Why Webber deserves to rule world

The Australian is favourite to take his first title but his engaging personality is what sets him apart
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The Independent Online

Mark Webber made the headlines in Valencia back in July with a spectacular backflip after hisRed Bull hit the back of Heikki Kovalainen's Lotus, but earlier in that week it had been the former racer JJ Lehto who was making the news after a speedboating accident in which his best friend was killed. The popular Finn was in many people's thoughts.

"We need to get an email to him, to show that we're thinking about him," Webber said, echoing the thoughts of several of JJ's friends. "Do you have an address for him?"

Later, Webber had more immediate concerns, but as he left the circuit that Sunday, bruised but unbowed, he called out: "Don't forget that email!" A few days later he was at Red Bull's headquarters in Milton Keynes, accompanied by a 15-year-old on his first trip outside New Zealand, Mitch Evans, who has been doing well in FormulaThree. Webber is mentoring him.

These vignettes paint a portrait of a man who, perhaps because he is 34, sees a broader perspective of life than many of his rivals. It's something that makes Webber an interesting fellow, and would make him a great world champion.

He began winning races with Red Bull last year, starting in Germany, where Sebastian Vettel's hotheadedstreak held him back. Then he won going away in Brazil, as clean a victory as anyone has put together. This year, he was the first to win four races, but he insists that he doesn't see himself as the favourite to win the title even though he is leading Fernando Alonso by 11 points with four races to go.

Webber's lead could be extendedor whittled down today at what promises to be an intriguing Japanese Grand Prix. Heavy rains postponed yesterday's qualifying, which will now take place before today's race, adding another frisson to the five-way race for the title.

"I think we are all pretty even at the moment," he said here on Thursday, referring to his rivals Alonso, Vettel, Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button, although Hamilton's title chances receded slightly after he was penalised five places on the grid yesterday for changing his gearbox before it had done the required four races. The McLaren team cited abnormal oil pressure as the reason.

So Webber was being realistic when he said: "It can change quickly,in a good way for me and in a bad way for me. It's on a knife-edge. But I'm very, very relaxed. It's another race for me. I will do my best and the points will look after themselves."

He further insists he is not wasting any time worrying. "I'm not even thinking about it. It's just another race. I will do my best and the other stuff will take care of itself. If it was a 15-race championship I'd be champion now, but I'm not. There's four to go and you need to lead the championship at the end, not now."

Webber has led Vettel in the points table since the 10th round at Silverstone, where he scored a memorable triumph. He has 21 more points than the German many believe to be the apple of Red Bull's eye, something Webber's manager, Flavio Briatore, cannot get his head around.

"I don't understand many things," Briatore said. "Vettel has taken points away from Webber in Singapore, thus giving a present to Ferrari. I findwhat's happening incomprehensible.Unless Red Bull, who has a big points gap, is aiming for the constructors' championship only."

Briatore also paid tribute to Webber's character. "He is a great man, a fair sportsman, a fine racing driver," he said. "No matter how it ends up, the surprise of the year is him. No one put him among the favourites, but I did, as I've known his qualities and tenacity for years."

Webber is ballsy, too. In 2008, when the scandal involving the former FIA president Max Mosley broke, Webber was the only current driver brave enough to say what he thought. He was not impressed. "The scandal has brought the sport into disrepute," Webber said. "Whether we like it or not, all of us in F1 are role models, and F1 cannot have scandals of this type."

As Mosley faced a vote of confidence, Webber said: "It makes it difficult when these scandals become public. It will be more challenging for him to do his role." This was bold stuff at a time when Mosley was seen to be all-powerful and was feared in some quarters, but such things matter to Webber, and he insisted on speaking out.

Webber becomes more engaging when things get on to a personal level. He cares about people. One objective of the Mark Webber Pure Tasmania Challenge is to encourage young people to push themselves.

Webber's dream was to create an event that combined his love of keeping fit in the great outdoors with raising funds for Australian charities. The Challenge is an annual event, held in Tasmania. Its course is redesigned each year, so it can kick off around the jagged contours and icy streams of Cradle Mountain, pass through the white, sandy beaches of Freycinet National Park or visit the historic village of Strahan, but whatever its route the aim is to give competitors the experience of a lifetime.

"Part of my goal is to help people realise what they want to realise from life, and to have bigger goals and dreams," Webber says. "First you have to experience suffering, so that you can understand what you can overcome, and then go on to achieve something. People underestimate what they can achieve."

When Webber was 13 he had to watch his grandfather deteriorate until cancer finally claimed him. That made a huge impression on him, to see his boyhood hero decline. But he also drew heavily from the way in which his father, Alan, dealt with that. Webber donates part of the Challenge income to an institute for children suffering with cancer, because he understands how the families feel.

His partner, Ann, has a son, Luke, who is 17. "I don't think I'm such a good driving instructor when I watch Luke drive," Webber laughs. Luke has a friend who was paralysed in an accident. "I try to make him look at his friend and his situation, and appreciate the proper values in life, be aware of what he has," Webber says.

This is a man of simple traits and decent values. He and Ann have been together since his Formula Ford days 15 years ago. "I like to train hard, then have a good breakfast with Ann, watch a bit of sport on TV," he says. And, he adds, almost matter-of-factly: "I've heard being world champion changes everything for you... I'd love to get to taste what that change feels like."

Will that happen? This weekend the reigning champion, Jenson Button, said the experience of winning titles might help him, his team-mate Hamilton or Alonso. "We have all won a championship, so maybe that is less pressure – I don't really know," Button said. "But I feel a lot more relaxed this year than I did last year.

"Mark has found himself in a position where he is leading the world championship and has worked very hard for that, but it is a very stressful position to be in. And no disrespect to him, he is a very talented driver, but it is a position he has never found himself in before. We'll see how he copes over the next few races.

"He has a very quick team-mate as well, so there will be a lot of action over the next few races. It's about keeping your car clean but also pushing it to the limit and getting the most points you can. It's a tricky compromise but that's what makes it fun."

Right now the signs are good for the Aussie from Queanbeyan, but Webber knows that if it happens, he is going to have to keep doing things for himself and not rely on help from anyone but his own loyal crew.

He's used to that by now, and it's worked very well so far."Luck could play a part," he says. "But I don't reallybelieve in luck. The harder you work the luckier you get. And I still think I'm due a few credits!"

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