“It is very difficult for us drivers to say certain things, because we have sponsorship deals, partners, we’ve got to represent the sport in a certain way.”
That’s the justification Lewis Hamilton gave earlier this year for why Formula One drivers so rarely speak their minds.
Someone must have forgotten to explain this to Mark Webber, for until his retirement from the sport at the end of 2013 he could be relied upon to be the last driver to hold his tongue to spare someone else’s blushes.
“I found it insulting to be told what my response should be to certain questions,” explains Webber in his recently-released autobiography. His no-nonsense style was always going to make this book a must-read: thankfully he hasn’t kept us waiting too long (it hit the shelves in Australia a few months ago) and nor has he disappointed.
Inevitably a major focus for many early reviewers of Aussie Grit was what it revealed about his five-year spell alongside Sebastian Vettel. But what is most striking is how minor a character Vettel is.
Webber does not aim the kind of jabs at his former team mate some might have wished to read. “I was not pissed off with Sebastian Vettel,” he says of his 2010 title defeat, saving his sharpest criticism for the way Vettel conducted himself in the aftermath of the ‘Multi 21’ saga.
Instead Helmut Marko, the Red Bull junior programme director who championed Vettel’s career, is characterised as having seized every opportunity to elevate his driver at Webber’s expense. Team principal Christian Horner is portrayed as a leader in title only, ineffective and indifferent to Marko’s constant undermining of Webber.
This is only one side of the story, and though Webber puts his views across in characteristically trenchant fashion it’s hard to side with him on every count. His insinuations about the reliability of his machinery compared to Vettel’s may reflect a view which is widely held but it is simply not supported by the facts.
However the turmoil within Red Bull was only a secondary factor in Webber’s growing disenchantment with F1. The end of 2010 was clearly a turning point for him as his dismay at losing the championship coincided with the onset of the gimmick era: the Drag Reduction System and designed-to-degrade tyres, the latter being Webber’s real bete noir.
Few drivers are as well-placed as Webber to understand the seriousness of the phrase ‘motor racing can be dangerous’. The most astonishing passage of the book concerns his experience at Le Mans in 1999, where despite Webber flipping twice at high speed during practice Mercedes failed to heed the warnings that there was a fault with their car and continued into the race – only for Peter Dumbreck to suffer a similar accident.
Faced with that kind of experience, how can anyone consider it acceptable to hush drivers when they warn their safety is at risk? Yet that is exactly what happened following two high-speed Pirelli tyre failures at Spa this year.
Being told to shut up is one thing, going along with it is another. Speaking his mind didn’t stop Webber from winning races for Red Bull, being courted for a seat by Ferrari or landing a plum World Endurance Championship drive with Porsche.
Maybe it’s not so “difficult” after all.
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“Aussie Grit: My Formula One Journey”
Author: Mark Webber (ghost written by Stuart Sykes)
Win one of five signed copies of Aussie Grit
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At which circuit did Mark Webber score his first F1 race victory?
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