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Webber shifts up a gear
March 01, 2005 12:11 IST
Mark Webber likens his situation to being at base camp on Everest.
The down-to-earth Australian driver, preparing for his Williams debut before his home crowd in Sunday's Formula One season-opener, can see clearly what he has to do and where he has to go.
The mountain still has to be climbed, however.
Webber bears a burden of expectation, and not just in Australia, that comes with moving to a winning team and following in the slipstream of compatriot Alan Jones, who won the 1980 title with Williams.
Even if he shrugs off most of the hype, the 28-year-old Queanbeyan driver's burgeoning reputation is out of all proportion to his results on the track.
Webber has so far finished no higher than fifth place in his Formula One career -- on an emotional debut with Minardi in Melbourne in 2002.
"It is remarkable, isn't it, actually," said Williams' engineering director and co-owner Patrick Head.
"When he came to us somebody said to me, I think actually one of the other drivers that was keen to drive alongside him, do you realise you've got a driver whose highest finishing position is fifth in a Minardi?
"It must be a monkey on his back."
Driving for Minardi was like turning up on Everest in a pair of plimsolls. Jaguar were more respectable but Williams, winners of the last race of 2004, can take him to the top.
They certainly think he is good enough.
"He is the antithesis of Alan Jones and a bit like (Nigel) Mansell and (Alain) Prost mixed together," said team boss Frank Williams. "He has immense determination, like Mansell, and is always thinking, like Prost".
Webber, who qualified second for Jaguar in Malaysia last year and third in the last two races, is eager to reward his new masters' confidence but he may have to be patient.
His BMW-powered team have warned already that they will struggle to match the pace of the Renaults and McLarens during the early races.
"We're not happy," said Webber on Sunday, before raising his profile another notch by driving his Williams across Sydney Harbour Bridge. "I'm a competitive person and to get beaten by other people, I don't enjoy that.
"To do that in Australia is more frustrating but we've only got ourselves to blame. We could have very easily been in a much better position but we're not and there are no excuses for that."
Webber's supporters know that he is good, but not how good, and are eager to see him go wheel-to-wheel with leaders such as Ferrari's seven-times champion Michael Schumacher.
"I think he is on the brink of showing the world what he can really do," said Minardi boss Paul Stoddart.
"Mark brings to any team he comes to such a tremendous spirit and absolute dedication. There's only one driver other than Michael Schumacher out there that lives, sleeps, eats and breathes F1 110 percent and that's Mark Webber."
Tony Purnell, boss of the now-defunct Jaguar team that Webber joined from Minardi in 2003, can barely find sufficient words to praise the Australian.
"For me, Mark is the near-perfect racing driver," he said after the season-ending Brazilian Grand Prix. "He's professional, he never does anything but try his damnedest and when the going gets tough he is focused and determined."
Despite Williams's assertion that Webber is the opposite of Jones, and certainly their eras are very different, comparisons are inevitable.
Jones, now 58, was the team's first world champion, muscling the heavy ground-effect FW08 to title dominance.
Direct, determined and downright bloody-minded, the Australian embodied the spirit of Williams and remains a benchmark for a hard-nosed team who have never been known for pampering drivers.
"Alan was very self-confident, he didn't really have any particular fear of anybody else on the track or any view that anybody was better than him," reminisced Head.
"Everybody in the team believed that he was going to win the race, wherever he was on the grid, and he had the ability to project that belief into the whole team.
"If he had a problem with something he just came out and said it to the person he had the problem with.
"When Alan burst into the garage or truck the next morning you knew he was spoiling to get pole position or win the race or whatever and it was that totally positive projection of 'I'm going to win'," added Head.
"I think Mark has got all the same level of determination."
If there are any lingering doubts about that, then Webber is eager to dispel them.
"I'm at the base camp of Everest and I've got a long way to climb," he said. "I've got a lot to prove, not least to myself, and I can't bloody wait to get out there and put my neck on the line."
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