Sunday, 11 January 2015

Ched Evans and the moral maze of criminality

Ched Evans' attempts to return to football after his rape conviction has been
the subject of fierce debate. (C) Getty Images
The story of footballer Ched Evans is one that has led the sports bulletins on and off for months now, having stirred a passionate debate well beyond the sporting community. In 2012, Evans, now 26, was convicted of raping a (then-)19 year-old woman in the Welsh town of Rhyl in 2011, and sentenced to five years in prison as a result of his crime. In October 2014, he was released, having served half of his jail term, to spend the rest on probation. Since then, he has attempted to return to the sport, but attempts at former club Sheffield United (for him to train with the club), Maltese club Hibernians and, most recently last week, Oldham Athletic have all been unsuccessful. The 11th hour collapse of a deal with Oldham on Thursday (January 8th) concluded a few days where the debate had reached fever pitch, with brickbats and threats being hurled from both sides across social media (the straw that broke the camel's back was the revelation of threats made to Oldham board members, in which one person threatened to rape the daughter of a staff member).

The main thing to acknowledge about Evans' case is that it is a complex one. However, the fundamental considerations are, for me, the crime committed and the response of Evans to the crime (including any issues around it). Starting with the latter, Evans continues to maintain his innocence about the crime and, indeed, is currently pursuing an appeal to the conviction he was given in 2012. Until the collapse of the deal with Oldham, Evans had thus failed to apologise or show any sign of contrition for his actions. In this context I definitely sympathise with and, to a large extent, support the comments of Oldham East and Saddleworth MP Debbie Abrahams, who said on Monday: "As he is claiming his innocence, and in the process of appealing against his conviction, both he, and football clubs, should wait for the outcome of this process before considering a return to the sport." In this context, one gap that has become very apparent is that the Football Association did not have guidance, or policy, to deal with this particular issue and that this has ensured that the topic flares up periodically whenever any club considers signing Ched Evans. On top of this, part of the campaign supporting Evans' innocence has included a website which, combined with individuals on social media, has sought to attack the woman at the centre of the case, who has had to relocate and change identity on repeated occasions (although Evans did - eventually - condemn these attacks as part of his apology on Thursday). With all this in mind, I am persuaded that having Evans return to football so soon after his release, when there is an appeal pending and he is claiming his innocence, is not the best idea and, in this context, the collapse of the deals with both Sheff Utd and Oldham were ultimately correct, even if they may not have been achieved in an entirely palatable way (i.e. laced with social media vitriol and abuse).

However, for some opponents of the Evans deal, this does not go far enough. A sexual offence conviction is a very serious crime and, in the view of some people, should prevent the criminal in question from working again, particularly in professional football, where players are (not always logically) lauded as role models and cheered by fans of all (including young) ages. This view was expressed firmly but eloquently by Sky Sports News presenter Charlie Webster, who resigned as a patron of Sheff Utd when they were trying to do a deal for Evans to train with them. She said: "He's not just going into a job, he's bandied as a role model, we cheer him on as a role model and he's influencing the next generation of young men who are currently still making their decisions on how to treat women and what sexual mutual consent is." To be sure, no-one denies that rape is a serious crime (and what Evans did, even if it may not exactly conform to the predatory images we have of rape, has still been judged as a rape under the law, and still involves the fundamental issue of sexual mutual consent that Webster mentions); nor is anyone disputing that the crime is a horrible and often traumatising one for the victim, who must not be forgotten. However, the best way to recognise this fact, in my view, is to reform the penal system. We currently regard rape (and sexual offence) as serious, hence it typically carries a longer sentence than, say, a burglary or a robbery (which are still quite serious in themselves for those affected). If we regard it as still more serious, the solution is surely to lobby for larger penal sentences for sex offenders (or simply assuring that more of the custodial sentence is spent in prison, rather than early release, albeit on probation)? That, surely, is a way of helping ensure that the punishment better fits the severity of the crime, as seen through the eyes of the public?[1]

However, once they are released from prison, even under licence, they should - except in special protective cases, including those listed under 'regulated activity' like teaching and nursing (which involve working with children or vulnerable adults) - be allowed to resume their lives and seek employment in whatever field they choose. This is an important part of the rehabilitation process after having committed the crime and served the time. It is also an important principle, and the idea that society should instead, upon a criminal's release, start drawing arbitrary red lines about what jobs a person can and can't do, is one I feel very uncomfortable about. In a BBC article entitled "What should happen to a released rapist", written in November, the views of Unlock director Christopher Stacey were summarised as follows: 
Stacey disagrees. Once society starts specifying the type of jobs a rapist can do on top of the legally proscribed ones, it is heading in a "dangerous" direction. The jobs listed under regulated activity are about protecting people, not about punishing offenders again. "People make mistakes. As co-workers or neighbours or friends we should focus on the real risks of employing people rather than the perceived risks. Are they the best person for the job?"
Matthew Syed of The Times, also looks at how such a move could impact future behaviour, adding: "The point here is that the very concept of rehabilitation is undermined if we rig the world against those we have already punished. Why would anyone wish to change if they know they are never going to be given a decent shot?"

Luke McCormick returned to pro football in 2013 after
serving three-and-a-half year prison term. (C) Plymouth Herald

Regarding the suggestion of footballers being role models, I feel that this can cut both ways. This may sound like a utopia, admittedly, but offering the chance of a footballer to return to their profession after a criminal offence means they can be a potential role model for people who have got on the 'wrong side of the tracks'; they can show them that people can go down a wrong path and yet can still ensure that their errors do not define them and that, if they are able to learn from them (very important!), they can still really achieve things with their lives. Both Lee Hughes (former West Brom striker currently with Forest Green Rovers) and Luke McCormick (Plymouth Argyle goalkeeper) have been able to return to the game despite being convicted of (separate) offences of death by dangerous driving (in McCormick's case, also a drink-driving offence). However bad their crimes were (and we are talking about deaths here), they were able to rebuild their lives after serving their punishment, without the social media abuse that has come with the Evans case (though apparently McCormick continues to receive heavy abuse at games). The one that really got me thinking about this was the case, in Belgium, of Ilombe Mboyo. Having been a childhood contemporary of Vincent Kompany in footballing terms, Mboyo (unlike Kompany) got into gangs and crime and was convicted of a gang-rape in his teens. His time in prison forced him to reflect on the direction his life was taking, the consequences (in terms of the horrific crime he had committed), and to vow (based on events so far at least) to change his ways. He was then spotted in Ittre jail by Pierre Bodenghien, who ran a "Football in Prisons" scheme at the jail and was also a scout for Charleroi, then a professional team in the Jupiler League (Belgian Premier League). Gradually, Mboyo started attending sessions at Charleroi (managed at the time by former Scotland international John Collins) and was eventually signed by the club. A rise through the ranks took him to Ghent and then to Racing Genk, where he currently plays. This included, during a good run of form, a brief role in the Belgian national team, for whom he won two caps in 2012.

While vitriolic and distasteful in parts, maybe some good has come out of the Ched Evans case, and the emotions it has provoked. It has emphasised the difficult challenges society faces as a whole in reintegrating criminal offenders, particularly sex offenders, after they leave prison - irrespective of whether there is an appeals process going on. In the context of football, more thought needs to be given about the steps individuals must take before they play again. Firstly, and most obviously, the nuances of a case such as Evans' (e.g. the appeal process) must be taken into consideration when clubs consider signing a player recently released from prison. Secondly, there are steps a player can make to further their rehabilitation; if guilty (full stop), a show of contrition would be a positive start, and completing an educational programme or course on sexual consent and the treatment of women or, indeed, men (focusing on a rape or sex offence case for now), would definitely be a good idea (assuming such courses do exist, admittedly). Stretching the possibilities somewhat, maybe they could fund, or become a supporter for, campaigns which push for better treatment of women in this context (unlikely, yes, but note how Dwain Chambers and David Millar have become vocal opponents of drug taking in athletics and cycling respectively, having both been banned for drug taking in the past)? A related point about this is that, if a club does decide to sign a player early after release, they can help enrol a player on an educational course, whilst they are training and as part of a gradual, step-by-step transition to being involved in a matchday squad. What else can clubs do? They can try and create a dialogue with fans and sponsors, highlighting why they are signing the player and (e.g.) what steps they are encouraging the player to take has taken as part of their rehabilitation. Admittedly, though, whether such an undertaking is feasible or realistic on such a passionate topic, and where opinions can get so heated, is debatable. What could the FA do? Their guidelines could cover point 1 (the nuanced case of appeals) and perhaps formalise some of the steps myself and others have recommended which could form a part of a post-penal rehabilitation process, which could help educate the player whilst simultaneously assuaging some of the doubts fans have. Finally, what else could be done? Well, longer prison sentences for sexual offences as a whole could also come onto the table, if that better reflects people's beliefs about the severity of sexual offence.

My main conclusion from this is that, once a footballer has served their prison sentence (including release on probation) - even for a sexual offence - they should be allowed to return to the game (football-related offences like match-fixing notwithstanding). This, for me, is a very important principle in the rehabilitation process. Some of the proposals I have included above are ideas which try to enhance the rehabilitation process of the player after release, educating them and, additionally, recognising the complexity around rehabilitation of offenders and assuaging the concerns many people may have about the player's right to return to the game. No, we should not try to pretend that it will necessarily be easy. Yes, we need to be sensitive of nuances like appeals and maintenance of innocence. However, it is far better to be sensitive about these issues, by brainstorming ideas which can help resolve them and address the genuine concerns expressed by critics (as distinct from the simple blood-baying of a social media mob), than to start drawing arbitrary red lines, by banning the player from ever returning to the game again.


FOOTNOTES
[1] - In fact, figures suggest that we may already be heading in this direction. According to a joint-departmental Government paper "An Overview of Sexual Offending in England & Wales", published in 2013, 'the average custodial sentence of rape convictions stood at eight-and-a-half years in 2011, an increase of nearly 21 months since 2005'. However, as far as I can tell (I have only read the summary quickly, and not yet read the full paper - which may or may not have this information), this doesn't provide information on when rapists are released, e.g. on probation (i.e. how much of their full custodial sentence was spent in prison, and how this has changed over recent times).


FURTHER READING
Quite a lot of articles have helped guide and, in other cases, challenge my thinking on this subject. In addition to bits of articles quoted (and linked to) above, a selection of these are presented below. All dates presented below are to the best of my knowledge (I read most of them online).

"Ilombe Mboyo: Prison, stardom, and a terrible past" Patrick Nathanson, published by BBC Sport on September 24 2013
"Ched Evans: Charlie Webster resigns as Sheffield United patron" Includes interview with Charlie Webster on BBC Newsnight, broadcast November 11 2014
"What should happen to a released rapist" Tom de Castella, published by BBC News Magazine on November 13 2014
"Ched Evans case shows that the law is an ass, not the clubs wanting to sign him" Marina Hyde, published in The Guardian on January 6 2015
"The football rapist is vile, but courts hand out justice - not the Twitter mob" Melissa Kite, published in the Daily Mail on January 6 2015
"Ched Evans furore shows a sport out of step with the modern world" Owen Gibson, published in The Guardian on January 8 2015
"Ched Evans affair shamed football - myopic PFA, mute FA and idiotic clubs all disgraced themselves" Paul Hayward, published in The Daily Telegraph on January 9 2015

Monday, 29 December 2014

F1 2014 Review: A Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde year

Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes celebrate their 2014 world titles in
Abu Dhabi. (C) Motorsport.com
As the calendar year draws to a close, it provides time to reflect on the Formula One season just past. What to make, then, of a season of huge changes, where crucial issues came to a head both on and off the race track?

The first, and most obvious, thing to note is that, casting a glance at the headlines the sport was making would yield the impression that 2014 was a season of unrelenting negativity for F1. It all started with the new V6 power units, which replaced the V8s as the engines of choice at the start of the season, and had been long in the making. These new engines were complex, to be sure, but they were also a ringing endorsement of the teams' boundless capacity for innovation under tight deadlines. It was also a chance for a sport sometimes pilloried for its wastefulness and non-relevance to showcase its environmental and energy-efficient credentials, as the power units' energy storage and re-use could benefit road cars in a wider sense. Yet all this was drowned out by a lot of noise over, somewhat ironically, the lack of noise of the new units. This provoked serious debate amongst fans, stakeholders (Bernie Ecclestone has never been a fan), race organisers (Australian GP Corporation chairman Ron Walker was unhappy) and team owners. As I've written before, I am mostly happy with the new engines' volume and pitch, but can also understand why many fans would miss the high-pitched scream we perhaps expect from an F1 engine. Moreover, once it became clear, during pre-season testing and again in the season opener in Melbourne, that Mercedes had produced the best power unit by a notable margin, teams started to add a political dimension to the noise criticisms. Then-Ferrari chairman Luca Montezemolo started to complain about the fuel limit (100kg for the whole race), and started lobbying - unsuccessfully in the end - for an increase, which would have hidden Ferrari's weaknesses in this area. Niki Lauda, Mercedes' non-executive chairman, put it bluntly in Bahrain (where the fuel limit was kept at 100kg): "It started in Australia because the organisers complained about the noise level. Then it got its own dynamics and [Luca] di Montezemolo came in and said there is not enough fuel. Out of this momentum everyone threw their own troubles in. I have never seen such a stupid approach to a problem!"[1]

Following on from this, there was - later in the season - the very existence of the teams; in particular, midfield teams like Force India, Sauber and Lotus, and the small teams like Caterham and Marussia. Heck, even McLaren started the season without a major sponsor for the first time since anyone could remember. Part of this came from the costly engines they were now buying from the three sporting manufacturers (Mercedes, Ferrari and Renault). But there were far wider issues at play here; competing in F1 is very expensive and, to be at the front, you need to spend more still. Yet, in a financial climate that remains tough after the 2007/08 crash, finding funding is hard - in particular for the smaller teams; Lotus and Sauber have both had eye-catching results (whole seasons in the case of Lotus) in recent seasons, yet are still struggling with funding. Pay drivers help fill the gap, as does revenue from the sport as a whole, distributed amongst the teams. However, even here there is a problem; the pot of money distributed to the teams is distributed unequally, based (partly) on constructors' positions (both most recent and over a three-year cycle). On top of that, certain teams receive money on the basis of their historical value to the sport (step forward Ferrari! And also Mercedes and Williams). While a team like Ferrari may get £100m+ for finishing 2nd or 3rd in the constructors' championship, Marussia have been collecting only £10m to survive for finishing 11th (in 2012).

The solution, it seems, it two-fold. On the cost side, a budget cap (much endorsed by Max Mosley in 2008/09, but he was unable to force it through and, by this point, had come across as so dictatorial that a breakaway series looked on the cards, despite the common sense of the cap idea per se) which allows teams to focus on innovation, levels the competitive playing field and preventing some sort of financial arms race. On the revenue side, a fairer distribution - though in my view not an entirely equal one, for F1 remains a meritocracy and because cost of entry fees paid to the FIA are now higher for the stronger performing teams - of the revenues among the teams combined, possibly, with a greater share of F1's total revenues going to them (in fairness, I believe - based on what I've read - the total that goes to the teams is around 60% now, rather than 50%, or maybe less, as in the past). However, getting a budget cap through the whole grid is nigh-on impossible (further attempts in 2013/14 were unsuccessful) and, despite occasional positive noises, there appears to be little evidence of progress on the revenue front either. The midfield teams continue to fight hard, though they only became truly vocal at the end of the season when Caterham and Marussia were on the brink. A better approach, in my view, would have been to talk about the issue persistently - using an encyclopaedic knowledge of F1's rules - the tactic Paul Stoddart used to use when he was in charge of Minardi (2001-05). Nevertheless, they continue to fight on, and the focus on this issue may have come just in time for them. Contrastingly, it may well have come too late for Caterham and Marussia - two of F1's new teams from 2010 (the third, Hispania/HRT, folded in 2012) - both of whom are in administration or worse (Marussia actually had their assets liquidated just before Christmas) and face huge obstacles to ensure they remain on the grid in 2015.

Toro Rosso driver Jean-Eric Vergne's helmet carrying the
"Tous avec Jules #17" badge that many drivers wore after
Bianchi's accident. (C) Daily Telegraph

For Marussia, it was a sad end to a real rollercoaster of a season. Back at the Monaco GP, the team were euphoric when a gutsy drive by lead driver Jules Bianchi gave them a 9th position finish, and their first points in Formula 1. They were the first of the 'new' teams to achieve this (Caterham's best finish has been 11th; HRT's was 13th; and points only go down to 10th), and were looking set for a breakthrough 9th finish in the constructors' championship (something they did in the end achieve, but are unlikely to see the financial or performance benefits of). Alas, the team was to suffer tragedy on a very human level when Bianchi was seriously injured in a crash at the Japanese GP; in increasingly wet conditions, Bianchi had lost control on a corner where Sauber's Adrian Sutil had already spun off, and collided with the crane that was there to retrieve Sutil's car. Although Bianchi's head did not hit anything, the forces involved resulted in a diffuse axonal (head) injury. After weeks in an artificial coma in Japan, Bianchi is now back in France, breathing unaided but remaining in intensive care. He will continue to face challenges in 2015. In the wake of this tragedy, the F1 community really seemed to pull together, supporting the Marussia team with an emotional tribute to Bianchi at the next round, the inaugural Russian GP (which turned out to be Marussia's last GP of the season). "Forza Jules!" (Go Jules!/Strength Jules!) and "Tous avec Jules #17 (All with Jules, No 17)" was a fixture on many drivers' helmets in the closing races of the season. Meanwhile, when it came to analysing the accident Race Control and the FIA were both calm, thoughtful and measured. No scapegoating, just a rational analysis of what happened and proposals to prevent them in future (chief among them the use of a Virtual Safety Car, which mandates a speed limit at certain corners where an accident has already occurred). It was the sport at its operational best. With Bianchi's accident coming not long after seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher's skiing holiday accident (which also caused a severe head injury) in December 2013, tragedy did touch the sport in 2014, but it showed its community spirit (existent whatever the off-field political battles were) to help those affected pull through in what must have been very difficult times.

In the context of tragedy, matters like finances and engine noise can pale into insignificance, and so too can the racing. But, having covered the other topics, what was the racing like in 2014? Frankly, I thought it was excellent. The sheer quality of the wheel-to-wheel action was honestly some of the best I've seen in around 20 years of watching the sport. Race after race of action provided overtakes which were firm, but always very fair, and very rarely did serious contact result from it. Bahrain was one of the best out-and-out dry races I've ever seen (with Mercedes' title challengers Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg duelling fiercely for victory); Canada produced some real drama and some great (and, occasionally, not so great) racing; and Hungary saw, for the first time, a race where my entire (nuclear) family stayed from start to finish, gripped to their seats. It was hard to name a single race all season which genuinely lacked this drama, or quality racing (Malaysia and Russia might be ones that come to mind, but only at a push). The World Drivers' Championship, as expected, was solely between the Mercedes drivers. However, I was very impressed with how the Mercedes management (Lauda, Toto Wolff and Paddy Lowe) let their drivers race, despite the obvious internal stresses that this causes. I was also impressed with just how open they were about the problems that arose from this, rather than trying to deny that there was a problem.

Alonso leads Hamilton and Ricciardo as they battle for
victory in Hungary. Ricciardo came out on top (C) Getty Images

In the end, their title battle can be broken up into three parts. In Part 1, Lewis had a DNF in Australia but broadly had the upper hand, winning the next four races to take the championship lead. In Part 2, Rosberg got under Hamilton's skin by winning in Monaco (partly due to Nico's mistake in qualifying - was it deliberate?), and managed to wrestle the initiative. He was brilliant in coaxing his ailing car to 2nd place in Canada (whilst Lewis had another retirement), and also won in both Austria and Germany. In Part 3, Hamilton bounced back impeccably from Spa (where Rosberg controversially collided with him, puncturing Lewis' tyre and leaving him out of the points while Nico was able to continue and finish 2nd) to win six of the last seven races and take the title in a season finale at Abu Dhabi. Overall, Hamilton thoroughly deserved the championship, and it was nice to see the culmination of a six year journey which has taken place since his maiden title in 2008, including the move to Mercedes from McLaren (which was seen to be a risk at the time). Equally, however, Nico merits credit for fighting him all the way and he, too, gets stronger with every season. Behind the Mercedes drivers, Daniel Ricciardo was an absolute revelation in the Red Bull. Few would have predicted, before the season, that he would outscore four-time world champion team-mate Sebastian Vettel. Even fewer would have forecast him doing this with such brilliant racecraft, and winning three races to boot (the only non-Mercedes driver to win). As for Vettel, I was impressed with the maturity he showed in the face of Ricciardo's pace (not throwing his toys out of the pram in public at least), and he moves onto Ferrari in 2015 searching for pastures new. Other stories? Williams having a super year to finish 3rd in the constructors championship, with Valtteri Bottas shining during the season and Felipe Massa showing he still had the speed (though he could be maddeningly inconsistent); Fernando Alonso continuing to perform minor miracles (e.g. China, Austria, Hungary and USA) in an underwhelming Ferrari; a fascinating battle between the (general) consistency of Nico Hulkenberg and the streaky brilliance of Sergio Perez at Force India; an impressive rookie season by Daniil Kvyat at Toro Rosso; Jenson Button surging through at the end to earn himself another year with McLaren; Lotus' drivers frantically trying to make sense of their machinery in a difficult year for 'Team Enstone'; and, of course, the now bittersweet story of Marussia's maiden points.

FOOTNOTES
[1] - Niki Lauda quote and fuel limit story taken from Autosport, April 10 2014 issue (pages 30-33)

FURTHER READING
The review written here was helped by reading, in particular, articles on the blogs of experienced F1 journalists James Allen (http://www.jamesallenonf1.com/) and Joe Saward (http://joesaward.wordpress.com/) during the season. Also useful over the course of the season were websites from Autosport, BBC F1, Sky Sports F1, Motor Sport Magazine and Will Buxton (which can easily be found on Google search) - but not necessarily at the same time!

For analysis on the medical and safety issues facing the sport, former F1 medical delegate Dr Gary Hartstein's blog is also a much read: https://formerf1doc.wordpress.com/

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.