Nigel Roebuck

In the slipstream of his final Grand Prix season, Mark Webber sat down to discuss Formula 1 politics, Sebastian Vettel, Porsche, the idiocy of DRS and much else besides...

A catch-up with Mark Webber over lunch in a Buckinghamshire pub, near the delightful house in which he and his partner Ann have lived these many years. It was perhaps no more than inevitable that we should begin by talking about Michael Schumacher, and the dreadful skiing accident that befell him on December 29.

“It’s awful,” Webber said, “but if you think of the motorbike guys, the rally guys, the F1 guys and the cumulative hours of what we all get up to away from the track… These things are going to happen, aren’t they? After all, skiing accidents, cycling accidents, whatever, are happening every day of the week. I’m sure Michael has had worse shunts and dusted himself down afterwards – but this one was just a bad combination of rocks, the way he fell and so on.

“The other day I was talking to James Cracknell, who got hit by a truck in America and suffered a very heavy neurological injury – in a coma for days, and then in intensive care for a long time. He didn’t have the same injuries as Michael, but they did tell his wife, ‘We’re in the brain’s hands now…’

“Throughout sport the rules are changing because we now know that repeat concussions are absolutely not good – these days boxing referees are much more trigger-happy when it comes to stopping a fight because there’s so much more understanding of what the consequences can be. That’s why Dario [Franchitti] had to stop. As Sid [Watkins] used to say, ‘The brain’s a whole other thing…’”

Webber has never had an accident involving life-threatening injuries, but in November 2008 he was seriously hurt while riding a mountain bike, ironically, in his own Mark Webber Pure Tasmania Challenge. Hit by a car, he briefly feared that he might lose his badly broken right leg.

“You can push the boundaries, but I believe that when your time’s up, that’s it. That accident was an eye-opener for me, I must say – it was peanuts compared with what we’ve been talking about, but there was still trauma and shock. Believe me, mate, at a time like that motor racing is not in your mind! All you’re thinking about are the things you might not be able to do. One minute I was having one of the best days of my life and the next I was lying there on the road. Fortunately the injuries proved to be fixable, but talk about, ‘I didn’t see that coming…’”

In the summer of 2009 I was a guest in Webber’s box at the British Speedway Grand Prix in Cardiff, and during an interval he rolled up his jeans to reveal part of the injury to his right leg. This was seven months on from the accident, but still the sight of it made me wince.

“Yeah, it wasn’t pretty at that stage. I had some extra padding – which wasn’t exactly fireproof – around my leg under my race suit, to help with the vibration. I needed that early on, but I was fine in the car…” And so he was: the following weekend, at the Nürburgring, he scored his first Grand Prix victory.

Now, a little more than five years on, Webber has called time on his Formula 1 career and moved back to sports car racing, in which he last competed 15 years ago, with Mercedes.

“Up to the 1999 Le Mans weekend I loved driving sports cars,” Webber said. “I loved sharing the car with people, the camaraderie, driving at night… They had a lot of power and that helped me later, because the first time I got in an F1 car it wasn’t as overwhelming as it would have been coming straight from, say, an F3 car.

“For me it was a launching pad to F1, so to work with companies like Mercedes and Bridgestone was great: I was getting good mileage – and I had Bernd Schneider as a team-mate. He was one of the best guys I ever worked with, one of the great lost F1 drivers, in my opinion.

“Bernd taught me how to use kerbs properly – up to that point I’d kept away from them, probably because of my dad telling me in the kart days, ‘You look messy, going over the kerbs – it’s not tidy…’ Schneider put me straight on all that – and he also helped me get into telemetry, saying, ‘Look, this is another string to your bow – you need to get into it…’ I owe the guy an awful lot.”

Le Mans, though, changed Webber’s perceptions about sports car racing, for while he thought the circuit “sensational”, two huge accidents within 48 hours had a very sobering effect. I was in Montréal that weekend, and remember the gasps in the press room when the TV screens were suddenly full of this silver car flipping through the air.

“The thing just took off, as happened quite a lot with the sports cars of that era. Funnily, it was slow motion for me. It all went quiet and my mind went through a kind of library: the three women in my life – Annie, mum, my sister Leanne – came into it, and I was thinking things like, ‘The branches won’t be good if I hit them…’ I wasn’t panicking, even though maybe it was going to be a matter of a Thursday night, a young lad in a car and that’s it…”

As it was, Mark was quite unhurt and the car was rebuilt. Extraordinarily, though, in the race morning warm-up exactly the same thing happened again.

“It was a different mentality the second time. I thought, ‘I’m not going to be as lucky this time – I just don’t want any pain…’ In the first shunt the car righted itself, but in the second one it didn’t – I was upside down, so fluid came in and your biggest fear is always that it’s going to catch fire.

“After something like that, it takes a while to recalibrate. Part of the problem is that you’ve so much trust in the car, and the people preparing it, that when you get bitten twice your trust factor reduces – and the only thing that heals it is time. Believe me, I wasn’t great driving on the road for about six months.”

Following Webber’s first accident, Mercedes personnel urgently contacted Adrian Newey (then with McLaren-Mercedes) in Canada. In the race itself Peter Dumbreck’s Mercedes took off even more dramatically, somersaulting off the circuit, miraculously into an area where there were no spectators.

“Both times,” Mark said, “my car stayed on the road, which was good, but Peter flipped on a kink, so when he came down the track wasn’t there any more. I think that weekend showed what can happen when people are under massive pressure, and reacting to uncharted waters. There were suggestions that we’d had similar problems in testing, but we hadn’t – the first time it happened was at Le Mans, so there wasn’t much time to react.

“To this day I’ve never asked Adrian what… percentage of his advice they adhered to, but the end result wasn’t pretty. Mercedes dodged a bullet that weekend.”

*******

At the time Webber suggested that if he never got back in a sports car it would be too soon, but perspectives change.

“I did say that, yes, but I was raw back then.

“Now I’m 37, I’ve had a good career in F1 and it’s different: I want to go back to Le Mans, and to these other circuits as well. I cannot just stop racing, and I don’t want to do DTM or anything like that.”

The connection with Porsche began at the opening of the new Red Bull Ring in 2012, when Webber met Wolfgang Hatz (the company’s board member for R&D), who made him an offer to join the team the following year, preparatory to Porsche’s return to racing. Mark told him he wasn’t yet ready to leave F1, but would be happy to come aboard in 2014. “In December ’12 we shook hands on it in a car park near the airport in Stuttgart – it was real old-school stuff, and that was another engaging factor in the deal.

“So there it was: I knew 2013 was going to be my last year in F1 and now I can’t wait to get started on something new. I’ve always loved the Porsche brand, and I see a great future with them.”

In December Webber had his first experience of the car he will race this season and was pleasantly surprised. “I went in there thinking 300 kilos heavier, Le Mans downforce, less responsive than an F1 car in terms of power and braking… is it all going to be a bit disappointing? Within five laps at Portimão, though, I knew how much I was going to enjoy this car.”

If Webber knew, even before it began, that 2013 would be his last season as a GP driver, it remained only a rumour to anyone outside his immediate circle. By the middle of the year, though, Porsche was keen to announce his signing. Shortly before the British GP, Webber flew to Austria to inform Dietrich Mateschitz of his decision.

“Down the years Dietrich has been my biggest supporter in the whole Red Bull set-up, without any doubt, and I wanted to tell him, face to face, about my plans with Porsche. He understood completely and, although I’ve left Red Bull as a driver, I’m still a Red Bull-contracted athlete.”

When at Silverstone Webber made public his forthcoming retirement from F1, it came as a complete surprise to the Red Bull team’s hierarchy, and it’s fair to say they were less than amused. At the time I thought it odd Mateschitz had not informed them immediately that he knew of Mark’s plans.

“Yeah, me too! Porsche was ready to go and I thought, ‘Let’s get it out there’, so announced it at Silverstone. It was a nice PR lesson: maximum exposure for Porsche, and me, and also my relationship with Dietrich. More than anything else, I suppose the way I did it pissed off Helmut [Marko]…”

*******

Even before reaching agreement with Porsche, Webber had concluded that 2013 was going to be his final year in F1, and for several reasons, not the least of which was that it would be the last under the V8 rules.

“It was another year of stable regulations, Adrian was still there and radical rule changes were coming. As well as that, my motivation wasn’t what it had been, partly because of the travel, and also because I don’t like the way F1 is going, quite honestly, with things like DRS, high-degradation tyres, nondescript circuits – and now, God help us, double points at the last race.”

Only one scenario, Mark said, could have kept him in F1 a little longer – indeed, would have kept him from reaching the deal sought by Porsche. As he left Monaco in 2012, having won the Grand Prix for the second time, he believed he was on course to become a Ferrari driver.

“Things were moving pretty quickly at that point. Clearly Ferrari wanted me to go there with a lot of IP [intellectual property] from Red Bull, and obviously Fernando [Alonso] and I were keen to be team-mates.

“Had we done the deal when the time felt right, I’d have committed to F1 for two more years – until the end of 2014 – because I didn’t want to go somewhere new just for one year. I was ready to sign, but then the Ferrari guys seemed to drag their heels a bit and in Montréal I thought, ‘I don’t have a good feeling about this…’ By Silverstone I’d concluded, ‘Another year with Red Bull and that’ll be it’.

“Fernando did all he could to change my mind – I’ve still got the text messages, actually – but it was too late. By the time Ferrari started pushing really hard, the moment had passed.”

Luca di Montezemolo requested a meeting the day after the British Grand Prix (where Webber also won, narrowly beating Alonso), but it was indeed too late. “I pretty much knew that I had Red Bull there for ’13 if I wanted: as you know, Helmut had been very kind in giving me one-year contracts for a long time – even after fighting for the title in 2010, which was impressive…

“Tell you what, mate, absolutely no other team would have come under consideration. I’d always intended to finish my F1 career as a Red Bull driver, but Ferrari was tempting, yes – because it was Ferrari, and also because I’d have enjoyed being team-mates with Fernando.”

Their friendship began when they raced each other in F3000 and later, both being managed by Flavio Briatore, when they would bump into each at Enstone, the HQ of Renault (né Benetton).

“Fernando and I both come from rural backgrounds, and the age gap between us is not that much. Same with Jenson, with whom I also have a very good relationship. Week in, week out, I was fighting with him and Fernando – who of course has also been something of a rival for my team-mate, so that’s been an interesting topic, let’s say!”

Friends they may be, but ask anyone to come up with the most heart-stopping overtaking manoeuvre of recent times and chances are they will cite Webber’s pass of Alonso at Eau Rouge during the 2011 Belgian Grand Prix. The Ferrari driver had just exited the pits, and was accelerating down the hill, with Mark closing. Did he know beyond doubt that it was Alonso ahead of him?

“Yeah, I knew it was Fernando – I wouldn’t have chanced it with just anyone. Obviously, if we’d touched at the bottom of Eau Rouge, we’d still be pulling wishbones out of the wall now – I think we both knew that, which was why the result was good in the end.

“Of course it was all for nothing, because on the next lap Fernando steamed past me up the hill to Les Combes – bloody DRS! That’s why now we don’t do that kind of move as often as we did. Look at Interlagos: to pass into Turn One used to be a really nice signature move – but now why would you do that, when you’ve got DRS on the next straight?”

Ultra-fast corners have always been a Webber speciality. “I get more scared when I can’t see – which is why wet conditions are something I don’t particularly enjoy. Really quick corners are fine, though – I’m not thinking about hitting the wall at the exit, or anything like that, although obviously I’m putting a huge amount of trust in the car, both in terms of staying together and also looking after me if I get it wrong.

“Seb’s engineer ‘Rocky’ (Guillaume Roquelin) always said I should go to the States, because I’d be ideal for the ovals. That brought us nicely on – in front of Seb – to why no German has ever won the Indy 500: because they’re not great in fast corners! Obviously that was just to wind him up, but Rocky had a little laugh. Mind you, Michael wasn’t like that – Michael was epic in fast corners…”

*******

Stirling Moss once described Le Mans as “a pretty good dead loss of a motor race” because in his time it was a huge challenge to keep a car together for 24 hours, and circulating endlessly at a prescribed ‘safe’ speed was not his idea of racing.

It isn’t like that any more, of course. The great irony of motor racing in this era is that nowadays any World Championship sports car race is a flat-out thrash, whereas, thanks to the introduction of showbiz tyres, a Grand Prix – once considered a sprint from start to finish – is now anything but.

This is one aspect of his career change that Webber especially relishes. “When I drove the Porsche the other day,” he said, “I was coming around every lap within a tenth, and I thought, ‘How good is this?’

“F1… well, it’s just different now, isn’t it? Don’t get me wrong, the good guys will still do well, but there are so many frustrations now. Look at someone like Lewis Hamilton – on Sunday afternoons he can’t do what he used to do, because now you just cannot push to the limit for two hours.

“I won twice at Monaco, and I’m proud of that – but the difference between those two races was extreme. In 2010, when we were all on Bridgestones, I led from the start and was in… I wouldn’t presume to call it ‘Senna mode’, but it was that sort of subconscious state when you’re on the limit, and everything’s perfect. It was hugely satisfying, but in 2012 we were all on Pirellis – again I led all the way, but I started looking after the tyres at Casino Square on lap one...

“I don’t want to sound like I’m whingeing, but these days you get people saying, ‘Wow, that pass was amazing!’ – and it was using bloody DRS! And you say, ‘What are you talking about, mate? The guy being passed didn’t even close the door – there’s no point when the fellow behind is suddenly 18kph quicker than you…’

“As for the tyres... I know Pirelli was told to build high-degradation tyres because someone thought it would be good for the show, but now we’ve got this scenario where race engineers are constantly on the radio, almost telling the drivers how to drive and giving instructions like, ‘You’re not racing X, you’re racing Y…’

“I find that truly bizarre. OK, I’m happy to have a bit of degradation in the tyre, but when you get hurt exponentially by trying to race someone... When I think of the number of times my boys came on to me and said, ‘OK, Mark, leave a two-second gap’.

“I used to love it when you needed to deal with the pressure: 30 laps to go and you’ve got Fernando or someone right behind you, and you’ve got to find something – except now you can’t, because if you do your tyres are f***** in five laps.”

A particularly striking example of tyre conservation was to be seen in the first part of last year’s Monaco Grand Prix, when Nico Rosberg, leading and under no threat, was lapping at GP2 speeds. “Yes,” Webber nodded, “I know. Valentino Rossi was there, watching, and afterwards he told me he had felt embarrassed for us.

“A lot of the modern tracks have ‘copy and paste’ kerbs, so they’re the same in Abu Dhabi as they are in India, or wherever. As with golf courses you need to have bespoke things that are different at every circuit. I mean, they’ve even softened Spa off, so it’s not what it was, and Suzuka is now the best circuit in the world – Jesus, you still earn your money around there. It’s quick, it’s narrow, it’s got grass on the edge of the track – and if you make a mistake, generally you don’t get away with it.

“That’s how it used to be, as you know. Of course we don’t want accidents with people getting hurt – but we want the guys who can’t operate on that knife-edge, lap after lap, to be found out.

“While we’re on about how much F1 has changed, another thing is this constant investigation by the stewards. Modern F1 is hard enough to follow as it is, in terms of understanding what’s going on, and now you’ve got all this, ‘Oh, you’ve changed your APU unit, that’s a five-place penalty, you touched a guy in the last race, so you’re going to start back there…’ F1 has become so complicated.

“The way society is these days, everything has to have an answer and someone must be at fault. It’s the blame culture, isn’t it? People can’t accept human error any more. In F1 these days it’s like the stewards have cameras up our arses, making sure we do this and we don’t do that. Everyone’s got to be perfect… do your job, keep your emotions in check, don’t pick a flag up on your in-lap, or anything like that. Look at the things Senna and Prost did. As a young lad growing up, those were my best memories.

“It was a dream of mine to win a Grand Prix and pick up my own flag on the slowing-down lap – but you’re not allowed to do it. There again, maybe it wouldn’t occur to some guys – the way they change helmet colours all the time, it’s as if they don’t want to have an identity. Remember how distinctive Senna’s yellow helmet was – you didn’t need a lifetime number to know it was him.”

I hope by now that you’re starting to get a flavour of why F1 is going to miss Webber so much. I first met him in his F3 days, and he hasn’t changed a whit. So many times, in my experience, some controversy that has others in the paddock nervously mumbling and staring at their feet will get an honest response from Mark, regardless of possible consequences for him. “It’s simply the way I was brought up,” he said, with a shrug.

The more I think about it, you really are quite a rebel, I told him. You’ve never lived in Monaco, your helmet colours remain unchanged (and therefore identifiable)… and you don’t have even a single tattoo.

“No, mate, no tattoos. I’ve got real scars, though – scars are way cooler than tattoos!”

Had it ever crossed Webber’s mind to decamp to Monaco for a while, to save a few quid?

“No,” he said. “I’ve been down there a lot, at peak times like Grand Prix week and off-peak times, too. None of the guys want to live there…

“We looked at Switzerland at one point, but… the way I grew up, every weekend I was on 3000 acres. That sounds a lot, in English terms, but in Australia it’s a little hobby-farm. Every weekend I rode my motorbikes, drove trucks around – I’ve always needed space and was so happy when we got the house here, so I could have some pets and so on. Until I got to F1, we were two-up, two-down for a long time: I was in debt, obviously, and we kept it very simple, but then we got more room and I could have my dogs – you can’t have that in Monaco, mate. Where I am suits me much better, and that’s all there is to it.”

*******

The elephant in the room is, of course, a sometimes turbulent relationship with multiple World Champion Sebastian Vettel – team-mate for five of his seven seasons with Red Bull Racing.

When Vettel came to the team for 2009, Webber had already been there for two seasons but, unlike his new team-mate, he was not a product of the Red Bull Young Driver programme, was not one of Helmut’s boys. Almost from the beginning it was rumoured there were tensions between them, but Mark said not.

“No, for a while, actually, our relationship was pretty good. I was a bit startled by the way the toys would come flying out of the pram when something went wrong – I mean, some of the radio conversations back then were classic – but generally things were OK: we had some good team moments together, and they were completely genuine. It was in 2010 that it started to get a bit tasty…”

This was the season in which Webber was at his best, when he was a very serious contender for the World Championship. It was also the year in which refuelling was banned, in which Adrian Newey reintroduced the concept of the exhaust-blown diffuser to F1 and the last one in which everyone ran on Bridgestone, rather than Pirelli, tyres.

Nor was it long before Newey’s RB6 established itself as the fastest, if not the most reliable, car in the pack. In Malaysia, the third race, Vettel and Webber finished 1-2, but their finishing record elsewhere was not great, and by the time they came to Europe Sebastian was fifth in the championship points, Mark eighth.

In the course of seven days, though, that picture fundamentally changed, for in Barcelona Mark started from pole and led all the way, and a week later he did the same in Monaco. Now the Red Bull drivers were at the top of the standings, with 78 points apiece.

“It was then,” Webber said, “that Flavio told me, ‘Look, this is not going to continue – you’re getting poles and winning races. This is going to be hard for them to manage’.”

Briatore wasn’t wrong. “After that,” Mark said, “the team put us in a situation where we had to look after our own corners – and that was what happened. We next went to Turkey, where I was leading until we had the incident…”

The Red Bulls were running 1-2 when Vettel tried to take the lead, in so doing patently moving over on his team-mate. It was obvious to most that the German had been chiefly at fault, but proof – if it were needed – of where Marko’s colours were firmly nailed came in his instant assertion that Webber had been the culpable party.

After Istanbul, Webber led the World Championship, while Vettel had fallen to fifth. Next they went to Montréal, where Mark qualified second to Hamilton, but had a five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change, which meant he started behind Sebastian.

“In the closing laps we were running fourth and fifth, and I was told, ‘Vettel’s got a gearbox problem – hold station’. I’d had a penalty, now he had a gearbox problem, I’m ahead of him on points but had to follow him over the line – and this is right after what had happened in Turkey!”

At Valencia Vettel won, while Webber had his terrifying flip over Kovalainen’s Lotus, somehow escaping without injury. Hamilton took over the championship lead, and on points Vettel moved ahead of Webber: at the British Grand Prix this was suddenly to become important.

“After the shunt in Valencia, I went to Silverstone looking to get my confidence back – and then they took the new front wing off my car, to give it to Seb, whose own had been damaged…” The Red Bull position was that this was only logical, for Vettel was ahead on points…

The pair of them duly qualified 1-2, but at the press conference Webber was seething. On race day, half an hour before the start, I had a chat with his father, Alan, who was understandably apprehensive. “I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. “I’ve never seen Mark like this.”

What happened was that he made a sensational start, leading Vettel into Copse, and raced away to an emphatic victory.

“Not bad for a number two driver,” was his cryptic comment to Christian Horner on his slowing-down lap.

On the season went, and when Mark took his fourth victory, in Hungary, he moved back to the top of the standings, losing it to Lewis after Spa but regaining it after Monza.

Now, though, Alonso came seriously into the picture, winning in both Italy and Singapore. The Red Bull drivers continued to score well, but when Alonso then triumphed in Korea, following Vettel’s late-race retirement and Webber’s early spin, he moved for the first time into the championship lead.

Two races left, and it was Alonso on 231, Webber on 220, Hamilton on 210, Vettel on 206.

“I actually think Christian would have liked to see me win a World Championship,” Webber said. “He was pushing for it in 2010, saying, ‘Let’s get behind Mark, because if we don’t we’re probably going to lose this to Fernando…’

“As it was, we finished 1-2 in Brazil: if we’d switched positions, it would have made a big difference to my championship chances. Helmut wouldn’t have it, though: ‘No, we’ve got to do whatever we can to get Sebastian back in the title fight…’

“As things turned out, of course, it came right for them – Seb won the race in Abu Dhabi, and with it the championship, but it was a big risk they took.”

Having led on points for so much of the season, Webber was bitterly disappointed to lose the World Championship and was never to come so close again.

“Even so,” said Mark, “nothing that happened in 2010 was as bad as the few weeks after Malaysia last year. In 2012, going into ’13, Seb and I were pretty OK with each other, but Malaysia was the worst…”

The facts of Sepang were straightforward. Webber, having led most of the race, made his final tyre stop after his team-mate and, as he came back out, Vettel was right on him. By this time Mark had turned his engine down, but if he hoped that Sebastian was going to hold station – the fabled ‘multi 21’ scenario, indicating that car 2 should finish ahead of car 1 – he swiftly realised such was not the case, and for several corners the Red Bulls came perilously close to taking each other off.

Immediately after the race Vettel appeared contrite, as if he had suddenly realised, ‘What have I done?’

“I think you’re right – but he changed! In China he turned up a different lad, telling the press he wasn’t sorry, and he’d do it again. We had a chat, which didn’t go that well, and afterwards I told Christian, ‘Just so you’re aware, your two boys are not exactly on the best of terms…’

“At the time people said I was thinking about my future, but I wasn’t. I’d already decided to leave Formula 1 at the end of the year, and in a way this was like a little cherry on the cake – confirmation that I’d made the right decision.”

Before the Bahrain Grand Prix, a photograph was posted on Twitter of Webber and Alonso having dinner in Dubai, and it spawned all manner of conspiracy theories. “That was Fernando’s idea,” said Mark. “It was just a bit of fun, but the response it got was amazing.”

Laughter aside, there was still most of a Grand Prix season to complete and, as time went by, Webber knew his motivation was not as it had been.

“Even if I’d still been winning races, I was ready to stop F1. In India, for example, I was running second and it was all going OK, but the quick left-rights out the back are my bread and butter – normally I’d do nine out of 10 every lap, but last year it was seven or eight. Also the tyres were quite stable that day, so you could actually push for once. I knew it was me, so… accept it, mate, get your head around it.”

Vettel, by that stage, was into the middle of his nine-on-the-trot sequence, and ultimately he won his fourth World Championship by a massive margin. Leaving all their differences aside, what did Mark think of Sebastian the driver?

“It’s difficult for me when I get asked about Seb, because we’ve been through a lot together – and it’s probably exactly the same for him. It’s like two boxers, in a way. Obviously the scorecards aren’t exactly in my favour, especially since we went to the Pirellis – he destroyed me on those – but I can live with that.

“Sebastian has done a phenomenal job. I think the blown floor was very powerful for him – he’s a master of slow-speed corners, anyway, and on top of that he made the blown floor work better than I did, end of story.

“He’s very, very good with engine-mapping and tyres, and OK on aerodynamic work, too. Only a couple of weeks ago I watched the Singapore race on television for the first time: he was two and a half seconds quicker than anyone, and he had Nico, Fernando, Lewis and me behind him – it wasn’t as though he was racing a bunch of muppets! OK, it wasn’t always like that, but at some races he was exceptional.

“I always thought Fernando was the best, and I still do – on Sundays. On one lap, though, I think Seb’s got him covered – and I’m talking in terms of preparation, not just pace. Fernando’s had a lot of poles in his time, but probably age has come into it – you lose a little bit. In the race, though, he’s got more strings to his bow than anyone else, and he is relentless.

“Seb’s strengths, as we know, are escaping at the start, and running in clean air – when you get these things in clean air now, it’s a whole other story, in terms of tyres and so on. He’s like a computer, isn’t he? His only weakness was always fast corners.

“D’you know what? I think Seb will do everything early in life: he’s got his championship titles and his results early, he’s going to have a kid early and I think he’ll retire early – he’ll probably take a blast in the red car, then sayonara…

“As for Marko, I never did fully understand what was going on with him, you know – he almost never came to my side of the garage. I was at Red Bull for two years with DC, and then, when it was announced that Sebastian was coming to the team for 2009, Helmut’s quote to the press were that this move was ‘going to finish Webber’s career’. And this was before we’d even done a race together! Last year he rubbished me in an interview in The Red Bulletin, and I thought that was completely out of order. Dietrich [Mateschitz] was also off the charts about it, but there you are…

“Oddly enough, I actually never thought it was anything very personal against me – it was just a love-in with Seb. Yeah, it’s been an awkward balancing act, but fundamentally if Seb’s happy, Helmut’s happy – and that’s what matters.”

How, I wondered, did Mark part with them all?

“Oh, it was pretty good. I wanted it to be low-key, because that’s the way I am. I went to the factory, to say goodbye to all the staff, and I got a standing ovation from them, which is something I’ll never forget – everyone in that factory at Milton Keynes is special. Christian said, ‘Come by any time’ and obviously I’m still in touch with Adrian. Seb? Well, we shook hands at the end of the race in Brazil, and said, ‘See you’, sort of thing.”

As Webber steps away from Red Bull, Daniel Ricciardo arrives. “I’ve spoken to him a few times,” said Mark, “but he wants to do things his own way – I’ve told him I’m on the ’phone if he needs me. He’ll go well. I think he’ll give Seb a real hard time in qualifying – it’ll be 50:50 in the first year, I reckon. I took a few off Seb last year – and the blown floor is gone now. I think Daniel will be fine, and it certainly won’t hurt him that he’s come through the Red Bull system. I just hope he gets better starts than I did!”

Back to Webber’s own future, and it’s plain from his demeanour that he is excited. “At this age, and after what I’d been through, putting in the effort you need to be 100 per cent in Formula 1 was getting quite difficult for me.

“To be at 100 per cent in sports cars, with eight races, is a different thing: I don’t want Porsche thinking I’m going there because it’ll be an easy ride: it’s not that at all. I need to do it, for my own fulfilment – I want to win the Le Mans 24 Hours with Porsche and Michelin. I know it’s going to be very difficult, but I’ve got a role to play.

“That needs very good focus – but does it mean being skinny as a rake 11 months of the year, because Adrian’s saying, ‘We need you still lighter…’? I mean, I’m 74 kilos – I can’t be any lighter, given my height. I’ll be ‘on weight’ at Le Mans, that’s for sure, but it’ll be so nice not to live on rabbit food the year round...”