Mark Webber: F1’s elder statesman remains outsider

Story highlights

David Campese provided Webber with interest free loan in the early in his driving career

Webber came close to winning world title in 2012

He talked to Ferrari earlier this year before opting to stay with Red Bull for next season

In 2013 Webber could be the elder statesman of F1 with Michael Schumacher retiring

CNN  — 

The excesses of Formula One do not sit easily on the shoulders of Mark Webber.

The venue for the latest addition to the F1 calendar, the Circuit of the Americas, cost in the region of $400 million. It was built from scratch on 890 acres of unused land in Travis County, just a few miles from Austin, Texas, with the primary aim of returning a United States Grand Prix to the sport for the first time since 2007.

In the paddock over the next few days, wealth will ooze from every pore, champagne glasses will clink from all corners of the team hospitality suites as money pours into the sport from global sponsors.

Webber’s life as an F1 driver is in sharp contrast to his upbringing in Australia. The son of a motorcycle dealer, he grew up in New South Wales in relatively modest surroundings. His dad Alan, a regular at race weekends, has always done his utmost to keep his son grounded – he still does, even if at 36 he is one of the oldest drivers on the grid.

So while other drivers slot easily into the F1 lifestyle, Webber is in some regards the sport’s outsider, brought up on watching the news at home every night with his father and far more immersed in current affairs.

Paddock life

It’s a background that has left Webber junior almost a tad embarrassed by an annual salary at Red Bull thought to be in the region of $8 million, which still leaves him some way off the top earners in the sport but still generous enough in an austere age for much of the globe.

“It’s difficult and a lot of the time it doesn’t feel right when you’ve got the global financial crisis or something like Sandy hitting the U.S.,” Webber told CNN.

“I wouldn’t say I’m happy in the paddock. It’s an environment that’s not always real. You can click your fingers for food, for whatever you want really. But for me, I always try to ensure that I treat people as I’d treat myself.

“It’s not always a world that sits well with me but to drive the best cars in the world, that’s where I have to be and I want to keep doing that.”

Webber’s journey into F1 has been more arduous than most. Initially a ball boy for rugby league side the Canberra Raiders it soon became clear that motorsport was his passion: his idols were F1 star Alain Prost and champion American motorcyclist Kevin Schwantz – who, incidentally, worked closely on the creation of the Circuit of the Americas.

The Schwantz route looked the likelier initially for Webber as he began racing on two wheels before a switch to karts aged 14, then made his mark in various single-seater formats: Formula Ford, Formula and Formula 3000.

He was 26 years old before he made it into F1 – a year older than teammate Sebastian Vettel is now, who is on the cusp of winning a third straight world title – making his debut at his home race in Australia for backmarkers Minardi in 2002.


Getting there had been no means easy.

Having relocated to the UK in his teenage years to pursue his racing ambitions, he lived hand by mouth for much of the time, before a most uunlikely knight in shining armor came in the form of Australian rugby legend David Campese.

Webber’s compatriot stumped up an interest-free loan of £52,000 ($82,000) to keep the driver’s career on track at a time when the money had finally run out.

“My dad played rugby with Campo when they were young so it was a sort of phone-a-friend thing and we felt maybe he’d get an idea of what we were trying to do. I gave it everything and it did the trick. Without that, I wouldn’t be here, so I owe him a lot.”

The bank balance is much healthier these days, but Webber is never allowed to forget how far he has come by his partner Ann Neal, who has also managed his career for as long as he has been in the UK.

“I remember when I got my first paid contract, which was 7,000 German marks [from Mercedes in the FIA GT Championship], I said to Ann ‘I’ve made it’,” he recalls. “She still reminds me of that 14 years later - still takes the piss out of me for it.

“My dad’s exactly the same so, between them, I can never get that ahead of myself. I think with some drivers, they do change as people. I’m not going to name names but I’ve seen that in Formula 1.

“It’s important for me to be able to look back and think I’ve not changed too much and I have no regrets about the way I might have changed.

“A lot of these guys get tattoos. I’m not a tattoo sort of guy. I try to be as consistent as I can as a person from my late teens to my mid-60s. I try to keep it real.”

Mr Reliable

It’s that consistency at the wheel that is arguably Webber’s key selling point.

Last season, bar one race retirement he never finished out of the top five as he completed 13 of the 19 races in third or fourth place.

On his day, he is blisteringly quick, dominating both race weekends at Monaco and Silverstone this year – his two race victories to date in 2012.

Similarly he was flying in 2010 and, on the verge of a hat-trick of wins, when he and Vettel famously crashed in Turkey, leading to a sense of ill feeling within the team.

That animosity has long since evaporated but, despite protestations in public to say otherwise from team principal Christian Horner, Webber is very much the team’s understudy.

Vettel has long been nurtured by Helmut Marko, titled a motorsport consultant at Red Bull but the eyes, ears and mouth piece of team owner Dietrich Mateschitz, and a figure Webber has not always seen eye to eye with.

“Everyone can see where Helmut’s allegiance lies,” says Webber.

“He’s very, very powerful and that’s something that will always be the case. But there are two cars and I have the opportunity to drive one of them.”

Which perhaps explains the exploration of a switch to Ferrari and drive alongside Fernando Alonso.

There were very serious talks for Webber but the move would have been a similar one - playing the part of understudy to Alonso.

“Ferrari approached us first,” said Webber. “Things happen for a reason and it feels I’m staying here for the right reason. We made the decision just before Silverstone when both teams seemed pretty interested. I’m happy with that decision.”

World champion hopes

Webber has repeatedly been on a one-year rolling contract at Red Bull leading to conjecture that each year will be his final year.

Whether that’s the case in 2013 remains to be seen but the reality is that his last hopes of becoming world champion have probably disappeared

The best opportunity was in 2010 as Webber arrived in Abu Dhabi for the final race of the season among one of four drivers capable of winning the championship only to be upstaged by Vettel.

He insists returning there for the last race was far from uncomfortable for him.

“I didn’t lose the championship in Abu Dhabi so that’s not a problem at all, it wasn’t mine to lose,” he says and dismisses the tag that he might be the nearly man of the sport.

“The world title’s still something I’m aiming for, something I believe I can do. I wouldn’t bother turning up if I didn’t think that.”

Last year proved a tough one for Webber.

His driving style was not suited to the off-throttle blown diffuser, which Vettel used to such devastating effect en route to 11 wins in a truly dominant season.

It made Webber’s stock as a driver fall although he rectified that with a victory at the season-ending Brazilian Grand Prix and far more assured performances this season.

“I like the car a lot more,” he says. “I really didn’t like the blown floor and it proved a very difficult car for me. I didn’t have a great feel for it and getting the right set-up was hard for me.

“This year has been much better, well better than last year but not as good as 2010. I don’t like making excuses but last year I was making plenty of them. Not so this year.

“But this year I needed the perfect season to win the championship, I know that, and that just didn’t happen. I’ll get another chance next year.”

Red Bull had looked off the pace for much of the year but are now clearly the team to beat, drawing a footballing analogy from Webber in the process.

“It’s like the Premier League,” he explains. “You have Manchester United, Manchester City, the top teams. But at the start of the year, you have teams that get promoted that are right up there at the start of the season but, as the season goes on, they don’t have the players on the bench to sustain that. It’s the same in Formula 1.”


Despite having spent virtually half his life living in the UK, Webber still remains very true to the land of his birth.

Arguably he slots into the Aussie stereotype, his off-season ambitions involving beers and barbecues, and every other sentence in conversation is laced with the word “mate”.

He seems to have a greater sense of mortality than his younger peers and understandably so.

There have been some shocking accidents, one at Le Mans in 1999 and another in an F1 car at Valencia 11 years later, in which he flipped violently on both occasions but survived in one piece.

Both are worth watching just for the incredulity that he actually walked away unscathed. Then there was the cycling crash in 2008 in which he was left with a shattered leg after being hit by a car.

Looking back, he says: “The leg has never been the same again but I’m not a marathon runner so it doesn’t stop me doing my day job.

“I feel incredibly lucky as I know it could have been a very different outcome. So often, you feel invincible in F1.

“The Le Mans crash was the biggest deal of all of them. I really remember it even now. My sister had just had a baby and I was thinking about her and also thinking ‘mate, you’re too long’. Flipping in the air lasted an age, so there was lots of thinking time. Thankfully it wasn’t my time to go.”

As he approaches the end of his 11th season in F1, the same could be said of his career in top-flight racing.