x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Mark Webber will not settle for second

Two years after breaking his leg, the Australian Red Bull-Renault driver is ready to win a title.

Mark Webber heads into the final grand prix of the season in Abu Dhabi second in the drivers' championship.
Mark Webber heads into the final grand prix of the season in Abu Dhabi second in the drivers' championship.

ABU DHABI // If he is supposed to be nervous, he hides it well.

Mark Webber, the 34-year-old Australian, will compete in the most important weekend of his Formula One career when the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix gets under way at Yas Marina Circuit on Sunday.

Yet, last night, surrounded by around 50 or so well-wishing compatriots, the Red Bull-Renault driver appeared entirely at ease.

Wearing a loose-fitting black shirt and cream Chinos, Webber appeared far removed from a man who could end the season as world champion after Sunday's race.

Ironically, it is almost exactly two years since Webber broke his leg in a cycling accident in Tasmania - a time he admits was one of the most challenging he has ever faced - but all negative memories of his homeland were banished as he laughed and joked with his countrymen at an event organised by the Australian Embassy in Abu Dhabi.

"I don't go to many functions on a grand prix week, but I figured having plenty of Aussies around would make me feel a lot more at home," said Webber, who was born in New South Wales.

"I actually really enjoy coming to this region. There is always a beautiful feeling in this part of the world. I often go on holiday to Muscat in Oman, so this is a part of the world I really enjoy coming to."

With only one race remaining of the F1 season, the drivers' championship is so closely fought it can still be won by four different drivers: Webber, Ferrari's Fernando Alonso, Sebastian Vettel - Webber's teammate at Red Bull-Renault - and McLaren-Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton. The margin for error is miniscule.

"As in all sports at this level," Webber said,"nobody knows who finished eighth at the Olympic 50-metre swimming. But he was probably only a tenth of a second off first and we all know who won. That is how it is now in the championship: it is very, very close."

Webber joked that he might have more to lose than the three other title contenders as the Australian mindset dictates that second-place is simply first-placed loser.

"That's the Aussie spirit," he said with a smile. "When Greg Norman was the world's No 1 golfer and he went down to No 2, we all hated him. It's the same for Lleyton [Hewitt]: he is a phenomenal tennis player, but when he drops down to second, all of a sudden he's lost it.

"People have no idea individually what it takes, the resilience that is required to consistently be there on your own, having a crack year-on-year at the highest level, nowhere near your own back yard."

Webber is in his eighth consecutive season in Formula One and having finished fourth to Jenson Button last year, is keen to go further and become the first Australian world champion since Alan Jones in 1980.

He finished second in Abu Dhabi last year, behind teammate Vettel, and said he can understand why the Yas Marina Circuit attracts so much praise.

"With the corners running under the hotel and the stands, it means it is a lot more compact and better for overtaking, although admittedly we have yet to see that," he said.

"It also allows the fans a better chance to see the cars, as we need to be slow at some of the corners."

Whatever happens this weekend, the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix will inevitably be described as many things. Slow, is not likely going to be one such term.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae