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The Age

Saturday February 5, 2011

Michael Lynch

Michael Lynch travels to Valencia for an exclusive interview with Mark Webber as he puts last year‚„s disappointment behind him and prepares to go one better in this year‚„s formula one championship.MARK Webber has endured the gamut of emotions in his long formula one career: hope, joy, relief, anger, frustration, triumph and disappointment.There was never more of the latter than last year, when his pursuit of a lifetime‚„s ambition‚€ť a formula one driver‚„s title ‚€ť foundered in the final race of the season in Abu Dhabi as he had to watch his Red Bull Racing teammate Sebastian Vettel win the championship in the long campaign‚„s last breath.But, as he prepares for the 10th season of a career that was for long periods dogged by ill luck and unfulfilment, he is buoyed by a sense of perspective, a clear, hard focus on the job ahead.He has made his peace with Vettel, the teammate with whom he clashed so often last year. He is committed to being part of Red Bull, as driven as ever and lacking nothing in desire.‚“Motivation is not an issue,‚ť Webber says as he talks to The Age during the Red Bull team‚„s season launch at Valencia this week, the first day of the truncated F1 testing program before the season starts in Bahrain next month.‚“The winter has been very good for all of us. It was very hard in the mid-season, when we were achieving some pretty special things, to develop and learn about some of the things that are going on. I learnt from what was going on last year.‚“I am approaching this year head on again. I have a great team of people around me to try to focus and improve upon what I did last year. There were a lot of things I did right.‚ťA talk to clear the air in the post-season sorted things out with Vettel, but Webber is unyielding in his competitiveness, forthright as ever, and generous in praise of teammates and colleagues.‚“I see no reason to suggest why we can‚„t compete hard and fair against each other this year.Clearly it got a bit hot under the collar at times [in 2010]. It clearly put pressure on certain people at times, including the drivers, on how to handle all that.‚“I have a really good relationship with Christian [team boss Christian Horner] and Adrian [design guru Adrian Newey] and that‚„s good. I need that.‚“Of course, you would be completely lying if you said it was all rosy, all rah rah and high-fiving all the way through. Clearly it wasn‚„t and there was a lot at stake. And we all learnt a lot from it.‚ťWebber‚„s triumphant outburst after victory at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone last July, when the team took improving equipment off his car and gave it to Vettel, spoke volumes for his frustration and anger at the time. His shouts of ‚“not bad for a No. 2 driver‚ť resonated all over the world with those whose natural support goes to the underdog, to the one unfairly denied a fair chance of glory on equal terms.‚“When you go through, whatever you want to call them, issues, or personal competitiveness and all that sort of stuff ‚ it‚„s like trying to have a meeting in the middle of a boxing match,‚ť says Webber. ‚“To stop and say, mate, let‚„s just stop and have a chat about this. It‚„s just not possible, clearly.It‚„s not like tennis or golf, this sport, there‚„s a lot of things go into it.‚“You have to take all that into account as well, as a driver, and understand how to get the best out of the situation for yourself, to press forward and work hard for the team. Sebastian and myself are getting on well now.‚ťIt is as much Webber‚„s commitment to the team ethos of F1 that has made him as popular in the industry as his speed. His relationships ‚€ť wherever he has driven ‚€ť with the mechanics, designers, engineers and pit crew who make, service and keep the cars running in the frenzy of a race weekend have always been important to him, and nothing has changed. Yes, he and the drivers are the star players, but, he stresses, it is a team sport.Which is why team harmony is something that he is keen to talk up for this season.He has perspective, and that is something he believes is crucial. Perspective about who you are, what you are doing, what you want to achieve and why. And where you have come from.Webber says he often thinks on those hard days when he left home 16 years ago as a teenager with dreams, and little money, aiming for the top.‚“I think it‚„s important to reflect, ‚ť he says, sitting in the Red Bull marquee as the engines from the season‚„s new crop of grand prix cars roar down the pit lane and on to the track in the chilly cold of a winter‚„s morning at the Circuit Communitate Valencia.‚“I think about the go-kart track where I started karting. I had dinner the other night in the UK with a guy I raced formula three against, Jonny Kane, and he was defi nitely as talented as I was, but didn‚„t have the opportunities.‚“That‚„s what I like doing. It‚„s important for me to do that. It‚„s important to remember where you have come from. It‚„s difficult when you keep going to these hotels and rah rah and that just becomes the norm. A grand prix driver, that‚„s what they expect, because the teams treat you like that.‚ťSuch a phlegmatic approach is essential in a discipline of such danger. Racing drivers display a signature calmness, a measured, methodical balance, as they get behind the wheel. It‚„s a still counterpoint to the thrilling, addictive adrenalin of what they are doing.‚“You have got to keep it all in perspective. As a sportsman or woman, your whole life revolves around your sport. You wake up each day thinking about your profession. [But] I saw a doco the other day about a guy who‚„s blind and he had an accident and he‚„s now paralysed from the waist down ‚ I did a bit more homework on that one and looked at what he‚„s going through.‚“You have to be aware [of how hard other people find things, about the privileged position he is in]. I often think of that stuff too. It‚„s important to realise that. There‚„s a lot of people in this world that don‚„t have a choice to do what I do. I have choices and I don‚„t take those for granted.‚ťDoes that make him religious or spiritual?He draws back slightly at the question, but then relaxes. ‚“Not really ‚ I think things happen for a reason, I believe they do. I believe in fate, karma, what goes around comes around. People can be selfish [and not think beyond their own small world].‚ťThe search for perspective is why he puts so much time and off-season effort into his other demanding outdoor pursuits, the orienteering-style Challenge that raises money for charity in Tasmania, the fitness program, cycling and running that he embraces.‚“It‚„s no secret that I like doing other activities outside the sport and I will do that in a much bigger fashion when I stop racing, whenever that is, two or three years or whatever. I enjoy it. It‚„s a good release for me. And it also keeps things in perspective for me. I have met a lot of amazing people through a lot of those disciplines and sports, where they haven‚„t got a penny on them but they are still really good people, people of substance.‚ťFor now the demands of a new season loom as he, alongside Vettel, pulls the blue cloth off the new RB7 in the Valencia pit lane, posing for photographers.After that, it is sitting on a high stool in front of a packed media conference, comfortable alongside Vettel, Horner and Newey, the Red Bull top dogs gathered together. This is part of Webber‚„s life, but not the one that whets his competitive instincts.‚“I am in the garage now but testing is not the thing that excites me,‚ť he says with a sense of duty. ‚“This is developing the car, this is the baby at a crawl at the next few months. We are taking on a marathon of the season. But I love race weekends, I love the monitor coming down in my cockpit, seeing my name against their names [his rivals], checking out the times. I do enjoy that a lot.‚“You don‚„t get much of that testing, but you do know you are laying the foundations aggressively for those results later on when the lights are on.‚ťIt might have been tempting to quit, to fi nd solace in another team where he might have been feted as the No. 1. But that is not the Webber way, especially as the Red Bull car is one of only a handful expected to win races.‚“I have been round the block enough to know that when things are going well for you and you are in a good situation to do and achieve good things, then you [should] realise when you are in that situation. I am and I was and I hope I am in the future again with this team. That‚„s my feeling.‚ťHe admits that the nail-biting end of the last season remains a blur. ‚“It was so intense, and in our small bubble in our little world there we were, just trying to deal with it. They dropped the guillotine in Abu Dhabi, but you don‚„t win or lose the championship there.‚ťAsk him if he lost the title, or did well to be as close as he was, and the answer is perhaps surprising.‚“I don‚„t say this to take the pressure off me, or not point the finger at myself that I didn‚„t perform in that particular race when they handed the championship out, but for me to get nine or 10 podiums and four victories ‚ I think, even a little, I surprised myself last year.‚“I was thinking ‚śwe could really do something, this is now getting off the charts what we can do.‚„ I feel that I was lucky last year a lot. Some of the races that went my way and I was put into the championship to fight for the world title . . . it was earnt . . . it was a bit of a surprise. It‚„s amazing how far you can dig when you really need to.‚“I didn‚„t hit the absolute jackpot at the end, but there are some immensely proud moments for me, as an individual in a team sport and as a driver, I will never forget.‚ť

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