Nine-time F1 winner Mark Webber says he has a lot to thank former Formula One driver Ralf Schumacher for. In Webber's debut race – the Australian Grand Prix in 2002 – he came fifth, an outstanding and unexpected result that cemented his career.
"It was a dream for me; a home crowd, my debut, a lot of expectation," says Webber. "But it was a bizarre race. Ralf Schumacher took out most of the field in the first corner. I was happy with that because there weren't many cars left. So I'm hanging out in the race and the [Minardi] car was very unreliable, difficult to drive and the wrong size, but we got the car home, got a few points and brought the house down. I was only on a contract for six weeks but after that the team said I could stay on for the rest of the year, so it was a very big moment for my career."
Webber, 40, is in Australia this week and spoke at an exclusive Sydney event hosted by Porsche Australia and The Australian Financial Review Magazine.
In his only public appearance, at which two new-model Porsche Panameras were revealed before their arrival in Australia in February, the reigning FIA World Endurance champion spoke candidly in a Q&A session with writer Tony Davis about his career in motorsport.
He then took questions from the audience and mingled with guests who included Bing Lee chief executive Lionel Lee and Young Rich 2016 members Walta Kazzi, Nicholas Molnar and Jack Delosa.
It's good that in Formula One we can lighten things up a bit, but the shoey has run its course.Mark Webber
State of play
After 11 years and 42 podiums in formula one racing, Webber signed with Porsche to race the 919 Hybrid in the FIA World Endurance Championships in 2014 and is on track to take the world championship titles for manufacturers and drivers in 2016.
He has two more races this year before quitting racing to take up a role as a Porsche ambassador, only the second person to be given the role. Rally legend Walter Röhrl is the other. Webber will be testing cars in development, including the new GTs, working on talent development and driver training for international races.
He admits the change from F1 to sports cars was a challenge.
"The power to weight component is very different," he says. "An F1 car was 920 horsepower to 600 kilograms whereas in the 919 you have 1000hp but the car is 900kg. The sports cars give the drivers more tools to make it go quicker, so there's a lot to do. Then we race at night – in the case of the Le Mans 24 hour race – at 350km/h under trees. It took me a while to get my head around the car's weight; I had to brake a bit earlier and get used to the inertia – and the patience that was required."
A brilliant career
Webber, who is number 45 on the 2016 BRW Young Rich list with an estimated wealth of $57 million, says he will miss racing. "But my best days are over. There's so many guys that hang on and they get caught up in 50-50 chances and all sorts of things. I want to stop when I'm driving really well, which I am right now. But to continue, there's more downside than upside. I don't need to be going to races and taking risks."
Apart from highlights such as winning the Monte Carlo and Silverstone Grand Prix, he says winning the Formula Ford festival in 1996, aged 20, was pivotal. "As you get older you see your results differently, but certainly breaking the 25-year drought of an Australian winning a grand prix [in Germany in 2009] was special."
End the 'shoey'
Webber's place in the Red Bull Racing team was taken by fellow Australian Daniel Ricciardo, who made Webber drink champagne from his racing boot on the podium in Spa, Belgium in August, after his second-place finish. The gesture that became known as the "shoey" has become Ricciardo's celebratory podium antic, but Webber reckons it's had its run.
"Fortunately drivers wear new boots each race and Spa is cool so the boot wasn't too sweaty," he says. "It was like drinking champagne through a Nomex filter. It was fun at the time and it's good that in Formula One we can lighten things up a bit, but the shoey has run its course and I think Daniel knows that. It's time for a new party trick."
An upside to easing into retirement from F1 has been the opportunity to get together with former drivers to share memories. "The gloves are off now. We can have a beer and celebrate the fact that we did work so hard. And I worked with great engineers. Adrian Newey [Red Bull Racing chief technical officer] is a freak of an engineer. For example, I'm already on poll position and I tell him I just can't find any way to shave a fraction of a second, but he wants to find a way and he sends me back out and he finds these magic tenths of a second. He really can't drive that well himself, but can put himself in the cockpit and work miracles."
Those tenths of a second count for a lot. For Webber, who was unusually tall in F1 and therefore heavier, the pressure was immense to stay competitive. His teammate Sebastian Vettel weighed nine kilograms less than Webber. "Ten kilograms equates to 0.4 seconds in speed and that difference means you might as well stay at home, so we had to find other ways to shave the time off."
Now he is five kilograms heavier than he was in F1, but the demands of Porsche 919 Hybrid racing are similar given he shares the car with two teammates. "It's a very marginal business and a massive team effort. Yeah, I'm going to miss it for sure."
This story previously appeared on The Australian Financial Review.