Mark Webber on Paralympics, F1 safety and helping younger drivers
The Olympics and Paralympics have really captured the public imagination this summer and one of the most inspirational stories among many was Alex Zanardi, who won two handcycling gold medals.
So many athletes in the Paralympics have come through an incredible amount of adversity to achieve some very special goals but there was something about Zanardi, an ex-Formula 1 driver who lost his legs in a Champ Car crash 11 years ago, that really hit home.
“It just goes to show how life is a journey for all of us and you have to have so much admiration for Zanardi after the one he has been on”
First of all, he is a very infectious character. Even before the accident, no-one had a bad word to say about him. He has a way with words, a charm and vitality, that makes him very appealing.
He went through so much after the accident and even to get back to some kind of normal life was an achievement after that.
But he did so much more than that. He got back into motor racing in a touring car with hand controls and won three world championship races. And then he changed his focus to something completely different.
When he was racing at Brands Hatch in single-seaters or touring cars, who would ever have thought he would go back there at the age of 45 and win a gold medal, let alone two?
It just goes to show how life is a journey for all of us and you have to have so much admiration for Zanardi after the one he has been on.
It's easy to be touched by his story and he is incredibly modest about what he has done.
But none of us can appreciate just how much he has had to put into that lifestyle change or have any grasp how hard those moments on his own have been when he was tested to the absolute limit.
I don't know the ratio at the Paralympics between people who were born with a disability and those who were affected later in life - and I'm certainly no expert as to which is harder to overcome.
But I guess what makes the Zanardi story so appealing is that he had an incredible skill-set in one area, had it taken away from him, found a way to employ it again in different circumstances - and then switched to something else as well.
He wants to get out of bed in the morning with a purpose. That, after all, is the key for all of us in life; to feel that we are testing ourselves and achieving goals.
SAFETY IN F1
There was a nasty accident at the start of the Belgian Grand Prix at the beginning of the month and it has brought the subject of driver safety in Formula 1 to the fore again.
Ferrari's Fernando Alonso was lucky in that crash - Romain Grosjean's out-of-control Lotus flew across the front of his car and didn't miss Fernando's head by that much.
The FIA has been doing some research on driver head protection and at the moment it looks like some form of forward protection, probably a kind of roll-bar, is going to be introduced in the not-too-distant future.
Head protection is a controversial subject and, unusually for me, I'm still on the fence on it.
Open-wheel, open-cockpit racing is what most racing drivers want to do - it requires incredible precision and they are the best racing cars in the world.
You don't want to lose that, so we have to get this decision right. It's a big step for the sport.
People are saying things like 'it's going to be ugly'. But you have to park that stuff. The tricky thing is to decide what exactly you are protecting against.
The Grosjean incident, and a similar one involving David Coulthard and Alexander Wurz in Australia in 2007, happened because of cars climbing over each other and being launched into the air.
That also happened to me when I flipped in Valencia in 2010.
So should you shut off that option somehow by enclosing the wheels but leave the cockpit open? Or leave the wheels open and create more cockpit protection?
Personally, I feel stopping cars launching is a bigger priority, if only because I think that happens more often. Cockpit intrusion is rarer, but it still has to be taken seriously.
In both cases, we have been lucky and we all know that luck will run out one day.
The drivers have to take some responsibility, too. In the last 10 years, the level of aggressiveness has ramped up a bit just because guys know that usually they'll be able to walk away from a crash.
But you can be aggressive and safe or aggressive and unsafe. I've always said F1 is not a finishing school when it comes to racing.
Most of the youngsters who have come in have gone pretty well. This year, Pastor Maldonado and Grosjean have both had a few incidents.
If Grosjean's crash in Belgium had happened in open racing, it would have been fine. But there were lots of cars around, the track is narrow there and very quickly it became a nasty accident.
The nature of F1 has changed with the Pirelli tyres and DRS - overtaking is easier now - so you don't have to be so desperate at the start. That is why it is a surprise to see some of the things that are happening on the first lap.
You do need to get involved but some guys are having more incidents than the others and they need to take that on board.
We should be the best at what we do, racing in all conditions on all kinds of tracks, and driver etiquette has to match that.
HELPING THE NEXT GENERATION
The Italian Grand Prix was not a great weekend for me in Formula 1 terms - having to retire after a late spin badly damaged my tyres - but there was a rewarding aspect to it. Mitch Evans, a young New Zealander I am helping, won the GP3 championship on Sunday morning at Monza.
I got involved with Mitch when some people I knew asked me to keep an eye out for him after he'd achieved some good results down under and was looking at coming to Europe.
I realised he had some potential and the timing fitted nicely - we had just set up our own GP3 team.
Mitch has a gift, an incredibly raw talent, and this year he has won some races and poles and been one of a really solid bunch of drivers in that category, along with Aaro Vainio, Felix Da Costa and Daniel Abt.
It was the same last year, actually, with Mitch, Valtteri Bottas, who is now Williams reserve driver, James Calado and Alexander Sims.
It was a pretty tense finish at Monza - but Mitch just did it. He has ticked some good boxes but he knows that to win at the highest level there is work to be done, and that's where I can help.
I've seen a guy like Sebastian Vettel operate as my team-mate and I've beaten the likes of Fernando Alonso in tight battles. I've been on the end of some beatings but I have also done some winning against some pretty handy guys.
It's not just about the on-track stuff, it's about how to handle yourself off-track as well.
I've always had a thing about helping younger guys realise their potential and get more out of themselves. Ultimately it stops at their door, but it's nice to be able to give them a bit of hand.