WEBBER; OUT

AUSTRALIA’S MOST SUCCESSFUL RACING DRIVER OF THE MODERN ERA HAS DECIDED TO HANG UP HIS HELMET. WE WERE THERE IN BAHRAIN AS THE CHEQUERED FLAG CAME DOWN ON MARK WEBBER’S 23-YEAR CAREER

WORDS ANDY ENRIGHT

ERY bastard!” yells the Bahraini flag marshal in his broken English, grinning as he hears me mention Mark Webber’s name, holding up his fists in approval at the Aussie’s famous fighting spirit. A Porsche 919 shrieks into view, its hybrid system whining like a dentist’s drill as it harvests energy into Turn 4 of the Sakhir circuit, before catapulting from the apex as if attached to some colossal cosmic bungee. Another marshal pulls a jacket out of his bag, orients it in the desert dust in the vague direction of Mecca and starts praying, oblivious to the fact that an Aston Martin has just appeared on three wheels.

We’re a long way from Queanbeyan.

Webber’s last race was always going to be emotional and, in a quiet moment prior to the race, he was contemplative of the risks involved. “I just want to get out there, have a smooth race and get through it. I will totally look back and say I am in good order and I don’t trivialise that at all; not everyone has had that fortune.”

Self-preservation is clearly weighing on his mind. “Look, when you’re 25 or 30 that’s not even on the radar; it isn’t until your late 30s or early 40s – well it was for me anyway,” he says.

Racing in LMP1 has always had the unpredictable element of slower cars and less-experienced drivers, but recent events have only served to highlight the risks involved. “We’ve always had the gentlemen drivers in this type of racing with the multiple categories running together, and that will long continue. But the speed differences we have had...” he shakes his head and raises his eyebrows.

“The Brazil crash I had, which was not small... Then there was Brendon Hartley’s crash at Silverstone, Allan McNish’s crash, Rockenfeller’s crash – they have all been tangled up with a very slow car.

It’s a numbers game, but that’s part of it.

I would love to have 30 LMP1s out there, but we can’t.

“Then there’s Le Mans, which is not the safest race. It does have its risks and I’m just not prepared [to face them again].

The testing, the development, the Le Mans race, traffic and so many other things out of my control. There’s a lot of effort that goes in and you’re still not sure what the relative result will be through no fault of your own. And that’s all fine; there is absolutely no negative connotation in that whatsoever.”

Adapting to the complexity of WEC cars was an eye-opener for Webber, whose

F1 career saw a snowballing pace of technological change.

“Michael Schumacher, David Coulthard and Rubens Barrichello – the guys just before me – weren’t big fans of simulators, but I had to gravitate towards those as best I could. But I was leaving a Formula 1 car that was pretty simple in 2013. Then you turn up here in ’14 with the most technical car Porsche has ever built, one of the most advanced racing cars that’s ever been built; four-wheel drive, huge hybrid torque, incredible turbo capacity, and around 1000 horsepower. There was real freedom, especially in the embryonic years of the 919. It was awesome to play a part in that development cycle.

“It would have been easy to finish [my career] in 2013, but it really only took a phone call from Porsche for me to extend my active years. It was too attractive to turn down. I was attracted to the category because of the Michelin tyres, because we could push flat-out throughout the stint, and because I wanted to see how a big manufacturer like Porsche went racing.”

Leaving a Mark on Dan

Wheels caught up with Daniel Ricciardo on the grid at Bahrain, and he was keen to pay tribute to Webber’s contribution to his F1 career.

“I was aware of previous Australians who had done well and were champions, but Mark was the guy that I could see when I was growing up,” he says of the man he replaced at Red Bull Racing.

“It wasn’t reading about him in a book, I was watching him at races, so that made it a bit more realistic that I could follow his path and achieve the things he’d done.

“Then he was somewhat of a mentor, trying to help me out in little situations along the way. It’s the little things that go a long way. It was good to get the occasional phone call or to see him at the track and spend five or ten minutes with him.

These things add up. It was a good little boost for me, especially when I was starting out and intimidated by the whole world of Formula One.”

Colleague Alex Wurz helped sell Webber on sports cars, claiming WEC was only five percent politics and 95 percent racing.

After his experiences with backroom machinations at Red Bull, that sounded appealing, yet operating the 919 required some recalibration.

“Obviously there’s more engineering around the car and less driver interface.

When you start out, the driver is the data point to say which direction we need to go, but now the engineers are very heavily involved in what the car needs. The driving side is very slowly being diluted, so it’s a bit less labour-intensive.

“There are parts of it I’ll miss. How are you going to replace all this stuff? You can’t.

That’s fine. Get over it. You can’t be 22 in your head forever. You have to wean yourself off the drug that is competition. I love the fights. I love what the operation has done to Toyota this year. It’s brilliant. There’s still stuff that we know; that in this race, if things happen, we’re better than them and they can’t do it. They can, but they just haven’t thought about it. That’s a buzz,” he grins.

The most telling response comes from the simplest question, namely how he regarded his career.

“I look back at the career with...” and there it is. Like a poker player’s tell, that pause, that minuscule furrowing of the brow, tells everything. A driver many feel overachieved with nine Grand Prix wins is still unfulfilled at not clinching the world title in 2010 or standing on the top step of the Le Mans podium. A picture in his autobiography of him with Hamilton, Alonso, Button and Vettel is captioned “a pretty handy bunch but I’m the only nonworld champion”, the club within a club that he’s not privy to.

He picks up and gets back on track.

“Of course I’m proud. When you leave Queanbeyan in Australia, it’s a long, long way away from having the opportunity to race against the best guys in the world, work with the best engineers in the world, and work with the best sports car manufacturer in the world.”

Webber’s book is a good page-turner. My copy of Aussie Grit has been downloaded in Arabic and I’ve had it translated into English, which keeps you on your toes.

One section on Robert Kubica has Webber claiming “he was a chewy penis”, which should be “tough prick”. The Pole is just one of a host of ex-F1 pedallers looking to try their hand in sports cars. Alongside Webber on the grid in Bahrain are no fewer than nine F1 exiles: Senna, Davidson, Buemi, Nakajima, Kobayashi, Sarrazin, di Grassi, van der Garde and Petrov.

The rumour mill is further cranked up when Alonso, who has on several recent occasions expressed his disappointment with F1, leaves a video message for Webber saying, “You didn’t wait for me there; it would have been nice, but I think you will be around so I will ask you many things when I join your adventure.”

Like Alonso, Webber is renowned as a driver who fought hard but fair. He once confronted Michael Schumacher after the seven-time world champion had parked his Ferrari at Monaco in 2006 to draw a fullcourse yellow to gain pole. Schumacher balefully replied, “Mark, sometimes you go

down a road and you can’t turn back.” It’s an admission that could have come from disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong, a man Webber was once close to.

“Lance is a freak, a phenomenal athlete, but he went over the edge,” says Webber, his disappointment clear to see. “It was a realisation of how far he went to pull other people into the crevasse. His bailingout point was so late considering the destruction of other people’s lives. We did a lot of rides together and I’m fine with him lying to me. He lied to a lot of people.

But it was the greed and the hunger and the ego involved that led to the drugs. That was the disappointing bit. Since then, we haven’t spoken. I’ve ridden past him once [going the other way].”

I ask him if he was ever unnerved at sitting on the grid with people who had that win-at-all-cost mentality. “When there’s that much at stake, you learn that people are prepared to go to severe extremes, which was clearly the case with Michael at Rascasse. Ayrton Senna – first corner of Suzuka, going wide open with the throttle, no real runoff – that’s powerful.

It’s the borderline of not accepting the consequences. It’s short-sightedness, really.

“You have to push the limits to be successful at the highest level, but there has to be an ethical, moral scenario where you have decisions to make. I’ve had those, but the way my grandfather and my dad brought me up was to be able to look at the trophies on the mantelpiece and know they’re there for the right reasons. You know in your own heart why it got there and if the substance – the manner – is the right way, it’s pretty much the only way you know.

If you take shortcuts, like race a mountain bike and do 5km less than everybody else, how are you going to execute that in your own mind? But people can,” he says, shrugging and shaking his head.

Webber checks his watch, lets me know he’s got 70 seconds until team-mate Timo Bernhard goes for a qualifying flyer, then sprints to the pit garage to watch the data stream. Away from the PR minders and Bahraini Z-listers, the inner sanctum of Porsche’s racing effort fizzes with energy.

World champion status affords the number one box at the head of the pitlane and I try to mill around unobtrusively while huge Germans sprint through with hot/ sharp/flammable things. Webber’s helmet and gloves sit on a rack on the way in, and there seems something poignant about the fact that they’ll be hung up for the last time in a few hours. It seems a small human touch in such a forensically efficient operation.

Bernhard manages second on the grid, pipped to pole by one of the Audis. It’s a goodbye from them as well, the Ingolstadt firm pulling the plug on WEC after this race, leaving Toyota and Porsche to duke it out in 2017. The Japanese are the only ones who can rain on Porsche’s title parade this weekend. But with the constructors’ title already in the bag and the #2 Porsche needing only a top-six finish for Marc Lieb, Neel Jani and Romain Dumas to claim the drivers’ title, it’s odds-on both titles will be going to Weissach.

This is a track Webber knows inside out, having completed thousands of testing laps here. He held the F1 qualifying record here for more than a decade before Lewis Hamilton beat it this year, so this ought to be a walk in the park as long as the car holds together.

Last year Webber claimed the title here, but it was anything but straightforward.

“Mentally, it was one of the hardest races I’ve done. Operationally, the car was extremely fragile. All the throttle actuators were pretty much broken and the engine was being held together by cable ties. The engineers and mechanics did an incredible job. They burnt their hands and what they did to get that car into the race was truly unique. Even the FIA said they’d never seen anything like it in any category, how we managed to keep that engine alive.

The most stressful part was the last pit stop because we needed to get fuel in the last seven minutes of the race and had to bump-start the car, which was a new trick we learned on the fly.”

On race day here in Bahrain, the two Audis soon take the lead and gradually extend the gap. It’s clearly a win-or-bust strategy, going out with a bang, everything dialled up to 11. Sitting out in the desert as the last rays of sun backlight the sails of the main stand and the sodium lights

“YOU CAN’T BE 22 IN YOUR HEAD FOREVER. YOU HAVE TO WEAN YOURSELF OFF THE DRUG THAT IS COMPETITION”

Webber’s Porsches

Webber’s affinity with the Porsche brand didn’t materialise with his works drive. He first drove a 911 as a teenager when he borrowed one from a friend and admits he was hooked. Since then, his garage has grown to include: 918 Spyder 911 R 991 GT3 RS 997 GT2 RS 997 GT3 RS 4.0 1954 356 Cabriolet 1974 2.7 Carrera

“THE LAST 20 YEARS HAVE PASSED SO QUICKLY, BUT YOU CAN’T GO ON FOREVER”

flicker on as the Audis whirr by almost noiselessly, their diesel engines something that VW Group suddenly don’t seem interested in spruiking.

Webber’s Porsche plays a better tune, that high-pitched re-gen and torque-fill at low speed giving way to a comparatively sweet note from the little V4. The Nissanengined LMP2 cars are louder and harsher, banging on the over-run, while the GTE cars range from the clattering cacophony of the Ford GTs and Corvettes through to the top-end wail of the Ferrari 488s. It’s an inescapable and discordant maelstrom of noise, and I’ve got another five hours of it.

Porsche’s plan is to crank up the pace as soon as the sun goes down, the 919 not handling the heat quite as well as its rivals, but the wind picks up as darkness falls.

Despite the track owners spraying every square metre of surrounding desert with a liquid adhesive to keep sand off the track, you see dancing vortices of dust jink across the circuit, shifting like a sidewinder and then vanishing again. No wonder Bahrain is harder on tyres than any other circuit, the abrasive sand playing havoc with Michelin’s careful calculations.

A loss of grip contributes to the champions-in-waiting almost blowing their chance. Contact with a Porsche 911 leads to a left-rear puncture for Jani, taking the #2 Porsche out of contention for the win as it limps back to the pits for a change of rear bodywork. But, while Webber engages in a spirited tussle with Buemi and takes the chequered flag third behind the two Audis, Jani, Dumas and Lieb claim the drivers’ world title.

The Porsche pit box erupts, but the winning Audi team look as if they’ve just euthanised the family dog. Pole position, fastest lap and a one-two, yet the mechanics hug each other in tears. Even the post-race press conference is like a wake. The new champions seem uncertain how to conduct themselves amid the sea of maudlin faces.

Kiwi Brendon Hartley pays tribute to his Aussie mate. “Like everyone else, I’m quite emotional right now,” he says. “He’s become my best mate and a true team player who we’re going to miss. It was hard when he told me he was going to leave and retire. In a way I had a feeling, but I guess it’s like a girlfriend dumping you. I was trying to avoid the question. I think he actually tried to tell me many times.

We had a few phone conversations where I think he was trying to tell me. We’ll continue the spirit and keep plenty of the ‘Aussie grit’ and ‘Webber language’ going.”

Webber is philosophical about hanging up his helmet. “You can’t go on forever.

I want to do a little bit more outside of motorsport. The last 20 years have passed so quickly. My old buddy David Coulthard says, ‘Holy shit, man, we’re going to be 65 soon; it’ll be gone in a flash’.”

Nevertheless, there are compensations.

“I don’t have to look at data anymore, I don’t have to be told what to do with brake balance or brake temperatures and all that, so I’m just going to ride my mountain bike,” Webber chuckles.

“And that’s all she wrote,” he signs off at his final press conference as a driver. “Off to the bar.”

But not before a major knees-up in the Porsche pits. I’m the only journo here, a Martini-striped impostor in a party where massive effort has resulted in huge reward. There’s a lengthy tribute to Webber in German from company chairman Wolfgang Porsche himself. I had some of it translated. That Bahraini flag marshal had it right all along.