gone, but I decided to stay here. I came here wanting to prove to Frank and Patrick that I can do a bloody good job, but the circumstances last year were not the best. I know I can race. If it's with this team, great."
In truth, while all Formula One cognoscenti know that 29-year-old Webber is a formidable driver, he has not yet fully presented his racing credentials. If he can carry his qualifying form into the sabbath then the podium will be his for the taking, but as yet, his tally of 62 championship points in 68 grand prix starts does not match his talent.
Still, all appears to be sweetness and light again in the Williams camp, and winter testing, Webber says, has gone "pretty well". The Cosworth engine he describes as an art historian might a Botticelli, as a thing of beauty, with the tyre change from Michelin to Bridgestone literally the most pressing development.
"The tyre's the only thing that touches the ground, mate, and it's very important to get a good feeling. It's like a golfer changing his clubs."
To extend the analogy, can the new clubs help him to win the US Masters, or will he be content merely to make the leader board? "Well, in this game you have to be realistic with your goals, and I'm not very good at that. My ambition is to improve on what we did last year, coming fifth in the constructors' championship, and 10th in the drivers' championship. But it's not going to be a walk in the park, not at all. It's a ruthless industry.
"You're in direct competition first of all with your own team-mate, the guy with the same car as you, then after that it's the people with the same tyres, which is now Ferrari and Toyota. After that you see what's left. And everyone's reputation changes every two weeks. It's such a fickle industry. After four months you can be written off, no matter what you've achieved before."
Nobody is writing Webber off, not least because last season's disappointments at Williams were by no means confined to the track. Jenson Button agreed to join the team before performing one of Formula One's more expensive U-turns, and BMW ended its sponsorship, issues which polluted the atmosphere such that Webber's mid-season showdown with Williams and Head did not, perhaps could not, quite clear the air as intended.
"Look, Patrick and Frank have achieved an awful lot in Formula One and I haven't," says Webber. "That's the long and the short of it, but if I'd had a competitive package for the whole season I could have achieved more. They felt they weren't getting the best out of me, and I wasn't getting the best out of them.
"Yeah, I made some mistakes in races and Bahrain was one. I had a spin and lost out on second, but there were things going on in the background that only this team knows about."
Was it fair of Williams and Head to bawl him out? A long pause. "There was some substance to it, yeah. Look, I'm not going to give a shopping list of excuses. In the top flight of every sport, you're absolutely dreaming if you think you're going to have 15 years or so at the top without getting a kick in the balls every now and then."
Webber knows that there is a chance, in the season about to start, that the kick in the balls will be applied by his 20-year-old team-mate Nico Rosberg - the son of Keke Rosberg, who won the world championship for Williams in 1982.
"I've had many young team-mates," he says, "but Nico's a bit different. We have a healthy rivalry and I expect him to do well, although it's one thing hitting tennis balls against a ball machine, it's not like trying not to serve a double-fault in the third set."
Webber's fondness for sporting analogies reflects the breadth of his sporting interests. His father ran a motorbike dealership in the small town of Queanbeyan, New South Wales, and he was a petrolhead from a young age - "it used to do mum's head in ... I'd come home from school, nail two bowls of ice cream, and watch grand prix tapes over and over again, until I even had the commentary down pat" - but, in common with so many Aussies, his sporting passions extend far and wide.
A huge cycling fan, he endearingly admits to being awestruck when a mutual Formula One friend introduced him to Lance Armstrong. "I didn't even know whether I wanted to meet him. I wanted to keep him..." - he stretches an arm - "... out there. But I went to Texas and did some riding with him. We did his little loop, and he wouldn't let me sit behind him in the slipstream. He said, 'That's easy, come and ride beside me".
"We rode for about two hours, and went to this famous part of his ranch where there's this huge waterhole with a 50ft jump. 'You can't come all this way and not do this,' he said. 'Who's going first?' By the time I'd answered he was off, and I had to follow him. It was very deep, very scenic, and bloody scary."
As well as facilitating 50ft jumps into water holes, Formula One has also opened doors into the dressing-room of the Australian cricket team, another set of heroes. At the end of the second day of last summer's Edgbaston Test, Webber was invited into the inner sanctum. "I didn't want to go near them. They'd just come off and they'd had a bloody tough day. But [former Test bowler] Geoff Lawson talked to the media guy and he organised it. I thought, 'Shit, here we go.' And actually it was good, at a time when I was going through a rough phase myself, to see them going through a rough phase too. They were great. They said, 'We're all watching you, mate.' "
To his inordinate pleasure, Webber has also got to know Australia's former cricket captain Steve Waugh, with whom he has discussed in detail the parallels, not immediately apparent to the naked eye, between cricket and Formula One.
"There are a lot of similarities in a spooky sort of way. We race in a car for about an hour and 40 minutes, and Monte Carlo, for instance, is probably in the top few sporting challenges for the human brain, in terms of concentration. Then you look at a guy trying to get a double- century against the best bowling attack in the world, the concentration required there. Any slightly wrong footwork and it's all over.
"I love boxing, too, and boxing's the same. It requires an intensity of concentration, and if the top two inches aren't working, mate, then you might as well go home. Steve told me that he taught himself to relax between deliveries, so in that sense it's different, but the whole issue of premeditation is the same. You've got Curtly Ambrose steaming in, and you think, 'I'm going to charge him.' Or I might think, 'I'm going to overtake [Fernando] Alonso on the next bend.' But then why haven't you been able to do that for the last 40 minutes? You can premeditate all you like but you still have to be presented with an opportunity."
Speaking of the world champion Alonso, and the delicious prospect of overtaking him, what is it - apart from his Renault - that elevates the Spaniard above the field? "He's just brilliant. He's very, very, very special, and exactly what Formula One should be about, having someone like him. I hope that I can go toe to toe with him and maybe come out on top in a straight fight, [but] what's amazing about him is his consistency circuit to circuit."
I ask which is Webber's favourite grand prix circuit? "It's not my job to have a favourite, mate. I've just got to make sure that there are no tracks I don't like. That's one of the great things I learnt off Mick Doohan, the 500cc world [motorcycle] champion five years in a row. He said, 'Mate, make sure you do your homework on all of them'. And actually I do look forward to going to pretty much every circuit, because I need all of them. The variety's crucial.
"Suzuka, Spa, there are some corkers out there. Monza's a bit of a bore, to be honest. It's not very riveting and it's bloody dangerous, but the history's great. Then there are new tracks with no buzz about them but a great layout. At Monte Carlo the punters are on the barriers, at others you feel like you're on the runway at Heathrow."
His debut grand prix, in 2002, was in Melbourne. "I was driving a Minardi, so the crowd knew there was no chance of a result, but a lot of drivers don't even have a home race. It was special."
Six years earlier, the intensity of Webber's feelings for Australia had made his arrival in England downright traumatic. But he had, and still has, an English girlfriend, the ever-supportive Ann, and knew that his driving ambitions could be fulfilled only in Europe.
"If you talk to Aussies, whether journos, CEOs, whatever, they'll tell you it's much more competitive over here, and you'll do much better financially, if you're good, than back home. But for the first two or three years I bloody hated the place. The traffic jams, the grey. And I still hate smoky pubs, they do my head in. Your clothes reek, you have to put them twice through the washing-machine. But some of those places were built before Australia was discovered, so there's your reason for going, right there.
"And actually I went home for three weeks during those early years and thought, 'Shit, I'm missing nothing, what am I bloody whingeing about?' I'm fine here now. As my dad says, 'I love the Poms, mate, they're bloody good people.' "
To compound his sense of belonging, Webber has formed an attachment for Chelsea FC. "It started with Zola. I'm not so sure about [Jose] Mourinho any more, but whatever he says and does, he keeps getting bloody good results, at least in the Premiership.
"In 1997 David Campese, who knows my dad, sponsored me in Formula Three. And Campo once said to me, 'Say what you want, but make sure you back it up.' It's not like Mourinho is all talk." Nor, though he talks impressively, is Webber.
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