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Wiser Webber is raring to lock horns again

Sydney Morning Herald

Saturday February 5, 2011

Michael Lynch

He might have patched up his differences with Red Bull teammate Sebastian Vettel, but Mark Webber is hell bent on stealing his formula one crown, writes Michael Lynch in Valencia. MARK WEBBER stands alongside world champion Sebastian Vettel in the Valencia pit lane, pulls the billowing blue cloth off the new RB7 and poses for photographers eager for a shot of the formula one machine that will carry his hopes for the new season.He then stands square-jawed, arms folded in front of the sponsor logos while staring determinedly into the distance. After that it is sitting on a high stool in front of a packed press conference, comfortable alongside Vettel, Red Bull boss Christian Horner and technical director Adrian Newey. 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," 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 a 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."Webber, having made peace with his teammate Vettel, has two aims this season: to win the World Championship and the Australian Grand Prix. That done, the 34-year-old will have ticked all the boxes on a lengthy career list.Winning in Melbourne, he says, would complete the set of individual race victories to treasure. "After the world title every driver is going to say they want to win Monaco. I have done that [last year], but it would be nice to get there and back that up. The next one on any driver's list would be their home grand prix. I have won the team's home race and my other "home" race the British Grand Prix. I have spent most of my life in the UK now although I am proud to be Australian and we are very lucky we have an Australian Grand Prix to compete at. Winning that would be pretty special."Fit and rested after the winter break, the shoulder injury he sustained late last season mended, Webber is fired up for the renewal of hostilities. "What's exciting is the unknown," he says. "You are also a bit nervous about it as a team ... [you think] bloody hell, I hope the car is going to be up to the level it was, because to do what we did last year was amazing. It was off the charts, pretty phenomenal for a team like ours. And to manage two drivers who were in the same team battling for the championship, that only happens every 10 or 15 years. It's tough on the team and its personnel, tough on the drivers involved."Webber is committed to being part of Red Bull, as driven as ever. "Motivation is not an issue," he says in his steely fashion during the 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."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."A clear-the-air post-season talk might have sorted things out with Vettel, but Webber is unyielding in his competitiveness, forthright as ever and generous in praise of his 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. It clearly put pressure on to certain people at times, including the drivers."I have a really good relationship with Christian [Horner, team boss] and Adrian [ Newey, technician], and that's good. I need that. The boys on the floor are absolutely sensational. I had some of the best pit stops ever last year, and they were boys that work on Seb's car. My guys are incredible, so that's what gets you out of bed, that kind of thing. Of course you would be completely lying if you said it was all rosy ... Clearly, it wasn't and ... we all learnt a lot from it."Webber'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!" 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."It was pretty tough last year," Webber recalls. "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, to stop and say, 'Mate, let's just stop and have a chat about this.' It's just not possible, clearly."You have to 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."It 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 - wherever he has driven - 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.Webber says he often thinks about those hard days when he left home 16 years ago as a teenager with dreams, and little money, aiming for the top. He battled through Formula Ford, Formula 3, Formula 3000, sports car racing - when he flipped his Mercedes in a horrific accident at Le Mans - and ultimately into F1 with Australian Paul Stoddart's backing in a Mindardi. Thence it was a series of moves to the right team at the wrong time - Jaguar and Williams - before hitting the mark at Red Bull."I think its important to reflect, " he says amid a roar of engines in Valencia's pit lane. "I had dinner the other night in the UK with a guy I raced Formula 3 against, Jonny Kane, and he was definitely as talented as I was but didn't have the opportunities. It's important for me to do that. It's important to remember where you have come from."Such 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.While many men might describe as a "tragedy" a season when the thing they have worked for, dreamed of and fought for all their lives was taken away at the last moment, Webber knows better than that.There were no cries that had he had more internal support than Vettel, it could have been him, not the young German, going into the new season with the coveted number one plate on his navy blue, yellow and red racing car.Instead there is a humble acceptance that he did the best he could, that in many ways he was lucky to get as close as he did."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 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 earned ... 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."THE RISE OF MARK WEBBER1994Australian formula FordYellow Pages RacingSeason placing: 13th1995Australian formula FordYellow Pages RacingSeason placing: 4th1996European formula FordVan DiemenSeason placing: 3rd1997British formula threeAlan Docking RacingSeason placing: 4th1998FIA GT ChampionshipAMG MercedesSeason placing: 3rd1999Le Mans 24 hourAMG MercedesPlacing: DNF2000Formula 3000European ArrowsWins: 1Season placing: 3rd2001Formula 3000Super Nova RacingWins: 3Season placing:2ndTest driver forBennetton'sformula oneteam2002Formula oneKL Minardi AsiatechSeason placing: 16th2003Formula oneJaguar RacingSeason placing: 10th2004Formula oneJaguar RacingSeason placing: 13th2005Formula oneBMW WilliamsF1Season placing: 10th2006Formula oneBMW WilliamsF1Season placing: 14th2007Formula oneRed Bull RacingSeason placing: 12th2008Formula oneRed Bull RacingSeason placing: 11th2009Formula oneRed Bull RacingWins: 2Season placing: 4th2010Formula oneRed Bull RacingWins: 4Season placing: 3rd

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