Month: July 2014

Keeping Track #33: Miller’s eyes on the prize

MillerCornerJerezRising Australian motorcycle star Jack Miller insists persistent speculation about a possible move to MotoGP next season won’t distract him from his goal of winning this year’s Moto3 championship.

The 19-year-old from Townsville has been a revelation in the first half of the season in MotoGP’s entry-level category. Riding for the Red Bull KTM Ajo outfit, Miller won his maiden Grand Prix in Qatar before taking victory in three more races before the mid-season break to enjoy a 19-point lead over Alex Marquez, the younger brother of MotoGP sensation Marc Marquez.

Miller’s rapid rise has seen his signature keenly sought by several front-running Moto2 teams for 2015, while speculation continues to link the Australian with a MotoGP ride for the LCR Honda team, which gave Casey Stoner his premier-class start in 2006.

Speaking to the ‘Keeping Track’ podcast, Miller says Red Bull KTM Ajo team boss Aki Ajo – who doubles as Miller’s personal manager – has allowed him to direct his energies towards this year’s Moto3 title.

“I’m so fortunate to have a manager in Aki in there at the moment doing the job for me; I don’t have any stress,” Miller said.

“For me, there’s no extra pressure – as long as I’m riding a bike next year and it’s in this (world) championship, I’ll be happy. For me, I don’t really know where I’ll be yet, and I don’t really care as long as I’m on a motorcycle.”

After finishing seventh in last year’s Moto3 championship, Miller has set a searing pace this season on a KTM, taking five pole positions in nine Grands Prix and finishing no lower than fourth in races where he’s seen the chequered flag.

He says the team run by Ajo – which propelled Marc Marquez to the 2010 125cc title and German Sandro Cortese to the Moto3 crown in 2012 – have been crucial in his development.

“You learn so much more with these guys than I have in the last two years that I’ve had in Grand Prix racing,” he said.

“It’s such a great environment, it’s a well-rounded crew with knowledge to teach me what they know. If I could take them with me for the rest of my career, I’d love to do it.”

Miller also spoke about being seen as Australia’s next great two-wheel prospect, his likely championship rivals for the rest of the season, and his ambitions to improve on a fifth-place finish at the Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix at Phillip Island last year.

Listen here – and leave your feedback.

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The Inside Line #66: The evolution will be televised

TILI Logo PrintSome things haven’t changed in the new-look Formula One this season – Lewis Hamilton still rides the steepest emotional rollercoaster of any driver, Fernando Alonso remains the sport’s foremost competitor and Kimi Raikkonen’s effort tends to fluctuate when he’s getting paid [1] – but the complete reset to the cars and plenty of the rules this season has provided an interesting insight into the sport’s future.

While several of the new breed – Daniel Ricciardo (yes, him), Valtteri Bottas and Kevin Magnussen – have evolved, some of the older brigade – Jenson Button, Adrian Sutil [2] and Raikkonen – have, at best, plateaued. A case of old dogs not being able to learn new tricks, or attentions diverted elsewhere? It’s difficult to know, but one thing we can say for certain is that Bottas is a gun.

The Finn has been one of the stories of the season, but how good can he become? Ask Claire Williams, and she believes the unusually talkative Finn is a world champion in the making. Claire would say that, of course, but there’s no denying Bottas has been hugely impressive this season. It also shows how good of a year Williams have had when you consider Bottas’ rise might only be the third-best thing that has happened to them, behind signing an engine contract with Mercedes and closing the door behind Pastor Maldonado …

A look at Bottas’ outstanding second F1 season is a feature of Episode 66 of ‘The Inside Line’, while we also review all of the action from a dramatic final race before the mid-season break in Hungary [3]. Associate associate producer Stewart Bell (yes, that’s his ‘official’ title) is also on board this week, while the F1 schedule continues to expand. Mexico is back on the calendar for 2015, which we cover; Azerbaijan is somehow on the 2016 calendar, which we don’t.

Check out ‘The Inside Line’ on SPEED TV Australia (Foxtel/Austar channel 512) at 7pm on Wednesday July 30, and/or on ESPN (Foxtel/Austar channel 508 in Australia) at 8.30pm on Thursday July 31.

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[1] Possibly the nicest thing I’ve written about Raikkonen in a while.

[2] Sometimes you read something you wish you’d written yourself. To quote Joe Saward: ‘Adrian Sutil is half-Uruguayan, plays the piano and does strange things with champagne glasses’. Hat tip to you, sir.

[3] Probably a good job there isn’t another race for four weeks. Daniel Ricciardo’s hangover might last for three …

The Inside Line #65: Paying the price

TILI Logo PrintRomain Grosjean must be one very, very patient man – which isn’t the first adjective you (or, as documented here, I) would have used even halfway through last year to describe a driver who was, quite frankly, a liability on the opening lap of races. After last year’s Hungarian Grand Prix, Lotus had scored 183 points in the constructors’ championship, sat in a comfortable fourth place, and were a genuine chance to make the podium at every Grand Prix. And that was before Grosjean’s spectacular end to the season, where he turned around his reputation as a crash magnet and scored more points in the final six races than any driver not named Sebastian Vettel.

Fast-forward 12 months to this coming weekend’s race in Budapest, and Grosjean has no chance of finishing anywhere near the top three spots through no fault of his own. None. It’s been a dramatic fall from grace for Lotus, who could barely scrape together enough money to test their new car in the pre-season [1] and have been attempting to play catch-up with next to no success since. Nobody seems to be shedding a tear that Pastor Maldonado [2] hasn’t yet scored a point in 2014 (he can cry into his PDVSA millions after all), but Grosjean deserves better. Lotus’ freefall has been underplayed as a story this season thanks to Mercedes’ dominance, Sebastian Vettel’s struggles and the increasingly hopeless position Ferrari finds itself in, and the team can only hope Mercedes engines in 2015 can make this year look like a blip rather than a trend in years to come.

A preview of the 11th round of the season this Sunday in Hungary is just part of a jam-packed Episode 65 of ‘The Inside Line’ this week. Back-to-back race weekends will do that, and with this being the final race before the mid-year break, Nico Rosberg will be determined to extend his advantage at the top of the drivers’ championship over teammate Lewis Hamilton after winning in Germany last weekend. We review Hockenheim at the top of the show, and look at Kimi Raikkonen’s waning motivation to stay in F1 and drive for Ferrari. Again, I might add [3].

Check out ‘The Inside Line’ on SPEED TV Australia (Foxtel/Austar channel 512) at 7pm on Wednesday July 23, and/or on ESPN (Foxtel/Austar channel 508 in Australia) at 8.30pm on Thursday July 24.

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[1] Lotus has financial struggles. Sauber has barely two cents to rub together. Let’s not even talk about Marussia and Caterham. Yet half-decent hotels not even that close to Hockenheim were charging close to A$500 per night for a minimum five-night stay last weekend, and that’s before you factor in the costs of tickets and incidental costs. There’s plenty of money still around F1, but it doesn’t seem to be going to or staying in the right places. Looking at the pics of opening practice at Hockenheim, Friday must have been ‘come dressed as your favourite empty chair day’. The sport continues to treat its fans with complete contempt.

[2] How did this man ever win a Grand Prix? Other drivers to have won one and only one race in the last 20 years: Jean Alesi, Olivier Panis, Jarno Trulli, Robert Kubica (sadly), Heikki Kovalainen, Daniel Ricciardo (there’ll be many more). Pastor is surely propping up that list.

[3] I’m not sure Ferrari would be doing any better if they had someone younger, cheaper, hungrier and who actually appeared to give a crap as Fernando Alonso’s teammate, but it’d be nice to find out.

The Inside Line #64: Flags in passports, hearts on sleeves

TILI Logo Print“Eng-aaa-land” yelled a euphoric Lewis Hamilton on his slow-down lap after the winning the British Grand Prix, no doubt emotional after a rollercoaster weekend that looked set to end in disappointment 24 hours earlier after he’d made an error of judgment in qualifying. There was every reason for Hamilton to be emotional; his fifth win of the season saw him back in the title fight with teammate Nico Rosberg after clawing back a significant points deficit for the second time already this season, and taking maximum points while his teammate suffered a non-finish for reasons outside of his control must have been some comfort to Hamilton given he’s endured the lions’ share of the bad luck at Mercedes this season.

Hamilton is pure box office – as well as being a brilliant driver, he always wears his heart on his sleeve – but his comments after that Silverstone victory about the next race in Germany were, by his standards, oddly calculating. Suggesting the German Grand Prix isn’t really Rosberg’s home race because Rosberg left Wiesbaden as a baby to live with his world champion father and mother in Monaco was an unusual move for Hamilton, who is usually wrestling with his own mental fluctuations rather than trying to plant the seeds of doubt with someone else. The tabloids predictably lapped it up, and as the season ticks into its second half at Hockenheim this weekend, the tension is only going to increase. Playing mind games probably suits Rosberg more than Hamilton, but it’s interesting that the Briton has chosen to go down that road so far out from the end of the championship, which looks set to go down to the wire (and doesn’t need a double-points finale in Abu Dhabi to artificially spice things up, as I may have mentioned). Can Hamilton keep control of his emotions for the next four months as the season ebbs and flows? What will Rosberg’s response be? The answers will be fascinating.

A comprehensive preview of the 10th race of the season features on Episode 64 of ‘The Inside Line’, while there’s plenty more in this week’s show to sink your teeth into. We review the final in-season test for 2014 at Silverstone, look at the sale of Caterham, and take a trip with Susie Wolff as she guides us through her British GP weekend, where she became the first female driver to take part in an on-track session at a race weekend in 22 years. Disclaimer: Susie is great to deal with from this media person’s point of view, so I was really disappointed for her that her Friday practice session was cut short when her Williams broke down just four laps in. Let’s hope she gets a better shake at Hockenheim this coming weekend.

Catch ‘The Inside Line’ on SPEED TV Australia (Foxtel/Austar channel 512) at 7pm on Wednesday July 16, and/or on ESPN (Foxtel/Austar channel 508 in Australia) at 8.30pm on Thursday July 17.

The Inside Line #63: Zeroes to heroes

TILI Logo PrintIn a sport that moves more rapidly than most, things can turn around quickly in Formula One – as the faces of the three podium finishers at last weekend’s British Grand Prix can attest.

One day after Lewis Hamilton made an error of misjudgement by not pushing hard on his final qualifying lap, one day after the English summer rendered Valtteri Bottas’ qualifying efforts futile, one day after Daniel Ricciardo played it safe by staying in the pits at the end of qualifying, all three drivers were sporting silverware and wide smiles on the Silverstone podium in a race that barely gave those who watched it time to breathe.

As theatre, it was top-shelf; as a means to inject some life back into the title fight, it was perfect. Unless your name is Nico Rosberg, but for the sake of the rest of us, his first retirement of the season couldn’t have come at a better time.

A comprehensive review of a race that featured drama from the first lap, after Kimi Raikkonen’s enormous crash that caused a one-hour delay to repair the trackside barriers, right through to its final moments where Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso [1] engaged in one of the most fascinating F1 fights in years features on Episode 63 of ‘The Inside Line’ this week.

We also look at the raft of rule changes being brought in for next year including the hugely-controversial change to standing re-starts, while we examine what advice Romain Grosjean has for Sergio Perez [2], not even two years after the Frenchman was being labelled as a “first-lap nutcase” and banned for a Grand Prix for his lack of judgement while in close proximity to his colleagues. Plus, we make a tenuous link between F1 and the football World Cup [3]. Really.

Check out ‘The Inside Line’ on SPEED TV Australia (Foxtel/Austar channel 512) at 7pm on Wednesday July 9, and/or on ESPN (Foxtel/Austar channel 508 in Australia) at 8.30pm on Thursday July 10.

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[1] My verdict: too much whining, especially from Vettel. And some tip-toeing right to the edge of what’s acceptable from Alonso. Very, very good viewing.

[2] Grosjean’s thoughts about the suitability of women in kitchens and other socially unacceptable jokes are neither known nor recorded. Which we should all be thankful for.

[3] The opening five corners of the British Grand Prix contained more drama than this entire World Cup. There, I said it. I’ll go back to following the excellent Sean Kelly on Twitter (@virtualstatman) when it’s over as I don’t like my feed to be hijacked by a sport that, try as I have to embrace it, leaves me cold with its diving, histrionics and deception. When you’re used to reporting on F1 drivers competing with broken ribs (Mark Webber) or MotoGP riders racing less than 72 hours after surgery to repair a broken collarbone (Jorge Lorenzo), watching a football player roll over 34 times clutching his face after someone brushes his ankle is utter garbage.

The Inside Line #62: Caught by surprise

TILI Logo PrintNeed proof that F1 has become harder to fathom than ever? Some of its rules and regulations for next year are baffling, sure, but consider the curious case of Sebastian Vettel this season. After crushing the opposition time and time again to end 2013, the four-time world champion has been little more than a bit-part player in his own team this year, let alone compared to the rest of the field. What’s even more baffling is that Red Bull motorsport advisor Dr Helmut Marko – yes, the same Marko who has always been so pro-Vettel since his arrival in F1 – has felt the need to call out his star driver. Yes, hard to fathom indeed.

To be fair to Vettel, which many Australians haven’t been this season – he has endured the lions’ share of the reliability gremlins within his team (the law of averages had to catch up with him eventually), and the new rules for 2014 couldn’t suit his preferred driving style less, particularly as he had more to lose than anyone else when the new cars came into play this season. There’s no way he’ll stay down for too long – he’s far too talented for that – but it has been curious to see him so soundly beaten by Red Bull Racing teammate Daniel Ricciardo when his car has actually held together to complete a race weekend this season [1].

Vettel has out-qualified his teammate just twice and is yet to finish ahead of him in a race where both cars have seen the chequered flag. Not even the most optimistic Ricciardo fan – nor Daniel himself, come to think of it – expected the scales to be so heavily weighted in the new boy’s favour.

As the season rapidly approaches its halfway point, as the sport’s rulemakers find new ways to turn F1 into a laughing stock and as Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton stage their own intra-team battle for the title, Vettel’s response after the coming mid-year break – to Ricciardo, to the new cars and to his critics – will be one of the most intriguing stories of the rest of 2014. He might not be the headline act this year, but his exploits are arguably more compelling now than they were 12 months ago.

Vettel’s struggles and Marko’s well-directed rocket feature on Episode 62 of ‘The Inside Line’, while we also preview this weekend’s British Grand Prix at Silverstone. It’ll be hard to get an unbiased read on the weekend ahead given most of the press we read/hear in Australia tends to be from England, where objective views about the British Grand Prix are as rare as F1 rule changes that make sense, but there’s no doubt this event is one of F1’s better weekends.

Forget the typically dreadful weather [2] and horrific traffic jams – this is a Grand Prix with history, pedigree, a super-fast circuit layout and one held in front of knowledgeable fans, four boxes that aren’t often all ticked on the same weekend. The first blast through Copse-Maggotts-Becketts for the year always ranks, to this writer, as one of the best moments of the year. Particularly in 2010 after what happened the day before [3].

Check out ‘The Inside Line’ on SPEED TV Australia (Foxtel/Austar channel 512) at 7pm on Wednesday July 2, and/or on ESPN (Foxtel/Austar channel 508 in Australia) at 8.30pm on Thursday July 3.

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[1] Mark Webber has attended three races this season – Australia, Monaco and Austria – and Vettel has retired from all three of them. Part of me wanted to see Vettel finish on the podium in Austria just so Webber could interview him. As an aside, it is curious that someone who told me last October that he “wouldn’t be setting any alarm clocks” to watch F1 has been so visible since he walked away from the sport. Didn’t see that coming, but maybe I should have.

[2] The ‘English summer’ is a term that always amuses me.

[3] A tremendous answer.