After making 215 Grand Prix starts and spending 12 years in Formula 1, Mark Webber begins a new chapter in his motorsports career this weekend, as the veteran open-wheel driver makes his debut with Porsche in the FIA World Endurance Championship.
Webber’s arrival onto the sports car scene, along with the German manufacturer’s return to top-level factory prototype racing has been touted as two of the major talking points in the new-look championship, which also sees the launch of new LMP1 regulations.
“It’s a very different type of racing from what I’ve been doing the last few years but I’ve been enjoying it,” Webber said Friday at Silverstone, site of Sunday’s season-opener. “Testing has gone reasonably well from my side in terms of that transition, getting a few laps in, which is always enjoyable.
“It’s a new team, with a lot of new people in new positions, so that will take time for us to gel and get the harmony and chemistry. As with any racing team, that’s crucial.”
The 37-year-old Australian headlines the lineup in Porsche’s first factory Le Mans prototype program in more than fifteen years, sharing the No. 20 Porsche 919 Hybrid with Timo Bernhard and Brendon Hartley. Romain Dumas, Marc Lieb and Neel Jani are in the team’s No. 14 entry, which had topped the time sheets in Friday’s opening practice.
While no complete stranger to endurance racing, having been a Mercedes factory driver in the 1998 FIA GT Championship and also making two attempts at the 24 Hours of Le Mans prior to his F1 career, adapting back to the discipline hasn’t necessarily been an easy road.
“There’s lots of different facets that need to come together,” Webber said. “My driving style is not exactly at the top of the list at the moment but it will get there. I enjoy driving the car. It’s obviously a different lap time altogether from what I’ve been used to. But you still need to drive on the limit and find the compromises in terms of balance and all the type of things that come with running Formula One.”
There are many unknowns heading into Sunday’s Six Hours of Silverstone, including how Porsche’s 919 Hybrid will stack up against the proven likes of Audi and Toyota, which also debut new cars but boast years of endurance racing experience.
Despite having shown encouraging pace thus far, Webber is taking a realistic approach into the opening rounds, with the eye on the ultimate prize, the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June.
“We’re clearly here to compete, that’s obvious,” he said. “Porsche is a very, very strong manufacturer and has had sensational success at Le Mans with many, many victories there. The short races will be short and furious and fast but the guys that have a little bit more knowledge and experience will be hard to beat at any venue and we’re respectful of that.
“Can we take the battle to them? Of course we would love to but we’re pretty measured with our expectations. Time will tell. The next two events are a warmup for Le Mans and then Le Mans is a different story altogether to try and finish that race cleanly.
“It’s going to be a learning year for us in many ways. If they’re going to hand out some champagne, we’ll try to grab some when we can. We’ll work hard.”