He’s talented. He’s charming. He’s bloody fast in a racing car. And he has a story that that can encourage anybody in any walk of life to chase the dream and upset the odds.
The term ‘Aussie Grit’ was made for Mark Webber. Aside from claiming it as his own, and titling his autobiography with the phrase, it sums up the determination of a man who made the most of his talent and battled his way to the top of his sport.
A veteran of 215 Formula One Grand Prix, including nine wins, 42 podiums and one agonising championship near-miss, Webber has seen it all.
Having stepped back from the glare to compete in the World Endurance Championship, Webber shared some of his typically forthright views with me…
‘Like a fighter pilot flying British Airways’
When Webber entered F1 in 2002, the cars were near their fastest and most physically demanding to handle with V10 engines, Bridgestone tyres, traction control and refuelling permitted.
“The drivers want cars that are more demanding,” says Webber.
“It’s a bit like being an F-18 fighter pilot but flying for British Airways. They’re within their comfort zone, pacing races. It’s frustrating.
“F1 should be the pinnacle. It should be by far the fastest through the corners, physical on the drivers and things where the drivers are the gladiators again.
“The car still needs to be something the fans have never seen anything like before. There’s so many categories which are close to them now.
“I qualified my Minardi on the back of the grid in 2002 at Monza. I would have started fifth on Sunday with a similar track layout.
“People say they don’t care about lap times. I don’t believe that,” Webber continues.
“If you want good racing, watch go-karts or Formula Ford. It’s awesome to watch but it’s not that quick. There’s lots of good stuff out there but it’s not F1.
‘Closed cockpits are inevitable’
Governing body the FIA has been looking into various methods to provide better protection for drivers’ heads since Felipe Massa, then driving for Ferrari, was hit on the helmet by a bouncing spring during qualifying for the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix.
Cockpits enclosed by a fighter jet-style canopy had been considered, but were dismissed because of concerns about the strength of the cover.
F1 driver Jules Bianchi died in July nine months after suffering serious head injuries in a collision with a recovery vehicle in the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix.
The deaths of the Frenchman and Wilson, who competed in F1 for Minardi and Jaguar in 2003, have brought the issue of open cockpits into question once again.
Webber has joined a number of current drivers who feel it is time to offer greater protection to drivers’ heads.
“I am a purist but I’d like to see them closed. They’re delaying the inevitable now. It’s going to come,” he said.
“In 10 years it probably will be there so let’s just bring it forward and find a way that is elegant and safe for extraction. The cars will still look gorgeous.
“There’s enough experts to make that happen.
“Formula One has been the leading research platform for safety. The final piece of the jigsaw is how we can protect the drivers’ heads.
“The crash tests are very favourable for the driver but the last part is anything foreign around the head area at speed.
“It needs a huge amount of respect because we’ve lost quite a few mates over the last couple of years.
Hamilton is ‘a bit box office’
Lewis Hamilton’s victory in Sunday’s Italian Grand Prix extended his lead at the top of the drivers’ standings to 53 points over Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg.
Despite his dominance, the two-time world champion has been criticised for attending celebrity events such as the MTV video awards in Los Angeles.
Is Hamilton being too flamboyant for his own good or is his character just what the sport needs?
“You can be cool,” says Webber. “David Beckham, Usain Bolt, Valentino Rossi – they’re all different characters. Lewis is different in his own way.
“Lewis sees himself as a brand. He wants to be marketable and he’s a little bit box office.
“Don’t underestimate his penetration in the American market too.”
Rosberg cannot ‘hug his teddy’
Two fast drivers in the quickest car. One has a slight edge over the other. Both are fighting it out for the world championship until the season finale in Abu Dhabi.
For Hamilton and Nico Rosberg in 2014, read Sebastian Vettel and Webber in 2010. Germany’s Vettel pipped his Red Bull team-mate to the drivers’ championship and proceeded to enjoy a dominant run of four consecutive world titles.
With Rosberg off the pace of Hamilton this season, just as Webber was compared to Vettel in 2011, the Australian feels the off-season this winter will be crucial for Rosberg to regroup.
“I led the championship for a huge part of 2012 before Seb got on a roll at the back end.
“Nico can come through this period but now there’s no time to take a break. The races are every fortnight – bang, bang, bang.
“It’s not like tennis or golf where you can miss a tournament and go hug your teddy. You’ve got to keep pressing on.
“This winter will be big for Nico.”
Button should try something different
For the second season in a row, Jenson Button’s future in the sport remains uncertain.
The 2009 world champion has a contract with McLaren for 2016 – but the team have the choice whether to exercise this option.
Button, 35, wants his future to be finalised in the next few weeks, but with the McLaren struggling at the back of the field, Webber feels a change of scenery could do the Briton good.
“To know he’s going into a race and has no chance is mentally very difficult,” said Webber.
“I’d love to see him try something different, try sportscars.
“I get frustrated watching his situation. I want to see him in a competitive car but is that going to happen next year? Unlikely.
“JB, the type of guy he is, gutsy and a dark horse, put him in a corner and he loves a scrap. He shows that in his triathlons.
“He would love the environment where it’s a little less tense. It’s so open the dialogue its unbelievable. It’s a very different mental approach.”
‘We’re all legends in hindsight’
Aside from the detail and strength of his relationship with partner Ann Neal, the most surprising aspect to arise from Mark’s autobiography was the early breakdown in his relationship with both Williams and Red Bull Racing teams.
Having impressed early in his career, Mark turned down the opportunity to race for Renault in 2005 in favour of the Williams team that had famously carried Australian Alan Jones to the title in 1980.
As Williams struggled, Renault proceeded to carry Fernando Alonso to his two World Championships.
His dealings with both Williams and latterly Red Bull became quickly strained, but does the 39-year-old reflect on his career with regret?
“With Williams,” Webber explains, “the lure was too strong.
“I was joining the form team but little did I know that they were about to have troubled times. The next season, the form cards switched around and I could have been in a different seat.
“But I have very, very, very little regrets.
“There’s so many times you can make a wrong call. I got a few wrong, but not many.
Webber concludes: “I was lucky to have a lot of my success and the back end of my career, which was not a bad thing to have.”
Wednesday, 9th September 2015