x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Mark Webber may lack results in Australia but not patriotic affection

Though he hasn't a bushel of good results in his home grand prix, Mark Webber is not lacking for fan affection in Melbourne.

Mark Webber, left, hopes to improve on his starting position of fifth for Sunday's Australian Grand Prix.
Mark Webber, left, hopes to improve on his starting position of fifth for Sunday's Australian Grand Prix.

 

MELBOURNE // "Who's gonna win? Webber's gonna win! Where's he from? Australia!"

The chant by the young man in the Red Bull shirt was hardly imaginative, but it provided the desired effect.

As he and his two friends walked through the F1 Village at Albert Park singing, others joined in: a girl wrapped in an Australian flag gave a holler, a man wearing an Aussie Rules football shirt called out "Webbo", even a couple of children in McLaren-Mercedes baseball caps got in on the act.

Mark Webber will start Sunday's Australian Grand Prix in fifth place, which happens to be his best finishing position at his home race. He is one place ahead of teammate Sebastian Vettel.

Arguably one of Webber's finest ever drives took place at Albert Park in 2002 when he made his debut in the grid's slowest car, a Minardi. He finished fifth, and Paul Stoddart, his team manager at the time, called it "the most exciting two points in the history of Formula One".

The 35-year-old Webber has not lived permanently in Australia for more than 15 years and his form at home since his debut has been disappointing - in 10 previous attempts he has finished fifth three times, been forced to retire four times and finished outside the points in 2007 and 2009 - yet neither factor appears to have affected the affection shown toward towards him by his compatriots.

Organisers expect more than 100,000 people to pass through the gates for Sunday's race, a target set with home heroes in mind: For the first time in the 27-year history of the race, two Australians will line up on the grid, and Webber and Daniel Ricciardo - who also resides in England - are getting plenty of attention.

"It's great for Australia, great for the sport and great for us fans," said Mitch Watson, the 23-year-old Melbournian in the Red Bull shirt.

"Just because they don't live here any more doesn't make them any less Australian. Most people - at least all the people I speak to - appreciate that if you are going to make it in F1 you have to move to Europe."

Cody Briggs agreed: "You have to support the Aussies," she said wrapped in her country's flag.

"Yeah, so he doesn't live here. Vettel doesn't live in Germany and as Mark showed, he's got just as much chance of winning this year's race as Seb."

Webber won the final race last season in Brazil, but it would take something special to win the first race of the new season today from fifth.

The Australian is remaining pragmatic.

"We need to leave here with some points in the bank and we need to massage more out of this car quite quickly," he said.

"I'm pleased with my lap in Q3, but I'm not happy where we are on the grid. I feel we will find out [Sunday] how we are on Sunday afternoons. Saturday [qualifying] is not our strength right now. We can still get on the podium, but we have some fast cars around us, no question about it."

Webber's qualifying result was put down to the fact his car suffered a problem with its energy boost system in the final stages. If he needs an added boost during today's race, he need only look to the stands.