After a career which has spanned something close to a full spectrum of motorsport series, Mark Webber’s retirement from professional racing represents the an end of an era for a man whose popularity looks set to endure for years to come. In an exclusive interview for Mobil 1 The Grid, the Porsche No. 1 driver spoke to Radio Le Mans’ John Hindhaugh ahead of his final professional race at the 6 Hours of Bahrain.
This weekend in Bahrain, the final round of the FIA World Endurance Championship marked the last professional race for Porsche’s Mark Webber.
I was working on ToCA Radio in 1996 when Mark came to the UK and competed in Formula Ford 1600, which supported the touring cars in those days. It’s not often that I’ve been there at the beginning and at the end of a driver’s career, especially one with such an illustrious history as Mark.
Of course, there was a chunk in the middle – F3000 and then F1, with Minardi, Jaguar, Williams & Red Bull Racing – during which time I wasn’t at his races. But, even then, my duties within the motorsport press-pack meant I kept bumping into, or interviewing, him for one reason or another. One thing that has been constant throughout is his incredibly open and warm attitude. Honestly, I don’t know how he has remained so grounded, given the heights of his sporting achievements.
So, it came as no real surprise to me that, despite being wanted for a chat by everyone this weekend, he calmly leaned up against a wall and said, “no trouble” when I asked him for a few words about his sportscar career.
Mark has, of course, had two bites at sportscar racing. Racing with Bernd Schneider in a fabulous Mercedes CLK-GTR, he very nearly won the FIA Sportscar Championship in 1998. I was at the last two races of the Championship that year – at USA’s Homestead Miami and Mazda Raceway in Laguna Seca. Eight seconds was the margin at the finish of the California race; a difference which would ultimately prevent the young Australian from taking the title that year. Losing out to teammates Klaus Ludwig and Ricardo Zonta would prove little consolation for a man whose competitive spirit ran in his blood.
Then came 1999, and the now notorious Mercedes-Benz CLR. That, of course, went very, very wrong at Le Mans when Webber’s car flipped in practice, and then – rebuilt with a new chassis – flipped again during morning warm-up. Mark was at the wheel for both blow-overs. A similar spectacular fate befell Peter Dumbreck in the same race, and the programme was consigned to history.
Given his slightly unhappy relationship with endurance racing at that time, some commentators were surprised when he eventually returned to the sport, spurning Formula 1 for another crack at sportscars.
Mark freely admits that Porsche was the big draw. He’s been a fan of the brand for many years and, wise as he is, he saw an opportunity for ambassadorial duties when his time behind the wheel was over.
“WEC has given me a great opportunity to work with Porsche,” he says. “Post F1, frankly, to have a chance to perform and operate with a team at a level which is extremely high, which after F1 is not easy to find. So, in a selfish way, I was very thankful that I could drive for them. Also, inside that, is the chemistry between the drivers. I never envisaged getting the bond that I have, partularly with Timo [Bernhard] and Brendon [Hartley]. That’s been a big bonus for me, to experience that at this point in my career.
“Also, outside of the cockpit, it’s rounded my experience and allowed me to see how big organisations go racing. Porsche is a real manufacturer, the best sports car brand in the world, going racing. For me to be involved in that, and seeing how they went about that, I learned a lot. And I’m still learning.”
So, does the man from Down Under leave the sport in a better frame of mind than if he had called ‘time’ when he left Formula 1?
“[It’s] difficult to answer. I think WEC was beneficial to me for lots of reasons, as I mentioned – and I haven’t touched on the driving component. So, yes, it was better for me to continue my ‘active’ driving; the job that I’m known for. It would have been possible to stop at the end of 2013, of course. But a call from Porsche, with an offer to extend my active years, was too attractive to turn down.”
So what about this ‘driving component’? The Le Mans relationship hadn’t been pleasant first time around. But, this time, Mark arrived at Le Sarthe as an older and wiser person, and a vastly more experienced driver to boot.
“Ultimately, the calendar [in WEC] has been 8 or 9 races. Le Mans is the big one in the middle. The form car, which I’ve shared with Timo and Brendon, has been impressive over the years in all conditions, at different tracks. That’s something we’ve all been proud of.”
In a period where, bizarrely, F1 is all about saving the car and the tyres, and where ‘endurance’ racing has become a series of full speed sprints, there’s little doubt that the challenge of driving the most technologically-advanced cars in motor racing was of great interest to Webber.
“I was attracted to the category because of Michelin tyres; because we could push flat out for the whole stint. All of those things that initially attracted me to the World Endurance Championship are still there. And obviously, as a racing driver, you want that.
“I’ve enjoyed it. I was leaving F1 [at a time] when the technology was pretty prehistoric, in terms of combustion engines. In fact, everything was pretty simple in 2013. I turned up in WEC in 2014 in the most technical car that Porsche have ever built, the most advanced racing car ever built. Four-wheel drive, huge hybrid interface, incredible turbo capacity – a thousand horsepower!”
At this point, I cheekily suggest that, as a driver, he must have hated all that horsepower. And, suddenly, there’s a flash of the trademark 1000-watt smile.
“I love that, of course.” But, instantly Mark is back to extolling the virtues of the Hybrid LMP1 car and the foresight of the ACO (and the FIA) for providing the circumstances that allow these cars to race.
“The scope of the regulations was all so rewarding… for engineers to say this is what’s possible. We drivers were enjoying that freedom, especially early in the concept, the embryonic [big performance gain] years of the 919 were such low-hanging fruit, which was awesome. It [was] just making the car quicker and quicker.”
Webber’s decision to leave F1 for the World Endurance Championship and Porsche has no doubt had a positive effect on both the WEC series, and on endurance racing in general, a point which he acknowledges, though is keen to put into perspective.
“Tom Kristensen, Allan McNish… [They] had incredible reputations, are incredible drivers and are guys we all look up to, so the calibre of the drivers in the sport was never in doubt.”
“People love to support their favourite driver, and there is a curiosity when an F1 driver leaves to go to another category. Fans say, ‘what’s that all about?’”
What’s more, Mark believes he won’t be the last F1 driver to move. “If Fernando [Alonso], if JB [Jenson Button] or other guys in F1 move around – which will happen in the future – fans will migrate to that fresh category. That gives WEC a new and fresh audience.”
And yet, in true Mark-style, he plays down his own role in this movement.
“That’s not down to me. That’s about how popular the category that I was in before was, and also about how the WEC paddock is different – more family-like – while F1 is all business.”
Mark clearly sees the incredulity in my face, and concedes. “OK, maybe I did a little bit!”
We laugh, shake hands, and I thank him for his time.
Mark Webber; World Endurance Champion, advocate and ambassador for motorsport, Porsche fan, and still just a bloody great bloke.
Full, live coverage of Mark Webber’s last race can be followed at www.RadioLeMans.com from 12.15pm GMT. For more from John & Radio Le Mans, follow the team on Twitter (@RadioLeMans). For a weekly round-up of news, discussion, interviews and analysis, you can also follow John’s Midweek Motorsport show (@Specutainment), which airs every Wednesday on the channel between 8pm-10pm GMT.