FIRST PUBLISHED MAY 1998
SIGNING A THREE-YEAR CONTRACT TO RACE AN MERCEDES-BENZ CLK GTR IN THE FIA GT CHAMPIONSHIP, BEGINNING IN 1998, WAS THE BREAK MARK WEBBER NEEDED ON HIS PATH TO FORMULA ONE.
Today, reading Todd Hallenbeck’s Mark Webber profile from Wheels May 1998, the AMG deal looked perfect for the then 21-year-old from Queanbeyan.
“Webber is more than a talented driver. He is very professional for his age and extremely good off-track,” Hans Werner Aufrecht, the president of AMG, told Wheels. “Those qualities and the fact that he didn’t have a lot of money attracted us to him.”
“He’s very approachable and suave and good for our image.”
Webber signed into the same AMG junior driver program that helped Michael Schumacher, Heinz-Harold Frentzen, Dario Franchitti and Alexander Wurz make it into top-flight racing.
With Bernd Schneider, Webber won five of the 10 championship races in 1998 to finish second behind another AMG in the title fight.
The relationship with AMG looked beyond happy. “Off track, the professionalism [AMG] show is a long way ahead of anyone else,” said Webber. “The way they look after drivers is unreal.
At Jarama [Webber’s first test session in the CLK GTR] in the middle sessions, you get a full massage.” Hallenbeck wrote, “For a kid who remembers the dirt paddocks of Amaroo Park and the shithole that’s Lakeside, all those warm Cokes and cold hotdogs, he’s happy beyond belief.”
It didn’t last. With the FIA cancelling the Sportscar race series due to a lack of interest from other manufacturers, Mercedes concentrated on winning the 1999 Le Mans 24-hour race – the first time Mercedes had returned since the 1955 horror race when over 80 spectators were killed. Instead, the race became a nightmare for Mercedes and its drivers. An aerodynamic issue with the car caused Webber’s CLR to take off at 300km/h over a hump on the circuit and crash massively.
Nobody in the team took Webber’s version of the accident seriously. In practice on the morning of the race, unbelievably, exactly the same thing happened. Webber survived, but the team insisted there was no problem. It wasn’t the car, it was the driver. Webber wanted the cars withdrawn, but AMG insisted they start. Five hours into the race Peter Dumbreck’s CLR flipped and went into the trees in one of motor racing’s most horrifying accidents. Somehow, he too, survived.
In his terrific book Aussie Grit, Webber writes, “I lost it then. I burst into tears, and then I ran flat out to the pits about a kilometre and a half away. I was ropeable. When was this nightmare going to end?”
In the weeks following Le Mans nobody from Mercedes rang Webber. Today, the 1999 Le Mans is almost written out of Mercedes racing history. Webber, of course, did achieve his F1 dream, winning nine races and standing on the podium 42 times in a stellar career. He then went back to sportscars and won the FIA World Endurance Championship in 2015.
Read this story, written during the honeymoon period with AMG, but remember it didn’t end well.
– TODD HALLENBECK
The Aussie who built a replica Ferrari GP racer
In 1997, Webber, running out of money fast and heavily in debt to his F3 team, thought his racing career was over. It was Peter Windsor, former Williams team manager and later a respected F1 journalist, who suggested Mark contact David Campese, the great Australian rugby winger.
Webber remembers, “At one point, we were so behind on payments that we decided to ask David Campese for help.
He played union with Dad for the Queanbeyan Whites, so he knew our family well, and if anyone was going to buy into what I was trying to do, we thought it would be him. In the end, he paid something like £50,000 ($A84,000), which was just unbelievable, and it meant that we could keep going.”
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Bill Clinton denies he had “sexual relations” with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, starting the Lewinsky scandal, investigations and backflip.
The Russian ruble loses 70 percent of its value against the US dollar over a six-month period. Several of Russia’s largest banks collapse, and millions of people lose their savings.
Microsoft becomes the world’s most valuable company, valued at US$261b on the New York Stock Exchange. These days it’s around US$290b, about 40 percent less than Apple.