Mark Webber: “It’s a big learning curve”
The ex-Red Bull F1 ace leads Porsche’s Le Mans effort this year. TG has a chat
At the Geneva show this week, Porsche pulled the covers from the 919, the LMP1 racer the firm hopes will return the Le Mans 24 Hour title to Stuttgart after a 16-year absence.
As fascinating as the V4, hybrid-powered 919 is the man leading Porsche's charge at La Sarthe. After a dozen seasons of Grand Prix racing - the last seven with Red Bull - and more than his fair share of controversy, Mark Webber has traded F1 for endurance racing, and Seb Vettel for, well, guys who aren't Seb Vettel.
One of the genuine good guys in racing, and with a reputation for calling a spade a spade, mate, TopGear figured it was time to buttonhole the affable Aussie for a quick chat about Le Mans, F1 and 911 GT2s...
TG: The V4 hybrid 919 has a fascinating configuration. Were you perturbed when you first heard about it?
MW: No. I've seen so many wacky things over the years, whether it was working with Adrian Newey, you just got to put your faith in these guys.
Look, this is Porsche. These guys have done their homework. Are we going to nail everything in five minutes? No. It's going to take a while. It's a big learning curve, and there are lots of new people who are working together for the first time.
Actually, I think that's the biggest challenge. Yes, we've got some big technical decisions to make, but getting everyone working together is one of the toughest. It's like mobile phones. We'll probably look back in 10 years and think, ‘yeah, we should have done that earlier'.
It's really early days, and it's very aggressive. There's so many ways you can skin the cat now, getting the car to work competitively. But the V4 hybrid... it's a nice statement.
TG: First impressions?
MW: I was pleasantly surprised when I drove it in Portimao. I was pretty pessimistic beforehand, kind of mentally preparing myself for disappointment.
I'm committed to Porsche, but I didn't want to set the bar too high, not just in terms of the car, but in the category. Allan McNish, Tom Kristensen, Alex Wurz... they'd all told me what the car would probably feel like.
But when I drove it, I knew immediately I'd made the right decision. It's heavier of course, so it's obviously not as responsive as an F1 car. But these cars are very complex under the skin, and this is the next best category to F1 by a mile.
That attracted me. Factory LMP1 cars are awesome. They're not hanging around.
TG: Isn't it all getting just a bit too complicated?
MW: You have to embrace it, otherwise go and do something else. Sure, the mid-2000s F1 cars with V10s and 20,000rpm screaming were incredible but... those days are over.
Of course you look at a car like Senna's '88 car and think, ‘wow'. Or even Concorde. We've gone backwards to go forwards. Concorde was just a mighty beast. We're going about it differently now, but still using some phenomenal technology.
TG: You own a 911 GT2 and a 4.0-litre RS. You're driving for the right guys, clearly...
MW: As a young guy, growing up in Australia, the 911 was definitive. I remember talking to Sebastien Vettel when the GT2 came out, about the power, the way it looked. He said, ‘What do you reckon?' I said, ‘We should both get one', so we did.
If you take a 911 to a track day it's the car that's running around out there still working, with its brakes still working, at the end of the day. It's a Porsche. You know that. We all know that. Brakes are important, you know.
TG: Choosing the moment to quit F1 must have been tough. How did you know it was time to go?
MW: The last few years were getting trickier. My motivation wasn't what it should have been, having to play every trick in the book to make yourself hungry, to keep competing.
And we were competing so often. It's relentless. So I made the decision. I'm going to stop, and I'm going to stop while I'm still driving well.
Sure, I had offers for F1 for 2014. Ferrari had been on the radar for '12 and '13, but I wasn't convinced I could really give that a fair crack. Plus, my loyalty to Dietrich [Mateschitz, Red Bull owner] was high because of how he'd treated me when I broke my leg.
TG: Any regrets?
MW: My dad is disappointed I've retired from F1. But he's not in the car... I made the decision, so what else was I going to do?
That said, I didn't want to stop completely. I like competing. So when Wolfgang [Hatz, Porsche R&D boss] got in touch, the stars just aligned. I did talk to quite a few people [about retiring].
It doesn't matter whether you're a GP driver, a footballer, a rock star. I spoke to one of the guys from INXS. Imagine the buzz of playing to 80,000 people in Wembley Stadium. It's tricky.
The amount of people who have got themselves into tricky situations post-career... But you have to accept that it can't go on forever, at that level. Mark, let go... I look back now and don't know how I did it for so long.
TG: What about the whole ‘Multi 21' furore at Malaysia last year?
MW: At the time it was a small... confirmation. You're not thinking about Seb, you're thinking about the whole scenario.
I was ready for a change. All those little things are going on. It's the nature of the sport. That was just the most public. But if you can't handle those pressures, do a different job.
For sportspeople, it's the drug of keeping going, keep improving each day, and not accepting that yesterday was enough, because yesterday wasn't enough. It can't be. Especially when you're younger. But you have to lift off sometimes, too.
TG: Are you going to miss F1?
MW: No, mate. It moves so quickly, it's gone already. When you're in it, it moves so fast. When you're out of it... It's brutal. You can't be half pregnant with it. It's over. And that's it.
TG: How long's the deal with Porsche?
MW: Doesn't really matter, mate. I'll keep driving for a while yet.