After a career engaged in “wheel to wheel combat” Mark Webber, the most recognised Australian Formula One driver of the modern era recently founded a new Aussie clothing brand.
He’s a chiseled, gutsy, straight-shooting success story. And he wants to talk about tights.
Getting off the canvas is most of the rules.
More specifically he wants to talk about putting tights, and jackets, and shorts and shirts on any Aussie who embraces the joys of our great outdoors. In particular, we’re talking about an event that will clash with the timing of the upcoming federal election and rival it for sheer amount of dirt thrown – Ultra-Trail Australia.
As 20,000 spectators and trailrunning competitors from all corners of Australia, and the globe, converge on Sydney’s Blue Mountains World Heritage Area, Webber couldn’t be more excited. One of the biggest events of its kind anywhere in the world, UTA100 (so named for the pinnacle event of the festival being a 100km mountain run) will be the first major event partnership for Webber’s clothing brand.
His plucky new Aussie sports label will be front and centre in Katoomba from May 16 to May 19 as dreams, hamstrings, and hearts are built and broken across the sandstone canyons and eucalypt forests of one of Australia’s most iconic adventure and travel destinations.
Taking its name from his Twitter handle and 2015 autobiography, Webber’s Aussie Grit Apparel specializes in hard wearing, high quality men’s and women’s sporting gear for trail running, mountain biking, and triathlon, from elite performers to self-identified weekend warriors, like Webber himself. A youth spent outdoors adventuring around his hometown of Queanbeyan planted a passion that he has returned to, now the smoke of brake pads has cleared.
“I’m not a gym guy at all and I did 90% of my conditioning and work outside,” says Webber over a tinny phone line from Europe. “I loved the outdoors when I was training for my sport, and I continue to love the outdoors.”
In car racing, the glamour is unmissable and the punishment invisible. The forces in the fastest cars on the planet can make drivers suddenly weigh half a tonne.
Webber recounts a situation where sports scientists reviewed mystery blood samples without knowing what kind of athletes they’d come from. “This guy has been absolutely pasted! What sport is it?” the scientists exclaimed, giving up on the guessing game. But, he explains, “they just never ever expected it to be Formula 1.”
Still lean now at 80kg, for his 18 years as a professional driver his job was to keep his 183cm frame weighing just 73kg. In 1,000 scheduled days of racing, testing and practise, he only ever missed two days at the wheel.
no one gets nervous going to get the groceries, because you know what’s going to happen.
Asked about the people who inspired not just his career, but his approach to his career, Webber says these people weren’t just special, they were Special Forces.
“I had it drummed into me what kind of discipline was needed for them to get their job done, and I tried to encapsulate that into my profession.”
Given the chance to mention being physically and mentally conditioned by elite British operators, one could easily exude braggadocio. But instead, there’s an unaffected pragmatism.
He jokes with his world famous tennis friends that their sport is the opposite of his. Drivers are hidden behind helmets and fuselage. But with new camera technologies beaming the physical exertions of tennis stars worldwide, from the strain on their faces to the kicked up sand blasting from their feet and their performance literally centre court, it’s clear that every shot takes them closer to catastrophe.
“But at worst,” says Webber, “if something goes wrong there’s no real consequences for them, they just lose the match. They don’t go sliding down the road at 350km/h.”
It could seem like a famous figure is just partnering with a small group of local co-owners to lend his name to a clothing line to boost sales. He doesn’t need to work another day in his life, so why take a chance with a new business? But Webber has actively promoted gritty outdoor action since the turn of the century.
With some mates, he set up the Mark Webber Tasmanian Challenge in 2003 as a chance for off-season fitness and fun. It grew into a legendary multisport adventure race.
He concedes that “the first one we did was extremely optimistic”, but doesn’t specify that it involved a blistering 1,000km of kayaking, mountain biking and running within just 10 days.
This background is perhaps why he has both an easy affinity and abiding respect for Ultra-Trail Australia creators and Race Directors, Alina McMaster and Tom Landon-Smith. They themselves came from a world-beating heritage of extreme endurance and adventure racing.
When they launched what would evolve into a uniquely Australian festival of trail running just over a decade ago, the couple sent 160 runners on a 100km adventure, supported by just 30 volunteers. That number has now swollen massively, with nearly a thousand volunteers and more than 12,000 supporters cheering over 7,000 runners competing (and partying) across five different distances, with the ultimate still being 100km.
Renowned for attention to detail – Landon-Smith has a reputation for sleeping four hours per night for months on end as he personally answers thousands of emailed questions from runners – this family business recently kicked what many would consider a winning goal. They sold their startup to IRONMAN, the world’s biggest events company and an absolute giant in the world of high end endurance sports.
Understanding how rare such success stories and major opportunities for explosive growth really are, Webber is officially “stoked to be associated with UTA and IRONMAN in such an early phase of our business”.
Such partnerships and success for Aussie Grit feel almost inevitable. The way that Webber speaks about meticulous preparation, discipline and relentless commitment is reminiscent of the way that many people discuss their favourite footie team – with passion and an implicit lack of interest in any alternative.
“You’re not going to win every time you go out and that absolutely comes with the territory, whether you’re Roger Federer or Michael Jordan”, says Webber, discussing the challenge of giving everything but not always winning the day.
“It’s part of top flight sport that you’re going to have some adversity and that’s crucial. You have to have some adversity and that’s why it’s crucial now that everyone shouldn’t get a ribbon for 6th, 7th, 8thplace – because of the resilience factor of being able to learn, that whatever the circumstances are, the fire has to be there to be able to bounce back.
“Getting off the canvas is most of the rules. There were people (in Formula One) who maybe didn’t have the career they could have or should have, because the canvas was a comfier place for them. That’s no place for the people that have long careers. Theywant to get back up.”
It’s evident that Webber will never echo the hollow repetition of other people’s inspirational quotes or share photos of sunsets that he wasn’t witness to. Because he has a lived experience that eclipses that of almost anyone around him.
What can compete with tales of plunging blind into a greasy mist at over 300km/h, ears straining for the telltale acoustic warnings of imminent collision or a meaningful sudden change in engine frequencies?
“You get nervous before the race and that’s great. I lovethose nerves. That’s the purpose and that’s why you’re there – no one gets nervous going to get the groceries, because you know what’s going to happen.
“‘Here we go, grab what you want, drive home’. When you’re doing something, the unknown is healthy. The unknown is healthy and testing yourself in something where you don’t know what’s going to happen is very very different.”
And maybe this is also why the guy on the other end of the phone from Europe has thrown his hat in the ring with a startup.
From day one, Webber proposed the Aussie Grit Apparel concept as being something fiercely tough, active, and Australian – character traits he also sees in Ultra-Trail. From design to materials selection and first production, he has embedded himself in the process. This globetrotting World Champion has flown from Europe back home to Australia 85 times that he can remember, and at least a couple of those trips have been just to spend time with local runners that are now supporting his brand.
Just like lovers of adventure and the Aussie outdoors have embraced Ultra-Trail Australia as a wildly successful homegrown running festival, Webber hopes Aussies will embrace his own homegrown spirit of adventure (and outdoor gear) the same way that he has always embraced them.
(Originally written prior to Ultra-Trail Australia as part of freelance writing contribution for UTA media team.)