“D’you know what?” Mark Webber tells Nigel Roebuck this month. “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…”
Mon Ami Mates they might not have been, but after five seasons together Webber and Sebastian Vettel know each other better than anyone among the current Formula 1 driver ranks. As Mark walks away to join Porsche and race at Le Mans, his perspective on the four-time world champion and his potential future is perhaps the most insightful and valuable we’ve yet heard – especially now he’s out of the frying pan.
Not that he exactly held back much before, of course…
The interview with our editor-in-chief in the March issue of Motor Sport is long, wide-ranging, frank and the best modern F1 interview I’ve read in years, full stop. It was always likely to be when these two got together.
Webber’s exasperation with F1 is eloquently explained, along with other subjects such as his pleasure at both joining Porsche and his first impressions of the sports car, how close he really came to a Ferrari seat, his friendship with Fernando Alonso and so much more.
I was particularly interested in his memories of the last time he raced at Le Mans, in 1999 with Mercedes – largely because it was one of those dramatic race weekends I’ve ever experienced.
But as we head towards the start of a new era of F1 – in which Mark will be adjusting to the role of (a well-informed) onlooker – it’s his thoughts on Vettel that I lingered over most.
He knows he still has to be careful how he talks about the German for fear of sour-grape accusations. Their relationship, he says, was “pretty good” early on in their partnership and only soured once things got “tasty” in 2010.
“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,” says Mark. “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 taking in terms of preparation, not just pace…
“Seb’s strengths, as we know, are escaping at the start, and running in clean air… He’s like a computer, isn’t he? His only weakness was always fast corners.”
That final comment is telling. It’s been said many times that Webber was at least a match for Vettel in the fast stuff. But Seb is a true driver of his generation – and the plain truth is there are fewer truly fast corners in F1 than in the past. The champ is racing in the right era to make the most of his incredible talent.
Aside from Nigel’s captivating interview – of which I’ve only given away a small sample here – the March issue features a line-up that’s our equivalent of Real Madrid’s old Galacticos.
As previously announced, Mark Hughes returns to the magazine for the first time in about seven years to bring us a thoughtful and very personal portrait of Michael Schumacher. We hoped by the time this piece was published there’d be some good news on the seven-time champion’s condition. Sadly we’re still waiting.
Andrew Frankel delivers the cover story, following his unforgettable experience of driving Rudi Uhlenhaut’s Mercedes-Benz coupé, the Le Mans racer that never was, born from Fangio’s W196R Grand Prix car. The thought of the great designer using one of the most beautiful and valuable cars in the world as his daily commute – once Merc had pulled the plug on its chances of ever racing – just makes you smile…
Simon Taylor begins a three-part US tour, by meeting the Elvis Presley of motor racing: ‘King’ Richard Petty. We’ve been trying to line this interview up for months (make that years), but it was worth waiting for. NASCAR’s most successful driver is a class act with a wonderful life-story to tell.
Then there’s Richard Williams and the most unlikely motor racing link we’ve heard yet: the 1958 Cuban Grand Prix… and 1970s art rock pioneers Roxy Music. I won’t give too much away here, except to say Richard is equally at home writing about both sport and music – but I doubt even he has ever combined the two quite like this.
Now our attention turns to the fifth annual Motor Sport Hall of Fame, which takes place this Wednesday (January 29) at the Royal Opera House. Then it’s on to the April issue, and the introduction of Mark Hughes’s new F1 section.
If you haven’t already done so, check out his Max Mosley web story from last week. All I’ll say is that’s just the start. From the April issue, expect fireworks.