Sunday, 7 December 2014

Rishi's Retrospective: A1GP's legacy and Jonny Reid's Indonesian double

PLEASE NOTE: I have, in effect, put two articles in one with this blog. The first article is about the legacy of A1GP, five years after its demise. The second article is about a specific race (Indonesian A1GP, Season 2) from the series, which took place almost exactly eight years ago. Although there is a slight link between the two, they can be read separately. Thus, the best thing may be to read the article that sounds most interesting first, and the other one at another time (or possibly not at all, if you prefer).

Adam Carroll of Team Ireland races towards the title in A1GP's
last race - Brands Hatch in May 2009. Photo: Thegrid.co.uk

Firstly, my apologies. At the start of this calendar year, I had stated my intention to make Rishi's Retrospective, a new-for-2014 feature, a monthly feature (as far as possible). Yet, after a promising start, the last of my Retrospectives was at the end of June! However, stirred from silence, the Retrospective is back to focus on a now-defunct racing series which, somewhat perversely at times, was quite close to my heart for a while - A1 Grand Prix. This self-styled "World Cup of Motorsport" ran for four seasons between September 2005 and May 2009 after launching a decade ago in 2004, and pitted drivers against each other in a nation-v-nation format generally uncommon in motorsport. The ending of the series came in autumn 2009 after funds ran out and the series was humiliatingly forced to cancel its appearance at the high-profile, taxpayer-funded Super GP weekend (featuring V8 Supercars and, historically, Indycar/Champ Car World Series) at Surfers' Paradise, Australia (where the fifth season was due to start). Fans of the series can all remember, with gallows humour of the kind Man City football fans mastered so well before their recent successes, that farce was never far from the surface in A1GP: the cancelled races, the botched street tracks (hello Beijing, Season 2), the teams that vanished without trace (e.g. Teams Russia, Austria, Japan, Greece and Korea), the pitlane teething problems, and the flawed decision to change the chassis for the start of Season 4[1] in order to gain the support of Ferrari.

Yet the almost old-school camaraderie of the mechanics and engineers (across different teams) was legendary even on the outside, contributing to an old-school philosophy of racing hard on the track and going for a pint (metaphorically if not literally) once the racing was over. The fairly cheap ticket prices were also enticing, my Dad commenting that he was happy not to feel as if he was being ripped off when he went to the British event in Brands Hatch (in 2007 - season 2 - and 2009 - season 4; I only went the second time). Moreover, notion that A1GP's legacy was purely one of "How Not To Run a Racing Series" is equally misleading. The series did leave some positive legacies too, in my view, and I will attempt to do a whistle-stop tour of these points here.

1) IT WAS POPULAR IN ASIA
Bernie Ecclestone had already expanded Formula 1 (the pinnacle of single-seater racing worldwide) into Asia by the time A1GP came around, with races in Malaysia (since 1999), Bahrain (2004), China (2004) and Turkey (2005, in the Asian side of Istanbul). However, A1GP was able to really reach new fans in the area with its nation-v-nation concept. Countries like Indonesia, Pakistan, Lebanon and India did not have a lot of historic racing heritage; thus, to see drivers from these countries racing on a global stage and trying to win points for their nation was enough to hook fans who may not have watched much F1. Even countries like Malaysia and China, who were slightly further up the road, benefited from seeing their drivers race competitively against more established Europeans and South Americans. On top of that, the middle of the season was Asia-centred, and the race calendar encompassed Dubai, Malaysia, China and Indonesia (not to mention both Australia and New Zealand) over its five seasons. During my time as a member of the fans' online forum on A1GP.com[2], I remember encountering (in the virtual, internet sense) Pakistan fans passionately hoping that their "Green Gazelle" got more points; Lebanon fans unhappy, and later irate, that their favourite Khalil Beschir was being perpetually passed over in favour of other drivers for the Team Lebanon driving duties; and an Indonesian fan who seemed beyond partisanship and embraced in the series in all its glory. In my view, A1GP's popularity in Asia encouraged the setting up of GP2 Asia as a support series to F1 in Asian races with an Asian-centred focus. It may even have precipitated Bernie's further expansion of F1 into Asia in the years since though, if I am being honest, I don't believe A1GP's legacy was that big in this context[3].

2) THE FIRST CAR HAS STOOD THE TEST OF TIME
The car that Lola produced, allied to a Zytek engine and Cooper tyres, may not have been the most aesthetic (though it wasn't too bad). But it certainly did a very good job, being the most part reliable and encouraging great racing. The rawness of the engine sound, particularly the 'brackle brackle' crackling sound under braking, was a real winner with older motorsport fans who remembered when even F1 cars used to have that authenticity in their sound. But the most impressive thing for me has been that the B05/52 Lola chassis (and the Zytek engine with it) continue to be used in competitive racing series today. When the series moved to a new chassis (the 'Powered by Ferrari' car) in Season 4 (2008/09), the old car was taken over by Auto GP[4], which has used the car-engine combination since 2010. In 2013 a heavily revised chassis was introduced (with changes to sidepods and aerodynamics), but this car can still trace its roots back to the Lola-Zyteks that lined up for the first time at Brands Hatch in September 2005. Moreover, the original cars are still in use with a new Formula Acceleration 1 series, a concept which bundles a range of car series, bike series and music together to create a 'racing festival' atmosphere. Such chassis longevity is rare in motor racing these days, and a real testament to the amazing job the Lola and Zytek teams did a decade ago (perhaps even more amazing than I realised back then).

Team Switzerland's Neel Jani driving the Lola Zytek A1GP
car to the title in Season 3. Photo: Kartsportbern.ch

3) THE DRIVERS: NICO HULKENBERG
A1GP brought together drivers with a range of different experiences in motor racing and, moreover, a wide range of underlying talent. To a degree, this was not a surprise given that some countries had far more of a motor racing history than others. We should not be too surprised that, for example, India did not have a huge amount of drivers capable of scoring points beyond two-time A1GP race winner Narain Karthikeyan (compatriot Karun Chandhok only did two races at the start of Season 1). With each team permitted to use more than one driver per season, plenty graced the series over its 4 seasons. Ideally, they would all get the coverage they deserve.

However, in the context of legacy, the role of A1GP in many drivers' careers is hard to pin down. The likes of Jonny Reid (New Zealand), Robbie Kerr (Great Britain), Adam Carroll - who won the series' final title with Ireland in 2008/09 - and Jonathan Summerton (USA) all did well - but have struggled to sustain a motor sport career since. Others have fared better: Neel Jani matured through the A1GP process (winning the title in season 3 with Switzerland) and is now an accomplished sports car racer; Jeroen Bleekomolen did a really solid job for the passionately supported Team Netherlands and has won two Porsche Supercup titles amongst other things. Alex Yoong (Malaysia) re-built his reputation after a somewhat chastening period in F1 with Minardi (2002 plus some races in '01). Scott Speed (USA), Nelson Piquet Jr (Brazil), Adrian Sutil (Germany) and Sergio Perez (Mexico) all made it to F1, but it would be stretching the argument to breaking point to claim that this was A1GP's legacy (they all raced only a handful of races in the series, and none - with the possible exception of Piquet Jr - delivered great results).

Thus the strongest legacy of the A1GP driver pool was undoubtedly the man who took Germany to the Season 2 title at a canter: Nico Hulkenberg. "The Hulk" was just 19 when he made his debut at the start of that season, and coming off the back of a non-descript debut year in German F3. Although managed by Willi Weber at the time (A1GP Germany seatholder and former manager of the Schumacher brothers), there was no guarantee Nico's career would progress much. Yet he showed his class by winning his debut feature race in Zandvoort, storming through the field to finish 4th in Brno (the next round), and then utterly dominating the opposition in the streaming wet at Sepang (2 seconds faster than anyone else) in what was beyond doubt the greatest drive in the series' short history. Coming into 2007, he then won six races on the bounce in New Zealand, Australia and South Africa (a street track in Durban) to annex the title for his team. Many good drivers graced A1GP over the years; many that were very good, even[5]. However, there was only one driver who we, as fans, knew was destined for Formula 1 when he was in the series - Nico Hulkenberg. When answering a question submitted from fans in F1 Racing last year, Nico said of his A1GP days: "I have very fond memories of this time. I was 19 years old and suddenly I was travelling the world, winning races in this global racing series."[6] Although Nico cemented his F1 credentials (despite never needing to pay for a drive in these financially restrictive times) with subsequent successes in F3 Euroseries (2008) and GP2 (2009), he is the only driver on the 2014 grid where his success in A1GP played a crucial part in him getting to F1. I'm sure that the series would have liked more from their ranks to graduate to The Big Time (though strictly speaking A1 was never a junior formula), and admittedly Nico's F1 career has not blossomed at the breakneck speed that at one time looked inevitable. However, the achievements of Hulkenberg (so far and maybe in the future) are still not a bad legacy to leave in the pinnacle of motorsport, especially when you combine it with what other drivers have subsequently done elsewhere.

RACE RETROSPECTIVE: JONNY REID's INDONESIAN DOUBLE

Jonny Reid of Team New Zealand celebrates his Indonesian
feature race win alongside Germany's Nico Hulkenberg (l) and
France's Nico Lapierre (r). Photo: A1GP (via automobilsport.com)
The Sentul International Circuit in Indonesia was meant to be the archipelago's path into Formula 1 when it was built in the mid-1990s. However, the final design failed to meet the F1 homologation standards. Nonetheless, it became a fixture of the World Superbike Championship for a few years, and then - in the mid-2000s - hosted the Indonesian round of the first two series (2005/06 and 2006/07) of A1GP. The races in Season 2 (there is a sprint race and a longer feature race in every A1GP round) blended a dry sprint race with a rain-affected feature race (after monsoon-like rain conditions hit the circuit shortly before the race was due to start).

The weekend (December 8-10 2006) was to be a special one for Team New Zealand and their driver, Jonny Reid. Having played a supportive role to consistent compatriot Matt Halliday in 2005/06, Jonny took on more of a role the following season. Yet the season was quite hit-and-miss to begin with. Reid had the speed (as did the car), but not the results. Pole in Brno (Round 2) came to nothing when he collided with Team Germany's Nico Hulkenberg as they left the sprint race grid, ruining the weekend. Sepang (Round 4, just before Indonesia) was also not great; a commendable 3rd in the sprint race fell to 8th in the feature race. 

However, it all came together in Sentul. Reid once again took pole in a frenetic session and, this time, timed his rolling start judiciously to lead into Turn 1 and, from there, controlled the race to win fairly comfortably from Salvador Duran (Mexico) and Robbie Kerr (Great Britain). In the wet feature race, Reid was initially left for dead by Hulkenberg, who had already shown himself to be a wet-weather maestro in the previous race. At the first round of stops, it looked like the writing was on the wall. Yet, in a turn-up for the books, Reid preferred his second set of wet weather tyres while, in front of him, Nico was struggling with understeer on his. Hulkenberg left the track at one point and, though he rejoined, Reid was right onto him. The Kiwi duly overtook his rival and started to pull away, putting himself in the prime seats. In the end, a drying track and a late spin by Kerr both put roadblocks in the way of Reid's success, but he navigated both smoothly to take a breakthrough double victory. Hulkenberg finished 2nd ahead of reigning champions Team France and their driver Nicolas Lapierre.[7]

Looking back, I am tempted to compare Hulkenberg-v-Reid (who would go on to be his closest title challenger that season) in a similar light to Vettel-v-Webber in F1. Hulkenberg, like Vettel, was a candidate to be the "next Michael Schumacher" coming through the ranks; he was, also,  the bigger talent of the two drivers and the person who came out on top between the two (note too that, though racing for different nations, they were both run by the same team - David Sears' Supernova). Reid, by contrast, was the Antipodean fighting against the financial odds to keep his career on track in Europe (as Webber did in the mid-1990s) and a guy who could too be imperious on his day (he also won in China, and then won three more races in Season 3). Ultimately, though, Reid - though a very capable driver - was a little too inconsistent to be considered at Hulkenberg's level. However, the differences are perhaps that Hulkenberg has not yet had the opportunities with a top team in F1 that Vettel has had and that, despite his A1GP efforts, Reid's motor racing career - unlike Webber's in the end - has been sadly stop-start in recent seasons. Recently, opportunities in the Aussie V8 Supercar series dried up, leaving him on the sidelines or a year before having recently joined the Kiwi V8 SuperTourer series for the 2014-15 season. One hopes that, subsequently, he can get a good few seasons of motor sport under his belt to showcase his talent. Both drivers - Reid and Hulkenberg - deserve better.

FOOTNOTES
[1] - In fairness to the A1GP management, I could understand the logic behind their thinking. The series, for all its minor successes, was still struggling to gain traction and break even financially. The idea of getting a big brand on board - and Ferrari are arguably motor racing's biggest - was an attractive one that could get sponsors and maybe even extra race fans into the series. Alas, though, the move timed with the start of the world financial crisis - and in that context was, with hindsight, doomed from the outset.

[2] - The A1GP.com forum was a good place to mix (in a virtual, internet sense) with other fans of the series, and both a school friend and myself decided to join. In addition to Asia, the series was hugely supported in the Netherlands, and received lukewarm support elsewhere in Europe (particularly UK & Ireland). One of the series' most passionate supporters in the UK was a guy whose name on the forum was "Martin A1". Martin was an independent who had his own website on the series, which I have cited in older A1GP articles on this blog, and which continued to be updated after the series folded. Sadly, Martin passed away after a short illness in the summer of 2012. I hope he is resting in peace, and smiling at the enduring legacy of the Lola Zytek cars.

[3] - Bernie Ecclestone is a shrewd operator and has been talking about Asia's rise for some time. Thus, I do not think A1GP influenced his F1 strategy per se. However, I do think that it hastened the setting up of GP2 Asia, partly maybe to take those fans and bring them into the wider F1 umbrella, rather than for F1 to cede support to A1GP in a fast-growing part of the world. However, this is just my hypothesis.

[4] - Auto GP was born from the ashes of the old Euroseries 3000 series, an Italy-based F3000 category which most notably bought Felipe Massa into F1 (he won the title in 2001). The final season of the series phased in the A1GP cars, but they only really became a fixture when Auto GP replaced it in 2010.

[5] - After Hulkenberg, the driver I probably rated most highly in terms of potential was Robert Wickens, who drove for Canada in Season 3. Wickens' performances really turned Canada round that year and the future looked bright. In the end, he was dropped by Red Bull after a couple of indifferent seasons following A1GP. He recovered to win Formula Renault 3.5 in 2011, and currently races in DTM.

[6] - Taken from F1 Racing, March 2013 issue (I think it might have been a joint-interview with his then-team mate, Esteban Gutierrez). I'm not sure if the quote is 100% accurate, but I don't believe it is far off.

[7] - Based on the race report from Autosport, December 14-21 2006 Christmas Double Issue (I did watch the race at the time, but obv can't remember it in precise detail!).

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Team Orders: 4 wheels vs 2 wheels

Team orders controversy: Loris Baz (76) leads Kawasaki team-mate
Tom Sykes (1) in Race 1 of the World Superbike finale in Qatar. Photo: crash.net
Any follower of really any category of motorsport will tell you about Team Orders, a spectre that raises its head periodically, and nearly always causes awkward questions for the perpetrators. Last weekend (November 7-9), during the finale of the 2014 World Superbike Championship at Qatar's Losail circuit, Team Orders (that's the last time I'll capitalise it) were back on the agenda as Aprilia's Sylvain Guintoli overhauled a small points deficit to Kawasaki's Tom Sykes to clinch the title by brilliantly winning both races[1]. In the first race, Sykes' job was made harder when team-mate Loris Baz ignored a team order to hand his 2nd place over to Sykes, who was running behind him. After the race, Sykes showed his displeasure by saying that Baz had shown that he was "immature and disrespectful" for ignoring the order from the team. Although the four points he would have gained from the order would not, in the final mathematics, have given Sykes the title on its own in the end, it may have enabled him to shadow Guintoli and finish 2nd in Race 2 and still hold onto the title he first won a year ago in 2013.

Having said that, Guintoli too had not been immune to team orders during the campaign. At the previous round, in Magny Cours, his team-mate Marco Melandri had waved Sylvain through to win in race 1, but refused to repeat the process in race 2 (when again they were running 1-2 in the race). In fairness to both Melandri and Baz, each case has its own nuanced set of circumstances which competitive riders will typically use to justify their actions. Melandri's position was that Guintoli had clearly been far more consistent than him yet, when it came to the possibility of a race win (pre-Qatar), Marco seemed to have the bite and initiative to take it more than Sylvain did (witness Melandri beating Guintoli in both races at Sepang earlier in the year). Baz's position was that, having accidentally taken out Sykes at Sepang (and therefore having felt Sykes' ire - which was made public - over the incident), team relations had deteriorated to the extent that he felt no particular goodwill to Sykes or to particularly help him win the championship. Besides, he still harboured ambitions over clinching third in the championship. An ill-tempered spat between the two drivers ensued on social media a few days after the race. However, rather than go over the rights and wrongs of each specific incident, it seemed to highlight to me the difference between bike racing and car racing - in particular Formula 1.

Sykes' rival Guintoli was not immune to team orders controversy,
but in the end the Frenchman had good cause to smile. Photo: livef1.it
F1 has of course had its team order incidents over the years and, whenever the issue comes up it always gets hotly debated - whether the order is adhered to or not. For sure we can also all think off examples where orders have been flouted: three particular incidents in the 1980s were very controversial at the time [Carlos Reutemann not moving over for (Williams team-mate) Alan Jones at Brazil in 1981; Didier Pironi ignoring a slow sign - usually team language for 'hold position' - to race and beat Ferrari team-mate Gilles Villeneuve at Imola (San Marino GP) in 1982; and Rene Arnoux refusing to let Renault team-mate and the team's sole title contender Alain Prost through at the French GP in 1982 - despite having agreed to do so in a pre-race briefing], and still get brought up today. More recently, we saw Sebastian Vettel ignore orders to stay behind Red Bull team-mate Mark Webber in Malaysia in 2013; and Felipe Massa not cede position to Williams team-mate Valtteri Bottas (though this was for 7th place, while all the other examples cited in this paragraph were for the win) at the same racetrack this year. 

However, thinking about it, the overwhelming majority of cases have seen a driver give way when orders have been given (either directly or in a coded way). This is particularly the case when, as was the case in Qatar last week, only one driver could win the title. Although Massa may have been visibly reluctant to cede position to Fernando Alonso at Ferrari in the 2010 German Grand Prix, he did eventually do it, and moreover he offered no dissent whatsoever in helping Alonso throughout the 2012 season run-in, and in helping Kimi Raikkonen clinch the title at Brazil in 2007. Kimi repaid the favour to Felipe in 2008 (ceding position in China, the penultimate round that year), while in previous years David Coulthard helped out both Mika Hakkinen and Kimi Raikkonen in his McLaren days (not so much Mika in 1999 that said). Michael Schumacher's team-mates famously always helped him out when necessary, but it's also worth remembering that Michael himself was not averse to helping out Eddie Irvine when the Ulsterman was in the title battle in '99, whilst Michael had been out of action with a broken leg. In the context of a title battle, when only one driver can win it, it is almost always seen as 'the done thing'.

Massa played the team game brilliantly in the 2012 season run-in,
but alas Ferrari's efforts were not quite enough. (C) Clive Mason/Getty Images
Maybe my knowledge in bike racing is weaker, but I don't feel the same holds true on two wheels. In addition to this season's incidents, there was controversy in 2009 when Michel Fabrizio didn't help out Noriyuki Haga at Xerox Ducati. Moving over to Grand Prix motorcycling, Jorge Lorenzo was visibly upset when Valentino Rossi swapped paint with him in some intense wheel-to-wheel action in Japan a few years ago when Jorge was headed for the title. Moreover, last year, when Jorge needed to overhaul a points deficit to Marc Marquez at the final round, Valentino was notably absent (though, in his defence, he may simply have not had the pace to contribute on that day). There are also examples from the junior formulae; in 2005, Gabor Talmacsi ignored team orders to overtake team-mate and the Red Bull KTM team's main title contender Mika Kallio on the line to win the 125cc race at, coincidentally enough, Qatar! Come season's end, Kallio narrowly missed out on the title to Swiss rider Thomas Luthi[2]; although the points swing from Qatar was not the sole factor behind this, it surely didn't help. On top of all this, I struggle to think of too many examples when a rider has explicitly helped out a team-mate in the heat of a title battle, for example by ceding position (except for one-off instances like Melandri at race 1 in Magny Cours).

So what are the reasons behind the apparent discrepancy? The main conclusion I draw is that the team ethic seems to be rammed into the drivers a lot more in F1. Part of this is in a positive sense - in a "the whole team is working night and day to prepare the car, and a title is a big reward for all their efforts across a season and more" sort of way; whilst part of it is a bit more threatening - "you are seriously jeopardising your position in the team," Ron Dennis is alleged to have said to Coulthard during the 1997 season finale at Jerez (for which ironically enough McLaren weren't even in the title battle, but wanted Mika Hakkinen to win his first race). Part of this attitude may also be embedded in F1's history; in the 1950s, it was common practice for drivers to give over their car to the number one driver if that driver's one had broken down and if he needed the points. We tend to think of that attitude as being quaintly old-fashioned and totally out of place in modern day F1, but maybe some of that attitude has survived more than we have realised. A related point might be that, in motorbike racing, team orders are not enacted as often as in F1, so teams haven't quite devised a strategy for dealing with them (in a press conference this weekend, many MotoGP drivers stressed the importance of having a plan beforehand, and maybe this happens less in bike racing than in F1). Correspondingly, drivers expect team orders less, and maybe therefore are more likely to ignore the requests made during a race. A final point might be that bike racing is more dangerous and dog-eat-dog than car racing. Both are tremendously competitive and dog-eat-dog, don't get me wrong, but maybe that unique experience of having your body so exposed when you have an accident, or when you swap paint with another rider (as is the case in bike racing), instils a certain "every man for himself" mentality in which riders will focus more about their own welfare (in all areas) and hence are less inclined to then follow any team orders. 

All the above are merely hypotheses, to be sure, and maybe others can think of other reasons, or even find counter-examples to my fundamental point (of team orders being adhered to more in car racing). However, team orders - like them or loathe them (and most people will pragmatically accept them in a title battle, but strongly dislike them in other contexts) - seem here with us to stay, and they will continue to have potentially crucial sporting implications in the future. And bike racing, in particular, may need to start thinking more about them to avoid the acrimony seen within the Kawasaki team over the past week in World Superbikes.

FOOTNOTES
[1] - Guintoli's win made him only the second Frenchman to win the World Superbike title. The first was Raymond Roche, in 1990.

[2] - Thomas Luthi's 125cc title win captured the imagination of the Swiss public. At the end of 2005, he won the publicly-voted Swiss Sportsman of the Year award, beating off a certain Roger Federer (winner of 2 Grand Slams that year) in the vote!

Sunday, 26 October 2014

The return of Yoann Gourcuff: This time for real?

Yoann Gourcuff (centre of pic) battles for the ball against
Montpellier last week. Photo: sport.fr
Last weekend, I was in Montpellier in the south of France, and part of the holiday was meant to incorporate a trip to the Stade de la Mosson, where Montpellier HSC football team play their home games. They were scheduled to play Olympique Lyonnais (often just referred to as plain old 'Lyon'!) last Sunday (October 19th). Alas, the second of two severe rainstorms to hit the usually dry, warm Mediterranean city at the turn of the month (from September to October) put paid to the stadium's use in the immediate future, as it was internally destroyed as a result of the flooding. The match went ahead on the date scheduled, but only after the fixture was switched to the Stade de Gerland, where Lyon play their home games. This news, in truth, frustrated me quite a bit (as it's not the first time it's happened to me this calendar year). Additionally, the rescheduled game was not exactly glorious for Montpellier either; Lyon trounced the 2011/12 Ligue 1 champions 5-1[1] after punishing Montpellier's missed chances at 0-0 and taking advantage of a rare off-day for La Paillade's defence. However, every cloud has a silver lining and this game also had one in the form of a fine performance from Yoann Gourcuff. Lyon's attacking midfielder scored a double (his first since 2009) and was the talk of French sports newspaper L'Equipe, as well as the sports pages of the French dailies, on Monday morning.

Why the excitement about one (admittedly very good) performance from one player? For the reason, one must rewind the clock the little. Five years ago, Gourcuff was the hottest prospect in French football. If 2007/08 was the season of Karim Benzema, then 2008/09 was the season of Gourcuff. Playing for Bordeaux on loan from AC Milan, Gourcuff chipped in with 12 goals and 8 assists as Les Girondins cantered the league title (stopping a run of seven successive titles from Lyon!) and the player bagged many end-of-season awards. His immense technical ability, and the sheer brilliance of some of the goals he scored, made him the talk of French football, and he was immediately branded as 'the next Zinedine Zidane'. Bordeaux moved quickly to make the transfer from Milan permanent and, as they started the 2009/10 season by picking up where they left off in 2008/09 (though they couldn't keep it up), the sky seemed to be the limit for the then-23 year-old from Brittany.

Quickly, it became apparent that such expectations were premature and, indeed, too lofty. Whilst no-one could doubt Gourcuff's talent and technical ability, the reason the comparison with Zidane failed was in two key areas. The first was personality-based: "Zizou" may not have been the loudest player in the dressing rooms he shared, but he still managed to exude authority and to guide those around him on the pitch. Gourcuff is also an introvert, even shy, but in a way that means he struggles to exert the same authority and leadership to those around him. Admittedly he briefly struck on a magic formula at Bordeaux, where he was the driving force behind a successful team. However, at AC Milan and, to begin with at least, at Lyon, he sometimes quietly went AWOL into a period of introspection when things haven't gone right (either for him or for the team as a whole), alienating his team-mates and coaches in the process. Sometimes, this approach has even rubbed people up the wrong way; Gourcuff found himself caught in the crossfire in one of the many battles which took place during France's farcical and tempestuous 2010 World Cup campaign, where it was said that him and Franck Ribery did not get on. Whilst Gourcuff could add himself to a fairly big list of players who had fallen out with Ribery, he also managed to make himself the object of some strong criticism from the usually more equanimous duo of Paolo Maldini and Carlo Ancelotti, his club captain and manager from his days at AC Milan. "Gourcuff at Milan was 100% wrong...when he played here, he did not want to make himself available to the group. He [also] did not learn to speak Italian immediately," said Maldini, whilst Ancelotti labelled him "egocentric" and "a strange lad", adding "it's a pity that he could not express himself well here, but the problem was only psychological in nature." At Lyon, whom he signed for in August 2010, initial manager Claude Puel often struggled with the mercurial talent of Gourcuff, and seemed frustrated that he didn't seem to be pulling his weight when things weren't going well.

An up-and-down career at club level has translated into an on-off
career at international level for Gourcuff (C)AFP/Getty Images 
The second reason, which has taken hold in particular since Puel's departure from Lyon in 2011, has been injuries. Gourcuff is now in his fifth season at Lyon and, during that time, has only played in around half of the team's official (league and cup competition) matches (110 out of 221, according to Le Monde). The newspaper adds that, in that time, Gourcuff's Lyon career has often gone through the same cycles: "the first step: an injury which takes longer to recover from than originally forecast. Then, a return, from which hopes are reborn, from [remembering] the heights of his talent. Two good matches, and there is talk of a comeback. A few other supporting performances successfully completed and there is talk of a return to the French national team...upon which a new injury comes to spoil everything again." All this has meant that he has been unable to build any sort of momentum even as he seeks to get pack onto the path he was on during that brief golden period at Bordeaux.

This season, under the new management of Hubert Fournier (ex-Reims manager) after Remi Garde (Lyon manager since Puel's departure) resigned at the end of last season, Gourcuff - who has taken a pay cut of around 30% with his new contract - again started on the treatment table after an injury picked up towards the end of last season. This time, with the support of Fournier, he has taken particular time to make sure the injury heals fully, and that he listens properly to his body before committing to a return. His return eventually came with a first start in early October against Lille, where he played his part with an assist in a 3-0 win, before his double put Lyon on their way to that comfortable win over Montpellier last weekend. As a whole, his performance playing in the hole behind the two strikers (Alexandre Lacazette and left-wing convert Nabil Fekir) in Fournier's 4-4-2 diamond has been a key part of Lyon's dynamic and positive performances in the last two matches. Today, Gourcuff is part of a Lyon team trying to stand in the way of a rampant Marseille, who have cantered to the top of Ligue 1 under the management of Argentine Marcelo Bielsa, one of football's real tactical philosophers[2].

Maybe in Fournier and his careful approach the Breton has found a manager who understands him and can nurture him back to frequent matches and a high level of performance. Maybe also, though, it is Gourcuff - now at 28 no longer French football's "Next Big Thing" - who has matured in the intervening period. Although his father, Christian (an ex-pro footballer and manager), questioned some of Maldini's specific assertions (e.g. about learning Italian), Yoann has already attributed the general problems at Milan to his age (19 when he moved) and to the difficulty he had adapting to a move to a huge club in a big city, compared to his youth development with Rennes much closer to home. And after last week's game Fournier added: "This is a boy who has ripened (matured), who has grown stronger after what he has been faced with...for Yoann, this was a successful match, in the image of the team." This is key. Gourcuff will now never be "the new Zidane", but he remains a very talented player with strong technical ability and a good footballing brain. If, with his maturity through the dark days, he can continue to deliver strong performances and integrate himself well with this Lyon team, he will be able to leave behind the problems he had when he joined the team (and also when he was at AC Milan). And if, through Fournier's diligence (if it persists), Gourcuff can be managed appropriately through a full campaign, then the doors could well re-open for a run in the French national side (with the Euro 2016 tournament due to be held in France). Yoann Gourcuff, no longer the Next Big Thing but finally getting a real chance to show his skills on a European and indeed global international stage? For fans of good football and, indeed, fans of skilful footballers, that sounds like something that would be worth cheering.

FOOTNOTES
[1] - The defeat was the first time that Montpellier had conceded five or more goals in a game for over 10 years. By incredible coincidence, I was at the game when it last happened - a match against PSG in February 2004 (clearly the video is not mine!)

[2] - I mostly wrote this blog post before and during the Lyon-Marseille match, but have only come to finish it afterwards. The final score was 1-0 to Lyon, ending an eight match winning run for Marseille. Who scored the winner? Yoann Gourcuff 

Saturday, 4 October 2014

What's going on at Ferrari?

(C) 2014 Ferrari/Ercolo Colombo
Throughout Formula One's 64-year history, one name - among the list of teams that have graced the sport - stands out as the most evocative: Ferrari. Other teams run them close, of course they do; Mercedes Benz, McLaren, Williams. Maybe even Red Bull, Lotus and Brabham. All have been very successful, and have strong fan bases. But none of them seem to quite have the global reach of the team from Maranello. For a while, during a particularly political period in the sport's recent history, it even led to the question: did F1 make Ferrari great or did Ferrari make F1 great? This is, of course, simplistic but I would argue that F1 made Ferrari great (or greater than they would otherwise have been), rather than vice versa.

For all of Ferrari's F1 history (they are the only team left from the first season of the world championship in 1950), and the patriotic pride they inspire in Italy, part of Ferrari's continued relevance in the sport stems, in my view (expressed here back in 2009 during that political period), from their resurgence at the turn of the Millennium. Michael Schumacher's five successive drivers' titles and Ferrari's six consecutive constructors' titles captured the imagination of a new fanbase, and helped ensure that the team did not fold or lose relevance in the way the likes of Lotus, Brabham and Tyrrell arguably did so despite their best efforts. However, fast forward five years and the team have yet to add another world title (drivers' or constructors') to their trophy cabinet. Moreover, 2014 has been their worst season for some time (2009 at least but probably longer), resulting in only two podiums so far this season, and a likely best finish of 4th in both championships. It has led to dramatic upheaval; team principal Stefano Domenicali resigned after Ferrari could only finish 9th and 10th in Round 3 - the Bahrain Grand Prix - while Ferrari chairman Luca Montezemolo[1] was removed from his position shortly after the team only picked up one 9th place in last month's Italian Grand Prix. Now, at this weekend's Japanese Grand Prix (October 3rd-5th), it looks as though their star driver of the past five seasons, Fernando Alonso, will leave the team at the end of the season after failing to win his much-coveted third world championship. It looks ominously as though the Scuderia are starting the third long drought of their history (1964-75 being the first one; 1983-99 being the second one). So why did it happen, what about the protagonists, and what happens next?

STRATEGIC ERRORS

Clearly, Ferrari - like every other team and individual in the sport bar Adrian Newey - were slow to see the full potential of the blown diffuser (whose nuanced driving demands Sebastian Vettel then maximised) and its impact on performance in the new generation of cars that came in at the start of 2009 (and were refined and developed, after the odd rules change, thereafter). They have fought for the title since then - missing out by the narrowest of margins in 2010 and 2012 - but never quite managed a title win, and rarely if ever produced a car that was genuinely the fastest. Pinpointing this problem as being related to the engineers being too innately conservative in their designing of the cars, Ferrari have responded by periodically reshuffling their technical team during this period. Aldo Costa, who had firstly replaced Rory Byrne as Head of Design & Development when Byrne retired in 2006, and was then promoted to Ross Brawn's old position of technical director, was fired in 2011 after their underwhelming start to that season. Pat Fry was signed that season, then promoted (after Costa's sacking), then reshuffled - following the appointment of Renault/Lotus technical chief James Allison in 2013. After some initial teething problems, Allison was another who mastered the blown diffuser era at Lotus and his engineering ability will be key for the team going forward (he had little input on the 2014 car).

Although there is a reasonable argument that the team waited too long to hire Allison, I do feel that there has perhaps been too much focus on personnel (from the team as well as the media) in this debate. After the 'dream team' of Jean Todt (team principal), Schumacher, Brawn, Byrne and Paolo Martinelli (head of the engine department) was broken up from 2006, the team remained competitive under the 'new guard' (e.g. Domenicali and Costa) who had been promoted. They retained the winning culture of the team and, with the regulations being quite stable, managed to win one drivers' title (Kimi Raikkonen, 2007) and two constructors' titles (2007 and 2008). However, the 2009-13 era proved to be completely different to what had gone immediately before. In addition to the new cars, there were now fewer opportunities for using testing to assess the viability of new parts. This was a key loss for Ferrari, who held a significant comparative advantage in this area because of their own test facility at Fiorano. It placed more of a premium, too, on the team's simulator and wind tunnel facilities. The team had issues in both these areas. When hugely experienced racer and tester Pedro de la Rosa joined the Scuderia from McLaren in early 2013 he spoke of the team's simulator as needing "a lot of work" and that McLaren - one of the pioneers of development in this area - had a simulator "a few years ahead" of other teams. Meanwhile, as 2012 had progressed, the team had admitted that the correlation problems between wind tunnel and track were systematic and they were forced to close their wind tunnel (using in the meantime the old Toyota F1 wind tunnel in Cologne, Germany) for upgrades and repair work. This work was only completed late last winter and thus will only impact the 2015 car and onwards. In an interview this summer Aldo Costa (now an engineer with Mercedes) claimed he had raised the issues with the wind tunnel back in 2008, but had been ignored over the issue. Costa was often criticised at Ferrari for, in short, not being Ross Brawn. However, maybe the team were slow to see that the problem with their cars being too conservative was more to do with just the team personnel, and that efforts with the wind tunnel and simulator should have been acted upon earlier. The Mercedes team's success in 2014 has seen Costa rebuild his reputation somewhat, as he was part of an engineering team that came up with the novel "split turbine" solution to the engine/power unit packaging challenge all teams faced.


Ferrari's second strategic error, this one regarding the next new era of cars we've seen in 2014, came by not seeing where the big gains would come from. Having spent years agonisingly trying to build a car that could beat the aerodynamically supreme Red Bulls, they thought that 2014 would once again be fought primarily on aerodynamics, and seemingly poured a lot of energy and resource into this area. However, with the huge change in engine power units coming in for 2014, and with Ferrari making their own engines (as they always have done), engines was in fact the area where the greatest gains would be made, even though aero remained important. Back in 2012, as work on this new generation of cars started, one man saw this better than anyone else. His name? Ross Brawn, by this point at Mercedes after a break from the sport in 2007. Although the new management setup of Paddy Lowe, Toto Wolff and Niki Lauda deserve credit for the way they have kept the momentum up, and managed a difficult intra-team rivalry, the advantage of the Mercedes engine has its roots in Brawn's vision. His patience and medium-term planning (at the expense of minute short-term gains) ultimately cost him his job (it led to the management reshuffle at the end of a mostly dismal 2012 season, and Brawn left at the end of 2013 because he didn't fit within this new structure). But his legacy lives on in the team's success this year. Ferrari, on the other hand, despite a commendable enough aero package, had an engine that, though reliable, was too heavy and down on power and torque compared to its rival. The result has been a team struggling to make the Top 5 in races as the Mercedes-engined cars[2], along with the ever-present Red Bull, got on top.

Whilst it is also true that Ferrari have made operational errors over the past few years, in my view these have not been any higher in number than that of their immediate rivals. Indeed, ever since they overcame the teething problems they had with their lights only pit system, they have had one of the most consistently efficient pitcrews over the past few seasons. Additionally, whilst the team has made the odd tactical error in races, this is to be expected from any team operating in a high-pressure environment like F1 where the variables sometimes change from lap to lap. True, the team's decision to pit Alonso early at the 2010 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, and release him into traffic that he spent the rest of the race trying to overtake, led to a race outcome that was to prove very costly and - as I have argued before - one which had repercussions beyond the outcome of that year's world title (which Alonso subsequently lost). However, I have also argued that it was a decision that was rational at the time, even though it ultimately proved to be very wrong. If the tyres had not come back to Vettel and the McLarens that day, the recent history of F1 would probably look quite different today.

DOMENICALI & MONTEZEMOLO

During the middle of the 2012 season, where no team was dominant and Fernando Alonso's consistent brilliance had put him in a strong position of the title battle, I remember thinking that, were Alonso would win, it would be a fitting reward for his team principal, Stefano Domenicali. The Ferrari lifer had sought to give the team a human face, after the ruthlessness of the Todt era had left some F1 watchers cold, and yet not lost the team's will to win and competitive drive. Although they would consistently fall short - sometimes by the narrowest of margins - I admired this approach, and also the way he would never fail to front up to the media; think of the amount of times he was told "it's not good enough, is it Stefano?" by BBC pundit Eddie Jordan, and the amount of times he would say something like "no, of course not! But what can you do? We have to do better, we have to keep working hard to fix the problems of the car!" And I always remember that, whilst the 2012 car was never perfect (from mid-season onwards it was a handy race car, but one that continued to struggle in qualifying and was never the outright fastest), he still put all his energy into throwing the collective weight of the team behind Alonso to try and push him over the line to that third title in the wake of Red Bull's late competitiveness (think of the team throwing upgrades on the car every race; the team breaking Felipe Massa's gearbox seal in Texas to ensure that Fernando started on the clean side of the track; and Felipe's immaculate team job in Korea and Brazil too). He wasn't afraid of taking tough decisions (the team orders decision in Hockenheim 2010; the firing of Costa, and Chris Dyer's demotion after the Abu Dhabi debacle), but - if anything - this may have been his biggest weakness. It was interesting to hear him admit, at a recent event in Italy, that he regretted not doing more to protect the team's inner sanctum. This conforms with the hypothesis that the sackings/demotions, along with other things, which took place may have precipitated a wider blame culture that has been identified at Maranello these days (on which see more below).

Luca Montezemolo will always be a key part of Ferrari's proud history. It was Luca who, as manager of the team, helped mastermind them back to the top in mid-1970s, forming a formidable partnership with methodical lead driver Niki Lauda while engineer extraordinaire Mauro Forghieri worked his magic on both chassis and engine. After a stint spent organising the Italia 90 World Cup tournament in football, Luca then returned and, recognising Jean Todt's skills, cut him the slack and the independence he needed to take the Scuderia back to the top after their second drought. Yet the feeling as Montezemolo exited stage right in the days after Monza, was that his tendency back towards micro-management, as well as the breakdown in his relationship with Alonso (though personally I don't blame him for the specific message of team unity that he made at Hungary last year), may have helped contribute towards the team's third drought (as it now appears to be). His public pronouncements - which once could be dismissed almost fondly as "Luca being Luca" - started to get quite tiresome, his attack on the "new-for-2014" regulations were at times aggressive, ill-informed and somewhat hypocritical (he had initially backed the rule changes). Thus, while he will always have a proud place in F1's - and Ferrari's, possibly even Italian Business's - history, perhaps the right time had come for a farewell[3].

IT'S THE DAWNING...OF A NEW ERA[4]

Sebastian Vettel pictured in an old Ferrari of Gerhard Berger
at this year's Austrian GP as part of an exhibition run.
(C) Divulgacao/RBR
Alonso and Ferrari seemed a marriage made in heaven when it was made. He would have de facto number 1 status (at least he would when he quickly got the upper hand over Massa), and the Latin environment would be a more comfortable fit than the colder, more clinical environment of McLaren in 2007. And after making a few surprising mistakes in his first season, he has grown and driven strongly at Ferrari; at times, his performances have really stood out and perhaps masked some of the deficiencies of the Scuderia. During those early days (second half of 2010 and even in 2011), I seem to remember him saying that Ferrari were the best team he'd driven for, that he wanted to finish his career there, and that the car (2010) the best he'd ever driven. Whilst this probably caused some scratching of heads at his old Renault team (where he won two world titles in 2005 and '06); it immediately endeared him to the tifosi. However, as each year has come and gone without a title, frustration has grown. It erupted last summer after some comments about wanting 'someone else's car' got him an 'ear tweak' from Luca Montezemolo and the relationship with the team has been on an unsound footing ever since. At last month's Italian GP, it always seemed to me that his team-mate Kimi Raikkonen got louder cheers from the tifosi than Fernando, implying that the uncertainty surrounding his future and his relations with the team had seeped through to the fans; although Raikkonen is Ferrari's last world champion, Alonso has been by far their strongest competitor this season, while Raikkonen has struggled. Either way, the overall disappointing performance of the 2014 car has served only to exacerbate the unhappiness between Alonso and the team.

Despite that, for a long time this year it has seemed that Alonso's best bit was to grimace and sit tight with Ferrari for 2015 while seeing how quick the car is and, correspondingly, whether there are better vacancies elsewhere. Ferrari, too, would ostensibly benefit from keeping - even for an extra year - a man most F1 watchers would say is the best on the current grid, even if some journalists probably overplay this slightly, and even if relations between Alonso and the team are not as strong as they once were. So why has it become clear over the past week that team and driver are due for a split at the end of 2014?

The answer appears to be that each side wanted certain guarantees from the other. Domenicali's replacement, Marco Mattiacci, has come in from Ferrari's North America road car division. Despite his lack of motorsport experience, he has approached the task of leading Gestione Sportiva (Ferrari's motorsport division) in a lucid, businesslike manner which has been commendable. One of the main conclusions he has drawn is to address Ferrari's conservatism in car design, even after the structural upgrades (e.g. to wind tunnel); on top of the firings/demotions outlined earlier, he said in an interview with Autosport that he felt a wider blame culture has inhibited risk taking at the team. Mattiacci is said to have faith in new technical director James Allison, but - it would seem - feels that turning the team around and back to world championship success could still be three or four years away; a medium-term rebuilding project. Alonso, who turned 33 at the end of July, no longer has time on his side to commit to this sort of project; he has become increasingly fed up at Ferrari, and is desperate to finally that third world title as soon as possible.

Thus it would appear that Ferrari have concluded that their best option, rather than having a year of "will he, won't he" with Alonso, and the potential pursuit of short-term gains at the expense of medium-term that this might foster, is to start afresh. And their preferred candidate is four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel, who announced today that he would part company with Red Bull after six seasons with their senior F1 team, not to mention many more as part of their Young Driver Programme. At first glance, it seems a bit strange again; Vettel has spent most of the year grappling to adapt his driving style to these new regulations and has been consequently outpaced by team-mate Daniel Ricciardo (who Ferrari also approached according to some reports). However, on the other hand, Vettel is young enough (27) and has already been successful enough to commit to the 3/4-year project that Ferrari seem to be demanding in order to get them back to the top. Such a project will also be a fresh challenge for a driver who has almost become part of the furniture at Red Bull. And maybe Vettel will bring the team-building skills to the team that Michael Schumacher mastered, but which were arguably the one chink in Alonso's armour (scroll down to Comment 6 for a discussion on this). Raikkonen is set to remain with the team in 2015, at which point it may be time for Ferrari to promote one of their Young Drivers; either Jules Bianchi (currently with Marussia in F1) or Raffaele Marciello (reigning European F3 champion currently racing in GP2), perhaps. Alonso's exact destination is unknown, though he being courted by McLaren and Honda, and they appear to be the only obvious option for 2015, despite the chequered past of the Alonso-McLaren partnership from '07.

It appears to be in this context that Ferrari have embarked upon their expedition back to the summit of Grand Prix racing. Both Alonso and Ferrari, one suspects, will feel regret and sadness that they were unable to win a championship together when the combination of the two seemed so promising at the outset of the relationship. In the words of football commentator Martin Tyler (speaking of another fallen red giant - Manchester United), it may get worse before it gets better at Maranello on this journey. But either way, it is time for the team to enter this new chapter in their long and illustrious history. The gelling of new team members with old; the twists and turns across different racing weekends - it will all be fascinating to observe. Ferrari's displays of high-handedness - when they occur - are grating to many F1 fans, myself included. Yet, ultimately, I would like to see them winning again one day fairly soon. And thus, in this endeavour, in this new chapter that they are embarking on with Vettel (seemingly), I say to them "Il bocca al lupo!"

FOOTNOTES
[1] - Luca Montezemolo is commonly known as Luca di Montezemolo in the British press. However, his full name is Luca Cordero di Montezemolo (he is a descendant of an Italian aristocratic family). My understanding is that, without the ""Cordero", the "di" is technically irrelevant. Just explaining why I have referred to him as Luca Montezemolo here (and maybe in some, if not all, my earlier blogs).

[2] - Mercedes, Williams, McLaren and Force India currently use Mercedes engines. In particular, it is Mercedes and Williams who have taken big advantage of this and been the most competitive of the four teams all season. However, McLaren (who will use Honda engines from 2015) and Force India have also had their moments.

[3] - to be sure, Montezemolo's departure is not just down to the F1 team's performance. It was mostly because FIAT chairman Sergio Marchionne and him were said to disagree over the future direction of Ferrari (in particular, over how exclusive the brand should remain, both in terms of sales strategy and whether the company should float on the stock exchange). However, the lack of success of the F1 team in recent years played a part too.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

An open letter to Andy Murray

Dear Andy Murray,

Hello Andy. I hope preparations are going well for the final leg of the 2014 season, which starts in China for you shortly. This is a strange time of the season, with perhaps little in the way of top-level Grand Slam glory. However, there are some pretty high-profile tournaments to win, and there is a chance to build a good platform for the following year. Many will remember the role Ivan Lendl played in your history-making 2012 season, but it's also worth remembering your strong end to 2011 setting things in motion. I still think the second of your three wins during that autumn - the 2011 Japan Open - was one of your finest; you played brilliantly in the final, even if maybe one could argue that Rafael Nadal was not quite in 'Grand Slam mode' when you beat him 3-6 6-2 6-0.

Of course the news in the past couple of days has been less about tennis in Shenzhen, Beijing and Shanghai and more about politics in the United Kingdom. On the morning of the Scottish Referendum on independence (Thursday September 18th), you publicly came out in support of the pro-independence "yes" campaign in a short post on Twitter. This quickly generated some quite strong feelings on both sides of the debate, and has become a hot talking point going forward. Sadly, I hear that the strength of feeling led to some unacceptable and frankly disgusting comments on social media. I obviously condemn this in the strongest terms.

It's a difficult one to try and articulate. Speaking purely from a personal point of view (in the interests of full disclosure I do currently work for HM Government, which is why I'm stressing that this is a personal view) from someone living outside Scotland (the so-called rUK), I wanted Scotland to remain as part of the United Kingdom. So ultimately, I suppose that any support you gave for 'yes' would broadly have been met with disappointment, and any support for 'no' broadly endorsed privately, whatever the way in which it was stated. You are of course entitled to your opinion and there is an argument commending you for putting yourself out there and coming down on one particular side.

However, even accepting that view, there is an element to this which makes me feel uncomfortable and, after some thinking, I think I've been able to pinpoint what it is. Much has been written since Thursday about how you took years to win the hearts and minds of 'middle England' and now, having done so in the last couple of years, the old suspicions and mistrust will resurface after your support for 'yes'. The point I would like to make is that this perception of you was, and has always been, far from universal in rUK. There are those of us that have supported you since your breakthrough in 2005 and, in particular, since Tim Henman's retirement left you as the main British hope and talent in 2008. We saw through all the 'anti-England' rhetoric that wrongly followed you for so many years. Many of us have friends and family, though, who - whether believing the 'anti-England' rhetoric or not - still didn't like what they saw. We tried consistently to put the case for the defence, we suffered the tough losses in Grand Slams and other major tournaments, we said 'chapeau' to those who played better on the day (tennis is not a tribal sport) while observing the gloating of non-fans on social media afterwards. We also, it must be said, were repaid in abundance by many ATP titles, Masters victories, an Olympics gold (and silver in the doubles) medal and, finally, those two Grand Slam triumphs. A huge testament to your persistence, drive and work ethic.

Yet by openly supporting the secession of Scotland (who you would then, not unreasonably in the case of a 'yes' outcome, compete for) from the United Kingdom, the indication you give is that you want no part in Britain except, presumably, to continue living here. The implication is that you give flagrant disregard to the support and emotional investment (in varying degrees, and I'm quite sure there are many in rUK who have invested more, as well as many others who have invested less, than myself) that those of us in Britain have given over the years (including when others have been more sceptical). In extremis, this could even be interpreted as not so much "thanks, but no thanks" as "thanks, but fuck off!" Thinking about this rationally, I am almost 100% certain that this was not your intention. You will no doubt point out to me that your criticism in that Thursday morning tweet was against the 'no' campaign, and that your endorsement of 'yes' was therefore not a wholesale rejection of Britain and its people, including your supporters. You may also posit that the application of this type of 'either/or' mentality to the separatism debate is precisely what you disliked about the 'no' campaign in Scotland.

However, I would argue that this issue is not confined to the referendum, and can be seen in other sporting examples. Golf will join the Olympics roster in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 and, in an interview shortly after London 2012, Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy was asked his views on whether he would compete for Britain or Ireland. Speaking about his feelings on the issue he said "what makes it such an awful position to be in is that I've grown up my whole life playing for Ireland under the Golfing Union of Ireland umbrella. But the fact is, I've always felt more British than Irish...I don't know [why], but I've always felt more of a connection with UK than Ireland." This was thoughtful to begin with, but it still received a strong backlash from Ireland and its golfing community. McIlroy recognised that, although he had expressed his opinions sincerely, he had failed to fully consider the hurt and puzzled disappointment his opinion would cause in an Ireland where he had been, and continued to be, well supported. A few days later, he clarified: "After everything that's happened [the interview and the backlash]...it really hit home with me how important it is for a lot of people and how important my success has been to them...It would be terrible to nearly segregate myself  from one of those groups that supports me". Finally, this summer, on the eve of the Irish Open in Cork, he announced that he would play for Ireland. This was in due course backed by the Team GB Olympics golf coach, as well as the golfing community as a whole.

The key point here I think is not necessarily McIlroy's final decision (which is also slightly nuanced because golf in Ireland, up to professional level, spans both the Republic and Northern Ireland). Rather, it is that he showed that he understood the sensitivity of the issue on both sides of the debate. I think this process of communication helped make his final decision easier to digest for people on both sides, including those - like the Team GB golf coach - who (logic suggests) would have loved to have had Rory in the Team GB fold. Even though I would not have agreed with your support for 'yes', I believe (or like to think) that, had you shown an understanding of the complexity of how your decision could have been interpreted - in a sporting context - by fans in both Scotland and rUK, this would have helped myself and other people who were hoping for an outcome of 'no' (or 'yes', had you gone the other way on this issue) to better accept your decision. The alternative option, of course, is to not give an opinion on the matter - the stance you maintained until a quick tweet on the day of polling.

Instead what we had was a quick post on Twitter supporting "yes" with only a criticism of the "no" campaign's tactics (i.e. their negativity) in support. And thus instead many of your fans appear to be, if not necessarily hurt (an emotion too strong for me, though maybe not for others), then left slightly disappointed and scratching their heads that their support over the years appears to have not been considered or acknowledged at all in a decision on a topic of such magnitude. Truth be told, memories are (mostly) short and a good trait of human nature is the tendency to forgive and forget. Your commitment, work ethic and success have been a huge credit for Britain on the world sporting stage, and when the dust settles that will never be forgotten and will continue to be a source of pride for many British sporting fans (myself included). However, for a while - just for a while - what happened on Thursday seems to have stuck in the craw somewhat, for myself and many others. And there is a chance, if only a very small chance, that - whatever forgiveness happens in future - things may never quite be the same again.

Yours Sincerely,
Rishi 

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Monza weekend race summaries

As indicated in my post last week relaying some of the things I experienced going to last weekend's (September 5th-7th) Italian Grand Prix, here are some corresponding race summaries from the races I saw. To be honest, it's nice to have a record of this down in one place to complement my earlier post but, at the same time, there probably isn't much value to add here compared to what viewers at home would have seen. Moreover, in some unavoidable cases gaps may have been filled in after the event, for both TV viewers and spectators in the stands (e.g. Daniil Kvyat's brake problem). However, on the other hand, this may be useful if for example you follow a series but don't often watch it or follow it very closely; or if you want to find out about some of the drivers or stories further down the field of a race, particularly because when I was in the stands I probably followed these battles more closely than I usually do when I watch on TV.

FORMULA ONE

The Mercedes team celebrate their 1-2, after Hamilton led
home Rosberg. (C) 2014 XPB Images

Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) gave his title aspirations a shot in the arm with victory in the Italian Grand Prix. Starting from pole, a technical glitch saw Hamilton drop behind team-mate and title rival Nico Rosberg (who also made a great start), as well as Felipe Massa (Williams) and the fast-starting Kevin Magnussen (McLaren). Both Massa and Hamilton cleared Magnussen before Lewis then cleared Felipe with an intricate move into Prima Variante (Variante del Rettifilo). He then chased down Rosberg, reducing the gap to around a second (i.e. getting within DRS range) shortly after the pitstops. It was shaping up to be a close battle, with the faster Hamilton chasing the man with track position, Rosberg. Alas Lewis' pressure told on Lap 29 of 53 when Nico overshot the Rettifilo for the second time in the race. Hamilton duly took over the lead and controlled it to win from Rosberg (who now leads the championship by 22 points) and Massa, who ended up having quite a quiet race but an important one, as it yielded his first podium of a difficult season.

Behind them, a train formed behind Magnussen which included Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull), Fernando Alonso (Ferrari), Sergio Perez (Force India), Jenson Button (McLaren) and Valtteri Bottas, Massa's team-mate. Bottas had had a very slow getaway and dropped as low as about 11th, but ended up taking 4th after a series of fine overtaking manoeuvres. The Finn's stock continues to grow and grow this season. Daniel Ricciardo (Red Bull) took 5th place; the Australian (of Italian origin) had had a slow start to the race, but benefited from a team call to bring his team-mate Vettel in early to get ahead of Magnussen. Whilst Vettel was successful it meant that he and his rivals (who all followed him and generally pitted a lap or two later) who were part of the Magnussen train all had to finish the race on older, quite worn tyres. Ricciardo, who had run long in the first stint, was thus on much fresher tyres. It was testament to his impressive racecraft that, despite having a slower Renault engine, he not only caught the train but worked his way to the front with a series of fine overtakes, and then duly pulled away. Vettel hung on to 6th, ahead of Perez, who had a really good race holding off Button to 7th. Magnussen was penalised 5 seconds for running Bottas off the road at Rettifilo and thus finished 10th; while Kimi Raikkonen caught the pack at the end to claim 9th after team-mate Alonso was forced out by an ERS failure - his two points a small consolation from a difficult home GP for Ferrari (their worst at Monza since 2005).

Valtteri Bottas (pictured here on Friday)
was quick all weekend and made a lot of
overtakes in the race after a start problem
Out of the points Daniil Kvyat (Toro Rosso) had a great race, storming through from 21st on the grid (after an engine penalty) to 11th (running a similar strategy to Ricciardo) but missing out on the Top 10 after a late brake failure (similar to Mika Hakkinen's for McLaren in 1998). Pastor Maldonado (Lotus) drove really hard all race but spent most of it on his own - in 14th! Sauber managed to get both cars into Q2 on Saturday but could only manage 15th (Adrian Sutil) and 20th (Esteban Gutierrez, after a collision and a penalty). Finally, a fired-up Kamui Kobayashi (Caterham) returned to his seat after being stood down for the Belgian Grand Prix a fortnight earlier to beat Marussia's Jules Bianchi into 17th, something the Banbury-based outfit will hope to reverse at the next round in Singapore.

GP2 SERIES

Saturday Race: McLaren young driver Stoffel Vandoorne (ART) held off race-long pressure from Arthur Pic (Campos) to keep his title hopes alive with victory in the GP2 Saturday race at Monza. Kiwi Mitch Evans (Russian Time) took a deserved third. Behind them, some good battles opened up, with Stephane Richelmi (DAMS) and Andre Negrao (Arden) heading the pack to come through 4th and 5th. Championship contender Felipe Nasr (Carlin) came through a scrap with team-mate Julian Leal and Daniel Abt (Hilmer), the latter having benefited from pitting early to leap into the points positions. Alas, in the end, Leal was penalised for forcing Abt off the track into retirement at the second Lesmo in a particularly robust overtaking move. Title leader Jolyon Palmer (DAMS) and current 4th placed driver in the standings Johnny Cecotto Jr (Trident) put in really strong drives; Palmer was relegated to the back of the grid for not providing enough fuel after qualifying, but stormed through to take 8th and the sprint race pole. Cecotto started down in 23rd but echoed Palmer's assertiveness in traffic to take the final point in 10th place. Marco Sorensen (MP Motorsport, 7th) and Stefano Coletti (Racing Engineering, 9th) rounded off the other points places, while Coletti's team-mate (and the home favourite) Raffaele Marciello was forced to retire after being caught up in an early accident triggered by Kimiya Sato (Pic's team-mate at Campos).

Stoffel Vandoorne en route to victory in Saturday's GP2 race

Sunday Race: Step forward Sergio Canamasas (Trident). His buccaneering rallycross act through the Ascari chicane on the opening lap triggered an accident between debutant Pierre Gasly (Caterham) and Artem Markelov (Russian Time). It also helped contribute (more indirectly) to an accident further down between Cecotto and Sergio Campana (Venezuela Lazarus) at Parabolica. This brought out the only Safety Car I saw during the entire race weekend (I did not watch the GP3 Sunday race so don't know if that had one). Not content with ruining those batch of races, Canamasas then ploughed into the side of Rene Binder (Arden), and made contact with the charging Marciello for good measure! The stewards eventually put him out of his misery by giving him the black flag. World feed GP2 and GP3 commentator Will Buxton was scathing about Canamasas' driving standards after the race. Up at the front, Sorensen attacked Palmer early on, but ran wide and dropped back behind Richelmi. With DAMS now running 1-2, it allowed Palmer to get away while Richelmi tried to soak up pressure from Sorensen and the hard-charging Coletti. The race was made memorable by a series of bold overtaking manoeuvres by Coletti, which moved him up to 2nd to chase after Palmer. He caught the Briton, but was unable to pass him. Jolyon extended his championship lead with victory (after the qualifying penalty!), with Monegasque drivers Coletti and Richelmi rounding out the podium. Sorensen was 4th, while Negrao cemented a strong weekend by finishing 5th. Nasr took 6th, Pic 7th and Adrian Quaife-Hobbs (Rapax) 8th after Jon Lancaster (Hilmer) was given a time penalty for having all four wheels off the track to pass Pic earlier in the race.

GP3 SERIES

Vosiou and Kirchhofer race for 3rd position before the former's
drive-through penalty in Saturday's GP3 race

Saturday Race:
 Jimmy Eriksson (Koiranen GP) kept his title hopes alive with victory as he held off Dino Zamparelli (ART) to win. Similar to the GP2 Saturday race (albeit without pitstops), Eriksson had a steady gap early on but Zamparelli reeled him in during the second half of the race, though wasn't close enough to attempt a pass. Behind them, Robert Vosiou (Arden) ran 3rd for most of the race, but was given a drive-through for a marginal call for overtaking under yellow flags call (I didn't know this at the time, I just suddenly saw he'd dropped back a lot of places!). Marvin Kirchhofer (ART) thus completed the podium, ahead of Emil Bernstoff (Carlin), Dean Stoneman (Marussia Manor) - who had unwittingly helped Kirchhofer on Lap 1 by outbraking himself and ramming the other car much further up the field as a result! - and title leader Alex Lynn (Carlin), who pulled off a couple of useful late overtakes to put more points on the board. Lynn's main title rival Richie Stanaway (Status) had a very slow getaway and despite picking up a few places thereafter could only salvage 9th place, just ahead of team-mate Nick Yelloly - who in turn just held off compatriot Jann Mardenborough (Arden) for the final point after a difficult race. Patrick Kujala (Marussia Manor) and Matteo Tuscher (Jenzer Motorsport) (7th and 8th) finished in the other points positions.

Sunday race: I didn't actually watch Sunday morning's GP3 race, making it my seat just before the start of the Sunday GP2 race, which was just after it. However, a race report of the race - in which Dean Stoneman held off Alex Lynn to win - can be found here.

PORSCHE SUPERCUP

Philipp Eng (in the yellow car) had a few good wheel-to-wheel
battles in this race. Here he did manage to retake his 8th position
down at Rettifilo. Apologies for part of my hand being in the pic!

It was a lights-to-flag victory for Sven Muller (Team Project 1) in the only Porsche Supercup race of the weekend on Sunday mid-morning. Austrian Klaus Bachler (Konrad Motorsport) put a bold move on title leader (and former A1GP driver) Earl Bamber (Fach Auto Tech) to take 2nd place, on a circuit where it was difficult for the Supercup cars to overtake because of the tightness of some of the chicanes. Bamber used this, and his defensive driving, to good effect to hold off title rival Kuba Giermaziak (VERVA-Lechner) for 3rd place, despite Kuba being urged on by the two Polish fans next to me. Michael Ammermueller (Lechner Racing) had looked impressive in the damp conditions on Friday, and ended up putting a solid drive in to finish 5th being Giermaziak; another former A1GP driver, the German was nicknamed "the Hammermuller" in the those days for his tendency to bash into (hammer into, get it?) other cars. Luckily, this particular character trait was absent on Sunday (and probably has been for some time for all I know). Nicki Thiem (Lechner Racing) was frequently referenced by the British commentator on the tannoy, after overcoming a difficult qualifying to finish 6th with a series of bold overtakes, ahead of Clemens Schmidt (Lechner Racing). Erstwhile Formula 2 driver Philipp Eng (Team Project 1) was in a couple of tight battles during the race but came through to take 8th, ahead of Briton Ben Barker (VERVA-Lechner). 18 year-old home favourite Matteo Cairoli (Antonelli Motorsport), a wildcard entrant who is currently leading the Italian Porsche Carrera Cup championship, qualified well up and came through unscathed to take a commendable 10th place (as well as fastest lap) on his Supercup debut.