Since recovering from a broken leg in a bike accident in late 2008, Aussie Formula One hero Mark Webber’s had the best year of his professional life. With two wins, eight podium places and an overall second for his team Red Bull Racing, life couldn’t be brighter.
But Mark’s impressive career has been far from a solo mission. His partner of nearly 14 years, Ann Neal, secured his first sponsorship deal in 1994 when he was just 18, and Mark admits: ‘I wouldn’t be here without her.’
Despite their 13-year age difference – he’s 33, she’s 46 – the couple are enjoying every minute of their exciting journey. We chatted with them at the home they share in England with Ann’s son Luke, 18, and their dogs Shadow and Simba, ahead of this week’s Australian Grand Prix.
Mark, your life seems far removed from the typical F1 playboy image…
Mark: I’ve had chances to derail but it’s up to you if you want to take those chances, to be a more shallow person. Fidelity’s a big one for me. My dad taught me that – and that I’m never too old to get a good kick up the a***. I’ve got a role to play in being a respectful person.
Are these the qualities you love most about him, Ann?
Ann: He is very consistent. He doesn’t lose his rag. He’s very laid-back – I’d say to the point of being horizontal, which frustrates me personally, because I like to be more organised. Overall, I think we share similar values and principles as we come from similar backgrounds.
Is Mark romantic?
Mark: I’m pretty rubbish.
Ann: Yeah, he is pretty rubbish! He tells me every day’s a birthday because I’m with him.
That’s Dad’s line (laughs). But we have a lot of fun together. We do a lot of things through the year which are special – we get to go to unique places that for other people would be a Christmas or birthday treat.
You’re 13 years older than Mark. Do you worry about the temptations that may come his way, Ann?
I’m probably naive, but I don’t see it. I just know how Mark is, how demanding he can be. With me being older, I accept it. I know what he needs, how he ticks. If he wants to spend all evening with the engineers at the track, that’s what will happen. Someone else a bit younger could have a hissy fit about something like that, but it’s fine with me. We don’t need to go out to do things. That’s why we’re comfortable with each other. I can occupy myself, I’m quite comfortable.
I have a very selfish role, holding down a very stressful professional occupation – I need someone who’s mature and has her head screwed on. It would be draining to have someone who’s high maintenance – that would be dangerous to me, it could affect my work. She’s no pushover; we have our disagreements, but it’s not constant. Like all females, she nags, but Annie never nags me when I’m in the work zone.
Working and living together, how do you make it work?
We do spend a lot of time with each other. It’s intense but our relationship’s constantly evolving.
We travel to the races together; we do tend to be attached at the hip in lots of ways. But this is the journey, the result of what we achieved together. My goal was to get Mark into Formula One and we’ve achieved it.
So who does what in the relationship?
I’m the organised one. If we’re going away for four or five weeks, I’ve got all the lists. Mark is focused on what he’s interested in and – like most men – little else. He wants to
leave everything to the last minute. Mark: Ann’s ridiculously organised, she’s slick. She dealt with everything when I had my accident.
And I’m the positive one I guess… that’s just the way that I am. If you’re going
to make it happen you have to look on the bright side.
Ann, your son Luke leaves school this year – how have you juggled parenting with the jetset lifestyle?
Mark’s been consistent in Luke’s life since before he started school, and they’ve grown up together like brothers in lots of ways. Our lifestyle’s never been an issue – I was travelling before I met Mark so Luke’s grown up quite independent.
And he’s had some fun opportunities. He met Ricky Ponting this year, and David Beckham. That’s great; it lights little dreams for him.
We’re not typical parents! I don’t know if he thinks he’s missed out on anything, but I don’t think so. Anyway, it’s not just Mark and me. Luke’s dad plays an important role even though he lives in Australia. So in many ways Luke gets the best of both worlds by spending most of the year with us and holidaying in Australia with his dad and grandparents, who he also has a close relationship with.
Have you ever considered having kids yourselves?
Ann: No, we never did.
I’d find it hard to do the job with kids. I’d probably get soft, it’d change my head, so it wasn’t something I ever wanted. You can’t have everything. I’ve had an amazing journey up until now, and we’re planning an amazing journey post-career. So if it means we don’t have kids, that’s the way it is. It’s not a big deal in my head – it’s not on my radar, because it’s not going to happen with Annie.
No, I don’t think I want to go into it again.
So what plans do you have for your retirement, Mark?
I want to stop when I’m in control, right at the top of my game. I’m looking for another strong year this year and then, hopefully, next year should take care of itself. Ann was happy for last year to be my last.
After Mark’s accident and before the start of last season, I did say if he won a couple of races that year, I’d be happy for him to stop. It’s not because I don’t like him doing it and I’ll support him 100 per cent for as long as he wants to continue, but there are so many other things we want to achieve. We’ve got a junior racing team and lots of other non-racing ideas. And we have solo projects – I have a restaurant and I’d like to write a book, but neither get my attention while we’re living Formula One. But there is certainly life after Formula One for us.
: I’m not very supportive now. It’s a jealousy thing with me, I suppose. I want her to be involved in the things we’re doing together but I do want her to do things for herself in the future.
Will you move back to Oz?
We’re in a long debate.
I’m a very proud Australian. I’ve spent nearly half my life not in Australia, so it will play a pretty big role in the rest of my life at some stage. I miss it, but I also like Europe and its lifestyle, and how easy it is getting from one country to another.
Will you ever get married?
I wouldn’t say we’ll never get married. But it’s just good as it is.
Photos: Gavin Smith