x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Mark Webber's words, for he speaks his mind

Red Bull's Australian driver has seldom shied away from giving his opinion - a rare quality in a politically correct sport.

Having been among the top three drivers for as many seasons in a row, Mark Webber, Red Bull’s Australian driver, is at a happy place in his career, and still has time for a maiden world championship.
Having been among the top three drivers for as many seasons in a row, Mark Webber, Red Bull’s Australian driver, is at a happy place in his career, and still has time for a maiden world championship.

In a world where sponsorships and financial support are intrinsically linked with popularity and public perception, Formula One drivers are as careful when discussing controversial issues as they are at negotiating tricky corners.

One man, however, stands apart.

When questions arose surrounding the unrest in Bahrain and the future of its grand prix, Mark Webber was the solitary voice offering heartfelt answers.

The Australian spoke his mind while others spoke from scripts. He displayed common sense, while others rolled out bland, inoffensive utterances. And as some drivers lost respect because of their lack of opinion, Webber emerged with his reputation much enhanced.

"Sometimes it's only right that someone in my position should have a little bit of grit and horsepower, and take a little bit of a stance," Webber said.

"I mean, I love going to Bahrain, I love going to that part of the world, I've been to Oman on holiday, I've been to loads of places out there and I will go again in the future.

"But, there was a time and a place where they had bigger priorities in their own back yard, and that was my opinion."

Webber said it is important for a sportsman to have a "fair, hard and correct image", which is why he also broadcast his views on the social media site Twitter - free of third-party spin doctoring. The response he got from Bahrainis was "phenomenal", he said.

"That's obviously not why I said what I said; I wasn't looking for that, but I had people in Bahrain - a great swell of people - thanking me."

The 35 year old's frankness stands out from the run-of-the-mill responses most drivers trundle out when quizzed on a thorny issue. Webber understands his position and power and tries to remain impartial, but he is in no doubt the decision to postpone this year's race in Bahrain was the correct call.

Had it gone ahead, he said, there was a risk the troubles in the Gulf state could have descended into large-scale rioting worse than London experienced this summer.

"I am as big a sports fan as you will come across and sport can be used in so many positive ways - from school through to the professional side," the Red Bull Racing driver said.

"But there's obviously times when, as we saw with the riots in London, they had to call some [football] matches off because they weren't quite sure what was going to happen. That is just a much smaller version of what might have happened in Bahrain."

Webber, who lives in Buckinghamshire, about 50 kilometres north-west of Tottenham where the rioting started, was unaffected by the chaos, but he followed it closely from afar, describing it as disastrous for the English capital, which hosts the Olympics next summer.

The root of the country's problem, he said, was a lack of discipline and respect.

"Over time, these things change," Webber said. "For example, is it right at school to be able to discipline someone? When I was growing up maybe it was, but now it's different.

"The teenage years are a very tricky period of any young person's life, so this stuff comes and we are all incredibly easily led. Things obviously got completely out of hand, there is a huge amount of regret and what they did was an absolute disaster."

When it comes to respect, Webber has earned plenty, not solely for his outspoken attitude, but also for his recent performances for Red Bull, with whom he finished third in the world championship in 2009 before going one better and finishing second last year.

Such results are far removed from his early years in the sport when he slugged it out at the back of the field.

This year - his 10th in F1 - he is second, but trails Sebastian Vettel, the world champion and his teammate at Red Bull, by a massive 92 points with just seven races of the season remaining, starting with the Italian Grand Prix at Monza on Sunday.

Webber agreed a one-year contract extension last week in Belgium, but insists that were he to walk away from the sport tomorrow without a world title, he would not view his career as a failure. "If you've had 10 or 11 years in the sport, you've done something right," he said.

"Yes it would be great to have a world championship but I have many special victories against tough competition. Unfortunately, when I got myself in a good car, I had Sebastian as a teammate.

"Jenson [Button, who won the title in 2009] didn't have that at Brawn; he had Rubens [Barrichello], so there are a lot of one-championship drivers that have had a phenomenal car, but no real competition."

Webber's relationship with Vettel has been fractious at times, with the two drivers being forced to hold an extensive meeting in Abu Dhabi last year following the UAE capital's season-ending race.

Vettel became the sport's youngest world champion at Yas Marina Circuit last November, but Webber shows no jealousy, acknowledging the sport has changed dramatically since he started with Minardi in 2002.

"In the mid 1980s, when you were 19 or 20, you had to be a bit more experienced," he said.

"We saw with guys like [Ayrton] Senna, [Nigel] Mansell, [Mika] Hakkinen: they would do three or four years in Formula One before they got their chance. That was normal back then. Even in my time, Jenson and myself - Jenson was in F1 early - but to get to the top seat took time.

"Then you see Lewis [Hamilton] and Sebastian: bang. So this is where the sport has changed. We have more simulators, the cars are more safe, there is less power, there are perhaps more things for the younger guys to get a feel of. That's the way it's gone and so the records will be in trouble because the young guys are arriving earlier."

However, Webber also advised young drivers to exercise caution. Using Jennifer Capriati, the former tennis player who broke into the women's top 10 at the age of 14, as an example, he warned "when you start very early, there is a risk of burn-out".

At 35, he has lasted the test of time. With at least one more season in the sport, he still has time to fight for a maiden world championship. After that, he may look to explore opportunities as a team principal. For the past two years, he has held the role at MW Arden, a GP3 team he co-owns with Christian Horner, the Red Bull team principal.

"You know, all of my life, since I was about 13, I have been involved in this type of world," Webber said. "Obviously, I don't love all of it - the glitz and the glamour and all that stuff - but it's a subject I understand. I've enjoyed the last two years and will do it again in the future, but at the moment I'm a driver here."

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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