Their home Grand Prix is a mixed blessing for Australia’s Formula One favourites Daniel Ricciardo and Mark Webber. Yes, it’s great to see family, friends… and the sun; but demands on their time are extraordinary so race weekend comes as a relief.
When you are approaching your 200th Grand Prix, starting your 12th World Championship season and the senior man on the 22-driver grid, you might be forgiven for taking a broad, relaxed view of life in the Formula One paddock.
Not if you’re Mark Webber.
The no-nonsense man from Queanbeyan, now 36, can’t wait to get back into the cockpit of his Red Bull Renault RB9 and get on with his real job: racing.
“In terms of the overall feeling at the end of my spell of testing, I think we’ve done well and we have made a step forward,” Webber said as the intensive round of pre-season running in Spain came to an end.
“As I’ve said before, it’s very difficult to see a real pecking order. We’ve just always been focused on what we have to do and not really looked too hard at anyone else. The important thing now is just to get out to Melbourne and get on with the racing.”
Leaner than ever and in fine social form, Webber hosted a group of Australian and international media in a St Kilda restaurant two days before the start of F1 action at the 2013 Formula 1® Rolex Australian Grand Prix.
Australia’s current cricketing plight was no laughing matter, admitted the sports-mad Webber, especially with a roomful of English journalists waiting to pounce, but the 36-year-old really was just joking when he kicked the evening off with a reference to rumours of his impending retirement.
“It’s all true,” he smiled, “in fact I’m not even racing this weekend!”
Oh yes he is, and for the 197th time in a Formula 1 career that has so far yielded nine Grand Prix victories, at least one in each of the last four hard-fought World Championship campaigns. Webber expects another highly competitive year, especially at the opening race of another gruelling 19-round global campaign.
“Looking at the first race, I think it’s going to be a tight grand prix,” he said. “There are a lot of quick cars out there and hopefully we have one of them. However, Melbourne is a very particular race, with very specific demands, so we’ll treat it as one race, then go to Malaysia and see how things shake up there. The season moves fast and you have to prepare for every race.”
Last year Webber recorded his best-ever Melbourne finish in fourth place: a top-three result would be the perfect get-away for a man whose season sometimes starts slowly.
“I’ve been on the podiums at most tracks around the world and have won at quite a few circuits,” he agrees, “and Melbourne is one which I would like to add to that. I really enjoy driving at the track – the atmosphere is fantastic. Of course I want to go there and perform well, so I’ll be focusing on myself to get the job done. The champagne will taste a little bit better in Melbourne if I get on the podium there.”
Of his 196 races, Mark has been in a Red Bull for 110. His debut season saw him compete 16 times in a Minardi; he was a Jaguar man for 34 races, and moved to Williams for 36 before becoming a long-term fixture in a Red Bull cockpit in 2007.This year he will rack up his 200th start, all going to plan, in Bahrain.
Among other milestones, his 50th race was in Brazil in 2004, when he posted the dreaded ‘DNF’ (Did Not Finish) after a mid-race tangle with Jaguar teammate Christian Klien.Race 100 was a little better: in a Red Bull he finished seventh at Spa-Francorchamps, one of his favourite tracks.
But race 150 was celebrated in real style. On August 1, 2010, Webber caught Red Bull teammate Sebastian Vettel napping at the end of a Safety Car period in the Hungarian Grand Prix and fired in a sequence of virtual qualifying laps to earn the sixth victory of his career to that date.
Now, starting his 12th season, Webber boasts nine Grand Prix victories. Only our two World Champions, Sir Jack Brabham and Alan Jones, can claim more, Sir Jack with 14, AJ with 12. Sir Jack contested 126 Grands Prix, Alan 116, so Webber is streets ahead in that regard.
While he is, with Michael Schumacher’s second and definitive retirement, the oldest man in the field by a comfortable distance, Webber has a way to go before he catches up with his great compatriots. Brabham was 44 by the time he reached his final Grand Prix in Mexico in 1970; Jones turned 40 the week after his own last appearance in Adelaide in 1986.
The other career stats are also revealing: Webber is ahead on podiums with 34 to Brabham’s 31 and Jones’s24, he has more fastest laps than either (14 to 13 and 10 respectively) and has been on pole 11 times to Sir Jack’s 13 and Alan’s six. Sheer longevity as a Grand Prix driver has a lot to do with it.
It took Webber 130 races to stand on the top step of the podium for the first time, in Germany in 2009, when he also started from pole for the first time. He won four times in 2010, once at the end of 2011 and twice last year.
Pressed to pick a favourite venue, he might well say ‘Monaco’: he has won twice at F1’s showcase event, in 2010 and 2012, and finished third once, fourth twice and fifth once. Add two poles, a fastest lap and a brilliant win in F3000 in 2001 and you can see why he would like the Mediterranean jewel in Grand Prix racing’s crown.
And we won’t mention the dent he put in the trophy with his exuberant leap after winning in Monte Carlo for the first time in 2010, or the fact that this most laid-back of Aussies rocked up to the Grand Prix ball in the royal palace wearing jeans and a sweater rather than the regulation tux…