Month: August 2014

Keeping Track #34: Lorenzo reflects on ‘crazy’ Australian win

LorenzoQatarTwo-time MotoGP world champion Jorge Lorenzo has described last year’s Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix as one of the most chaotic races of his career.

The Yamaha rider won a MotoGP race at Phillip Island for the first time 12 months ago, after chief title rival Marc Marquez (Honda) was disqualified midway through a race shortened to 19 laps for safety reasons because of concerns over tyre wear.

Lorenzo’s premier-class career began the year after Casey Stoner started his record-breaking run at his home Grand Prix, the Australian winning six times in succession at Phillip Island before his retirement at the end of the 2012 season.

Speaking to the ‘Keeping Track’ podcast, Lorenzo said last year’s Australian race, where regulations forced riders to pit for a second bike fitted with new tyres midway through the race, was unlike anything he had experienced in his career.

“It was unbelievable when we had this problem with the tyre and we knew we couldn’t finish the race with just one tyre,” he said.

“When we had to change the bikes in the pit lane from one slick tyre to another slick tyre, it’s never happened in history, so I thought this was very crazy. It was the only option and the best option, so I think they made a good decision.”

The Spaniard, who won in Australia in 2006 and 2007 in the 250cc class, said Stoner’s affinity with the seaside circuit made adding to that success close to impossible until last year.

“I won there in 2007 in my last year in 250s, probably my best race because I won by 20 seconds to the second rider,” he said.

“But I never won in MotoGP because Casey was so fast and so talented there, sliding around so quick and so constant that we couldn’t beat him. So finally I got my first victory in MotoGP in Phillip Island, and I was very glad.”

Lorenzo also spoke about falling just four points short of winning a third MotoGP title last year, his recent two-year contract extension with Yamaha, and the potential for Marquez to surpass the career achievements of nine-time world champion Valentino Rossi.

Listen here – and leave your feedback.


The Inside Line #70: Too young to fly?

TILI Logo PrintThe kid had sleepy eyes, bad acne and had done all of 23 car races, but he was being parachuted straight into an F1 seat. It seemed ludicrous, but in the face of criticism from seemingly all quarters, one wise voice stood out. “If he’s good enough, then he’s old enough,” shrugged the F1 veteran, and as Kimi Raikkonen’s career would prove, the Finn certainly was good enough [1], as Rubens Barrichello suggested he might be.

Raikkonen was 21 when he made his F1 debut in Australia in 2001 after an apprenticeship in the junior formulae that could be best described as brief; for all of the outcry about promoting such a young and unproven driver back then, 21 seems positively ancient this week with the news Toro Rosso will blood Max Verstappen, son of former Grand Prix driver Jos, for 2015 [2]. Verstappen junior will be six months shy of his 18th birthday when the lights go out in Melbourne to start next season; Toro Rosso’s line-up, with 20-year-old Daniil Kvyat as the ‘veteran’, will have a combined age of 37, just two years more than Raikkonen himself if (and that’s a big ‘if’) he stays on the grid next season. How times change in just 14 years … Jos Verstappen was still competing in 2001 when Raikkonen started his career as part of a bumper crop of rookies that included Fernando Alonso and Juan Pablo Montoya; Montoya still probably remembers ‘Jos the Boss’ more than most.

The junior career of Verstappen junior certainly out-ranks anything Raikkonen put together before he started with Sauber, but is the Dutchman ready for F1 yet? What’s the answer? [3] The background to Verstappen’s leap into the big-time is examined on Episode 70 of ‘The Inside Line’ this week, while we also review the Belgian Grand Prix and F1’s annual visit to the second-best race track on the current calendar [4]. The simmering rivalry between Mercedes teammates Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton finally erupted, while Daniel Ricciardo proved – again – that nice guys can finish first after all.

You can watch ‘The Inside Line’ on SPEED TV Australia (Foxtel/Austar channel 512) at 7pm on Wednesday August 27, and/or on ESPN (Foxtel/Austar channel 508 in Australia) at 8.30pm on Thursday August 28.

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[1] ‘Was’, certainly – a world championship and many, many brilliant race wins proves that. ‘Is’, as in good enough in 2014? Theoretically, yes. Raikkonen’s Belgian GP result notwithstanding, would, say, Jules Bianchi or Nico Hulkenberg have scored more points than him this season had they been Fernando Alonso’s teammate at Ferrari? Almost certainly, yes.

[2] Jos Verstappen’s last F1 season came with Minardi in 2003, the same Minardi Paul Stoddart sold to Red Bull that became Scuderia Toro Rosso, and the same Toro Rosso that has just employed Jos’ son. It’s an amazing coincidence anyway, but one that has happened in just over a decade? Unfathomable.

[3] Lyrical link to a song from 22 years ago that inspired my headline. Got it yet?

[4] Off-the-cuff circuit power rankings: (1) Suzuka (2) Spa (3) Silverstone (4) Interlagos (19) Yas Marina.

The Inside Line #69: Short-term focus, long-term futures?

TILI Logo PrintIf he’s going to beat him anywhere, he’s going to beat him here. ‘He’ is Kimi Raikkonen; ‘him’ is Fernando Alonso. And ‘here’ is Belgium, and more specifically the legendary Spa-Francorchamps circuit that plays host to F1’s return from its mid-season break this weekend.

It’s been a fairly run-of-the-mill mid-season hiatus for F1 this year – the news cycle all but disappearing, drivers posting pics of their latest tattoos on Instagram and, oh, billionaires managing to buy their way out of lengthy jail terms [1] – but things will be back with a bang at what is, even with its amendments on the grounds of safety – one of the great circuits in Formula One. The undulating terrain, the sheer length of the lap, the potential for first-corner shenanigans at La Source, the much-hyped Eau Rouge [2] and the almost-as-good double left-handers at Pouhon – Spa always throws up one of the most aesthetically-pleasing races of the season, even if the racing itself in these days of DRS and faux overtaking can be a bit predictable. But while Mercedes and its drivers should enjoy this circuit like few others, eyes will be trained further back to see which of Raikkonen and Alonso can make the most of F1’s annual visit to the Ardennes.

For all of his success elsewhere, Belgium remains a curious blank page in the Spaniard’s overflowing CV – Alonso has never won there in 10 attempts, and has been on the podium just three times, a statistical anomaly for a two-time world champion with a list of records as long as your arm. Which makes this weekend – and whether Raikkonen can finally do something to announce his presence in 2014 – all the more interesting.

The Finn’s record at Spa is better than any other circuit he’s raced at since his debut in 2003 – four wins for two teams, including three in a row between 2004-07. He loves the old-school nature of the track, the lack of corporate BS that comes with racing out in the forest, and his results reflect that. But in a season where he’s failed to finish ahead of Alonso in a race even once, you wonder what Raikkonen will serve up at Spa. And you wonder what conversations will be had – by the sport’s insiders and behind closed doors at Ferrari – if Raikkonen comes back from the break in the same lacklustre fashion he entered it in. The final eight races of 2014 will tell us much about Ferrari’s willingness to continue paying Raikkonen handsomely next season in a comeback that has fallen well short of expectations for most. If a resurgence is going to start, Belgium is the place for it.

A comprehensive preview of the 12th round of the season this weekend features on Episode 69 of ‘The Inside Line’, while Stewart Bell, in his final show in the chair for the time being [3], looks at the future of another veteran, Jenson Button. Button won in imperious fashion for McLaren at Spa two years ago; since then, he’s won one race, been on the podium once in the past season and a half, and had his effort questioned by Ron Dennis as McLaren has slipped further and further back into the midfield. I personally thought Honda’s re-association with McLaren would guarantee Button stays put in 2015, but I’m not so sure now. Especially if a certain Fernando Alonso became available, which is another post for another time.

Check out ‘The Inside Line’ on SPEED TV Australia (Foxtel/Austar channel 512) at 7pm on Wednesday August 20, and/or on ESPN (Foxtel/Austar channel 508 in Australia) at 8.30pm on Thursday August 21.

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[1] That outcome was never, ever in doubt, was it? Old age is surely the only thing that will halt Bernie’s reign. I reckon he has the rest covered.

[2] I so hope this year’s cars, with their reduced downforce, mean we don’t hear drivers describing Eau Rouge as “easy-flat” anymore. There’s something wrong when corners like that and the almighty 130R at Suzuka (well, before the run-off area was extended) become too simple for F1 cars.

[3] And a top job he did too. He’ll be back.

The Inside Line #68: Horses, hair and high hopes

TILI Logo PrintAs click-bait, it was a good idea: spinning Daniel Ricciardo’s comments that “we’re still in the championship until it’s mathematically impossible” (or words to that effect) into ‘Ricciardo says he can win F1 title!’ got a few extra eyeballs onto Australian websites that should stick to whatever football code they usually provide saturation coverage to [1]. In this media age where quantity matters more than quality for so many providers of content, it was as predictable as it was pathetic. But while Ricciardo is right to continue to fight for the crown until the numbers tell him he can’t, this F1 season is a two-horse race, and has been almost from day one. The good news is that we don’t – can’t possibly – know which of the afore-mentioned steeds will be crowed as world champion by the end of the year – which is why the second half of the season will make for such compelling viewing.

A personal aside on Nico Rosberg: I’ve never particularly cared for him as a driver, which goes back to two lengthy interviews I did with him as a rookie alongside Mark Webber at Williams in 2006. Whether it’s because I was, like Mark, an Australian, or whether he just couldn’t be bothered, or whether he was one of those people who views every encounter with another person as a transaction – “what can I get out of this?” – he was spectacularly unhelpful, condescending, aloof. For someone who hadn’t done anything yet in F1, his attitude (and his hair) struck me as a little unnecessary, and my opinion has usually been negative about him as a result [2].

For all of that, let’s give credit where it’s due. Rosberg has made a far better fist of being in a car capable of winning the championship for the first time than I and many others imagined he would, and after 11 races this season, he’s ahead of his teammate and the driver thought by many to be one of the fastest two men in Formula One, Lewis Hamilton.

While Hamilton has been what Hamilton is this season – spectacular at times, emotionally on the edge and pure theatre – Rosberg has been methodical, consistently quick and has stepped up his game. The British TV coverage that occasionally verges on Hamilton cheerleading can make it seem like there’s only one Mercedes driver on the grid (and, according to Wikipedia, the title race is already over), but Rosberg is the man in the ascendancy at the mid-season break. Who will blink first? Will Hamilton’s bad luck – he’s undoubtedly suffered the lion’s share of Mercedes’ reliability woes – turn around? Will the teammates bash wheels and damage bodywork between now and the end of the year? It’ll be fantastic to find out.

Episode 68 of ‘The Inside Line’ features part two of our mid-season review covering the top five teams in the constructors’ championship. It’s great to see Williams firmly entrenched in that quintet, while you could argue Ferrari could be outside that group were it not for Fernando Alonso. Force India has done superbly to be within touching distance of their best season ever with eight races to go, and Red Bull has bounced back to a quite amazing degree given how horrendous their pre-season testing campaign was (remember that?) But they’re all part of the supporting cast to the main act that is Mercedes.

Let’s hope the Rosberg/Hamilton inter-team fight lasts all the way to Abu Dhabi and comes down to a head-to-head shootout that double points doesn’t decide. That said, if double points was to make the championship decider a complete farce, perhaps it’ll never see the light of day again [3]. Here’s hoping.

Check out ‘The Inside Line’ on SPEED TV Australia (Foxtel/Austar channel 512) at 7pm on Wednesday August 13, and/or on ESPN (Foxtel/Austar channel 508 in Australia) at 8.30pm on Thursday August 14.

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[1] Listening to football bozos tripping over themselves on radio attempting to talk F1 the day after Ricciardo’s Hungary win was partly amusing and mostly frustrating. Given half of these types got their jobs based on who they were rather than what they should be, perhaps they should stick to what they know. “Never mind world sport, how about those (insert local football team nickname here) …”.

[2] I did laugh when this happened though. Check the 3:10 mark of this clip for the famous “Britney’s in the wall” incident. One of Webber’s better caustic quips in a career with some beauties. My other favourite happened in Abu Dhabi one year. (Ditzy BBC radio journo with flicky hair and regularly-displayed cleavage, while batting eyelids): “So Mark, who do you think will win on Sunday?” (Webber, after shrugging shoulders): “Dunno mate. Guess that’s why we’re all here …”

[3] Toto Wolff is one F1 person who will come out of 2014 with his reputation enhanced, and not just for these comments.

Now for the future

Australian F1 Grand Prix - QualifyingA few years ago, I was an occasional F1 correspondent for a Melbourne radio station that hosted a two-hour sports program, one with the word ‘sports’ in the title even though it focused on only one. You know the drill: an hour and 55 minutes of breathless chatter about what the 28th-best player on an AFL team had for breakfast yesterday, who said what on Twitter, and a lot of blathering and chortling about ‘back in my day’ from the hosts who, by virtue of what they used to do professionally, have a new profession they’re not qualified to perform in their post-sporting days.

It was the day before the F1 season-opener in Melbourne, and while the rest of the sporting world was ready for a truly global sport to start for the year, said sports (sport) show hosts were adamant as they introduced me a few minutes before they finished for the night. “Don’t know about you Matt, but I reckon this F1 business is losing favour, there’s nobody anywhere that seems to be talking about it,” came the first statement masquerading as a question from former athlete/“journalist”, and it was hard to know where to go from there. I did consider pointing out that, more than likely, nobody in Spain was wondering how Richmond’s backline would handle Carlton’s assortment of tall forwards, but sometimes it pays to keep your powder dry. Nothing I said, no matter how considered, was going to make the slightest bit of difference.

I digress. The news that Australia will continue to be on the F1 calendar for another five years last week was good for Melbourne, good for Victoria and good for Australians [1] who enjoy all sports, not ones pushed down our throats whether we like them or not [2]. Next year’s race will be the 20th at Albert Park; remarkably, only seven races on the calendar have a history longer than Melbourne’s. It’s a great coup, and one we should be proud of. It also gives all those involved in the event a chance to move forward with some certainty; speak to some spectators at the track each March, and you get the feeling plenty feel the event has been watered down a bit in recent years as its future remained uncertain. Some fans were counting down until the end of the (now former) contract in 2015 – “we better go this year because there’s only two more” – so five more years (at least) is a great sign.

What I’d personally like to see over that five years is an end to the alarming promotional trend for the event that almost seems apologetic on occasion, and for the city to actually get behind it properly rather than certain sections of it lining up to belt the event from pillar to post because of what it isn’t each March. More than one sport can have its time in the sun at once. It’s not that hard, as I’ve learned this week.

I’ve taken advantage of the F1 mid-season break to sneak (as much as you can sneak across 24 hours of travel) to Indianapolis for MotoGP, as I have for the past three years. We’re not in MotoGP’s heartland of Europe, that’s for sure – that the only support race on the event bill features a bunch of Harley Davidson’s tells you something – but Indianapolis pulls out all the stops when a big international sporting series comes to town. There’s plenty of other sporting distractions here at the moment – the NFL season is about to start, the Indiana Pacers’ star basketballer Paul George has just suffered a broken leg that will sideline him for a year, and there’s the Little League World Series everywhere on TV [3] – but MotoGP is the big deal this weekend. You can’t move around town without seeing a billboard promoting the event, while the fans continue to show up in numbers at the vast Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a venue so enormous that (as one pic I saw this week showed) it could fit the entire Wimbledon complex, the Vatican City, Yankee Stadium and the Kentucky Derby track inside its oval track used for the Indy 500 (think about that for a minute).

The city is on board, the local media – all of it, not just the ones who have the publishing rights – supportive, and it feels like an event everyone wants and embraces along with their other, perhaps preferred, sports. Melbourne could learn much.

It’s terrific for Melbourne’s self-proclaimed “sporting capital” status (capitals that aren’t ‘A’, ‘F’ and ‘L’) that the Grand Prix season will open up at Albert Park for the next five years. Melbourne has a wall-to-wall international calendar of sport that fits in seamlessly with the events of local interest. Let’s embrace that rather than resist it. And let’s not apologise for it.

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[1] I’m speaking in lists, much like Steve Bracks used to when he launched what he repeatedly called the “‘Straya Gran Pree” in his tenure as Victorian Premier.

[2] I do like my footy. Support my team with a passion, do some work in the sport too. There’s a lot of terrific people working in it. But I can’t – won’t – make it the only sport that matters like so many involved in it do.

[3] I’m not joking. Bonkers coverage.

The Inside Line #67: Jumping the gun, fading to grey

TILI Logo PrintIt’s always dangerous to read too much into early-season results, but when McLaren placed both drivers on the podium (after Daniel Ricciardo’s disqualification) at the 2014 opener in Australia, plenty of F1 people nodded knowingly [1]. After a dreadful 2013, its worst season in three decades, McLaren was back. Or so it seemed.

As it turned out, Melbourne was a false dawn for a team whose weight of achievements demand they get taken seriously; neither Jenson Button nor Kevin Magnussen has finished in the top three since that first race, and from leading the constructors’ championship, McLaren has plummeted to sixth at the mid-season break, one slot worse than where they finished their annus horribilis in 2013.

Just 64 points in the 10 races since Australia saw them tumble to fourth (and last) of the Mercedes-powered teams, a sobering statistic given the significant advantage the three-pointed star has on the powertrain front this season. That McLaren trails Force India, which probably operates on 20 per cent of the Woking team’s budget, will add some unwelcome new creases to Ron Dennis’ brow. Sure, 2014 was always a transition year of sorts before McLaren renews ties with Honda next season, but this is a team that has faded into anonymity.

While Williams gets attention for its resurgence and Ferrari’s woes are somewhat masked by Fernando Alonso’s ability to make the best out of a bad situation, McLaren has become little more than an afterthought in most races. If it wasn’t for the TV coverage broadcasting Button’s frequent complaining over the radio, would we even notice the silver cars (still) without a naming rights sponsor in a year where those other silver cars have swept nearly all before them? Next year surely can’t come soon enough; what will be interesting is who of the 2014 McLaren team will be part of it, both behind the wheel and behind the scenes.

Our mid-season review for the bottom six teams in the constructors’ championship (of which, shockingly, McLaren is part of) features on Episode 67 of ‘The Inside Line’, with a look at who has done what and why so far this season at the wrong end of the field. The freefall of Lotus has been dramatic, while who would ever have thought Sauber [2] would be behind Marussia after the way those two teams finished 2013? Meanwhile, Toro Rosso looks to have a star of the future on its hands in Daniil Kvyat. What chance he’s in a Red Bull in two years’ time? [3]

Check out ‘The Inside Line’ on SPEED TV Australia (Foxtel/Austar channel 512) at 7pm on Wednesday August 6, and/or on ESPN (Foxtel/Austar channel 508 in Australia) at 8.30pm on Thursday August 7.

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[1] Guilty as charged.

[2] Hard to say who made the worst move in the off-season, Pastor Maldonado from Williams to Lotus, or Adrian Sutil from Force India to Sauber. Given Maldonado can always pay more to keep his job, Sutil surely shades it.

[3] I still see Sebastian Vettel in red one day.