Porsche’s return to the top category of the World Endurance Championship (WEC) was announced by Wolfgang Hatz, Porsche AG Board of Management Member for Research and Development, on Saturday 8 December 2012, on the occasion of the end of season ‘Night of Champions’ celebration. The first rollout of the new LMP1 car was planned for mid-2013 and on 27 June that year it was confirmed that the Aussie driver, Mark Webber, would be contracted to drive the new prototype.
Webber’s move to Porsche had been speculated about in the press for quite some time, but at the time, Fritz Enzinger, Head of LMP1, commented, “I learned to appreciate Mark’s qualities when we were both involved in Formula One. He is one of the best pilots I could imagine for our team. I’m absolutely delighted that we have such an experienced and fast regular driver on board from 2014.” There can be little doubt that Webber’s vast experience helped Porsche to prepare and fine-tune the performance and handling of the new 919 Hybrid.
Every so often, through the mist of unsmiling, emotionless and sometimes characterless faces of some Formula One drivers who meander through their careers with apparent boredom, comes a driver who changes all of that. Mark Webber, was one such driver who showed an optimism that was unfamiliar in other quarters of the Formula One paddock.
Born on 27 August 1976 in Queanbeyan, New South Wales, the slender (now) 41-year old Webber racked up nine wins and 42 podiums during his more than 200 Formula One race career. Before his Formula One days though, Webber worked his way up the hard way through the ranks of Formula Ford, Formula 3, Formula 3000 and as a Formula One test driver. In 1999, he drove for the Mercedes-Benz sports car team in which he endured not one but two horrific airborne incidents at Le Mans.
These crashes, though, didn’t detract from Webber’s love of racing and at the turn of the millennium he embarked on a Formula One career that would thrust him firmly into the public eye as a lovable celebrity and a world-class racing driver. His career in Formula One ran until the end of 2013.
In May 2014, I was lucky enough to conduct an interview with Mark Webber ahead of his first race in the Silverstone 6 Hours behind the wheel of the #20 Porsche 919 Hybrid…
Growing up in Australia, what triggered your passion for motorsport and who were your racing heroes?
It was actually motorbikes originally, as my Dad had a motorbike shop. I started on motorbikes really, and that was my first access to engines and noise. My heroes in the early days were therefore motorbike guys like Mick Doohan.
How did the move to the UK come about, and what were the main differences between your Formula Ford experiences in Australia and Britain?
The UK move, at the end of 1995, really came about because if you wanted to be a top-flight racing driver, then you needed to leave Australia and come to the UK. My partner was instrumental in helping to give me the confidence to give it a go. It’s all well and good landing at Heathrow, but it’s what you do when you step out of the door, where you go and what you do, because it’s a big racing community over here, and quite overwhelming for a young guy from a country town in Australia. The racing styles were very different and in Australia the level of competition was just not there. We had three or four quick guys at the front, but when you come to Europe, there might be fifteen fast guys, so the depth was that much greater. The racing was more aggressive too, and there was more money over here, so people were happy to crash more, whereas in Australia you can’t crash because they just don’t have the money for repairs. So yes, it was a very sharp wake-up call for me.
In Formula One, at what point did you realise you’d like a new challenge? Was the ambition always to get into closed-top racing?
Probably in the last few years I realised that Formula One was coming to an end for me. You have got to be a realist and know that nothing lasts forever, and age 37 or 38 is certainly in the window in which to have a look at moving on. Obviously, your age is only a number, but I felt that it was time to look for a change, but then [I had to consider] what I would do…would I stop racing or continue to compete? Porsche were in contact with me and the whole thing just came together. I said, “You know what, why not, it’s a new programme and it would be exciting to grow with them and they have got a great history as well,” and so that was enough of a tonic for me to continue my racing.
Can you outline how your relationship with Porsche Motorsport developed?
To be honest, it started with me being a Porsche customer. Then I met board member Wolfgang Hatz a few years ago at Zeltweg in Austria, I was out there doing some Red Bull work [in 2011] and he just gave me a little wink about a future programme and so we stayed in touch. Since then I have met many people who have been involved in the [Porsche] family for so long from a racing and technical perspective at Weissach. I mean Matthias Mueller is such a racing enthusiast, and also just such a normal guy, he loves competing and it has been great for me to meet all those guys who have had such a great history.
At 1.83m squeezing into a F1 cockpit is not the easiest thing, but how does it compare with getting in and out of the hatch of the Porsche 919?
I can get into the 919 quicker than I can get into a Formula One car, I need to because I have to do a pit stop in 30 seconds! I was a little more comfortable in the Formula One car in terms of the seating position because in the Porsche I now have to share the seat with Brendon, but Timo has his own seat. But getting out of the right-hand door is not easy, because by regulation they want us to get out of the right-hand door, which is a bit of a challenge.
Where have the major advances come from since you last drove sports cars?
The cars have improved a bit in every area really, in safety, and the cockpit environment is a bit more aggressive but there are areas they can still tighten up in there. I mean the technology they are using now was just not around. I had a gear stick in LMP previously, but now it’s all on the steering wheel. The cars are super complex, and there is still stuff going on with this car that I don’t understand, but it’s the same for all for the drivers. The engineers too are still learning, there are so many things that we can still learn and keep doing better. I suppose that’s why they put these regulations in place, because there is so much performance and low-hanging fruit to get at in the future, so yeah, there is lots to learn.
What challenges will you personally have to overcome in your first year of racing with Porsche? You’re a part of a much larger driving team this year, how are you finding working with other drivers?
It is a big component of endurance racing to have teammates. From the seating position to seat belt positions, to seat belt lengths, then down to how you like the radio to latch on or off, and how you like the gears. It’s all a compromise, the whole thing, and you haven’t even driven out of the garage yet. You have got to work on driver technique and style but you are helping each other a lot, whereas in Formula One you are really just focussed on your own technique and style with your own engineers, and in the end, you have the opportunity to design your own way to go about it.
Has your Formula One experience given you an advantage, or is it a hindrance because people expect more of you?
No, I think I would always want that. The experience is always good for me to have, and even though it is a different category and a different type of racing, I think I would always feel happy to have that, it’s a nice burden to carry. If people expect high things of you, that means you must always be doing something well because people expect that level from you, so I am happy to assist and help Porsche.
In pure driving terms, is there anything about the Porsche 919 Hybrid that surprised or disappointed you?
I think the combined horsepower of the two units together, on both the hybrid side and the engine side, that’s certainly a very impressive bit of technology. Unfortunately, we drivers always want to find areas to improve, so I think we can work on the chassis, on other developments and housekeeping stuff, which will take time. But [in the end] you have got to take your gloves off and go racing, and that is the area we have got to improve, and that will take a bit of time.
What is the main difference between the way you drive a Formula One car and a WEC car?
A Formula One car is 200kg lighter so the change of direction and the response of the car is a little bit more aggressive. Generally, I have got to be more patient because the cornering speed is lower in a sports car just because the downforce is a bit less. Also, there are many different conditions you have got to drive in, for instance, you may have to drive at 14h00 in the afternoon where you could have 30°C ambient temperature or at 02h00 in the morning, where you could have 5°C ambient temperature, so you have a big variation in conditions for the driver to deal with. Driving at night in the rain is another big component, which is very demanding and challenging.
The downforce in a WEC car is less because single seaters have a nice wing profile on the front, and you can use the aerodynamics of the front radiator section to your advantage, so single seaters naturally will produce a bit more downforce. We have got the maximum downforce on for Silverstone here, but we still have an eye on our Le Mans cars, so the downforce on our car is quite light and that’s what we have got to accept.
A lot of the races that I did here in Formula One, the racing lines still translate quite well for me. I can use a bit more kerb now obviously, and I can be tighter in terms of seconds because this car is a little bit more user-friendly and flexible on the kerbs, so I can grab a bit more of the track. I could probably even have grabbed a bit more having looked at the tactics of some of the other guys, but that’s fine, you live and learn. In a Formula One car, though, you can’t really go to those sort of limits, because the car doesn’t really like it that much, whereas these cars are a bit more robust.
Your first car in Britain was a B-reg Ford Fiesta…today you have a 997 GT2 RS, GT3 RS 4.0 as well as a 911 Turbo S. Can you tell me a bit about your cars?
That’s right yes, but I also had a few Turbos before them. With the latest brigade of cars though, the GT2 came about when Sebastian Vettel and I were talking at the Monaco Grand Prix quite a few years ago and we both went on a website and said we needed to get one. So we both bought one, very simple, that was it. We loved the horsepower, it was a very brutal car, the GT3 4-litre was incredible, and it is my most prized possession in terms of a road car.
In addition, I have got my  British Grand Prix winning car and that is still top, but road car wise, the 4-litre is exceptional, a very rare beast and it is one of the most beautiful normally aspirated engines, it is such a great car to drive. I don’t use the 4-litre much, it has a very low mileage and it is tucked up in bed a lot, but the Turbo S is obviously an everyday car, it’s just such a versatile car with massive performance benefits.
Also, you can do long trips in this car, I mean the baggage situation is completely acceptable in the front and also the rear seats, we have done some nice little trips in it already. I mean it’s an everyday car with that timeless 911 shape, but it’s a subtle shape you can park it anywhere and it’s not over the top. It’s a really subtle, top-line sports car.
Mark Webber spent three highly successful and enjoyable years behind the wheel of the Porsche 919 Hybrid. It would be useful to take a look at his achievements:
The six-hour race in Bahrain on 19 November 2016 was Mark Webber’s last race as a Porsche works driver
Webber went on to become a special representative for Porsche, attending global events and serving as a consultant. He contributes by lending his experience to the motorsport programmes at Porsche which includes talent research as well as driver training for up and coming professionals and the huge number of worldwide Porsche amateur racers. Alongside rally legend Walter Röhrl, Webber is Porsche’s second such representative
His career at Porsche included:
|2016||Porsche works driver LMP1||Wins at the Nürburgring, Mexico City and Austin|
|2015||Porsche works driver LMP1||Drivers’ World Champion with Bernhard/Hartley, 4 wins (Nürburgring, Austin, Fuji, Shanghai), 3 pole positions, 2nd at Le Mans|
|2014||Porsche works driver LMP1||3rd Silverstone, Fuji and Bahrain, pole position São Paulo|
You can find highlights of Mark Webber’s earlier racing career here
Written by: Glen Smale
Images by: Virtual Motorpix/Glen Smale & John Mountney