Month: February 2014

No smoke: Ricciardo set to win soon, says Webber

Ricciardo RBR hatMark Webber isn’t in the business of, as he might put it, blowing smoke up anyone’s arse [1], which is why the comments took me by surprise. I’d asked him about the prospects of the man who took over the seat at Red Bull Racing he vacated over the off-season, Daniel Ricciardo, for 2014.

Red Bull have had a shocker in pre-season testing – even Ricciardo’s permanently stapled-on grin has wavered a few times in the past week [2] – but Webber was adamant. Ricciardo will become the fourth Australian, behind Jack Brabham, Alan Jones and Webber himself – to become a Formula One race-winner. And he’ll do it soon.

“I believe he’ll win Grands Prix this year, which will be a very big confidence boost for him,” Webber told me on this week’s ‘Keeping Track’ podcast.

“Patience will be required to a degree because it is a bit of a new scenario for him, but once he finds his feet, the sky could be the limit for him.”

Strong words, and a big call on someone who is yet to finish better than seventh in his 50 previous Grands Prix. But perhaps Webber sees something of a younger version of himself in his compatriot. There was none of the recent trend of getting parachuted into F1 by a rich parent or a sack-full of cash for Webber, and Ricciardo has taken a circuitous and somewhat old-school route to get there too. Karting, Formula Ford, Formula BMW, F3, Formula Renault 3.5, F1 test driver and then into F1 with HRT in 2011. As Webber sees it, Ricciardo has paid his dues.

“He thoroughly deserves the seat – you don’t get a seat like that from not putting the yards in,” Webber reasoned.

“He’s put the work in, he’s been over in Europe for a long time, and he left Australia very early to achieve his goal. He’s achieved arriving in Formula One, he’s earned his stripes, and now he’s in a top team where he can show to everybody, including himself, what he’s really capable of.

“He’s got a very level head, he’s mature and he’s going to learn a lot of things this year which he’ll put in the computer for future years, and that’ll help him be a very handy Grand Prix driver.”

That first win almost certainly won’t happen in Melbourne in two weeks’ time – one pessimistic view in the Bahrain paddock this week had both Red Bull’s eliminated in Q1 at Albert Park and not making it much past half-distance in the race – but Webber more than anyone knows the resources and technical know-how at Milton Keynes, and that Red Bull will be pushing like crazy to get the RB10 up to speed. That won’t come soon enough for too many in the local media who forget that Australia is just one round in a 19-race world championship [3], but Red Bull will improve in leaps and bounds as the season progresses. Then, and only then, will we see if Webber’s words carry weight.

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[1] The best answer to a question at a presser last year came in Japan, when Webber was asked about the progress of a man he labelled a “first-lap nutcase” at Suzuka 12 months previously, Romain Grosjean. The response? “You know, we’re not here to blow smoke up his arse, but in the end he’s doing a very good job this year and it’s a big step for him.” Plenty of journos will miss Webber’s directness this year …

[2] Why doesn’t this man have an endorsement with a toothpaste company yet? Get Colgate on the phone …

[3] Like the Australian Open tennis, when domestic football reporters with loud voices and a platform from which to shout get cajoled into writing something they know nothing about with a global reach, some of the content produced at Albert Park in a fortnight should be accompanied by a laugh track. Just read the byline first.

Keeping Track #30: Webber weighs in

webber-rex_2103558bRetired Australian Formula One driver Mark Webber has praised his home Grand Prix as being run better than any other while adding his support to keep the event in Melbourne.

Admitting it will be “bizarre” to not be on the grid in Melbourne next month, Webber told the Australian Grand Prix’s ‘Keeping Track’ podcast that the event at Albert Park is one of the highlights of the Formula One season.

“(Australia) is in the top three – and you’ve got some tough ones to compete against with Monaco and some of the prestigious ones that have been on the calendar for 50 years,” he said.

“(But) it’s certainly an incredible event that’s executed probably the best in the world.”

With the current contract to host the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne coming to an end after the 2015 event, Webber stressed the importance of Australia continuing to “have a seat at the table” in a truly global sport.

“Every year when you look at the calendar and you know you’ve got the (Australian Open) tennis and the Grand Prix, I think that’s a very powerful message and tool for our country internationally,” Webber said.

“We have to embrace these big sporting events where we can, and the extension of the contract is important for those reasons.”

Webber also opened up on Daniel Ricciardo’s chances at Red Bull Racing this season, and spoke of his new challenge with Porsche in the World Endurance Championship.

Listen here – and leave your feedback.

The Inside Line #44: Lewis lets the cat out

TILI Logo PrintIt’s nice to have a bit of unpredictability when interviewing Formula One drivers. It’s also very rare. So well media-trained are today’s steerers that you’ll rarely get anything of interest on the record in a group interview situation. One-to-one, you’ll get Daniel Ricciardo’s incandescent smile and plenty of off-the-record laughter, Nico Rosberg’s snooty indifference [1] or Kimi Raikkonen’s monosyllabic drudgery (the same as you do in a group, mind you). But in the dreaded post-test/race/practice stand-up at the back of the garage, it’s one great sporting cliché after another. Except for when Lewis Hamilton is the man in front of the microphone.

Much like the way he races, you never quite know what Hamilton will serve up. I’ve seen both sides, the enthusiastic and verbose Hamilton whose love of racing can prompt verbal diahorrea, and the down-in-the-mouth Hamilton who hides behind his shades and hat and mumbles next to nothing. The only thing predictable about his dealings with the media is that he rides the emotional rollercoaster, which made his comments after Bahrain testing last week so revealing.

Mercedes have looked the class of the field in the pre-season, but the caution out of Brackley has been almost as much of a feature as their lap times and reliability. There’s a long way to go, the first race is still weeks away, everyone starts the season on zero points, blah blah blah. But Hamilton let slip what everyone suspects when he faced the cameras in Bahrain after the third day.

“We’re way ahead of where we thought we would be, and compared to some others,” he said, his excitement obvious.

“We feel quite blessed that we’ve done the amount of mileage we’ve already done.”

Perhaps remembering who he was talking to (i.e. the rest of the world), Hamilton quickly changed tack and played the PR game, mentioning that it was difficult to know where everyone stood, we’re just working step by step etc. It was F1 driver cliché bingo at its finest. But there’s no denying that Mercedes are well ahead of the rest two-thirds of the way through pre-season testing – and it was nice for Hamilton to confirm it.

In Episode 44 of ‘The Inside Line’, we look back at all of the news coming out of the second pre-season test in Bahrain last week, where Mercedes and Red Bull hogged the headlines – the latter for reasons they’d prefer not to. It’s one thing to have an unreliable car, and another to have a slow one when it actually does work. While Mercedes and McLaren are doing race distances and qualifying simulations, neither Sebastian Vettel nor Daniel Ricciardo have done more than 12 laps in a single stint in eight days of testing. At this rate, even getting to half-distance of the season-opener in Australia in less than three weeks looks to be a stretch for Red Bull [2].

Also on this week’s show, we profile Hamilton’s old teammate at McLaren, Jenson Button. Producer Tim Nelson calls him the “gentleman of the track”, and he’s right. ‘JB’ isn’t the oldest driver in the sport – that’s the ever-garrulous Raikkonen – but he’s been around the longest, debuting in Australia way back in 2000. The story of the cab driver who drove him around the Albert Park circuit that year while trying to impact his wisdom of how Button should tackle the track in a V10 Williams still makes me laugh [3]. It’s been a tough off-season for Button after his father’s death in January, and there would be few in the paddock with a dry eye if the Brit can add to his three previous wins in Melbourne in mid-March.

There’s plenty more on Episode 44 of ‘The Inside Line’. Check out the premiere on SPEED TV Australia (Foxtel/Austar channel 512) at 6.30pm AEDT on Wednesday February 26. We’re also on ESPN (Foxtel/Austar channel 508 in Australia) at 9.30pm AEDT Thursday February 27.

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[1] Speaking from experience, Rosberg engages in interviews if (a) the questioner is considered to be one of the world’s premier travelling full-time F1 journos (I’m not) and/or (b) a pretty female (which, er, I’m not either). Otherwise, forget it.

[2] A lazy punt on Vettel to win the title after the final test wouldn’t be the worst investment. What chance an all-conquering B-spec RB10 appears for the first European race in Spain?

[3] Knowing Melbourne taxi drivers all too well, I’m amazed Button’s driver knew where he was going, or didn’t refuse to take him as he wasn’t travelling far enough for an exorbitant fare.

The Inside Line #43: Teen dreams and culling the kilos

TILI Logo PrintYou never get a second chance to make a first impression, so the saying tells us; fortunately for Daniil Kvyat, he did get a second chance – and used it so well that he’ll be lining up on the grid for the season-opening Australian Grand Prix in just under a month.

Red Bull are convinced they have something special in the 19-year-old Kvyat, who made a mess of his initial run in an F1 car when he beached the Toro Rosso in the gravel at Silverstone in last year’s Young Driver Test. But notoriously hard task-master Dr Helmut Marko had seen enough in the Russian to think he had more of an immediate F1 future than the man who had been earmarked as the likely replacement for Daniel Ricciardo, Portuguese driver Antonio Felix da Costa. The fact there’s the inaugural Russian Grand Prix coming up later this year probably didn’t hurt either …

To be fair to Kvyat, he certainly didn’t put a foot wrong later in 2013, winning the GP3 title and looking seriously quick when he participated in Friday practice in Austin and Sao Paulo. Watching his progress early on in the season will make for fascinating viewing given how Red Bull tend to expect so much from their young drivers once they’re parachuted into a Toro Rosso seat. For all of the success of Sebastian Vettel, the wreckage of the careers of the likes of Tonio Liuzzi, Jaime Alguersuari and second-most arrogant driver I’ve ever had the misfortune of interviewing [1], the ironically-named Scott Speed, offers plenty of evidence of what might happen to Kvyat if things don’t progress as planned.

In Episode 43 of ‘The Inside Line’, we look at Kvyat’s rapid rise, how someone from as unlikely an F1 destination as Ufa (look it up) can make it to the top flight, and why the Kvyat/Jean-Eric Vergne [2] intra-team fight could be a lot of fun this year based on the Russian’s ambition.

What else is on this week’s show? Plenty. A profile on Bernie Ecclestone’s tip for the world championship, Nico Rosberg, a look at whether Red Bull has solved its issues from the last test at Jerez in time for Bahrain this week, and why weight has become such an issue for drivers in modern-day F1 [3].

Episode 43 of ‘The Inside Line’ is set to premiere on Australian screens on SPEED TV Australia (Foxtel/Austar channel 512) at 7pm AEDT on Wednesday February 19.  There’s a second helping (not if you’re an F1 driver, mind you) on ESPN (Foxtel/Austar channel 508 in Australia) at 9.30pm AEDT Thursday February 20.

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[1] The most arrogant is still on this year’s grid, so that’ll be for a later blog. First clue: it’s not Lewis Hamilton. Ask me a question and I’ll tell you no lies …

[2] Three drivers most likely to not see out the 2014 season: Vergne, Esteban Gutierrez and the bloke who drove the recovery vehicle onto the track in last year’s Korean GP.

[3] A recent illustration of Daniel Ricciardo for which someone was mystifyingly paid to provide as a resource for newspapers covering the season was so inaccurate that the affable Aussie looked like he was 95kg. And that’s his assessment, not mine.

A two-wheel interlude: How good is Jack Miller?

jack-miller-red-bull-ktm-ajo-moto3THIS STORY APPEARS IN THE MARCH ISSUE OF INSIDE SPORT MAGAZINE. FOR MORE, CLICK HERE.

Casey Stoner’s exit from MotoGP at the end of the 2012 season left a void for Australian fans in top-flight two-wheel motorsport, but it’s a void Jack Miller hopes to fill before too long. The gregarious 19-year-old from Townsville has made a name for himself with two promising seasons in Moto3, the entry-level world championship category, and earned a promotion to the Red Bull KTM Ajo squad that has dominated the smallest class in recent seasons for 2014.

What’s his story?
Like so many Australian road racers who’ve competed internationally, Miller cut his teeth in motocross, winning his first national dirt bike title at the age of 10 before graduating to tarmac in 2008. It didn’t take long for Miller to make the adjustment to the black stuff; he won the Australian 125cc title in 2009 before heading to Europe, and he combined a full season in the German national 125cc category with a handful of world championship appearances in 2011.

Miller’s first full season on the global stage came in 2012 in the newly-rebadged Moto3 class, and while he finished just 23rd overall, he showed his potential with a brilliant fourth at the Sachsenring in Germany in treacherous wet conditions. But it was last year that Miller came of age, dragging an under-powered FTR-Honda towards the front in a category dominated by Spanish riders and the KTM bike that won all 17 races.

Miller was seventh in the standings, qualified inside the top five nine times, and finished a season-best fifth twice, firstly in San Marino and again at his home Grand Prix at Phillip Island, a thrilling race that saw the top six riders separated by just 1.077 seconds after a furious 23-lap battle. No less an authority than motorcycle bible Motocourse rated Miller as the 10th-best rider across all three world championship categories for 2013, the Australian being the only Moto3 rider to make the list along with the likes of MotoGP stars Jorge Lorenzo, Valentino Rossi and new wunderkind Marc Marquez.

Miller says spending the past two seasons on less-than-ideal machinery has seen him mature as a rider.

“I think I grew up because I had to do something different – there was no chance I was going to overtake the others, get to the front and pull away,” he says.

“I had to sit back, let the race unfold and not make any mistakes until the last five laps, and only then put the pedal down and try to make some moves. It made me really have to think about every move I made, so last year was a huge learning year because it rounded me out as a rider.”

Miller wasted little time in making an impression as soon as he threw his leg over a KTM, setting the fastest time on the opening two days of pre-season testing at Jerez in Spain despite re-breaking his right collarbone he’d broken three months earlier at Indianapolis. It was yet another display of his talent and toughness; the latest bad break was the tenth time Miller has snapped one collarbone or the other.

Who’s he like?
Still growing at 175cm and 60kg, Miller is fast-becoming too big for the machinery he’s riding. With a Moto3 bike and its rider needing to weigh in at a minimum of 148kg, every extra kilo costs lap time in the junior classes, and it’s not until riders progress to the monstrous 1000cc rocket-ships in MotoGP that the likes of Rossi (182cm) and Dani Pedrosa (160cm) can truly compete on equal footing.

Miller’s tangle of arms and legs can make his riding technique look a little ungainly compared to the smooth sliding style mastered by Stoner in his time in the sport, but the stopwatch shows the speed is there – and it’s not just on the bike that Australia’s next big thing differs from our most recent MotoGP champion.

Off it, Miller’s distinctive Queensland drawl, penchant for dyeing his hair and the word ‘Jackass’ amusingly stitched into the seat of his riding leathers have made him one of the up-and-coming characters in a sport not lacking for personalities. As the resident clown prince of MotoGP, perhaps Rossi noticed as much when he invited a bunch of riders including Miller, 2006 MotoGP world champion Nicky Hayden and Miller’s Australian mate and Moto3 rival Arthur Sissis to his ranch in the Italian town of Tavullia last September for an impromptu weekend of dirt-bike riding.

“Valentino’s a really cool dude. Someone on his level, he lets you into his house, has a heap of bikes for you to ride and just wants you to come and do some laps with him … it doesn’t get much better than that,” Miller laughs.

“You had to pinch yourself and wonder ‘am I really here with the best that’s ever been on a motorbike?’ – it was unreal.”

What do they say?
“Jack’s been a breath of fresh air for the sport; he’s got plenty of energy and he’s always happy and jovial, so that’s a great asset along with the talent he has. I’ve got no doubt about his determination – what he did with that bike last year was nothing short of amazing.”
– Mick Doohan, five-time 500cc world champion and winner of 54 Grands Prix

“I think he’s got great ability. Last year you could see where he lost out in speed with the machine he was on down the straights, but generally in the tight stuff, he’s every bit as good if not better (than his rivals). I think we’re going to see great things from Jack if that KTM continues to be competitive.”
– Daryl Beattie, three-time Grand Prix winner and Network Ten analyst

“I think everyone has seen that (Jack) is one of the biggest talents for the future in the world championship.”
– Aki Ajo, former rider and owner of Moto3 team Red Bull KTM Ajo

The Inside Line #42: The world waits for Schumi

 

TILI Logo PrintEven over the phone from Monaco, the emotion in David Coulthard’s voice was evident. It had been eight weeks since we learned of Michael Schumacher’s injuries from his skiing accident in the French Alps, and Coulthard, for so long a contemporary of the great German’s, was still struggling to put what it meant to see his old foe fighting for his life into the appropriate words.

“For anyone who follows Formula One and anyone who raced in Formula One in that time, he’s such a big part of all of our lives,” Coulthard said.

“He gave credibility to so many of our careers because if you could run close with Michael, you knew you were doing a good job, and if you beat him … you knew you were at the top of your game.”

For so many years, that game for Schumacher was about amassing pole positions, race wins and world championships as he dominated the world’s best drivers year after year in an irresistible partnership with Ferrari. Now, as doctors commence the first steps in bringing the 45-year-old out of the induced coma he’s been in since his accident on December 29 last year, those 91 wins and seven drivers’ titles have never seemed less important.

In Episode 42 of ‘The Inside Line’, we examine the Schumacher story and look at the next steps in his recovery.

Also on this week’s show, we examine chassis safety with Mercedes duo Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, see what life after F1 has in store for Paul di Resta, and look at what the sport’s heavy hitters have to say about the controversial introduction of double-points for the season finale in Abu Dhabi. There’s also a revealing portrait of a driver for whom Schumacher has been an inspiration, a mentor and a friend over the years, one Sebastian Vettel.

Episode 42 of ‘The Inside Line’ is set to premiere on Australian screens on SPEED TV Australia (Foxtel/Austar channel 512) at 7pm AEDT on Wednesday February 12.

Moving on with the music

You can live in the past (or make a living from what you were in the past [1]), but there are times where you have to move on. And that’s where we find ourselves ahead of a very different-sounding Formula One in 2014 thanks to the move from 2.4-litre V8 engines to 1.6-litre V6 turbos with their associated energy recovery mechanisms.

From a personal point of view, the change to V8s in 2006 was a difficult one to stomach – how can anyone have not enjoyed this glorious fury of sound more? – but eight years later, I’m more amenable to the new noise coming from F1 this season.

Yes, the sheer decibel level of the new powerplants is less – Marussia CEO Graham Lowdon was surprised he could make a phone call during the first test of the year at Jerez a fortnight ago – but as long as F1 still has that ‘wow’ factor when you’re trackside, that’s fine. There’s that sheer thrill of watching F1 up close that TV will never get across, and given the F1 cars this season still sound like a state-of-the-art racing machine and like nothing else in motorsport – as opposed to a taxi covered in stickers – then I’m all for it.

I’m very much a creature of habit when I’m trackside, and whether it’s watching the cars filing out of the pit lane under my nose in Melbourne until fairly recently[2], using the service road beside the esses at Suzuka to view the cars snake up the hill in FP1 on Fridays, or standing atop the media centre in Abu Dhabi to see the cars pass beneath the hotel that straddles the circuit, I’m always mindful of getting away from the laptop and seeing, experiencing, feeling the cars up close for at least some of the weekend before deadlines pile up and work needs to be done. And the good news is that my trackside watching (and everyone else’s) is bound to be just as good this year.

Sceptical? Two of the absolute best at what they do in the F1 press room say you shouldn’t be. Autosport’s Jon Noble says there’s a different dimension to watching trackside this year with the fizzing of the turbos, the differences between the engines each of Renault, Ferrari and Mercedes have produced, and the extra torque making the cars twitchy coming out the corners. And Peter Windsor told me on the ‘Keeping Track’ podcast last week that he was impressed with what he saw in Spain at the end of January.

“Let’s take (Valtteri) Bottas in a Williams as a good example; I was standing up at Turn 1 when he did his first real run in that car, and I have to say it was quite impressive,” Windsor says.

“The first lap, he kind of bobbled coming out of the right-hander and he had a little bit of oversteer; the next lap, he got it absolutely right in the middle. The acceleration and the torque was definitely visible, and there’s a very nice metallic whirr to the turbo as it winds up. For all those out there that think they’re going to miss that wailing whine of the very high-revving 18,000rpm V8s, this is a different sound, and it’s not bad at all. Collectively, they’re going to be a lot better sound-wise than individually if you’re looking for very high decibel level.”

Using your eyes as well as your ears this season will be the key to enjoying the action from trackside. There’ll be no more of drivers pointing cars straight out the corners and mashing the throttle with no fear of the back end stepping out. Drivers will be working the wheel to a much greater degree. Going sideways on a gripped-up track will happen regularly[3], and we’ll really see the talent of the drivers on display on a wet Albert Park track should Melbourne’s unpredictable autumn weather throw in a curveball, or particularly when the track is at its greenest early on Friday afternoon.

That FP1 session will be the first time 99 per cent of Australian fans will get to assess and then hand down their verdict on the new-look, new-sounding F1. It’s always one of the best moments of the year – new liveries, new drivers, the sun glimmering off the lake[4], the smell that no other sport has, the initial assault on the senses that the opening few minutes of the season brings. It’ll be as good this year too, just different. The soundtrack to F1 will be new, but it’ll be impressive all the same.

OK, so Bernie doesn’t like it, but he’s got a bit on his plate at the moment. You will if you give it a chance. Find a good spot out of a slow corner at Albert Park like Turn 3, Turn 13 and Turn 15, and be prepared to watch and listen. Move on with the new music of F1.


[1] That’s another blog entry altogether. Stay tuned.

[2] And so is that.

[3] Daniel Ricciardo on the 2014 cars: “Managing the torque on-throttle is the main thing, managing wheelspin. You have to drive on eggshells a little bit.”

[4] Well, maybe. It is Melbourne after all.