Ahead of Mark Webber’s final Formula One race in Brazil this weekend, I spoke with him about what he’ll miss about the sport, why he hates being described as an unlucky driver, and why the time was right to leave the category for a role with Porsche in its return to Le Mans next year.
Twelve seasons, 200-plus races … how do you sum up your time in the sport?
Mark Webber: “I’ve been very lucky to get to Formula One. You never realise what’s probably possible – I got to Europe at 17 (years of age) through Formula Ford and junior categories, with Formula One being the goal. I had a lot of tricky moments in the junior categories and was very low on budget and funding, but managed to get to Formula One. I had a three-race contract in my first season (2002) which wasn’t too handy, but I was able to keep the seat for the whole year from obviously a pretty good start to the year. It goes quick … 12 years, 215 Grands Prix roughly. There’s been some unbelievable highs, winning some very special races in great company, that I’ll look back on very fondly. The higher you aim, the more disappointed you can be when you miss out on some things, but if you had have said to me when I left Australia that this was what I would achieve, I would have taken it. It’s been a career that I’m very proud of.”
You’ve never been seen as a particularly fortunate or lucky driver …
MW: “That’s what absolutely pisses me off more than anything – when people think of you, they think of that, that you are unlucky. I don’t know what else I can do to not be apparently unlucky. You see it as misfortune, but I’ve been lucky a lot of times as well … When you’ve had a career as long as I’ve had, obviously there are going to be some funky things that happen. There’s been a few more this year than we certainly would have liked, particularly when the cars now are pretty bomb-proof and reliable. That’s been challenging, but you’ve just got to keep going.”
As a sports fan in general, you’ve seen people make the decision to retire at the right time and at the wrong time – was there anyone in another sport that you thought ‘yes, they got the timing right’?
MW: “No-one in particular, but you’re right mate – you see guys that probably do go a bit longer (than they should). We’ve all got reasonable egos and that’s why we compete at this level, because we’re obviously very ambitious and driven. We’ve got to drive ourselves, and a lot of it starts and stops with you. In an individual sport, it’s harder to have that long career because you do it all yourself. For the driver, this is an individual sport; yes, you work with the team, but in terms of you preparing yourself, it’s completely individual. I knew that, ultimately, for me it was getting more difficult to do all of the things that didn’t used to be (difficult), and that’s perfect – that’s what happens. In team sports, you might be able to hang around a bit longer, but in individual sports you can’t because it starts and stops with you.”
What will you miss about being in Formula One?
MW: “Driving these types of cars … in 2004 and 2005, those cars were obviously pretty amazing, and 2010 the cars were phenomenal with tires, aerodynamics, everything put together. I will miss that, but you have to make sure you’re doing it on the limit and getting the best out of yourself. What I’ll miss least? The travel and the repetitive nature of the job.”
And other drivers you’ll miss?
MW: “I think it’s the guys you come through with and you start with together … ‘JB’ (Jenson Button) started the year before Fernando (Alonso) and I, so they’re the guys where we’ve been through the most together.”
Are there any particular times or races when everything was hooked up and you were in control that will continue to sit vividly with you?
MW: “When you’re leading and controlling Grands Prix, they’re very special moments. The level that Seb (teammate Sebastian Vettel) and I went to … Turn 9 at Barcelona, (at Suzuka) in 2010 in qualifying and the race … we’ve had some moments when you’re probably not far off your absolute peak, and they’re special days.”
You’ve been rivals with Sebastian throughout the years – what is it going to be like parting company with him?
MW: “I’ve worked with this team a long time now, seven and a half years, and when you’ve got 500 people, there’s obviously some you’re very fond of and close to and others which the chemistry is different. That’s just how it goes. We’ve obviously had to work very closely over the years … I think Adrian (Newey, chief technical officer), I’ll miss working with him as he’s the best by a long way that I’ve ever worked with in the technical area.”
Considering you had a three-race contract to start with, is your longevity one of the things you’re most proud of in your career?
MW: “Yes, of course. I’ve been so proud to represent Australia week-in, week-out. It’s been such a journey – I left in 1995 to come (to Europe), and I turned pro in 1998 and I’ve been professional ever since. That’s something that I’m personally proud of, and I know there’s a lot of people who would have popped the white flag up earlier in their career with adversity here and there. In any sport, the guys who go towards 15 years as a pro at the top end … you’ve got to be doing a lot of things right.”
Will we see you around the Formula One paddock in 2014?
MW: “I’ll go to a few races next year – I’ve got Mitch Evans racing in GP2 so I need to go and see how he’s going. I will try to get to the odd Formula One race here and there. But I wouldn’t be setting any alarm clocks for it …”.