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Mark Webber has retired from racing
Mark Webber hangs up his race suit. Motorsport immediately less interesting
Mark Webber’s path to Formula One looks rather old-fashioned in retrospect. The much-loved, highly respected and straight-talking Australian certainly put in the hours: karts and Formula Ford in his home-land, winner of the Formula Ford festival in Europe in 1996, fourth in the British Formula 3 championship in 1997, a member of the Mercedes-Benz sportscar squad in 1998 and 1999 (Webber became memorably airborne at Le Mans in ’99), through to Formula 3000 in 2000 and 2001. It’s an old-school CV.
Webber, now 40, also arrived in motorsport’s premier division without having netted a major title en route. This never bothered him; instead there’s a consistency to the man and his performances (it’s a quality he greatly admires), matched with a rugged self-belief. He’s not a silver spoon racing driver – he’s a grafter. Speaking to me back in 2004, he also plumped for Prost over Gilles Villeneuve (“fun to watch, yeah, but who had the bigger trophy cabinet?”) That’s the man in a nutshell.
He’s also highly persuasive. In 1997, Australian rugby legend David Campese helped fund his faltering F3 career, and in 2001 the not-easily-pleased Flavio Briatore saw enough potential during his Benetton test to not only sign him as official (Renault) test driver, but also to a personal management contract. And then there’s luck, which plays a bigger part in F1 than anyone ever seems prepared to admit. Webber got lucky at Melbourne in 2002, becoming one of a very select coterie of drivers to have scored points in his debut Grand Prix, racing for perennial back-marker Minardi (others to have managed it include Alain Prost, Jackie Stewart and, er, Eddie Irvine). Webber moved to Jaguar Racing in 2003, where the team’s struggle to move forward didn’t disguise his obvious ability and dogged approach.
“If the car is A1, then 70 per cent of the guys could drive it very quickly,” Webber’s former Jaguar Racing chief mechanic Alan Maybin told me. “But having the ability to turn a less than perfect car into an A1 car is a different story. Mark definitely has that ability.”
Webber went on to drive for Williams, before joining Red Bull in 2007. It was there that his career finally delivered on all the promise he had shown, netting nine victories, and finishing third in the driver’s world championship on three separate occasions. In 2010, he really should have won the title, only to be outpointed by teammate and nemesis, Sebastian Vettel. It was a pattern he couldn’t break.
He retired from F1 at the end of 2013, and landed the most coveted seat in the World Endurance Championship, driving for Porsche’s long-awaited new LMP1 programme. Together with Timo Bernhard and Brendon Hartley, he won seven WEC rounds, and lifted the drivers’ title last year. Only the top step of the Le Mans podium eluded him, and we suspect that 2015’s second place finish will probably only bring him partial satisfaction.
Of his decision to retire from motorsport, prematurely in TopGear.com’s opinion, he has this to say: “I will miss the sheer speed, downforce and competition, but I want to leave on a high and I’m very much looking forward to my new tasks.
“It was a big change from F1 to LMP1 and an entirely new experience. But it came at the right time for me. I found I liked sharing a car and the chemistry between Timo, Brendon and me is special and something I’ll always remember. It will be strange getting into the race car for the very last time in Bahrain, but for now I will thoroughly enjoy every moment of the remaining races.”
Mark Webber: the man, the legend, the straight talker. Over the years, he’s given TG some choice quotes…
“Well I like to get a buzz out of myself, of course I do. But I also like to see a smile on everyone else’s faces as well, it’s important. It’s probably a good question to ask some of the people I work with. I just do what I do and what I think is correct for my job. Yeah I drive the car, but there are lots of other things that come under my banner that are crucial to the team’s performance. It sounds very trite, but it’s the little things that make a big difference.”
“Do I think I’m the best racing driver in the world? Well, I think Michael [Schumacher]’s pretty awesome at the moment. Those other guys who told you they’re the best, well they must be dreaming. You can always learn and I believe that if you get the right equipment… of course there’s going to be total self-belief, especially at this level. You know when you get to F1 and if you’re running near the front you’re reasonably sharp. Then it’s like any other sport and it’s those last few tenths that make the difference. Finish three or four tenths off in the Olympic swimming final and you may as well not turn up. It’s the same in F1. A lot of people can get within half a second of Michael, but that’s why he is where he is. He always has that extra half-tenth…”
“This job pretty much dominates my life. The thing is with our sport, it is glamorous, it is powerful, and the competitive spirit throughout all the teams is pretty intense. There are lots of d***heads, but there are really, really good people too.”
“I’m not exactly a phenomenal person to be around when I’m in the zone or in the middle of the season, but I do what I want to do when I want to do it. Other people can do whatever floats their boat. You know, only a fool expects a comedian to always be funny.”
“As a young guy, growing up in Australia, the Porsche 911 was definitive. I remember talking to Sebastian 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.”
“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, then 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.”
“Am I going to miss F1? 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.”