As Mark Webber reaches the milestone of completing his first year as a Porsche driver, we asked him for his thoughts on the success of his debut WEC season, how the sport compares to F1, the challenges of adjusting to sports car racing and how he plans to spend his Christmas break!
Last December you got your first taste of Porsche’s LMP1 challenger, did you expect then to score three podiums in the first season and to have lead laps at Le Mans?
“Having done the initial pre-season work with the team, I was quite nervous about how the season might unfold for us, especially from a performance perspective. Porsche is a big name and people expect a lot from us in the LMP1 category where we’ve got such great history. We were on the back foot a little bit going into the season which I think was demonstrated with performances such as Silverstone (car 14) and Spa (my car) early in the year, but we learnt and improved and got those podiums towards the end of the season which was very rewarding.
“Looking at Le Mans we never envisaged having a car in the lead; retiring the #20 car with less than four hours to go was a long way to fall but we learnt a tremendous amount as a group. To score five podiums and a win in our first year back was a great achievement. Overall the return has been successful and we can certainly hold our heads high.”
How hard was it to adjust to sports car racing after being used to your F1 routine for so many years and what do you make of having to share the car with two other drivers?
“It was a big transition for me in the first few months to be honest and a completely new experience. For the last 15 years I’ve had the car to myself, so to speak, and it was definitely a new challenge having to work around the needs of two other drivers. I absolutely loved my time in F1 as an ‘individual’, but at this stage in my career I really enjoy being completely open with my fellow team mates and engineers to get the most from our collective knowledge.
“When you have more than one driver in the car it means that you have to compromise on certain things inside the cockpit such as seat and pedal positioning, and in particular some aspects of the set-up related to individual driving styles, which is something you need to get used to. I was surprised however that sharing the car with Timo Bernhard and Brendon Hartley was something I really enjoyed.
“Looking back at my first year I learnt a lot and I’m now 100% comfortable in my ‘new job’. Having gone through all the ups and downs of our first season, my relationship with Timo and Brendon has got tighter and the team spirit we’ve built up on our car is quite exceptional.”
How different is it to work in a WEC team compared to an F1 team?
“The atmosphere in an LMP1 team is the biggest difference as each side of the garage works towards the same goal, which is getting both cars as high up as possible. The communication across both cars is very open and there is a busy exchange between engineers and drivers; it’s great to be working in a proper team environment again.
“The inter-team rivalry known in F1 is almost non-existent because encouraging that sort of competition doesn’t help the manufacturer’s aim of getting both cars up the front. However I think that next year there will be a bit more friendly rivalry in the Porsche garage like you see at Audi and Toyota whose drivers fight each other hard but with respect and not to the detriment of their overall goal.
“Between the manufacturers there is also a healthy level of respect, which is a breath of fresh air in comparison to the F1 pit-lane. When our mechanics managed to get the #14 car back out on track towards the end of the race in Le Mans, the other teams applauded as the car crossed the finish line, which was a real highlight for me. Everyone knows what it’s like to get a car home and how much effort goes into putting this race in particular together. It’s emotional, everyone is tired and it’s a very gruelling event so it was very moving to see such a reaction from a competitor.”
Do you enjoy having a roof over your head and racing in a closed-wheel cockpit again?
“These cars are very rewarding to drive, no question about it. The speeds are high and consistency is key. Any sportsman or women likes to be challenged when it comes to the consistency department so we have to deliver on that front. As a driver you have to be extremely versatile and adapt to the circumstances, whether that’s driving the car at three in the morning or when plans change and you’re putting in a triple stint.
“I think that the weight of the car by regulation does hurt the lap time a bit but if you look at our race pace compared to an F1 car in Brazil for instance, it’s still very impressive how fast the cars are. I think we would be competitive mid-field in an F1 race if you look at how little we stop. That’s a credit to where the manufacturers are now.”
Your fans also need to build up their endurance to follow you in the several-hour-long races…
“To follow a six or 24 hour race is very challenging without a doubt. You’ve got different races happening at the same time due to the numerous categories and it can be hard for fans to understand the strategies of the teams. The picture starts to evolve towards the end of the race but I appreciate not everyone has the time or inclination to watch all of this unfold. Next year the WEC organisers and manufacturers are looking to help the fans watching at home by encouraging teams to try and be a little bit more forthcoming about what’s happening without giving the chess match away, which should make things easier to follow.
“Having said that though, we’ve had some races like Brazil with full grandstands and a huge crowd – I’m not sure whether that’s because Emerson Fittipaldi was racing but it was great to see how passionate they are about all types of motorsport.
“The series is definitely going in the right direction and a lot of great drivers are seeing the appeal. Already you’ve got the legends like Tom Kristensen who’s now retired and fast drivers like Andre Lotterer and Loic Duval. This year Anthony Davidson and Seb Buemi won the World Championship and next year we’ve got current F1 drivers such as Nico Hulkenburg coming to take part in Le Mans – it’s at a very handy level now.”
You’ll have a break now until it’s back to testing in February, what’s on the cards?
“My family is over from Australia and we will spend a relaxed Christmas together in the UK before heading to Australia for NYE. We’ve organised a low-key little party with our friends which I’m really looking forward to and of course then it’s time for the beach and sunshine!”