"NAH MATE, straight back on the horse," was Mark Webber's typically relaxed answer to whether it was difficult getting back into a Formula 1 car for two days of solid testing just 12 weeks after breaking his leg. "Don't get me wrong. I was very nervous going into it. I'd absolutely buried myself preparing for it and there's a big concern about just how you'll be able to perform. Yet the test itself absolutely wiped away any question marks in my mind."
What wasn't widely known outside of his retinue of medical advisors was that it wasn't only the broken right leg he was recovering from; he also had a fractured shoulder.
"Yeah, if anything I was more concerned about how my shoulder might stand up to it." Imagine, if you can, what 4g of lateral force might feel like in a shoulder with a fracture that's not fully healed, and you begin to get a feel for
his level of apprehension.
Adrenaline overcomes pain
Taking over testing of the new Red Bull RB5 at Jerez from Sebastian Vettel, Webber almost immediately ran a 40-odd-lap sequence: "I was very pleasantly surprised by that. I had myself down for maybe 20 laps but I still felt brand new, so there was no reason to curtail the run." By the end of the first day he'd run 85 laps - and felt able to do more. It's not as if the team were being easy on him either. "No, I'd told Christian [Horner, team boss] right from the start of this whole thing that I don't want to compromise any of the team's programme. I told him not to pad the programme out, just to treat me as normal. Which they did. I was a bit sore the next morning - my muscles aren't back to full strength yet and it will be a while before I'm able to do four hours on a mountain bike. But as for the driving, no problem. I could do a full grand prix distance. Adrenalin's an amazing thing."
Part of Webber's speed, aside from a fantastic sensitivity to available grip, is the huge pressure he uses on the brake pedal. At high speeds, with an F1 car's full downforce acting upon it, the limitation to how much braking can be achieved in the initial phase is how hard the driver can press the pedal. Webber routinely uses 150-bar, a figure often not even approached by most other drivers in full-on emergencies when they're trying not to hit something. "The biggest pedal pressure I've ever seen," says McLaren's Paddy Lowe, "was when we had a suspension failure in testing with Alain Prost. He got 140-bar as he tried to bring it to a stop!" Fortunately, Webber's head-on with the 4x4 on his bike left his braking leg undamaged.
But still there could have been a concern with the functionality of the throttle foot. Blending throttle with grip is an essential part of loading the car up at the perfect millisecond, a fundamental part of being quick. It requires a lot of sensitivity. "Yeah, it was fine," he reassures. "At one point I deliberately went in too hot at Turn 5 so I really had to work to keep out of trouble, and it was just like I'd never been away."
He went quickly too. There was no low-fuel, new-tyre run, so the headline lap time didn't look anything special, but his pace over the long run confirmed that the new car, in its first week of testing, is trading times with the McLaren, Renault and Williams - machines with rather more test miles beneath them.
New cars too close to call
The remarkable thing about last week's tests in Spain and Bahrain is that the cars were uncannily closely matched. In Bahrain there appeared little more than a tenth between Ferrari, Toyota and BMW. The same seemed true at Jerez of McLaren, Renault, Red Bull and Williams. "Around Jerez we all seemed to be in the 1m 21s on a long run," says Webber. "I can't believe that after a massive regulation change like that, we're still all tonking around within a tenth or so of each other."
It's early days yet, of course. Obviously Webber's hoping that there's a lot more to come from Adrian Newey's new machine. "It's a stunning looking thing," he says, not succeeding in containing his excitement. "The way he's packaged it is unbelievable. I've not seen all the cars yet, but the ones I've looked at look a full 12 months behind what Adrian's done. We've not got all the set-up toys yet, so I'm pretty sure there's more to come. It's just a question of where everyone else is, which is what Melbourne's going to be all about."
That, and lending his support to the community north of the city that's been devastated by the bush fires of recent weeks. Even a broken leg and shoulder, and an agonising recovery, have not dulled his wish to help those less fortunate - which, of course, is how he got the injury in the first place. Top bloke.
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