For the first time in 12 years, Mark Webber won't be carrying the hopes of a nation in the Australian formula one grand prix.
Webber’s retirement from F1 at the end of last season means he will be carefree and relaxed at Albert Park for the next few days, rather than under constant scrutiny and feeling the pressure to perform.
He had been a focus of attention every year since finishing fifth in his F1 debut in 2002 – an underdog performance he was never to better until 2012.
Now he is just a famous face in the crowd, and looking forward to the relative anonymity and freedom of international sports car racing, leading Porsche’s return to the Le Mans 24-hour endurance classic.
Although he is just a few months removed from competing at the highest level, Webber certainly isn’t suffering withdrawal symptoms.
There are no pangs of regret about giving up his drive with the world champion Red Bull Racing team, opening the way for West Australian Daniel Ricciardo to partner defending four-time title holder Sebastian Vettel, and certainly no desire to haunt the F1 pit lane or even the pit paddock.
He arrived in Melbourne on Wednesday and will leave late on Saturday, watching Sunday’s season-opening race at his holiday home in Noosa.
“I didn’t stop [F1] to hang out at racetracks all the time,” Webber told Fairfax Media. “I don’t want to be a spare part. I did my thing, mate, now I have other things to do.”
He’ll spend most of his time at Albert Park with guests in the hospitality suite of his new sports car racing employer Porsche and making promotional appearances for Red Bull, which continues as a personal sponsor.
In between, Webber will join Channel 10’s commentary team during Friday’s practice and Saturday’s qualifying sessions.
But don’t expect him to become a regular on TV because, unlike many ex-F1 drivers, he isn’t angling for a commentary job to stay on the circuit.
“No,” he said firmly when asked if he planned to join Ten for any more races this year. “It’s something I won’t be doing a huge amount of, that’s for sure.
“I’m happy to help 10 out. They’ve been great to me over the years. We’ve had a very good relationship from day dot and, hopefully, I can help them out.”
Such is the pace of development in F1, as well as the scale of the technical changes for this season, that Webber didn’t think he would have a lot to offer viewers about the intricacies of driving this year’s new-look cars.
“I can talk about the track, I can talk about how certain drivers go about what they do, but in terms of the cars, things move on pretty quickly,” he said. “But I’ve been in the arena, so I’m probably in a position where I can comment on some things.”
Webber has been so immersed in Porsche’s preparations for its comeback to top-level prototype sports car racing that he didn’t follow the F1 pre-season testing in detail.
“I’m looking forward to seeing how the start of the season goes, but testing doesn’t do much for me,” he said. “I know there are a few teams that’ve come out of the box OK and some need a bit more time, but that’s normal with new regulations.
“When you have a big regulation change like this, I think you’ll see the form cars take shape when they get back to Europe, which is after four races.
“Melbourne’s really going to be very much a dress rehearsal for all of the teams in terms of how they go about executing a clean weekend.”
The switch to turbocharged 1.6-litre V6 engines, replacing screaming 2.4-litre V8s, and an even more complex energy-recovery system to power a hybrid-style boost from a pair of electric motors has caused reliability headaches in testing.
Webber agreed that just making it to the finish of Sunday's 58-lap, 307 kilometre race will be the main goal, with the very real prospect of surprises.
“With this new technology, it looks like the teams are very much on a very, very aggressive [learning] curve,” he said. “It’s new for everyone, and that means there’s going to be some absolute unpredictability and some surprises. There’s just so much up in the air and that’s what makes it interesting. It will be a very different type of racing, a different first round, one like we probably haven’t seen for a long, long time.
“Melbourne’s always hard to get ready for, but this will probably be the most extreme we’ve seen in a long time.”
Mercedes-Benz did the most running with the least problems in the three pre-season tests, as well as setting the pace, ahead of Williams, Ferrari, McLaren and Force India.
Red Bull Racing was beset by reliability issues, causing many to predict that Vettel and Ricciardo will not be near the front this weekend. But Webber warned his old team would be much stronger at Albert Park than its testing form suggested.
“Never underestimate them,” he said. “The bar for them is so high. Everyone would love to see them maybe have a start to the season which is unusual for them, but they will be a force.
“The car’s not slow. It will be competitive, I assume. They just need to get some reliability and then they’ll be under way. They have the same people there they’ve had for a long time and there’s absolutely no one [among the other teams] that’s going to be writing them off, that’s for sure.
“You’d be stupid to write them off. They’re a quality team and they’ll be there or thereabouts. I wouldn’t be hitting any big panic buttons.”
Webber, 37, has handed the baton of Aussie expectation to Ricciardo, 24, and he is confident his replacement at Red Bull will be unfazed by the team’s pre-season dramas and emerge as a front runner this year.
“He’ll be fine, mate,” Webber said. “He has so much experience in the team [as its former test and reserve driver]. He’s the perfect age, he’s quick, he deserved the opportunity and he’ll do very, very well.
“There’s going to be an element of patience required from certain experts in this country, but the most important thing is that he does a good job for himself and the team, which he’s absolutely capable of doing.
“He has his head screwed on and there’s no reason he can’t do very, very well. He realises the opportunity he has and I’m sure he’ll go well.”
The story Mark Webber happy to be out of the formula one spotlight first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.