‘Aussie Grit’: it’s the name of Mark Webber’s autobiography, his clothing line, his Twitter handle, and frankly I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s written on his bath towels – what better phrase could encapsulate one of Formula One’s true grafters?
If you don’t know the background of this famed Australian speedster, it’s well worth a look at the highlights reel. Like many of his contemporaries, Webber was a prodigious karter – racking up wins at an age where many of us were still goofing around in school – but unlike the Hamiltons, Verstappens and Vettels of this world there were no young driver programmes around in 1995 to fast track the Aussie towards the bright lights of Formula One.
Instead, the young racer cut his teeth in Formula Ford in his native Australia, travelled to Great Britain where he quickly climbed the ranks in Formula Three without substantial financial backing (in fact, Webber initially relied on support from Australian rugby union player David Campese to complete the 1997 championship campaign), and turned his hand to sportscar racing with Mercedes-AMG.
A quick glance at YouTube will illustrate that it was in sportscar racing where Webber experienced his first encounter with the dangers of motorsport: during practice for the 1999 24 Hours of Le Mans, an aerodynamic fault on his Mercedes Benz CLRs saw the driver’s car catapult into the air on the Mulsanne Straight, flipping spectacularly off the track – not once but twice. Would you believe me if I told you it also happened to his team mate Peter Dumbreck? The video is just below. Needless to say, both men were lucky to leave their respective accidents shaken but otherwise unscathed.
Back in open-wheel racing, fellow Aussie Paul Stoddart took a chance on Webber by giving him a drive in his Arrows Formula 3000 team in 2000, as well as a test driver role for the Arrows F1 car. Later, he would test drive with Benetton, before eventually securing a contract with the Stoddart-owned Minardi Formula One team for the 2002 season.
His debut saw him overcome a host of technical issues to drag the inferior car from 18th on the starting grid to a 5th place finish – beating Minardi’s previous best finish in a Grand Prix on his first try. Sporting greats like Sir Jackie Stewart have since said they had their eye on Webber ever since.
You don’t need me to tell you the rest: Webber retired from Formula One in 2013 as a nine-time Formula One Grand Prix winner, including 42 podiums and agonisingly missing out on a world championship in 2010 in the last race of the season. Since then, he was crowned the 2015 FIA World Endurance Champion, became a Porsche ambassador (more on that later), and qualified as a heli-pilot just to top it all off.
Lesser known is that he still holds the record for the most races in Formula One before his first win – clocking in at a fortitude-testing 130 races. They don’t call it Aussie Grit for nothing.
This is the second time I’ve sat down with Webber to talk shop, and it’s difficult to come away with any other opinion than this is one of the most knowledgeable voices in Formula One today. As a long-time director of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association and 215 starts in the sport, he has plenty of experience to back up his opinion. He’s never scared to shy away from a big statement as well – look out for his comments on Lewis Hamilton as "dangerous for the sport" later in the piece. He makes an interesting point.
But he’s not just a one-trick pony these days. Webber’s chiseled good looks also front the new Porsche x BOSS capsule collection. The sophisticated selection of shoes and clothing combines the strengths of the two brands: sleek silhouettes, innovative materials and understated but classy aesthetics. In Webber’s words, he’s no fashion guru, but “it does help working with the best in the world”.
Check out the exclusive interview below where we look ahead to the new Formula One season, chat fashion, and the emergence of the electric car…
Porsche X BOSS capsule collection
Porsche X BOSS capsule collection
Back in 2017, you told me that the new owners of Formula One would be sleeping well at night given the current status of the sport. Is that still your opinion?
Yeah, look, I think that the opportunity to engage with a lot more people and age groups through different mediums in different territories has given a level of access to the sport that wasn't really there in the past. Obviously, Mr Ecclestone wasn't overly keen on social media when it was starting to ramp up, but it's a totally different landscape now because things are changing so fast now, so Formula One are being as dynamic as they can to educate more people and get people on the journey of what the sport entails. That's encouraging – and I do think we're hitting fresh people during this transient phase where slightly older people that were used to the old regime versus the new people who are being served up a totally different sport through different ways of watching.
I think the manufacturers are a little bit of a concern. I mean the automotive industry is something which is probably one of the biggest concerns for Liberty [Media Corporation] just keeping an eye on how well they're going globally. Obviously, car sales are important because Formula One is funded by manufacturers and they use a lot of their racing, R&D and marketing budgets to justify their existence in the sport, which has proved over decades to be a very good move by people that are very successful at the front end.
There's lots of different levers in the sport at the moment, whether they're commercial, whether they're political, whether they're the storylines and subplots within the sport itself – you know, you've got the Netflix documentary out at the moment, which I haven't seen yet. Those sorts of things are largely positive, but Liberty have still got to be on their toes in terms of where the sport goes.
One last thing, but I'm also concerned that people's appetite towards risk might be slowly fading. Just in terms of how people in society view risk and pushing yourself to your limit. That's naturally what we do with Grand Prix drivers now. I don't really know how that might change – and I think we're safe as a sport for the next five years – but in ten or 15 years from now I wander how the wider public might view any industry where man or woman and machine are being pushed to the limit.
Ten years from now I wander how the public might view any industry where man or woman and machine are being pushed to the limit
That's an interesting point. So much of Formula One is geared around the challenge of manoeuvring these great technological machines at the limit of their capabilities – you know, teams will be using louder and more powerful engines after this season to underline that. Risk is almost part of the current appeal, rather than the core skill level of these 20 drivers.
Yeah, I mean safety has improved massively. That's just the way we operate as humans – we like to learn. Road cars are a lot safer than they were a few years ago and that's a good thing. People riding horses are wearing different things than they used to for safety, and car racing is the same. We have better medical facilities at the track, we have better helicopter situations, we have better technology in the cars. Let's say the word consequences are different than they used to be, because people love to see things that they can't do but they don't like to see the consequences when things go wrong – and that is the fine line between accepting "I simply can't do that" and "I really want to go and watch that, but I don't want to see it not work out".
I guess that very much came to a head last year with what happened to Anthoine Hubert at Spa. You know, you experienced your fair share of spectacular crashes that you were lucky to walk away from unscathed and also held a crucial role as director of the Grand Prix Drivers' Association for a number of years. The knee-jerk reaction to that tragedy was "are these cars really safe enough?", but would you say this was just an incredibly sad, freak accident?
Absolutely. I think the speed and the angle of the collision, there was just a huge amount of energy in a very acute area of the car – in a flash, the consequences of that were tragic. Some of these scenarios are foreseen by drivers – whether its one or two drivers, or more – they can calibrate and make the necessary adjustment to avoid something quite nasty, but when the sequence of events continues to go against you as they did on that tragic day in Spa obviously the consequences are horrible.
It's easy to forget in the spectacle of the sport that you drivers put yourselves through something that very few people can ever comprehend. The slightest error or a series of unfortunate events can result in something catastrophic. I remember you called Formula One drivers "gladiators" the last time we spoke, I guess that's why.
You know we're highly trained to handle the conditions of Formula One, but yeah it does take a long time to get that level of trust in yourself, trust in your own skill set, and confidence in yourself to do the abnormal. I've used this line a lot, but it's true: average is easy, that's why it's popular. If you're going to do something extraordinary, you have to go beyond most people's limit. It's why I love getting the chance to watch Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer: they make it look easy. We make driving a Grand Prix car look easy.
You know, watching a crash, people are fascinated by that because they sometimes want to see people fail. We're pushing the limits, we're going as hard as we can, we are right on the cusp of stretching that car to its absolute limits of its performance. That's what our job is, that's what we're paid to do, and you've got to do that as consistently as best you can and as often as possible.
If you looked at most of Lewis Hamilton's 84 Grand Prix victories, 50 of those are probably relatively boring to watch for the spectator, but for him to be able to execute those – the amount of skill and experience encapsulated in delivering those wins is simply extraordinary. But, it's like Federer or Michael Jordan, we talk about sports and the people who dominate, they can make it boring. But if they're flamboyant, a bit of a rockstar or have that Box Office nature about them, you might gravitate towards him or her as well. The racing greats have the skill to make it all look incredibly easy, but any slight misjudgement or a mechanical failure (because in our sport things can break and go wrong outside of our control), and you end up with situations like my crash in Valencia 2010. And that's horrible.
Porsche X BOSS capsule collection
Speaking of pushing the limit, what are you most looking forward to going into the new Formula One season? It could be a cracker: Hamilton going for the joint record number of world championships, the Ferrari power struggle with Vettel and LeClerc, Max Verstappen pushing for his first championship.
Yeah, I agree with all that. I think that we've got three really big things. The Lewis Hamilton factor on numbers and championships, and still seeing him operate like a 25 year old in terms of his enthusiasm is amazing to watch. I think Max Verstappen and Red Bull, if they can win five-seven Grandes Prix that will make things interesting – especially as some of those victories you imagine will be unconventional in terms of how he needs to get the job done. That'll be great if that's the case, because Verstappen is certainly entertaining and he has the ability to find different ways to win, because he's creative and a bit more forceful.
As a constructor, I think Red Bull's consistency will really be interesting inside the Max package there. And then the Ferrari dynamic is going to be a hot topic. The chat coming out of Maranello – apart from the Coronavirus concerns – is they seem to be very nervous about their performance. That would certainly take the heat off the drivers, because if they're not competitive then Italy and Maranello will start looking for heads to roll at management level. But if the cars do find their way to the front and the Ferrari is the best, then the drivers will be in the firing line. Let's see how that goes.
The one thing I can say is that Vettel in a corner I would still be wary of – I think he's got a few more haymakers left in him yet, whether he's going to be consistent or not, let's see. Charles LeClerc? He's great for the sport. Absolutely brilliant. You know, great looking guy, young, fiesty, bi-lingual, Ferrari through and through, just fantastic.
We've got some good stuff to look forward to, but Lewis will be a ginormous problem for all of us and the sport, because his enthusiasm is dangerous and under the guidance of Toto Wolff – who frankly has moved the whole bar in terms of how teams operate – with the Niki Lauda factor still there, they will often be referring to Niki this year, you know how entertaining that's going to be is our big concern if they run away with things.
The one thing I can say is that Vettel in a corner I would still be wary of – I think he's got a few more haymakers left in him yet
In terms of Mercedes AMG Petronas, there's the DAS System that has emerged out of the woodwork that could prove to be the silver bullet…
You know, I'm not a huge fan of Michelin-star restaurants because I like a good feed, but if you have the best chef in the world he's going to put some small ingredients or a little flourish that's going to give those dishes something extra. That's what the steering column moving and the driver moving his hands is going to do. Visibly it's high profile, it's come in and it's very very unique, and it's getting a lot of air time.
Can they win a world championship without it? I'd say yes. Is it going to help them? A very small percentage, perhaps, because that whole meal is already so impressive – that one car. The thing is you might bolt it onto another car and it might not work as well, but Mercedes as usual when you're pioneering this stuff you know the reasons why you want to start putting your chips on that piece of technology, because there might be other weaknesses on the car that you're trying to nullify. It's extremely convoluted and confusing to the outside world potentially, but they know what they're doing.
Let's talk about fashion. You feature in the new Porsche X BOSS capsule collection. Firstly, what’s it like being the model for a brand like BOSS?
Well, it does help working with the best in the world! You know, I worked with BOSS in the early 90s when I was driving sports cars for Mercedes Benz, so I've been close with the brand for a long time. From then on, BOSS has been in my wardrobe, so it's really nice to reconnect through my relationship with Porsche.
The two brands are totally hand in glove: they're obviously close together with Porsche in Stuttgart and BOSS in Metzingen, and they stand for the same values. For me, both brands are very timeless, super classy but understated. It's effortless.
For BOSS, I don't like a lot of complications in my wardrobe, I like to look slick if I can, and for the quality of the garments to be super high – that's just what they do. And I must say, mate, the comments that I get from guys who wouldn't naturally say something, whether they're younger or older, they love the BOSS stuff I'm wearing.
Porsche X BOSS capsule collection
Have you learnt anything about your own style choices from working with BOSS?
I've learnt that I need to keep in good shape! You know I was always in good shape as a driver and I still am to a degree, but BOSS is so meticulous with its measurements that you need to keep on top of things! Their tailors are obviously so, so good so you've got to make sure you're doing your part.
BOSS has been around a long, long time, so they know what they're doing. It's been a real eye opener for me to witness first hand the process that goes into the fabric selection when I've visited the factory.
Obviously, sustainability is such an important subject for the future, too, so it's great to see a brand as famous as BOSS making inroads on that front, too. It helps that its garments last a long time. I think you're in good hands with BOSS.
I am so not a fashion guru myself, but I know that when it comes to the tech side of things, the manufacturing process, the quality of the product that it's going to do the work for me.
In terms of the new capsule collection is there a favourite piece of yours?
The bomber jacket is particularly great. It's really versatile, so it's perfect for different kinds of occasions: you can dress it up or down and it still looks really slick. I travel in it, too, so I'd say that's the item I found myself reaching for the most. I'm pretty notorious for keeping things simple with trousers, in terms of quite neutral colours, but I like that BOSS give you different options in terms of a smart pair of jeans or something a little more casual.
You recently drove the all-electric Porsche Taycan across the Middle East. Do you think it's only a matter of time until electric cars take over the world?
The inertia and momentum is certainly there. Porsche are spending an awful lot of their R&D and resources in that sector as they do believe it's the way forward. We have a pretty broad portfolio at Porsche in terms of combustion cars, but by 2025 we have committed to having 50-percent mix of battery-electric vehicles.
What is still something the automotive segment is continuing to do is generate the discussion with each nation's government for how they're going to support these cars. I think the cars themselves, the technology, is there. You talk about the Porsche Taycan, for example, it's an absolutely extraordinary piece of technology, but the infrastructure and demand is very light. The governments I think wanted this change and I think the car industry has done a tremendous job to get that in place and the cars can be on the road very quickly, but it's the infrastructure side of things that now needs to be in parallel with that innovation.
BOSS has been around a long, long time, so they know what they're doing – and that includes finding the right material for the job
If Formula One is the pinnacle of what motorsport engineering can be, I guess the emphasis in the future is going to be on Formula E to show technology going forward. I spoke to Lewis Hamilton recently and he said he couldn't ever picture himself as a Formula E driver because it isn't the top end of the sport. Do you think there could ever be a scenario where Formula E becomes the pinnacle?
I think the standard of driving in Formula E on average – I'm talking about a mean line now, from the pole position to the back of the grid – is higher. Yes, Formula One is the pinnacle, the drivers at the front the Hamiltons of this world, LeClerc and Verstappen, they are the best, but the average standard is higher in Formula E.
I think that the reason people are captivated with Formula One is the speed of the cars, the history of the circuits that they visit, and the individuals at the top of the sport. People are still in love with all that. So, the sport is in good hands.
Having said all of that, yes Formula E from a consumer perspective in terms of the demographic is clearly much younger, the people who are attending it are much younger, and it absolutely is continuing to grow and the interest is on the increase, which is great for motorsport. I think the fact they're taking races to the people in cities as well really works. It's super convenient to attend, races are shorter and more intense – that's a headache that Formula One has, so that's a real good thing that Formula E has.
Will it ever supersede Formula One? Mate, I don't know. Personally, I think the big question is about motorsport in general: where is motorsport in 15 years from now? Whether it's electric, combustion or somewhere between the two, where are the heroes in 15 years? I don't think it's about comparing the two.
Porsche X BOSS capsule collection
That's the £100m question! Trouble is no one knows the answer…
They don't, mate. Anyway, I'll be an old man by then, but I'll still be trying to watch it.
Final question. Give me your prediction for the Formula One season ahead. Who's going to be on top when the final chequered flag falls?
Unfortunately for the entertainment factor, Hamilton is still going to be the man. In saying that, I would really love him to match Michael Schumacher's record, so I wouldn't be disappointed if that's how the season plays out because he deserves everything he gets.
I hope the championship goes deeper this year, I hope that it's another constructor as well, rather than an internal battle between Hamilton and Valterie Bottas. I mean, I'm sure Bottas will give it a red-hot go if he can, but Lewis is a nightmare for everyone. If it's Max or LeClerc taking it deep then great, though for the latter I think that might be unlikely.
I think Hamilton can do a lot of damage early in the championship. Operationally, I think if Mercedes execute well then he can get a lot of points early on.
So prediction? Hamilton to win, Verstappen second, LeClerc third.
For more information about the Porsche x BOSS collection, see hugoboss.com
This interview was conducted on 4 March before the FIA's postponement of the Formula One season.
Read our previous interview with Mark Webber here.