Sport Motorsport Mark Webber ready for F1 swansong
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Mark Webber ready for F1 swansong

Mark Webber
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Alan Jones isn’t afraid to say he didn’t see a future star in Mark Webber the first time he took the wheel of a Formula One car.

“I underestimated his ability and I’m the first to admit it,” the former world champion confesses.

“I didn’t think he would go as well as what he has done. He’s matured as a driver and I think he’s as good as anybody out there at the moment.”

But that moment, 12 seasons in the making, comes to an end in Brazil on Sunday.

Webber will start his 215th and final F1 grand prix before his switch to sportscar racing with Porsche.  

“I know I’ve made the right decision to leave Formula One, so I’m feeling relieved that the chequered flag is almost in sight,” Webber, now the oldest driver on the grid, told AAP.

I’ll probably feel some emotion stepping out of the car for the final time because I still enjoy driving F1 cars.

“But, as I’ve said before, my motivation for things that come hand-in-hand with F1 isn’t the same as when I was 24 or even 34, so the timing is perfect for me.”

With nine race victories, 41 podiums and 13 pole positions to his name, Webber is the most successful Australian F1 driver without a championship.

He is also one of just three to have won a grand prix, alongside three-time world champion Sir Jack Brabham and the country’s most recent title-winner Jones.

It began back in 2002, when a three-race contract with Minardi gave Webber his debut at the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne.

“I haven’t done too badly to still be here in 2013,” the 37-year-old said.

“Of course I would have loved to have won the championship, but at least I was in the fight for it right up until the final round in 2010 in probably one of the most competitive years in recent history.”

It took Webber 130 starts before he scored his first race victory – the longest wait of any driver in the category’s history.

The win, at Germany’s Nurburgring, was in 2009 – the same year he was paired with rising superstar Sebastian Vettel at Red Bull.

The young German – 11 years his junior – had already racked up three wins by that stage, his first coming after just 20 starts with junior outfit Toro Rosso.

To say their relationship has been tense is an understatement.

Red Bull advisor Helmut Marko, one of Vettel’s sternest backers, dates the tension back to Fuji in 2007 (a point Webber disputes).

Vomiting inside his helmet, the Australian overcome a bout of food poisoning to secure second position and give himself a clear shot at victory – until Vettel (then at Toro Rosso) hit him from behind and forced his retirement.

Similar scenarios played out throughout Webber’s career – most notably the Turkey Grand Prix in 2010 and again in Malaysia this year, when Vettel infamously ignored team orders and overtook Webber to win the race.

It’s something Jones knows all too well.

In 1981, the reigning world champion had a spectacular fallout with teammate Carlos Reutemann after he, too, disobeyed team orders to win the Brazilian Grand Prix.

Their already-combative relationship deteriorated and Jones called it quits the end of that season.

“Over the years, there’s always been major bloody competition within a team. There’s the old saying: the first person you’ve got to beat is your teammate.

“We saw it with (Alain) Prost and (Ayrton) Senna, we saw it with Reutemann and myself. It’s something that goes on.

“If you’ve got egos you can’t jump over and different nationalities and lots of money involved, there’s always going to be a bit of aggravation.”

Webber isn’t bothered that some people will only remember him for his bitter feud with four-time world champion Vettel or the reliability issues with his car that have plagued his past two seasons in F1.

It’s all water off a duck’s back for the popular straight-talking bloke from Queanbeyan.

“The people who matter know the true story.

I’d like to think I’d leave a legacy of a driver who was tough but fair and always gave his best.

There is no doubt Webber has left an indelible mark in the sport and will be missed.

So does he deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Brabham or Jones, when it comes to Australian Formula One drivers?

“Of course not,” Jones jokes.

“At the end of the day, he’s the only other Aussie who has won a grand prix – and he’s won a few of them.

“He has spent a considerable time in Formula One as a professional. For that alone, I think he deserves applause for.

“He had a bit of bad luck along the way. I’d sum up (his career) as being successful and one that he should be proud of.

“I think he’s been exceptionally good for the sport and the country. He’s been a very good ambassador for Australia and for motorsport.

“Now all he’s got to do is simply enjoy the last grand prix and walk away from what has been a very good career in Formula One.”

Webber is planning a low-key exit after he clocks his final few kilometres in his RB9 on Sunday.

He intends to fly straight back home to the UK that night, to prepare for the last of his commitments with Red Bull and meet his new team at Porsche before the year draws to a close.

“But there will be a chance to unwind and enjoy Christmas and New Year and indulge in some festive fare before getting back on the horse in January and the start of pre-season testing with Porsche,” he said.