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Saturday, July 7, 2012
Norfolk and motorsport have long been affiliated with each other, ever since Lotus moved to the county in 1968, and Van Diemen was founded in 1973 – but not many know that one Formula One star enjoyed humble beginnings in the county.
In 1996, a 19-year-old Australian ventured to Norfolk in a move that would kick start his career.
Mark Webber is now regarded as one of the finest drivers in the world and has enjoyed Formula One success with Minardi, Jaguar, Williams and most notably Red Bull.
But it was his time in Attleborough with Van Diemen that set him on course for his motorsport dream.
“I lived in Attleborough for about six months in 1996,” said the Aussie. “It was close to the Van Diemen factory who I was racing for in Formula Ford, so it made sense to be there.”
Having been born and raised in Australia he made the decision to visit the UK at the back end of 1995 as he looked to further his career, and it was Norfolk where he received his first opportunity.
Ralph Firman Senior was the boss at Van Diemen and Mark recalls pestering him to give him the opportunity of a test drive.
He said: “I had flown over to have a look around at options for the following season and Ralph gave in to my persistence and said I could test one of his cars there.”
And just 24 hours later Firman was on the phone offering him the drive for the team in the Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch, such was the impression made on him.
That impression was to last as he went on to finish third in the festival, prompting Firman to sign him for the 1996 Formula Ford Championship. By the end of the season he had chalked up four victories that saw him finish second in the overall championships.
And following his performance in the Formula Ford Euro Cup, taking third in the series despite competing in only two of the three rounds, he was voted as Australian Motorsport’s young achiever and international achiever of 1996.
Despite moving on from Van Diemen at the end of the year, Snetterton would remain a key place for Webber.
“It actually played quite a large role in my career,” said the Red Bull ace.
“I tested and raced there in Formula Ford and Formula Three and I even used it to shake down my F3000 car as the team I was racing for, Super Nova, were based locally.
“It was also the first track outside of Australia I drove on.”
He speaks fondly of his time in Norfolk and remembers it as a period of settling in following his decision to move from Australia.
“In terms of my career, I guess it helped that I knew the circuit when it came to racing and testing there, but really it was the camaraderie working with the other driving instructors and having a bit of normality while I was living in the UK that probably made the most difference for me,” said Webber.
“Like many others, Norfolk gave my first real insight and introduction to the British motorsport scene.
“So many great drivers, such as Ayrton Senna, started their careers racing for Van Diemen so for an Aussie coming from the other side of the world, being part of the same Van Diemen team was very special.
“Norfolk – and Attleborough in particular – was home to a lot of young aspiring racing drivers during the 1970s, 80s and 90s; some of whom went on to make it at the very highest level.”
Webber can now add himself to that list and he makes it clear that moving to the other side of the world was a decision that defined his career.
The Aussie said: “As a youngster leaving home for the first time and living on the other side of the world, it was a bit of a challenge to start with, but I didn’t see it as a sacrifice or hardship – it’s just what needed to be done to reach the ultimate goal of Formula One.
“Financially I was struggling so I would do anything to earn a few pounds. Ralph Firman used to give me a few bob every now and again to chauffeur people around for him, airport runs and so on. I was stunned to actually be paid for doing it.”
Webber makes no secret of the fact that crucial support came from Australian rugby legend David Campese who had played with Mark’s father for the Queanbeyan Whites.
Webber was almost forced to quit halfway through his 1997 Formula Ford season and that is when he turned to Campese, who offered him £50,000, that ensured he could run his car for the rest of the campaign.
The Aussie clearly understands the hard work and dedication needed to make his dream of becoming world champion a reality.
And having finished third in both 2010 and 2011, the popular Australian – currently second in the standings – hopes this season could be the one
Webber said: “I have gone into this season very refreshed and focused. My goals are the same though; we want to win and score those big points as often as possible.
“We know this year’s competition is going to be very close and consistency is going to be the key.”
And his focus is epitomised as I dared to ask what might lurk after life in the fast line.
“It’s not something I’m really thinking about now. I’m 100pc focused on my Formula One career at the moment and when the day comes that I stop feeling passionate about what I do, I’ll hang up my helmet and then we’ll see.”