Not so long ago, the profile on Mark Webber’s website had an entry for “Sporting Heroes”. Number one was Tour de France legend Lance Armstrong. The only other was Michael Schumacher.
Before he first travelled to Europe to start climbing the junior ladder to formula one in early 1996, a teenage Webber sneaked a pit lane pass in Melbourne and made his way to Schumacher’s Ferrari garage. History records a photograph of starstruck Webber, then just 19 and a Formula Ford driver, with his arm around his childhood hero.
“He was an inspiration to me,” Webber, now 30, said in 2006, Schumacher’s last season in F1. “But it’s like seeing a stunning girl in the playground. When you get close to her, you start to notice her flaws.”
As a boy in Queanbeyan, he watched on TV when Schumacher took out Damon Hill to win the 1994 title. As an F3 pilot, he was again watching when Schumacher used his F1 single seater as a battering ram against Jacques Villeneuve.
But just as watching The OC differs from being cheated on by your girlfriend, Webber similarly discovered that being at the pointy end of a Schumacher spat tastes a lot more bitter in real life. Last year, Mark threw his middle finger up in disgust after a collision with Schumacher in Turkey. “He f-cked up, didn’t he?” Webber fumed afterwards. “Ask all the other drivers.”
Not one month later, the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association, of which you-know-who was president, decided that five directors was too many. Webber got the boot.
Then, although not producing as many headline-grabbing expletives as some, Webber was arguably the most wounded at Monaco this year when pole-sitter Schumacher deliberately “parked” his Ferrari on the racing line in the dying minutes of qualifying.
Unlike world champion Fernando Alonso, Webber lost not only a flying lap; in a face-to-face encounter at the next race, Webber personally disowned Schumacher as a hero.
The next day, Webber snubbed the Silverstone drivers’ briefing because top of the bill was a discussion about Schumacher’s Monaco tactics. “As a fan I want my sport to be looked at in the right way,” Webber explained. “You don’t want to be defending your main man all the time. You can give someone the benefit of the doubt only so often. At times I have run out of excuses for him.”