It’s an addiction.
Winning, that is, when you are a world-class player in one of the most competitive sports on the planet. And the most recent winner in Formula One is Australia’s own Mark Webber, who will line up on the Albert Park grid for Red Bull Racing once again this weekend.
Webber, who went so close to the World Championship crown in 2010, came out of a difficult 2011 campaign with the taste of success in his mouth once more after winning the final race of the season in Brazil.
“It was great to touch on those (winning) feelings again in Brazil, and it’s beautiful to finish the season like that,” said Webber on the eve of the season-opening Albert Park event.
That Brazilian victory was more than enough to dispel any thoughts of hanging up the racing boots: “I absolutely have to hang around and have another crack,” Webber added after taking his career win total to seven, all of those in the last three seasons.
“When you don’t get the most out of a situation you always want to come back and improve and do a better job. The bar has been lifted very, very high in the last few seasons and it’s the challenge I’m looking forward to.
“I’ve had a really good winter and prepared for the season as best I can so I’m looking forward to the new season, I just cannot wait to get racing.”
Webber is, by some distance, the most experienced Formula 1 driver Australia has ever had – his 176-race career tally is already 50 more than the great Sir Jack Brabham started, and 60 more than our other World Champion, Alan Jones.
And even as Grand Prix number 177 on the Webber CV approaches, the enthusiasm that accompanied his first race here in 2002 still burns just as bright.
“This will be my eleventh Australian GP and I can’t wait to get started,” he says. “The Grand Prix is one of the best sporting events that we have in Australia. It’s great to see the support and Australian flags in the crowd. I’ve incorporated more of an Australian theme into my helmet, which I’ll be using for the whole year, not just in Australia.”
Other people can see a difference in Webber too, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner among them. “I think he goes to Melbourne with a spring in his step, which wasn’t the case last year,” says Horner. “He is in a good frame of mind and hopefully he can have a strong season.”
Webber enjoyed an unusually restful spell in his home country over the local summer, but the hectic round of pre-season testing and the annual business of getting to grips with a brand-new racing car have been as manic as ever, even – or perhaps especially – for the team that has won both the Drivers’ and Constructors’ titles for the last two years in a row.
“It’s been an extremely intense few months for the whole team,” Webber acknowledges, “and it’s incredible when you count up how many sleep-deprived hours have gone in to preparing the car as best we can – from pit stops to reliability to driver comfort in the cockpit. You name it, we’ve always been looking to improve.”
The F1 authorities have also been working hard to improve the racing, fine-tuning the regulations to build on a 2011 season that was often highly entertaining despite Webber’s team-mate Sebastian Vettel’s eventual dominance.
Changes to the cars’ aerodynamics and especially a new, softer range of compounds from tyre supplier Pirelli could be the main changes, but how much difference will they make to what we see on track?
“I don’t think much is going to change for the people in the grandstands,” Webber insists. “They won’t notice too much at all, because if the cars are going around two seconds a lap slower, it’s not a huge thing for them. For the drivers, we feel a bit with less grip.
“Obviously the cars were very sophisticated at the end of last year with how the exhausts were working with the blown diffusers, and the engines were a huge part of the aerodynamic platform of the car. That’s gone now with the change of regulation, but I don’t think there’ll be any huge changes when it comes to the racing this year.”
That means Vettel, with the #1 on his car again, will be the primary target, not just for other teams but for Webber himself. Saturday afternoons could be the key to his success: he needs to stop Vettel from grabbing 15 pole positions, as he did last year to set a new all-time record, and putting a stranglehold on the race come Sunday afternoon.
“If Seb’s dominating that pole position, it gives him a very strong position to tee the race up, so he needs to drop the consistency off that,” says Webber firmly. “If I can put myself in that position and get to that first pit-stop first, that makes things a lot easier within our own little battle.” Asked if anyone could stop the young German winning a third successive title, no less a figure than Bernie Ecclestone, the man who runs the F1 show, came up with an encouraging answer.
“I think Mark will if anybody does, and I really think Sebastian would like Mark to win the title if he can’t win it again himself,” said Ecclestone. “I spoke to Mark and he’s really motivated now. I told him Sebastian is quick, you just have to be quicker and keep your head down.”
Webber would like nothing more, but having the first race of a new season in his home country, with the attendant media frenzy, is inevitably a challenge.
“Trying to keep it as normal a race as possible for me is the key,” he explains. “We can do a phenomenal amount of interviews and requests because everyone’s very keen for that two-week period, but at the end of the day it’s about trying to keep it as a normal Grand Prix.
“Go down there, get the job done, get the most out of myself, work with the guys and make sure I’m in a very good frame of mind mentally to put my best foot forward to try to win the race.
“We can talk a lot about it but we need to get on the track.”