No people on earth pursue sporting victory as single-mindedly as the Australians; no nation has less truck with the Corinthian notion that winning is less important than taking part. So when the 2008 Formula One season whines into action in Melbourne on Sunday, one wonders how the locals will take to the idea that they have only one compatriot on the Albert Park track, and that he has a negligible chance of winning the race.
How, indeed, does 31-year-old Mark Webber himself reconcile the Aussie conviction that sport is all about winning with driving for Red Bull? After all, he comes from the same town – Queanbeyan, New South Wales – as a man whose will to win radiated from every pore, the former Wallaby winger David Campese. It's an impudent question, but can Queanbeyan be similarly proud of a man for whom fifth place on Sunday would constitute unexpected success?
"Probably not, mate," says the ever candid Webber. "It's a shit sport in that respect, but it's a great sport for giving me what I love, which is to test myself. In some ways I prefer to test myself when it's just me and my heart monitor; adventure racing, biking or whatever. I like to rely on nobody but myself, and in this game you're reliant on 500 people. If one of those other guys is having a bad day, it can spoil your day. But I love speed, mate, always have, and this is the path I've gone down. Yeah, you're right, it's very difficult to understand for Australians. But I think it's a tough sport to understand, anyway."
We are talking, for the information of those who believe that the Formula One world is all glamour, on an industrial estate on the outskirts of Milton Keynes, where the Red Bull factory stands cheek by jowl with the headquarters of a coffee company and a stationery business. Webber is tall, slim and dishier than any man so well remunerated has any right to be. But to reiterate, he is not a winner, and I ask whether, whatever they think back in Queanbeyan, it ever irks him that, for all his undoubted talent, he has had just two podium finishes (third with Williams-BMW in Monaco in 2005, and third again, with Red Bull, in last year's European Grand Prix) in a Formula One career that began way back in 2002.
"Yeah, of course. When I look back at my career I'd like to be able to say that I won a race. But then I never thought I'd get into Formula One in the first place."
He concedes that he and his Red Bull team-mate David Coulthard stand little chance this season of eclipsing Ferrari and McLaren. Not that they will shirk the challenge, although it won't be a joint effort; Webber adds that his first and fiercest rival is the fellow wearing the same colours. "Of course, he's the only guy with the same car. But we've got to try and close that gap by getting points in each race. After Ferrari and McLaren, and probably BMW, there's a very tight group of about eight drivers fighting over seventh and eighth. If I can finish seventh every weekend, I'd end up with a pretty respectable number of points."
And how much confidence does he have in the car, which bears the unique imprimatur of Red Bull's chief technical officer, Adrian Newey? "It's good. But they all feel quick, mate. The problem is that so do the opposition cars."
This is Webber's second season with Red Bull, whom he joined after his former boss Sir Frank Williams offered him a new contract but at a considerably reduced salary. His manager, Flavio Briatore, amid speculation that he might join Briatore's own team Renault, then brokered his switch to Red Bull. Webber insists that he holds no hard feelings towards Williams. Does he think he got a fair crack of the whip there? "Oh yeah. It was my decision to leave. I wasn't pushed. But when Frank told me that he was changing his price, Flavio said it would be a good opportunity to go to Red Bull. He was against me going to Williams, and he still reminds me of that every time I see him." A grin. "That's Flavio."
So much for the recent past; what of the near future? Webber is an articulate man, and very few people on the planet know what it is like to sit on the grid at the start of a grand prix, indeed at the start of a grand prix season: can he put it into words?
"It's just a very, very tense time. Everybody is focusing on their specific job, and the grid is packed, but over a five-minute period the crowd gets thinner and thinner, and suddenly it's just you and the car, and the guy next to you on the grid. You've done nothing physically demanding yet your heart rate is elevated."
And will his be elevated more than usual on Sunday, with it being the first race of the season in front of his home crowd? "Not really, mate. I don't have any favourite circuits. I enjoy every grand prix just the same. Of course, there are some countries we go to that I enjoy more than others but that's a different issue."
He is not superstitious but he does have pre-race rituals. "I always get into the car on the left-hand side, and I always go for a wee, but that's just part and parcel of the sport, because you have to take on so much fluid to stop yourself dehydrating." I tell Webber what Damon Hill once assured me, that certain drivers have been known to relax their bladders during a race. My theory, I elaborate, is that the champagne sprayed around on the podium is to disguise the soaked patches. He does me the courtesy of smiling, and offers his recollections of a rather less pleasant bodily function, which troubled him during last year's Japanese Grand Prix.
"I had food poisoning mate, and I had to vomit inside my helmet. It wasn't pleasant. The natural instinct when you vomit is to bend over; it's quite challenging to do it bolt upright."
Much worse was to come, though. Towards the end of the race, with Webber running second behind Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel, driving for Red Bull's sister team Scuderia Toro Rosso, ran into the back of him. That was the end of his race, and afterwards he expressed his frustration in no uncertain terms to ITV's Louise Goodman. "Well, it's kids, isn't it? Kids with not enough experience, doing a good job, then they fuck it all up."
The race was won by Hamilton, who, only two years older than Vettel, might also be classified as a kid without much experience. Can we talk about the McLaren wunderkind? "Why not? In all the pre-season interviews I've done in England, everyone wants to talk about Lewis."
Does he resent that? "Let's just say that nobody is talking about him anywhere else in the world. Look, he's talented, we all know that.
"But he's been in the sport for five minutes. People compare him with Schumacher. There is no comparison. When he wins the championship, then he's got six more to win before he can be compared to Schumacher. Yeah, he had a great first year. It was extraordinary what he did. But great sports stars are measured by longevity. Pele, Steffi Graf, whoever.
"Also, his career has gone off like a rocket ship, but it won't always be like that. He's young and he's black, which makes him unique in this sport, but that's got a shelf life. He won't stop being black but it will stop being a novelty. And he'll find that some of the column inches, maybe even this season, are totally negative and totally incorrect. That's not easy to deal with."
Sir Stirling Moss, I venture, has suggested that Hamilton might just have the potential to be better than anyone except his hero Fangio. Does that sort of comment make Webber laugh? "No, I've got a lot of time for Stirling. But look, I'm not going to sit here blowing smoke up the opposition's arse."
Nonetheless, does he look at Hamilton, or for that matter Kimi Raikkonen or Fernando Alonso, and see drivers who can do things that he can't? "Not until we all have a crack in the same car. That's the great unknown in our sport. But I'm not saying I haven't got weaknesses, if that's what you mean. My first-lap aggression could probably be worked on."
Aggression, he adds, is a key component in sport. So, living in England, it must amuse him, I say, to see our more aggressive sportsmen, the win-at-all-costs brigade, failing to win hearts and minds. "Yeah, like Nick Faldo. He's a competitive individual, he's not meant to be a nice guy. Roy Keane, what a leader. But these people can't play every role asked of them, and it's the same in Australia, mate. Lleyton Hewitt got the same shit. But the people who criticise them should walk a mile in their shoes.
"I'm not a fan of the [United] States in general – they've got a lot to answer for in this world – but they respect their sports stars. A lot of other countries could learn from that. Here, and in Australia, professional sportsmen get slagged off by people who haven't a clue what they go through."
Like having to drive at breakneck speed while suffering from food poisoning? "If you like, mate, yeah."
On the Webb: Mark's racing career
MARK ALAN WEBBER
Born 27 August 1976, Queanbeyan, New South Wales
1991-3 Australian Karting
1994 Australian Formula Ford Championship debut
1995 Fourth in the AFFC. Third in the Duckhams Formula Ford Festival (UK)
1996 Runner-up in British Formula Ford Championship. Winner of the DFFF
1997 Fourth in British Formula Three Championship. Third in Marlboro Masters F3. Fourth in Macau F3 Grand Prix
1998 Partnered Bernd Schneider in FIA GT Championship, finishing runners-up
1999 Member of Mercedes AMG team at Le Mans
2000 Third in FIA International Formula 3000 Championship
2001 Second in FIA International 3000 Championship. Test drives for Benetton Formula One team.
2002 Makes Formula One debut with Minardi, finishes season in 16th
2003 Finishes 10th in Championship with Jaguar.
2004 Finishes 13th with Jaguar
2005 Moves to Williams, finishes season in 10th, including third place at Monaco
2006 Finishes 14th with Williams
2007 Joins Red Bull, finishes season in twelfth position. Third in German GP
FORMULA ONE STATISTICS
105 grands Prix (103 starts),79 pts, two podium finishes
Highest: 3rd (twice)
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