Australian ace Mark Webber heads into his 12th season in Formula 1® with change and controversy swirling around his 36-year-old head. He has a new engineer, he’s undergone further surgery in the off-season – and most of all, he has been the subject of some highly critical remarks from within his own Red Bull Racing team. What’s going on?
A Leg Up
It’s four years now since Mark lay on the ground in Tasmania with his right leg broken, the result of a rather lop-sided coming-together between his bike and a four-wheel-drive during his Challenge on the Apple Isle.
But it was only a few weeks ago that Mark had more surgery to remove the final material evidence of that accident from his body. We are accustomed to hearing about titanium in Formula 1 cars – but it was a 40-centimetre length of that exotic metal that was removed from Webber’s leg during his six-week break Down Under.
The news is good: “The surgery went very smoothly and my recovery was exceptional,” Webber has commented. “I had a few weeks off from my normal training schedule but I was able to ease myself back into it by the first week of January and now I'm back into it properly.
“I didn't really know what to expect from having it removed, apart from my own peace of mind, but I'm very happy that some of the niggles and pain I've sometimes experienced with my training over the past three years already seem to be a thing of the past.”
That means the daunting physical challenges Webber submits himself to ahead of and during each new campaign should progress smoothly as the season approaches. Just to remind you, Mark’s training regime takes up over 1400 hours a year – a daily average that’s pushing four hours. He runs almost two-and-a-half thousand kilometres each year; he cycles almost six times that distance.
A Change Is As Good As A Rest
For years now Mark has spoken often and always warmly of the input his race engineer Ciaron Pilbeam has had in his development and especially in his work on race weekends. That’s all a thing of the past.
From now on Simon Rennie is the man in Mark’s corner at each of the World Championship rounds. You may not have heard the name, but you have almost certainly heard the voice.
Remember Abu Dhabi last year, and Kimi Raïkkönen telling the Lotus pit wall to leave him alone? The man sending supposedly encouraging messages was none other than Simon Rennie, who has now switched to Red Bull, where he probably hopes to receive a less dusty response from his new charge. Pilbeam has moved in the opposite direction to work with Kimi.
As always, Mark is matter-of-fact about the change. “It's going to be important to have a solid pre-season with him after spending some six years with Ciaron Pilbeam who I had a long and enjoyable relationship with, but he's no longer with the team.” In other words, let’s get on with it.
It’s an important relationship, not only on the technical front but also – perhaps even especially – in terms of the driver’s psychological well-being. Speaking of which…
Marko Takes Aim
Formula 1® is a tough enough gig, you’d think, without having to dodge sniper fire – especially when it comes from your own side.
Early in January Mark was the subject of a surprising attack from Dr Helmut Marko, a central figure at Red Bull who supposedly advises the drivers but who has always seemed closer in every way to Sebastian Vettel than to Mark Webber.
Marko, whose doctorate is in law, won the 1971 Le Mans 24-Hour classic in a Porsche but his Grand Prix career, which never yielded a World Championship point, was ended by an accident not unlike the one that interrupted Felipe Massa’s own career a couple of years ago.
It was not surprising that Marko made adverse comments about Mark Webber early in January. He’s done it more than once before. What was surprising was the tenor of his remarks and the place they were published – in Red Bull’s own in-house magazine.
“It seems to me that Webber has on average two races per year where he is unbeatable,” said the 69-year-old Austrian, “but he can’t maintain this form throughout the year. And as soon as his prospects start to look good in the world championship, he has a little trouble with the pressure that this creates.”
With friends like these, who needs enemies? Is it the start of a campaign to ensure Webber’s seventh season with Red Bull will also be his last? Predictably enough, Webber is unfazed. “Look,” he says, “everyone at this level has their own agendas and it's been evident for a long time now that I've never been a part of Marko's.”
Red (Rag To A) Bull?
So how will Webber respond to this unprecedented attack from within? In all probability, just as he always has: by producing his best when people are saying he is down and out. Following his accident in November 2008, after all, he was back on his feet in an insanely short time after surgery, back in his Red Bull cockpit for pre-season testing in Spain – and made 2009 the season in which Mark Webber became a Grand Prix winner.
Besides, it takes more than a Marko to make a team, and the man at the top seems to have Mark’s interests more closely at heart than Helmut. Webber spent part of the off-season in a special place that belongs to Red Bull’s billionaire owner.
“We spent a few days on Laucala in Fiji which is an exclusive island resort owned by Dietrich Mateschitz,” Mark explains. “He's been telling me to go for a few years now and I can see why! He's done an amazing job capturing and maintaining the sheer beauty and nature of a South Pacific island while creating a resort that is escapism at its best; it's probably the most idyllic place I've ever been to.”
The perfect antidote to a working environment which in 2013 may not be quite so warm and welcoming…