YOU’D have to be mad as a bag of snakes, the theory goes, to strive for a career behind the wheel of a Formula One car.
In a sport where serious injury is an occupational hazard, it’s fair to assume you need plenty of arrogance to stare down those dangers and achieve success.
In a 12-year career including 215 races and nine Grand Prix wins, Mark Webber established himself as someone who bucked the F1 driver stereotype.
Ask a motor racing fan, your cab driver, or the beer-bellied bloke down the end of the bar for an opinion on Webber and it’s near certain they’ll say the same thing — they like Webber because he’s, well, not full of himself.
IN PICTURES: MARK WEBBER’S AMAZING LIFE
As he prepares for a commentating role at Ten’s coverage of the Australian Grand Prix and a new career with Porsche at the World Endurance Championship, Webber speaks honestly about the things that have shaped him, including his relationship with long-time partner Ann Neal.
Motor racing has its share of young men who get sidetracked by red carpets, parties and chasing skirt, but Webber’s renowned for seeking quiet time with Neal when he’s not training or on the track.
“I like to see myself as a knockabout Aussie from Queanbeyan who did okay for himself,” Webber says.
“My parents played a sensational role. My dad said to me that you should always compare yourself to the best and I think that’s great advice. When you start out and you’re at the bottom of Everest, you see top class sportsmen and women and what you see is that the difference between professional and semi-professional is massive. You can see that when you look at people like Joel Selwood, Cameron Smith, Billy Slater. The top-notch people you meet, you discover are highly disciplined.”
Partner Neal has been hugely influential not just on a private level, but on a professional one. They met in 1995, when Neal was F1 Championship co-ordinator. She is now his manager.
It’s clear Webber has deep respect for her knowledge of motorsport and what it takes to be successful in it.
Her insight into the sport was highlighted when she wrote a News Corp column piece that was penned in response to an article suggesting fans attended race meetings only to “watch racers risk their lives, slap high fives for a good wreck’’. Neal spoke of how devastated the sport is when it loses one of its own.
“Twenty years ago, I sat in the family home of a close friend who had died in a racing accident at just 22,” Neal said.
“His mother never recovered from the loss. At the time her other son was competing in F1 and naturally, questions were being asked whether he would continue. But she simply said, ‘How can I ask him to stop? It’s everything to him.’
“You (author of article) claim that fans try to rationalise their dangerous thrillseeking by saying the young men died doing something they loved. No, they say it because it’s a fact; when bereaved parents can say it with so much dignity, who are you to question it? And you know what, when my friend died, I was shattered, but I didn’t feel a speck of his blood on my hands.”
Quizzed about the impact Neal has had on him, Webber says, “We’ve been together 20 years and we are still very strong. You don’t want to surround yourself with people who are going to tell you how awesome you are every five minutes.
“It’s a piece of piss for people if they only stand by you in the good times, but the world stage is not all caviar and roses and those testing times can be when you learn about yourself and improve and she (Neal) has been great in that respect, standing by me. We have learned a lot together.”
Webber ended his career as an F1 driver in November, but he will remain a force on and off the track. In April, he will get behind the wheel of a Porsche for the World Endurance Championship. He is also in discussions with movie star Eric Bana and former Oarsome Foursome rower James Tomkins about creating a three-man team for the 2015 Bathurst 12-hour race.
Before then, Webber will climb into the Channel 10 commentary box for the
March 14-16 coverage of the 2014 Formula One Australian Grand Prix.
The fact Webber has so much experience dealing with the vagaries of the sportmakes him an ideal choice for a commentating role.
“I was in the boxing ring (driving F1) just a couple of months ago so hopefully I can use that experience in commentating to talk about the strengths and weaknesses of drivers,” he says.
While he will not be behind the wheel at Albert Park, Webber says fans should be excited about the prospects of rising Australian driver Daniel Ricciardo, and says he is capable of grabbing a win this season.
No surprise though that Webber sees Red Bull powerhouse Sebastian Vettel as the man to beat in 2014.
Webber and Vettel’s rivalry reached a nadir last year when Vettel ignored his team’s order to stay behind Webber and stole the Malaysian Grand Prix. Vettel’s march to a fourth world championship was consequently greeted by booing at a series of races.
“I don’t like booing,” Webber says. “Look at Rafael Nadal at the Australian Open. I was there (when he was booed) and it was horrendous. These people booing have not been in that arena. Nadal had acute back pain. Booing says more about the people doing it than the target of it. The reaction to him (Vettel) on the podium wasn’t great. I’m not a fan of hearing all that.”
Webber, meanwhile, likes the idea of contesting the Bathurst 12-hourendurance endurance race alongside Bana and Tomkins.
Bana, star of Chopper, Hulk and Munich, is a renowned car enthusiast. Olympic gold medallist and former Oarsome Foursome member Tomkins finished first in celebrity support races at the Australian Grand Prix.
“It would be fun,” Webber says of racing with Bana and Tomkins. “I’d let them do most of the driving. It could happen.”
Channel 10 and One will deliver extensive live coverage of the Australian Grand Prix from Friday to Sunday.
Australian Grand Prix, Sunday, 5pm.