All posts by maddy

Mark Weber

Mark Weber


By Marion Hume 

While Mark Webber is open and chatty and relaxed, I don’t pretend to get what motivates the handsome man sitting barefoot in front of me – who’s a bit Eric Bana from one angle and with flashes of Tom Cruise – to want to get up in the morning and do the equivalent of drive at full pelt into a wall.

Webber, if you don’t know, is Australia’s best hope of a Formula One racing champion since Sir Jack Brabham – which, as Webber himself puts it, “is a long time between drinks”.

While far from a shoo-in on the winner’s podium of the upcoming Fosters Australian F1 Grand Prix in Melbourne, starting March 15, this 32 year old from Queanbeyan, a whatsortof town in NSW, now driving for the Red Bull team, at least has a shot at it – which pretty much no one had before howevermany-time whatever champ Michael Schumacher retired when?.

As to the driving into a wall stuff, an F1 car can accelerate from 0 to 200 km/h in five seconds with a G-force of 5g. While racing drivers are harnessed at groin, waist and shoulders, what the neck can withstand is key and while Webber, who stands a long, lean 6ft 1in, is tall to pretzel into the speeding bullet that is an F1 car, he has, he tells me, got the perfect neck for it.

He even lets me check, pulling his sweatshirt down at that back so that yes, I can see muscles in places where most men don’t even have places. Brilliant! “We probably have the strongest necks in the world, up there with front row forwards,” he adds, although I’m happy to report his isn’t one of those wider-than-your-head rugby necks. No, Webber has a Vogue Men neck, a GQ neck, which is to say, slender but much meatier than a pencil. “We take long sustained loads and need to have an endurance-based strength,” he continues. And there I was, thinking he just got in the car and drove as fast as he could (or something).

Is this daily routine? Let’s have more detail to underline that it’s gruelling and driven AB Instead, this racing driver rises at dawn and swims for how long/how far and runs for how long/how far and lifts weights for how long and then eats a carefully-controlled diet how do you mean – anything he won’t eat that we’d regard as odd? Or follow a particular diet system/theory?  AB because he needs to stay light as a jockey and frankly, by the time he’s talked through his regime, I need a lie down.

Then there’s the things he was born with which, along with the ability not to scream, faint or jam his eyes shut  when the speedometer hits 300 km/h include “great reflexes” – handy when you are gunning for a corner without slowing down. Webber also has phenomenal eyesight (he can read those teeny weeny letters right at the bottom of the chart). “At certain sections, I won’t be able to see much, so the intensity of the spray gives me an idea of the speed I’m going and then my eyes and my brain are working together to bring up a lot more peripheral stuff in terms of guard rails, grass, and then calibrating it along with the sensation that yes, I’ve been on the straight for 6 or 8 seconds so there’s a corner here somewhere and then the breaking process starts.

He says his hearing is exceptional, too.“I wouldn’t want the earplugs to take it all. I want to hear what is going on, the engine, the other competitors….”

In recent years, Webber’s mostly been hearing the car in front of him. While he may be Australia’s greatest hope, he hasn’t won much. He’s a bit like a hot young actor who has chosen some really bad scripts but might still go on to win an Oscar. Since entering Formula 1 in 2002, Webber has been signed to the wrong teams at the wrong times, including F1 giant, Williams for 2005 and 2006, when it experienced its two worst seasons ever how so? This needs filling out as so significant. It wasn’t just losses but a car that just kept breaking down on the track, yes? AB

That can’t be laid at Webber’s door because I’m learning that in this sport, it’s about 20 per cent driver, 80 per cent car. The restriction is no longer about how fast the car can go – these days, engineers could build cars so fast no human being could survive driving them what do you mean by that? I’m fascinated and so’s the photo editor. No driver could survive the g-force or something? Human reflexes not fast enough to control such a machine? AB – rather, the road to victory lies in subtle changes in aerodynamics and physics and all the things sports-crazy Webber wishes he’d paid some attention to in school. Is there a quote from him about this, the inattention at school? AW Please talk to someone who knew him as a child or a teenager. Thanks, AB

Not that even having an engineering degree would help if anything went wrong, because, “If something fails in the car, I am literally a passenger and if it’s you in the car or me, we’ll have the same crash,” Webber tells me, although I doubt that because it’s not like I’d ever get out of the pits.

But what’s clear is that motor racing is the one sport where a tragedy doesn’t spell a pulled hamstring but a funeral; three-time world F1 champion Ayrton Senna was killed during the Grand Prix at Imola in 1994. As for Webber, he was almost killed at Le Mans in 1999 when he was 23 and not once, but twice, over a two day-period. As his crash times combine to an excruciatingly long 14 seconds, during which time Webber was doing backwards loop-the-loops in a vehicle not designed to fly, he had time to think about it. Sorry, is this a description of the first time? It’s reading as though it’s what happened both times. AB

So what do you think about at that moment? Webber takes a breath. “What was going through my mind was that particular part of the track is very narrow with trees on either side and the windscreen on my car is a couple of fag papers’ thick, so there’s nothing to stop the trees coming in and I knew my chances of surviving were very, very low. And I was in the air for a long time, so I thought about a lot of things, my sister Leanne’s kids,  Jemma, Abbey and Ryan, how I didn’t expect it this early, but I was pretty relaxed really. I thought I was going to die and so I was hoping I would do it OK and then I missed the trees and I walked away.”  Jeez. Uz. This is amazing. AB

But far from walking into the warm hug of a tearful team, Webber found himself doubted. There were few witnesses, no video footage and he stood accused by his team? of driving too close to the bloke in front and thus allowing himself to be caught in the turbulence of another driver’s “dirty air” what’s that? and of being inexperienced,  “while I knew to trust the car like my mother yet it had turned round and bit me,” he says.

Just two days’ later, this time in full view of the TV cameras, Webber was again roaring down Le Mans famous Mulsanne straight at 300 km/h and then, after he powered over a hump, instead of streaming through the air for a bit and then landing, “the car took off like a plane again and there’s nothing I can do, I am absolutely in the lap of the gods. The second time I was even more relaxed. I was thinking, ‘Now I am in trouble’ because you can’t do this twice and get away with it.”

This time, Webber’s father, what did he do/does he do for a living? Alan, who has encouraged his only son’s need for speed since the lad was hurtling down the hills of Queanbeyan on a skateboard, was at the track. So was Webber’s manager and partner in life, Englishwoman Ann Neal, who was in the press office, watching the race on close circuit TV, except she had nipped outside just before Webber went airborne.

“Did you think about Ann?” I ask Webber now.


“Your dad?”

“No. I thought about it being well, not a waste, but about having so much more to do. I wasn’t screaming, it was me and the car and we were together…”

Ann Neal walked back inside and glanced at the monitor to see, “a car upside down and him getting out of it and I though they’ve found some footage from [before] and someone said, ‘No, it’s just happened again’.

She admits she, “went to pieces”, but she did so in private. “I don’t think I even spent that night with him. He’d have spent it being treated by the physio and at that stage, we weren’t heavily promoting our relationship and I didn’t want to be seen as his girlfriend….” any reasons why? Not good for his career? Will they say? AW

As for Webber, he found himself under suspicion once more, until a team mate did an identical flip five hours later, hit the trees and escaped broken but breathing, “and then it was much more ‘bang’ and a big emotional reaction,” says Webber, who wepthow does he say this?. “I was thinking ‘What a ridiculous waste.’ All the signs were there and his parents were sharing the motor home next door to us – great people – and yeah…” he says quietly, “well, he was fine.” The car was withdrawn.

As for Ann Neal, a businesswoman what’s her field? in her own right long before she agreed to raise sponsorship money for a penniless rookie Aussie driver some years her junior, it should be noted that she is no airhead WAG in this season’s Chloe. Neal and Webber’s working relationship started how long ago? when, as the mother of a young son, Luke – now 15 –  she was living in Australia where in Aus? and she agreed to create some sponsorship proposals on Webber’s behalf.

Yellow Pages were so impressed, they said yes, on the condition she manage the driver, whose first words to her were, she recalls, “‘So you must be pretty important, huh?’ and I guess neither of us realised how important I was going to be for him….. And then we worked together and well, it started to grow from there.”

While she still tries to keep their personal relationship out of the limelight, telling me, “It’s a very male chauvinistic sport and you need to be fairly tough,” Webber makes zero effort to be circumspect.

“Well, clearly I fancied her,“ he replies when I ask what was the first thing he thought when they met, “ and something just evolved because we were bloody good friends and shared a good laugh and I love chicks, but to find a good one is not easy and what cemented us even further is what we had stacked against us, in terms of getting to Formula 1. And when I came to Europe for the first time, she was very good at weeding out the bullshit and then I was earning £43 a day for the first two years and Annie was doing her bit and bringing up Lukey and she’s just amazingly strong.” Do they live with Luke? And where is the pile? Do they want to have children? AB

Later, Neal will laugh as she drives me back to the railway station and I tell her she’s seriously unWAG. “A dolly bird wouldn’t put up with it long term,” she says, “With a sportsman, there’s only room for one ego.” And the car she drives? The couple have two, a distinctly un-boy racer BMW with a roof rack on top and what Webber has described to me as a “little pocket rocket Renault. I don’t know exactly what it is. I’m not that interested in road cars.” That’s funny, AB

Despite Mark Webber and Ann Neal living in a seriously lovely Queen Anne house, and Webber’s earnings now being in the tens of millions dollars? Do we have an exact figure on what he earned last year from racing (with a breakdown for promotions) AW, you can tell he’s not really bothered. The grand frontage of their house is, in that typically old English way, spliced onto a much older and less grand 17th-century home and it is this bit at the back by the stables that they live in. It’s all comfy chairs designed for slouching not showing off and piles of sneakers by the door and dogs what sort do they keep? and a really ancient cat called?. Webber says he likes it, “although it’s a lot bigger than the house I grew up in. It’s a home for me in Europe, yeah, but I could leave here.”

The home he’d really like to be living in is a typical Aussie bungalow, “classic brick, Hills Hoist in back garden” that his dad and granddad built together and his parents Are they still back in Queenbeyan have since sold. “I’d love to get it back,” Webber admits, “it’s where the best memories are. I grew up in a great place. Queanbeyan’s rural, the sticks, a struggle town and when we played the poshos from Canberra, our aim was to go over the border and smash ’em – whether it was cricket or Aussie Rules,” he recalls with a big lazy grin.

Sport was everything to Webber, who says he only went to school because of it and then came home for more. “From a young age, I liked riding motor bikes and that boy thing about a bit of adrenaline, a bit of speed. I grew up with a lot of bikes around me because my dad owned a motorbike shop, so I started riding when I was about 6 and from age 9, I was competing in a lot of other sports, whether it was cricket, golf, swimming, tennis… I was half a natural but I wasn’t really, really good at any of them. I wasn’t exceptional….” Then at 13, his dad took him to the local speedway track, “and cars on the dirt are fast and I liked that.”

The addiction to speed set in even earlier – Webber reckons he could have been as young as four. “There was a legendary footpath that went down the edge of the street  and I had a little red cart with plastic wheels and looking back, my mum [Diane, a homemaker] and definitely Dad gave me so much trust. I used to come back with some skin hanging off and Mum was pretty good, she’d patch me back up and send me on my way again.”

Despite graduating to speeding down the same hill sitting on a skateboard, unseen by people reversing out of their driveways, Webber’s first big injury came as a teen, when he was mucking around with a friend at school, “and she pretended to kick me and I put my hand out and she hit me in such a way I got a hairline fracture in my wrist, my first broken bone, which, given what I used to do on the weekends, was a pretty ridiculous way to end up with a cast on my arm!” Can you talk to someone who knew him then? Annie’s contributions are terrific but we need more voices than just he and his girl for a cover story. Also, would like to hear from someone professional who can talk about what sets him apart as an athlete, what he brings. AB

What drives Mark Webber now is he wants to win in Melbourne. “I definitely want to hear the national anthem being played,” he says. “Last time in Melbourne, when I lead a few laps, I could see the crowd out of their seats. There are moments out of Turn 1 going into Turn 2 when I can see people on the edge of my vision. I can see intensity and yeah, it was good.”

Webber is happy to sign autographs, which he welcomes as part of the job but he’s not remotely interested in broking his good looks into other off-track stuff if he can help it.

“I’m not that bubbly. I’m rubbish with celebrities. I have no idea who any of them are,” he says and then admits he much rather be at home with the sports channel. As to the trappings that can come with being a famous sportsman, “I don’t give a rat’s, to be honest. I’m comfortable. Money does not make you happy and the most important things to me are a solid relationship, happiness, health and yeah, getting off your arse because there are people who can’t and would love to. (Quietly, Mark Webber is a serious charitable fund raiser any idea of what sort of charities he favours? Pet causes?, although he’s not keen to talk about it, believing good deeds should be unsung).

As for the sports channel, what about the movie channels? Aren’t the pretend car chases even more fun? “They’re a lot of bullshit,” laughs Webber, “although [they] could be a bit of business for me after I stop driving. But I’m shocking with movies, aren’t I honey?” he calls out to his partner.