Formula One legend Mark Webber is one cool cat. You don't have to be sat next to him to know this; just look at his career, which could be described as a series of episodes, each one marked by a surprising twist that has brought him new success. He has seamlessly glided through each transition; always the gentleman and never the quitter.
Webber's relatively new role as a Rolex Testimonee is a fitting one: he has always been blessed with good timing both on and off the track. He became part of the Rolex family last year, joining a venerable club of sports men and women that also counts Roger Federer, Sir Jackie Stewart (below) and Chris Evert.
Webber began in F1 as an underdog, grafting at Minardi and Jaguar before reaching the top tier of the sport with Red Bull in his mid-20s. With nine Formula 1 Grand Prix wins and 42 podium finishes under his belt, the Aussie hung up his F1 keys in 2013. He went out in style by placing second at the Brazilian Grand Prix in Sao Paulo in 2013, but he made sure this was not a swansong but a stepping-stone of sorts: in 2014, Webber made the unusual leap into endurance racing when he signed with Porsche's LMP1 class in the FIA World Endurance Championship. Alongside his teammates Timo Bernhard and Brendon Hartley, the trio won the World Drivers’ Championship in 2015.
Subscribe to The Week
Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.
Webber called time on his racing career in 2016 but played another trump card when he accepted a new role as a Porsche special representative – he and rally legend Walter Röhrl are the only two motorsport personalities to be bestowed this consultancy role which makes full use of their unparalleled knowledge of Porsche's race and street cars, as well as their ability to spot and nurture new talent.
Webber, who has lived in the UK since 1995, is also a mountain bike enthusiast – and as his wont, he's embraced the sport in its extreme. He's taken part in various big Tour climbs around the Alps, as well as gruelling circuits such as the Leadville 100 MTB race, a 100-mile course across the Colorado Rockies. Last year, he launched his own sports apparel brand, Aussie Grit, also the name of his 2015 autobiography. Prior to this entrepreneurial move, the driver carved out a successful career as a sports TV pundit for Channel 4. Then there's the fact that he's a licensed helicopter pilot, motorcycle nut and daredevil mountain climber – a few years ago he even organised his own multidisciplinary adventure race in Tasmania. In a nutshell, he's not someone who rests on his laurels.
At 41, the Australian has seen his fair share of crashes and had his own lucky escapes. In 1999, his Mercedes spectacularly flipped over three times at Le Mans 24 Hours. In 2010 at the European Grand Prix in Valencia, he saw the sky when his Red Bull car took off, somersaulting 360 degrees mid-air at 190mph. The biggest accident of his career was just three years ago when he crashed his team's Porsche 919 hybrid sister car into a concrete barrier during the World Endurance Championship race at the Interlagos circuit in Brazil. He was lucky to escape with concussion and in true Aussie grit style he praised Porche's first team for claiming top place on the podium. He told reporters at the time: “On a positive note, it’s great that the boys in the number 14 car managed to bring home the victory, which is a fantastic way to finish off the season. I’m already looking forward to getting out there again next year.”
Today, Webber is meeting me at the Rolex suite at Silverstone's prestigious Paddock Club – it's Saturday and the drivers are just about to start final practice. The driver is telling me about the importance of healthy rivalry on the track, when his attention is drawn to the TV screen behind us. His former Porsche LPM1 teammate Brendon Hartley has suddenly flown off the circuit in his Toro Rosso across the gravel and into the barrier. Mark is concerned: "Oh my god!" he exclaims. "Is he alright? Is he moving? That was a big shunt. Sorry about this, I just want to see if he's alright." Thankfully within a minute, Hartley is out of the car and Webber breathes a sigh of relief. "That’s a front left suspension failure. Okay, we move on. We live to fight another day."
This is a glimmer of Webber's famous 'tell it like it is' approach to racing. He's known for his unswerving determination and for not taking any stick along the way - but when it comes to cameraderie, the respect runs deep, even when it comes to his former Red Bull teammate and rival Sebastian Vettel, with whom Webber frequently locked horns back in the day.
Although Webber never claimed the F1 championship title, he's one of the best loved F1 and endurance drivers of his generation. No doubt this is down to his resilience and ability to always see the bigger picture. The Week Portfolio caught up with Webber at the Rolex British Grand Prix at Silverstone.
Tell us about your relationship with Silverstone?
You almost develop a photographic memory as a driver when you race in a place for so long and I raced here for so many years, I've even ridden motorbikes around this track. It's the first race track I came to actually; I was here within two days of landing here from Australia in 1995. I had read about Silverstone as a teenager and for someone who's interested in racing, it's a bit like our Wimbledon. It's my second home race outside of Australia. British fans would [root for me] I suppose because I was generally racing Germans. Lewis [Hamilton] was the main man, but if Lewis was out of the picture, they'd want me to beat everyone else. So I was the second Brit if you like! The track is very quick and you get punished for your mistakes, and we like that. There's a bit of a weird relationship there. It's not a track that's very sterile. It's a very tough circuit to get right.
You're wearing a Rolex Cosmograph Daytona today and you've been a Rolex Testimonee since 2017. Do you remember your first watch? You grew up in the 1980s after all, the era of consumer gadgetry.
I remember my dad's watch from back then. It had a little calculator on it, which was fascinating to me. I had a little Casio which was solar powered. That was amazing! Because I was such a sports junkie I needed a water resistant watch. I never take my watch off. I sleep with it, even to this day. The only thing I didn't do was race with my watch because of the weight. When you are trying to get as much lap time as you can, even something this light [he takes off his Daytona for me to try] can make a difference. In 2010, I bought myself a GMT-Master II Rolex to celebrate my first Grand Prix win in Germany [in July, 2009]. Rolex is a bit like Porsche. I was fascinated by both products but not really in a position to buy from them until I had some success. My GMT is still super classy, understated and perfect for every day. I promise that there is not a single racing driver that doesn't like Rolex! When [you're awarded] a Rolex at Le Mans 24 Hours or at the Rolex 24 at Daytona, every driver talks about it. It's a symbol of your victory and that's something very unique. Also, the history and the background of Rolex watches is something totally unique. When you see the detail and precision of these watches, [it taps into the idea of] a racing component, [the bond between] man and machine and the gorgeous timing that's involved with a driver operating a race car. And if something captures that DNA, like Rolex does, then that is something we drivers gravitate towards.
Do I use the chronograph function? You know I don't but it's pretty impressive. Now in the [Porsche] street cars we have the chronographs in the car. But take Walter Röhrl, he's always timing himself with his watch. I'll take that away. It's probably like the watch equivalent of reading a book, right? It needs to be stimulated, so I should use it more often.
Your move to endurance racing was the perfect excuse to live and breathe Porsche for a while…
Yeah, I wasn't ready to stop completely. F1 in your late 30s is [pushing] the limits of your performance. I was starting to find that things that once came so naturally to me – high speed corners for example – were harder to do as I got older. At the drivers' briefings too, you're in the room and you look around and think, 'Hang on, I'm the oldest one in here!' That can happen fast. But there is this beautiful period where you use your experience to help you perform better, which is perhaps why I had my best results at the back end of my career. I also wanted to stop at the top. My last Grand Prix was in Brazil and I stood on the podium with Fernando [Alonso] and Sebastian [Vettel]. I was in second place and I got the fastest lap of the race. For me that was a great exit. I could have gone on for another couple of years, because people would definitely have loved me to have driven for them, having been in a front running team like Red Bull, but I wasn't interested in that. I had a handshake with Porsche at the back end of 2012 and I knew it was going to be a beautiful transition for me. I love Porsche and I've been buying them for years. I have a good friend of mine - Dario Franchitti – who was also looking to drive for the team so it was all looking really nice. Unfortunately, Dario had a huge crash and he could no longer race, but the team mates that I then built up, well, we are brothers to this day, because we sweated for each other, we raced for each other. We won a lot of championships. That was sensational. It was a bit of an excuse to race for a bit longer, but in the end, nothing replaces Formula 1 to be honest.
You're the proud owner of a Porsche GT3 RS. That must be pretty thrilling to drive. Where do you take it?
Racing street cars on the track is still pretty special to be honest. We [at Porsche] have some key guests for that. I love showing people what the cars can do. They often say, 'Wow! The car's amazing!', and I'm like, 'What about me?! I'm driving the car here!' I like to wind them up a bit and it's so good to show them what these cars can do. Off the track [in my car], I love quiet roads but there's no place for driving flat out on the streets. As racing drivers, people think we drive like the wind everywhere but it's not a race environment. Obviously I'm a reasonably accomplished driver so I want to drive within my limits. Mountain roads, if you get up early, like those in the South of France for example, or in Austria… That can still put a smile my face.
We touched on the subject of rivalry earlier. Can you tell me about some of your rivalries?
I had tough moments with all the guys. Obviously Lewis and I had a bit of tension, like Seb [Vettel] and I and Fernando [Alonso], but ultimately the respect between all of us runs deep. I never raced Max [Verstappen], but I raced Kimi [Räikkönen], I raced Sebastian, I've raced Lewis, and there's just that bit of brotherhood there. You know that you are going wheel-to-wheel at 220mph and you all come out the other side. Of course at the time, when you are in the boxing ring, you don't want them to perform well but you can only control what you can control, not their performance. It's on your watch to make sure that you are bringing the best to your game for your people. The tension and the rivalry was there. Sometimes they gave you sleepless nights! You're either giving pressure or taking pressure. It is a beautiful feeling when you are giving pressure. In 2010 [at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone], it was Lewis and me for the whole race and I knew that I had him covered and that was nice! It takes a lot to get me going [in the negative sense] but you always have to have that edge and fire inside you so you can stand your ground. But now, there's no question about it, pretty much every guy I raced with, I could have a glass of wine with, when they are ready for it.
Create an account with the same email registered to your subscription to unlock access.