For a decade, Mark Webber has carried the weight of Australia’s high hopes of grand prix glory.
It is a load Webber has borne willingly and well, even if his compatriots haven’t always appreciated his achievements in one of the world’s most fiercely competitive sports.
Ill-informed pundits spout disparagement that he hasn’t won more formula one races, portraying him as a driver not good enough to be mentioned in the same breath as Jack Brabham and Alan Jones.
They are Australian legends because they won world titles – Brabham in 1959-60-66 and Jones in 1980 – but statistics aside, Webber is very much in the same league.
Just as Brabham and Jones were better known for being ruthless than gifted, Webber’s sheer talent is also underrated.
His sense of fair play is very much in the tradition of old-school Australian sportsmanship, whereas Brabham and certainly Jones didn’t mind getting their wheels dirty in the pursuit of victory.
The big difference between them is that ”Black Jack” and AJ were in the right places at the right times to win world titles.
What Webber’s critics don’t understand is that for most of his 11 seasons in F1 he has been with teams and in cars not capable of winning.
It wasn’t until Red Bull Racing hit its straps in the second half of 2009 that he had the equipment to convert his ability into victories.
Which he has done – nine times, including twice at Monaco – but not enough to convince the doubters.
The lack of respect in this country for what he has done is at odds with the reality of how far he has come since his gutsy fifth-placed F1 debut with minnow Minardi in the 2002 Australian GP.
Unfortunately for Webber, the rise of RBR also coincided with the arrival of Sebastian Vettel, whose brilliance has outshone – but not overawed or subjugated – him.
He has remained combative and assertive against Vettel’s blossoming talent and refused to be worn down by the team’s psychological favouritism of the young German.
Despite the internal friction – and the fact that he is an F1 veteran and not a product of Red Bull’s driver development program – the team can find no better alternative, and neither can Webber.
He declined the chance to join Ferrari this year and finish his career with the storied Scuderia, gaining F1 immortality in the process, because his priority is driving for the best team in the best car with the best chance of winning races and contending for the world championship.
And Webber firmly believes he can do it this year, despite all the talk about him being the oldest driver at 36 and heading into his final season.
Retirement – or being replaced by some young gun – is a touchy subject because the speculation is not based on anything he has said or hinted.
Signing a one-year renewal with RBR – along with the next wave of proteges such as fast-rising fellow Australian Daniel Ricciardo waiting in the Red Bull wings – is seen as indicative, yet, in fact, it is how Webber has plotted his course in recent years.
Adamant that he is not even thinking that this is his last season in F1, he forcefully dismisses his age as a defining issue.
”It’s completely obvious that I’m not at the start of my career any more, but I’m also achieving some very good results and while I continue to do that and while I enjoy my work, I’ll continue,” he said. ”Whether I was born in ’76 or ’86 is irrelevant. It just so happens that Michael [Schumacher] has retired and all of a sudden I’m the oldest guy.
”Lewis [Hamilton] is one of the youngest guys [at 28], but I think he’s the sixth oldest or whatever.
”Jenson Button  is the most experienced on the grid with the most grands prix [228 versus Webber’s 196], so all those stats don’t mean a huge amount. And it’ll be on my terms – if I’m not happy with how I’m driving or performing, then I’ll do different things and we’ll make different decisions, as I always have done.
”So, yeah, it starts and stops with me. My first contract in F1 was for three races, so you always have to perform, especially when you’re aiming for podiums in this game and it’s no different this year. So I’m going to go out and enjoy it, but still obviously with that steely determination to make sure that we make every opportunity count and continue to do well.”
Webber heads into Sunday’s season-opening Australian Grand Prix at Albert Park confident that he’ll be in contention to finally win his home race.
”We’re definitely going to be in contention to put a strong weekend together, no question about that,” he declared. ”Testing’s gone pretty well for us. We’ve had some opposition – they’ve put some pretty good times in as well – so it’s going down to the details, all the little boring things that make the difference.”
While winning would rank with his Monaco and British GP victories as a highlight, Webber approaches it the same as any other race.
”Every grand prix’s brilliant to have a chance of winning,” he said.
”Obviously, the Melbourne event is in the top three for me in terms of winning.
”So it’d be brilliant to get an amazing result there, but it’s really only an extra one or two per cent stronger than any other victory at the other tracks that I’ve had.
”I can’t try extra hard or or do anything else than what I do at any other venue.”
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.