Q&A: Mark Webber

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Credit: Jim Hunter

Last week, I was given an unbelievable opportunity to speak with one of the best known Formula One drivers of the last 15 years.

Mark Webber visited the Cheap Street Church in Sherborne, Dorset, on Wednesday to take part in an event to promote his autobiography Aussie Grit.

As a news reporter at the Western Gazette, which covers Sherborne, one of my editors, knowing my passion for motor racing and who had seen that Mark was to visit the town, urged me to get in touch with the event’s organiser and try to set up an interview.

Surreal as the premise seemed, I made contact and, to my surprise, was told that it would be fine to interview Mark before the event.

As someone whose ultimate dream is to become a motorsport journalist and who counts themselves as a huge Webber fan, the idea of a 1-2-1 chat with him seemed so fanciful that I only allowed myself to believe that it would happen when I ventured into the building and shook his hand.

Below is a transcript of the full, unedited eight minute chat, where we touched upon multiple topics, including Le Mans, the current state of Formula One and his work as a pundit.

Q: Mark, the main reason you are here in Sherborne this evening is to promote your book, so I’ll start with that. How much did you enjoy putting the book together and taking the opportunity to tell your story to the public?

MW: “Well it’s not a five minute job, that’s for sure. A book is a big undertaking and probably when I got into it I thought I’d definitely opened a can of worms trying to get everything right. There’s so many side alleys you can go down in terms of pulling and constructing the whole book together and all the individuals and characters you met along the way, where they all fit in and where you introduce them, but that’s why I had good people help me.

“It’s all my words, trying to put it all out there and what I really went through, so I’m happy it’s been received well because of the fact that I think it’s brought people closer to the sport. It’s given them a nice knowledge of the sport. It is my journey if you like but it’s also a very behind-the-scenes look at the sport itself and Formula One, so that seems to have gone down well.”

Q: It’s now just a couple of weeks until Le Mans. How do you feel your preparations are going and how confident are you that you can go one better than last year?

MW: “We’re as confident as we could be with that race, but there are landmines everywhere and we’re going to try and thread the needle for 24 hours and make sure the car is there at the end and in good health. We’ve got a huge, huge week coming up, or huge two weeks coming up. We’ve got a pre-test coming up at the weekend and then another big week and the build up to the race. All the drivers are in good shape.

“We’re ready to go, we’ve prepped well, we’ve practiced pit stops until we’re blue in the face, we’ve done all the preparation which you have to do because bear in mind when you’re tired that there’s little errors that can creep in at two, three, four in the morning, so it’s a tough race and that’s why we’re really keen to do the business this year.”

Q: We saw all of the major LMP1 runners hit trouble at Spa in the last race. How much will attrition be a factor at Le Mans?

MW: “You’re right, there was a lot of attrition at Spa and that will probably be there at Le Mans, but we’re really hopeful that we won’t be part of that. We want to have a very, very boring race and try to conserve everything very well and have fuel and tyres and driver changes, and keep the car out of the garage and out of the gravel, and they’re the two key things that we’ve got to do.”

Q: As someone who has vast experience of endurance racing and Formula One, what would you say are the key differences between endurance racing and Formula One?

MW: “Obviously endurance racing’s very, very long. You race at night and you have teammates, obviously you’ve got to share the car, so that’s a huge difference straight away. Formula One is, well was, probably a bit more intense in terms of pace and pushing really, really hard for two hours, but now obviously you’ve got to look out for the tyres and nurse the Pirelli situation which obviously is not the most rewarding for the drivers at the moment. The categories have probably converged as close as they’ve ever been for pace so there’s not a huge amount of difference once you get away from the obvious ones like night driving, endurance and sharing the car, it’s pretty similar.”

Q: So with that in mind, is the WEC the best category to replicate the thrill of Formula One for you?

MW: “After F1, it was very important for me to continue for a little bit longer, and this was the best category. When Porsche ring you up, that’s one of the best phone calls any racing driver can get, that they’d love you to drive one of our cars and would you be available? I was like ‘yeah, I will be, let’s have a chat and go from there’. It worked out well timing wise for me off the back of F1 and picking up a sports car career with Porsche was sensational.

I wasn’t leaving without asking for a pic!

Q: What is your take on how the 2016 F1 season has gone so far?

MW: “Well Nico’s off to a phenomenal start. He obviously got maximum points at the start and Lewis hasn’t quite hit his straps yet, but he’s shown the flashes of pace that you’d expect from him. He hasn’t been able to convert some of his poles which is unlike him, but he’s had his fair share of unreliability as well, and Nico’s been extremely reliable, finished all the races except Barcelona and without any hiccups really apart from Monaco. For Lewis, it was a big win in Monaco and got him back up there, and Red Bull are coming back as well now. Ferrari have been the most disappointing team so far, they haven’t really hit their straps at all with Sebastian and Kimi, but I predict they’ll get their season underway in Canada.”

Q: On the subject of Monaco, Daniel Ricciardo’s someone you know well. How well do you expect him to bounce back from what happened to him there, and in Barcelona?

MW: “He’ll bounce back. It’s part of the game unfortunately, and adversity comes with it. You have to take the big right hook on the chin sometimes, which is tough, and he’s had a couple of tricky weekends where he feels that he did everything he could, and that’s why it’s a bitter pill to swallow for a driver when you do everything you can and you don’t get the result that you deserve which can be frustrating, but he’ll bounce back. He’s the form driver of the year in terms of delivering and he can’t do any more than that, so he’ll be back.”

Q: You’ve enjoyed many years in the cockpit in Formula One, but this year you’re looking at things from another angle and working as a pundit for Channel 4. How have you enjoyed that so far?

MW: “Good fun. I’m enjoying it. It’s not stressful at all, racing was stressful and they were long days, and I was being a professional in that space let’s say, but with TV it’s a little bit more dynamic, also live TV is a bit of a buzz obviously because the story’s evolving while we’re there so that’s cool. I don’t class myself as a journalist. I don’t find myself getting in there and digging and getting stories, I’m just talking about what’s happening and being a pundit, I’m in a pretty good position to talk about driver attitudes, driver skills and scenarios that are happening and what the sport throws at the guys, so that’s good to give the fans at home a bit of an insight.”

Q: You mention the lack of stress involved, so in a strange way is it more enjoyable being a pundit and not having to worry about that pressure?

MW: “I enjoy my racing obviously. That was important and I did enjoy that, but I can’t do that forever so what do I do? I like my surfboard, but I can’t do that every day of the week and I can’t make any money on my surfboard either, so I’ve got to do something else, and it’s good. David Coulthard and I get on well, we’re good friends and it’s just a good team, so we can have some fun with it, but there’s also a serious side of the sport that we’ve got to try and relay back to the viewers at home as best we can. We don’t feel we have competition, we’re not arrogant with that as a crew, we just want to keep doing better ourselves and getting the most out of the coverage.”

I have written three articles for the Western Gazette using quotes from my interview with Mark, all of which can be found here.

I would also like to place on record my thanks to Wayne Winstone of Winstone’s Books in Sherborne, who organised last Wednesday’s event and who kindly allowed me to speak with Mark beforehand.

Stephen D’Albiac

Jerez testing – Day one analysis

With the first day of testing at Jerez being the first chance that teams had to run their 2013 cars, the emphasis was more on understanding the new machines and getting miles on the clock than going for raw speed.

As a result most teams opted for a series of relatively short runs throughout the day in order to learn as much about their cars as possible, with pushing their new machines to the limit firmly out of the question. Therefore it meant the majority of lap times were probably a good 3-4 seconds off a representative time at Jerez.

It is therefore too early to look into Jenson Button’s pace at the end of the day. His time of 1:18.861 was almost a second faster than Mark Webber managed, but it’s clear given the McLaren driver set the time on a five lap run on fresh tyres at the end of the day that it was a deliberate effort to put a marker down to the rest of the field. With the cars running so far off the ultimate pace, if a team really wants to top the timesheets it isn’t that difficult to do so.

The reason McLaren went for the lap time at the end of the day was most likely an attempt to deflect attention away from Button’s fuel pump issue in the morning, as with their car now at the top of the timesheets it means people are more likely to talk about the potential pace of the new McLaren and not so much any reliability concerns. It could also be a psychological ploy to show their rivals that they are in good shape and haven’t been affected by the issue earlier today.

It’s worth remembering that Button’s time was set on the harder tyre, which is generally slower over a single lap than the softer compounds. Taking into account that softer tyres are normally more than half a second a lap quicker than the hard compound, and the fact the teams weren’t pushing their cars to the limit today, a lap time in the 1:16s is probably where the true pace of these cars will be come the end of the week.

Elsewhere it was a fairly quiet day. The likes of Lotus, Ferrari and Sauber completed what were clearly predetermined testing programmes without incident, with the only other stoppages coming when Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes suffered an electrical fire and the rear suspension on Max Chilton’s Marussia failed, causing the Brit to crash at the end of the back straight.

With the first day of testing ahead of the new season completed, there will be no let up for the teams as they return to Jerez on Wednesday for day two of the first pre-season test.

Timesheets
1) Jenson Button (GB) McLaren-Mercedes – 1:18.861 (37 laps)
2) Mark Webber (Aus) Red Bull-Renault – 1:19.709 (73 laps)
3) Romain Grosjean (Fra) Lotus-Renault – 1:19.796 (54 laps)
4) Paul di Resta (GB) Force India-Mercedes – 1:20.343 (89 laps)
5) Daniel Ricciardo (Aus) Toro Rosso-Ferrari – 1:20.401 (70 laps)
6) Felipe Massa (Bra) Ferrari – 1:20.536 (64 laps)
7) Nico Hulkenberg (Ger) Sauber-Ferrari – 1:20.699 (79 laps)
8) Nico Rosberg (Ger) Mercedes – 1:20.846 (14 laps)
9) Pastor Maldonado (Ven) Williams-Renault – 1:20.864 (84 laps)
10) Giedo van der Garde (Ned) Caterham-Renault – 1:21.915 (64 laps)
11) Max Chilton (GB) Marussia-Cosworth – 1:24.176 (29 laps)

Stephen D’Albiac

The top ten of 2012: Part One

The 2012 Formula One season was one of the most competitive seasons the sport has ever seen, with more drivers fighting for wins and podiums than at any time over the past few years.

With so many standout performances over the year, it was incredibly hard to come up with the top ten drivers. In the first of two parts, here are the drivers who ranked between sixth and tenth over the 2012 season.

10) Felipe Massa
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The first half of 2012 was a nightmare for Felipe Massa. The Ferrari was uncompetitive and difficult to drive at the start of the year, and while his teammate Fernando Alonso led the championship going into the summer break, Massa had only a fourth and a sixth place to show for his efforts, with his seat at Ferrari coming under serious threat.

However, Massa returned from holiday a changed man. A solid fifth place at Spa was followed by a front row start and fourth place at Monza, and a superb drive to second place in Suzuka sealed the Brazilian’s first podium finish in two years and confirmed his return to form.

A succession of consistent points finishes then followed, with Massa regularly matching the pace of Alonso, and a tremendous third place on home soil in Brazil after he selflessly backed his teammate’s title challenge put the lid on a fine second half of the season, with Massa fully earning a new one-year contract with the Ferrari team.

9) Kamui Kobayashi
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Kamui Kobayashi had the strongest year of his career at Sauber. Despite being edged in the points battle by teammate Sergio Perez, the likeable Japanese driver showed his talent with some impressive performances.

Some of Kobayashi’s qualifying results were particularly strong, with a third place in China and a front row start in Spa impressing hugely. He backed this up with some good race performances, with fourth in Hockenheim and fifth in Barcelona giving himself crucial points. But the undoubted highlight was his stunning drive Suzuka when he held off the much quicker Jenson Button to claim his first podium finish in Formula One in front of his adoring home fans.

Despite this, Sauber have decided not to retain Kobayashi for next year, leaving him with the possibility of not having a drive next year. If Kamui is unable to find a seat it would be a massive shame, as he has shown himself to be worthy of a place in Formula One.

8) Mark Webber
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After a difficult 2011 in which he was comprehensively beaten by Sebastian Vettel, Mark Webber had a better time of it in 2012. Despite having to drive a Red Bull that was built around Vettel, Webber was much closer to his teammate, especially in qualifying where there was little to choose between the two drivers.

Two brilliant wins in Monaco and Silverstone gave the Australian a genuine chance of challenging for the title, but some difficult races, notably in Monza and Suzuka, saw him fall out of contention for the championship and slip down the standings.

Despite ending the year only sixth in the points, Webber can be pleased with his overall performances after a year in which he proved himself to be much closer to Vettel than in previous years.

7) Sergio Perez
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If this list had been compiled after Monza, Sergio Perez would have been in contention for the top spot. The Mexican driver was incredible in the first part of the season, demonstrating an uncanny ability to make his tyres last longer than his rivals, with brilliant podiums in Malaysia, Canada and Italy making him stand out as a star of the future.

They were performances that convinced McLaren to sign him up to replace Lewis Hamilton next year, but the announcement that he was to join the Woking-based team in 2013 coincided with a downturn in form for Perez, with the Sauber driver making a series of mistakes and failing to register a single point in the final six races.

With his move to McLaren on the horizon, Perez will need to perform the same way he did in the first half of the season as opposed to the second half as he looks to cement a reputation as a potential title challenger in the future.

6) Jenson Button
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Although in some ways this year was a disappointment for Jenson Button, the Englishman still showed how good he was with some top drives. Button began the year in fine style with victory in Australia, but things went downhill for the McLaren driver soon after, with tyre warming issues blighting his first half of the season.

A return to form came with second at Hockenheim, before a first pole in three years and dominant victory at Spa put him back on track. Although he never seriously challenged for the title, Button produced a series of consistent points finishes towards the end of the year, culminating in a brilliant win in difficult conditions in Brazil.

With Button entering 2013 as the team leader at McLaren, he will be confident of mounting a challenge for the championship as he looks to win a second world championship.

Stephen D’Albiac