Mark Webber interview: the Formula One legend on life in the fast lane

Formula One legend Mark Webber talks us through what it takes to be an elite racing driver – and what it’s like retiring from life in the fastest of lanes

Lewis Hamilton wrestles his Mercedes-AMG Petronas around Turn 16 at Silverstone before snapping the steering wheel in the opposite direction, taking the sweeping final corner and attacking the finish line – the wasp-like sound of the engine drowned out by the roar of the home crowd.

Mark Webber leans forward in his chair, elbows on his knees, hands clasped. His eyes dart between the screen, to the track outside our window, and me. Meanwhile, I’m staring blankly at the action, figuring out what on earth you say to a nine-time Formula One Grand Prix winner. “Hamilton’s heart rate should be running around 160-170bpm right now, but you wouldn’t know it,” he says in his raspy Aussie drawl. It must be strange to watch from the sidelines for such a seasoned pro. Does he miss the rush? “In the same way any 40 year old misses being in his twenties,” he smirks. You could say that, I suppose.

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Of course, Webber wasn’t your average 20-something. After finishing runner-up in the 2001 Formula 3000 Championship, he earned a starting place in the 2002 Minardi Formula One racing team at the age of 25. Fast forward to 2009 and Webber is standing on top of the podium having won the Germany Grand Prix with Red Bull Racing – the first Australian driver to win a Formula One race since Alan Jones won in Las Vegas in 1981.

In an era where Michael Schumacher and Fernando Alonso fought the emerging talents of Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, Webber held his own, earning a reputation as a fierce competitor on the track but one of the most popular drivers out of the car.

In our exclusive interview, Webber discusses tussling with the modern greats of the sport; becoming Rolex’s latest ambassador; and how the 2017/18 Formula One season is shaping up under its new American owners.

Would you like to get in the seat today?

Nah, I wouldn’t. I’m definitely undercooked at the moment – as a racing driver, we love to be prepared and have everything in order. Especially somewhere like Silverstone, it’s so, so fast, you’ve got to be fit and very committed. At short notice, it’s probably one of the worst venues in the world to just stroll up and get in the seat – you know what, I’m happy here in the stands, thanks.

I retired at the right time. It’s a big decision for anybody in sport to come to the point where it’s time to move on. It worked out very well for me. My last race, I was on the podium with Sebastian [Vettel] and Fernando [Alonso], I did the fastest lap of the race, and I walked away feeling very rewarded about my whole career.

Then I’ve been very lucky to come out of that and have the tremendous opportunity to work with Rolex. For me, the history of them and motorsport is truly remarkable, and for me to continue to talk about the sport I love with other incredible ambassadors is great. They’re real racers as well, of course; they love precision and timing. To leave an arena where attention to fine detail is so important and find it again with Rolex makes me feel very blessed.

How have you found your First year as a Rolex ambassador?

I’ve been buying Rolexes for a number of years – at the moment, I’m rotating between the new Sea Dweller and the white-dialled ceramic Daytona – so it was a real honour when they asked me to be an ambassador. All racing drivers appreciate timekeeping and precision, but for me Rolex really is miles ahead of the competition in terms of performance. The fact that it cares deeply for motor sport is a bonus.

Do you have a favourite experience from your career in Formula One?

It’s always nice to win. Success is thin on the ground for Australians in this sport, so to hear the national anthem is an incredible feeling. It was 28 years between the anthem playing for Alan Jones and my first win, so hearing that was huge for me personally.

Other than that, the feeling of this huge number of people working towards a common goal is an irreplaceable feeling. The team is pushing to create the best performing car, then it’s the weekend and you’re looking after the car through practice, then qualifying and then we go to the race on Sunday. There’s a point where everybody walks away from the car on the grid – and it’s over to you. Nothing comes close to that. The expectation, the responsibility, the cocktail of adrenaline.

Racing drivers love the pressure, we thrive on that – we love backing ourselves, we’re wired up to deliver the best performance in a given situation. And when you get out of the car at the other end, the emotion you feel, the respect and camaraderie you get from the other drivers… They’re the special moments in this sport.

What goes through your head during those first few corners of a race?

There’s a tremendous amount of experience that you draw upon during that micro-second management at the start of a race. So if I’m in the middle of the pack, am I worried about what the leader’s doing? No. I’ve got my eye on one or two guys around me, but I’ve also got to be very proactive in positioning my car and controlling the situation around me. It’s a micro-chess match that’s going on very, very quickly. It’s aggressive, decisions have to be made fast, so the way we teach our brains to manage this information as it comes at us is incredibly skilful. The race obviously settles down and you switch to trying to get the most out of the car, but yeah it’s hectic at the start. There’s a lot of different parameters inside
a driver’s makeup that shapes us into winners.

So racing drivers are modern gladiators?

Well, another Rolex ambassador – Sir Jackie Stewart – is sat just across from us. In his era he lost many a friend to the sport in a time when it was incredibly dangerous to be a racing driver. The sport moved on and became a lot safer because of the advancement of technology: we’re introducing a new head protection system next season; our fuel tanks don’t explode now; fire is a much rarer occurrence. There’s no beating around the bush that if you go through a corner at 290kmh then it’s still got a risk factor: 99.9% of people need not apply to this job. It is… different. I mean, I see it as normal but that’s because this sport weeds out those people who can’t deal with the pressure, the speed or the risk. That’s why you’re left with this gladiatorial aspect. People like to see us put our lives on the line, to a point – professional sport is about doing things that most people can’t do themselves.

Then you have this other facet of the technological aspect of Formula One. These cars are incredibly advanced. This is the best laboratory in the world for furthering the motor industry – and that’s why the synergy with Rolex works so well. You’re dealing with the crème de la crème of mechanical engineering in sport and watches.

Is there a misconception of what racing drivers are actually like?

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It’s quite tricky to appreciate what we do because it’s hard to see the athlete working. That’s the hard thing: there’s so much technology in the car, that it can obscures the skill of the racing driver.

If you watch Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal we can see just how hard they’re working – and in many other sports you get a direct emotional involvement on the TV of how they might be feeling emotionally in their eyes. How are they moving, how much they’re sweating, what expression’s on their face.

With Formula One, everyone loves the gladiatorial component of man and machine, the drivers putting these cars on a knife edge, and watching to a degree these guys managing the risk, but I think we’re quite easily misunderstood. You know, we’re in a car, we have a helmet on – you can’t see that in the car there’s a young driver taking a lot of risks. It’s very hard to project that outwardly. If one of us were to take you out even in a normal Porsche high-performance street car – you would only get a small snapshot of what these guys are dealing with week in week out.

What is it like to race against Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel?

They’re very different characters. Lewis is incredibly fast, probably the fastest of his generation – and his pole record tells you he’s the fastest driver over one lap since Ayrton Senna. Michael Schumacher was exceptional but he made more mistakes than Lewis makes on Saturday afternoon qualifying.

Sebastian is German in that he is incredibly process driven, very diligent on understanding what he’s going to do on the track. He’s not blasé with leaning on his skill, he doesn’t fill in the blanks with his natural talent, he takes nothing for granted. The ‘she’ll be right’ attitude is not in the German make up, whereas Lewis might have some of that because he’s so skilful – he backs himself to a degree that he can rely on his natural talent. It’s different how they get there, but the result is usually very similar.

I have a good relationship with both of them now. We pushed each other to the limit: I had a lot of great races against Lewis and I loved racing against him. He’s tough but very fair on track. Seb and I went over the edge a couple of times, but that happens duking it out week in week out: the kitchen can get hot.

WHo was your least favourite driver to race?

I was very, very fortunate to race in a Formula One era where the depth of driver talent was just immense. I mean, if you look at the 2010 championship you’ve got Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso, Michael Schumacher, Jenson Button, Nico Rosberg, Robert Kubica, Sebastian Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen – and everybody brought something different on race day.

On Sunday, Fernando and Michael were probably the toughest competitors during a race, but all of those guys are world class. It was a real purple patch for Formula One, and I had many a year where I was thankful to test myself against the best of the best.

What do you think of the chances of moving the British GP away from Silverstone?

I think we need to find a way financially for it to work going forward – and at the end of the day the numbers aren’t lining up right now.

The drivers want it here. Silverstone is up there with the most historical events on the calendar: we’ve been coming here since the 1950s, it’s a brilliant track and it’s an all-round challenge. No doubt, there has to be a British grand prix going forward because a lot of the teams are based here, it’s a colossal industry in these parts: so many people are employed at McClaren and Red Bull. Is the answer a London circuit? I don’t know, but we need to find a solution that works for everyone.

What are your opinions on the new owners of Formula One?

I think the new owners are sleeping well at the moment. They’re making their way through changes to the old regime. There’s a very big focus on fan engagement and getting them much closer to the sport, a lot of different activities around race weekends. That can only be good for the sport.

Mark Webber is a Rolex watch ambassador. For more information, see rolex.com