By Hugh Podmore and Chris Hayes
Only a few months ago Red Bull ace Mark Webber found himself out-for-the-count on a Tasmanian operating table after breaking his leg in a cycling accident.
A frustrating situation for any driver faced with the threat of missing the start of the new season, not least when your sapling teammate and one of the most talked about drivers on the grid is snapping at your heels for supremacy.
But after walking about with metal rods in his leg for most of Christmas and meeting the rehab sessions head on with dogged determination and plucky Queanbeyan grit, Webber finds himself in fighting spirits ahead of his home race and season-opening grand prix in Melbourne, as Forumula1.com found out when we caught up with the Aussie for his first outing in Red Bull’s new RB5 during testing in Jerez, Spain…
How s the leg?
It s goodâ€¦with injuries like this you have ups and down but we had to be back this week anyway.
And physically, was there any pain when you were driving?
No, pretty good actually. Obviously I was a bit rusty in some other places. I mean, to do 83 laps on my first day back in the car blew me away. The engineer said to me with about 20 minutes to go, ok, that s it for today, and I said, why?
So it s not going to be an excuse in Melbourne?
No, I ve never made one in the past I don t think.
How was the new car when you tried it out?
Well, obviously there s lower downforce so they move around a lot more. The slicks have given us a fraction of grip back, but the [tyre] compound s a little too soft for this venue, so the grip s not amazing it is for a few laps but then it drops away pretty quick.
Who do you see as your main rivals this year?
We re racing everyone. It s very early days. We ll find out in Melbourne. I could tell you someone and it might be totally ridiculousâ€¦
[smiles] You never know.
Your team-mate, Sebastian Vettel. How do you feel about racing alongside him?
Yeah, it s fine. A new team-mate, I ve had plenty in the past. This is another new exciting one for me.
And you have something of a reputation for disposing of team-mates, too.
That s just the way it s gone. I just concentrate on myself, really, and he ll do the same. He s a very good talent and together we ll work very well. We re alreadyâ€¦we had a good relationship before we were team-mates, so nowâ€¦
Is that right? What about Fuji 2007, when Vettel ran into the back of you?
Ah yeah, that wasâ€¦we spoke that night.
Because you could have won that race…
It was interesting. Both Sebastian and I go very well in the wet.
What’s the latest situation with the GPDA’s position on superlicences?
It s the statement that went out [from the GPDA, on Saturday February 7th], so nothing s moved from there.
Max Mosley says that the cost of the licences is reasonable . How do you respond to that?
We have put the statement out. And the drivers are unanimous in their feelings on it, so that s what we think.
that right? Three drivers have already bought their superlicences for 2009. Do you know who they are?
Have you spoken with them?
No, we know it s pretty much out of their hands. The teams go and do it anyway.
So it s not like they ve decided to go off andâ€¦
The press don t understand the whole thing.
Any possibility of a driver s strike over the superlicences?
I don t think we ll strike.
You never say never about anything. Can a plane land in the Hudson river?
You re not ruling it out.
I m pretty much [ruling it out]. It wouldn t be fair to the fans.
You can see how this [row over the cost of superlicences] might seem to the fans, though. Lots of people losing their jobs, Honda leaving the sport.
That doesn t mean that if you re on a reasonable wicket, you should pay for everything.
The FIA s point is that the facilities at the circuit have been paid for over such a long time and shouldn t the drivers be chipping in to the relative costs of that?
The statement s out.
No further comment?
[smiles] I d love to, mate. We ll see.
So it ll be your home race in Melbourne. You re from Queanbeyan, that s nowhere near the bushfires, is it?
There is some fire not too far from us, but the worst ones have been in Victoria, the next state.
It s reached the edges of Melbourne, as well, hasn t it?
Yes, in Ivanhoe, which is very close. Skyscrapers in the background.
Can you see preparations for the grand prix being disrupted?
No, but I think the drivers will do something for the people that have suffered. It s already something that I ve flagged, maybe when we get down there we ll be able to do something. Everyone s spoken about it, some of the other drivers have asked me about it.
What do you make of Alonso’s quiet testing performances so far?
We know he s not there as a driver. Obviously they ve got work to do with the car, but they re a lot closer than they ve ever been. That s the best day they ve had [at this test]. It would be ridiculous to ever write off Alonso, though.
Your team-mate (Sebastian Vettel) did the fewest number of laps but is only a thousandth off Lewis. You must be chuffed about that?
We don t know what fuel load he was on. We can change that number by a second.
Interview copyright and credit: Hugh Podmore, Forumula1.com