Month: September 2014

Keeping Track #36: Reborn Rossi a MotoGP force, says Schwantz

Valentino-Rossi-Misano14American motorcycle great Kevin Schwantz has praised MotoGP star Valentino Rossi for changing his approach to the sport this year, as the nine-time world champion looks to combat runaway series leader Marc Marquez.

In his 19th season in the world championship, the 35-year-old Italian has enjoyed a career renaissance in 2014, finishing nine races on the podium and winning the San Marino Grand Prix earlier this month, Yamaha’s first victory in a season that has been dominated by Marquez and Honda.

Rossi’s 81st MotoGP win at Misano came 14 years and 67 days after his first premier-class victory at the 2000 British Grand Prix, setting a new record that bears testament to his speed and longevity.

Speaking to the ‘Keeping Track’ podcast, Schwantz, the 1993 500cc world champion for Suzuki, says Rossi has been forced to dig deeper than ever to become Marquez’s closest challenger.

“It’s something you hear Valentino talking about; you’ve got to try to get that bike up off the edge of the tyre as quick as you possibly can,” Schwantz said.

“The guys are rolling corner speeds and carrying lean angles that are just unheard of. He’s obviously tried to adapt to a new riding style that seems to be suiting him well, and he’s the same Valentino we’ve always known – he’s consistent, and he’s fast. He’s kind of made (Jorge) Lorenzo look silly for most of the season.”

Australian mechanic Alex Briggs, who has been a trusted part of Rossi’s inner circle for his entire MotoGP career with Honda, Ducati and Yamaha, told the ‘Keeping Track’ podcast that the arrival of Marquez has seen Rossi step up his game.

“We’ve been good enough to win since the very first race, although it’s been extremely difficult with Marc riding so well; the whole level has stepped up,” Briggs said.

“This year, Valentino’s really keen. He changed his chief mechanic (Australian Jeremy Burgess), so that was a big risk, but I think he wanted to put that pressure on himself. He trained hard, and with all of that combined, I think he’s found the fountain of youth. He’s riding as good as he did when he was 25.”

Briggs also spoke about more than two decades on the road working with Daryl Beattie, Mick Doohan and Rossi, while Schwantz commented on the rise of Australian teenager Jack Miller from Moto3 to the MotoGP class next year.

Listen here – and leave your feedback.

The Inside Line #75: The gold standard

TILI Logo PrintFor whatever reason, things just happen at the Japanese Grand Prix. And I’m not even going as far back as its early days as a permanent fixture in the world championship, when the Ayrton Senna/Alain Prost rivalry was at its peak. As it’s a race that I’ve covered more than any other besides my home Grand Prix in Australia, I’m very thankful for that.

My second Japanese Grand Prix in the old Suzuka press room (up the steep metal stairs in the rain was a challenge, as was negotiating the one toilet on offer for the world’s hacks) was spent watching a race that became known as one of the best Grands Prix ever, the 2005 GP which featured Kimi Raikkonen’s last-lap pass of Giancarlo Fisichella for the lead and the win. I can still picture Ron Dennis’ exuberant reaction in parc ferme and Kimi’s complete indifference to it all [1]. At the time, I wondered if a Japanese GP could rival 2005 for drama, but most of them since have come mightily close.

2006: A Michael Schumacher retirement all but hands the title to Fernando Alonso. I remember being struck by Schumacher’s walking around the garage shaking hands with every team member and having a quiet word. Sure, he knew the cameras were on him, but it was impressive. In 2007 at Fuji, it rained and rained and rained [2]. I saw Mt Fuji once for about 10 minutes on the Friday. And then this happened. 2008, and championship protagonists Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa clashed on the first lap, opening the door for Alonso to win his second consecutive race (as the press room ruminated on whether the first, Singapore, was achieved under slightly dodgy circumstances). Back at Suzuka in ’09, qualifying lasted two-and-a-half hours, featured three red flags, and saw eight drivers hit with grid penalties. At least we had qualifying in 2009; a year later, the rain was so crazy that I spent the qualifying hour under an umbrella talking cricket with Mark Webber, we all came back the next day to have qualifying and the race, and Webber memorably hijacked the post-race presser so he could get to his helicopter on time to make his flight back to Australia. Sebastian Vettel won his second world title at Suzuka in 2011, Romain Grosjean was officially branded a “first-lap nutcase” by Webber in 2012, and last year the same nutcase led for three-quarters of the race before succumbing to the Suzuka standard of Newey/Red Bull/Vettel, in order of importance.

Yes, things just happen at the Japanese Grand Prix, and I hope that’s the case this weekend as I head to, in my opinion, the very best track in Formula One. Suzuka makes Formula One cars look alive, whether it’s the high-speed slalom through the Esses, the first Degner corner that invariably claims a victim or three across the weekend, the entry to Spoon and the fence waiting to catch out even the best of drivers, and 130R. Sure, it’s not what it once was (and Allan McNish’s accident there in 2002 still makes me wince), but 130R is still a great place to watch a Formula One car – I have vivid memories of seeing a crossed-up Takuma Sato attempting to back the BAR-Honda into it in the wet one year with some journo mates and all of us falling about laughing. Good, good times.

A comprehensive preview of the Japanese Grand Prix is the focus of Episode 75 of ‘The Inside Line’ this week, while we also look at Max Verstappen’s first F1 outing, wonder if teams will field three cars next year to keep grid numbers high with several teams thought to be on the financial brink [3], and hear from a candid Fernando Alonso as the fallout from Ferrari’s dire season continues. Makes you wonder where he might end up next season, doesn’t it? [4]

You can watch ‘The Inside Line’ on SPEED TV Australia (Foxtel/Austar channel 512) at 7pm on Wednesday October 1, and/or on ESPN (Foxtel/Austar channel 508 in Australia) at 8.30pm on Thursday October 2. Or, like me, in a very small Japanese hotel room.

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[1] And that was when Kimi actually seemed to care (by comparison). The good old days.

[2] My other memory of that weekend, besides Webber memorably vomiting in his helmet in the race for the world to hear, was having the great misfortune of sitting next to one particular journo who has worn the same shirt and hairstyle to every race since, who spent most of the race bragging to me that he’d invited a heap of drivers to a post-race party he was throwing in Tokyo, confusing me for someone who cared. I still to this day work out where he’s sitting at every race I attend and avoid him like the plague. Wanker.

[3] One man’s view: won’t happen.

[4] One man’s opinion of his 2015 address: McLaren-Honda. Now that would be fun …

The Inside Line #74: Addition by subtraction?

TILI Logo PrintHow much of a good thing is too much? News that Formula One’s calendar will expand to 20 races next year (the equal-longest season of all-time with 2012) emerged last week with a similar calendar to this season; Mexico City comes in, while for the first time in a long time, no races make way. Off the back of this season where (by my estimation) at least half of the races have been absolute belters, one more race can only be a good thing, on paper. But some closer examination of the calendar and its construction makes me wonder if the sport has done the best possible job.

As always, the order of the races and what seems to be a complete lack of common sense in the planning remains the work of people who have their own private jets or, when they’re really slumming it, turn left on airplanes [1]. But it’s not the order of the schedule that’s the biggest issue – it’s whether we need 20 races at all, and if we’d be better off with (a) fewer races in more desirable locations or (b) more races held over a two-day weekend that changes the way people consume the sport [2]. The latter is an interesting idea. Could practice, qualifying and the race all be held in two days? History suggests that it can when weather intervenes (see two Grands Prix in the past 10 years in Japan), but can the circuit/event promoters recoup some of the money they outlay to have a Grand Prix in the first place if they only have two days to sell tickets to? Given ticket prices are bordering on the criminal anyway at some races, it’s not a pleasant thought [3]. But in an ever-changing environment for how people want to consume sport, isn’t it at least worth exploring?

Mexico City will be a good addition. The infrastructure will probably be a bit rough and ready, the venue has some F1 history and the two Mexican drivers on the grid will ensure a decent turn-out. Better there than somewhere like India, China, Bahrain, Korea … all Tilke-dromes that haven’t exactly captured the imagination of the viewing public on TV or the locals, given the number of them that don’t show up [4]. I know there are reasons for that, mostly economic ones, but it’s a bad look for what’s supposed to be the highest-profile category of global motorsport when the world’s best drivers showcase their skills in front of empty grandstands. At least Bahrain, like Qatar does for MotoGP, had the good sense to run their race under lights this year to at least mask the fact there was nobody in attendance …

An examination of the 2015 F1 calendar features on ‘The Inside Line’ this week, while we also relive what will be the first of many Daniel Ricciardo career wins with the man himself. Canada 2014 will stay etched in the affable Aussie’s brain for the rest of his career, and it’s compelling to hear him recount the day that changed everything several months on with such wide-eyed enthusiasm [5].

We also debrief the Singapore Grand Prix last weekend, where Lewis Hamilton made the most of teammate Nico Rosberg’s misfortune to reclaim the championship lead for the first time since round five in Spain.

Check out ‘The Inside Line’ on SPEED TV Australia (Foxtel/Austar channel 512) at 7pm on Wednesday September 24, and/or on ESPN (Foxtel/Austar channel 508 in Australia) at 8.30pm on Thursday September 25.

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[1] Something I got mightily sick of last week: journalists complaining about the length of the schedule, the order of the schedule, anything about the calendar really. F1 has the oldest and most change-averse press room of any of the many sports I dabble in, and ‘why don’t they have more races in Europe like the old days?’ seems to be a familiar refrain. It’s your job. If you don’t like it, do something else and give someone younger and hungrier who wants to be there a go. Quite simple really.

[2] I’m all for this option. To see fans (in places that actually have them) spend their hard-earned and bust their backsides to get to the track in time for first practice on Friday only to watch a mostly empty track for the first half an hour is a bad, bad look for the sport. Giving the teams tyres they have to give back after that first half-hour whether they use them or not this year is a step in the right direction, but only a small one. What about two 60-minute Saturday practice sessions, then qualifying as normal ahead of the Sunday race?

[3] A very interesting piece about the cost of attending F1 races. Like most press people, I can easily lose touch with what it costs to follow the sport as a fan, but know enough fans who’ve been to just about every race on the calendar to know that this is just not sustainable.

[4] I worked at the inaugural Chinese GP in 2004 and it was packed. Packed. I learned the Mandarin word for dodgy non-working binoculars (which escapes me 10 years on), and couldn’t believe how many fans were there. These days, that empty grandstand at the start of that massive back straight, which is usually used as ad space, is one of the most depressing F1 TV images of the season.

[5] Looking forward to see what our non-English language broadcasters make of Daniel using “knackered” to describe how he felt mentally after winning in Montreal.

A two-wheel interlude: You don’t know Jack

THIS STORY APPEARS IN THE OCTOBER ISSUE OF INSIDE SPORT MAGAZINE. FOR MORE ON INSIDE SPORT, CLICK HERE.

In the space of five frantic minutes, Jack Miller had seized upon an opponent’s mistake to win his maiden world championship motorcycle race, embarked on a series of wild celebrations on his lap back to the pits, inadvertently dropped the f-bomb on live international TV and stepped onto a Grand Prix podium for the first time. And then his mask of bravado splintered.

As the Australian national anthem rang out across the Losail Circuit in Qatar, Miller’s 100-watt smile dimmed, giving way to a quivering bottom lip. His eyes briefly met those of parents Peter and Sonya in the throng below the victory rostrum, and he swallowed hard. The tears finally came, first in a trickle, then faster as he tried to blink them away. The crowd, and the other members of the MotoGP travelling roadshow, roared their approval for a victory that was as popular as it was unlikely.

This was a genuine feel-good story on a global scale, a gregarious Aussie teenager making good on an improbable journey from the outskirts of Townsville to take on – and beat – the best of the next generation of motorcycle racers from all over the world.

FOR MORE OF THIS FEATURE, SEE THE OCTOBER ISSUE OF INSIDE SPORT.

The Inside Line #73: A harsh reality

TILI Logo PrintSure, he was winning races, but just how fast could Sebastian Vettel go if given the chance? This time 12 months ago, at the Singapore Grand Prix, we found out. After Daniel Ricciardo [1] had stuffed his Toro Rosso into the wall and prompted the mandatory safety car around the Singapore streets, Vettel’s 13-second advantage was eroded in an instant. What he did immediately afterwards caused a collective sharp intake of breath from everyone in the paddock not wearing Red Bull gear. When the race resumed, Vettel was an average of two seconds per lap – think about that – faster than anyone else. His winning margin – 32.6 seconds – was the largest in Formula One for eight years. It was a mesmerising, terrifyingly good performance. I wasn’t alone that night in wondering how anyone else would or could win a race for the foreseeable future.

The rest of 2013 was a lot like Singapore for Vettel after he won the next six Grands Prix to finish the season on a nine-race run, but the change of calendar to 2014 stopped that streak cold. As F1 returns to the Asian city-state this weekend, he’s been on the podium just twice all season and has been, quite frankly, thrashed by his new teammate [2]. After the last race in Italy, where Vettel was dismissed by Ricciardo for fifth in the closing laps, one respected website even floated the idea that the German’s race strategy – which saw him pit earlier than any other driver and therefore become vulnerable to an attack while on fading rubber late in the race – was a deliberate strategy ploy to maximise Ricciardo’s flickering championship chances [3]. While whatever happened and for what reasons at Monza remains unclear, what we do know is that Vettel will want to turn the page on 2014 as soon as possible. A year after arguably the most dominant display of his career in Singapore, he’s become little more than a bit-part player in a drama starring the two Mercedes drivers, the dogged (and perhaps restless) Fernando Alonso [4], and his toothy teammate. [5]

A comprehensive Singapore GP preview is the focus of this week’s episode of ‘The Inside Line’, while we also look at Luca di Montezemolo’s departure from Ferrari and the future of the Italian GP.

Check out ‘The Inside Line’ on SPEED TV Australia (Foxtel/Austar channel 512) at 7pm on Wednesday September 17, and/or on ESPN (Foxtel/Austar channel 508 in Australia) at 8.30pm on Thursday September 18. And if you’re watching in another of our 30+ broadcast countries, thanks – and check your local guides.

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[1] He’s not done too much wrong since, has he?

[2] A chat I had with a highly-respected sports editor last week veered off into discussion about Ricciardo’s performances relative to Vettel, and whether they paint Mark Webber’s career against Vettel in a new light. A very interesting topic. One that I will visit at some stage.

[3] I like James’ work, but I don’t buy it. I have too many memories of too many conversations with Webber from 2010 to believe that RBR would do anything other than, ahem, support Vettel 100 per cent of the time.

[4] Fernando is just the best, isn’t he?

[5] I didn’t see this coming. Neither did most people. If you’re an Australian press person with limited knowledge of F1 and have a platform from which to shout loudly, you didn’t either. Claiming the contrary doesn’t make you a visionary or an expert, just a wanker.

Keeping Track #35: Marquez raising the bar, says Doohan

MarquezGER2014Australia’s five-time 500cc world champion Mick Doohan says MotoGP sensation Marc Marquez has taken the sport to a new level after dominating his second season in the premier class of the world championship.

The Spaniard has won 11 of 13 Grands Prix contested so far this season, and became the first rider to win 10 consecutive races since Doohan in 1997 when he took victory at Indianapolis in August, another milestone in a year that looks certain to end with a second consecutive world title.

Speaking to the ‘Keeping Track’ podcast, Doohan says he’s happy for the 21-year-old Marquez, who has won 17 of his 31 MotoGP starts and finished on the podium in all but four races in his brief but brilliant career, to break the records he established 17 years ago.

“Marquez has really lifted the bar this year,” Doohan said.

“It’s difficult for the other guys to even keep him in sight, so if somebody’s going to beat my records, it’s great to see somebody who’s as likable and as charismatic as he is. He’s pushing himself that hard that each week that he’s just getting quicker.”

Doohan won 44 Grands Prix from 71 starts while annexing five straight 500cc titles from 1994-98, and based on his own experiences, believes Marquez is set for a similarly dominant run.

“When somebody’s on top of their game like that, it’s just difficult to make inroads into the gap they’ve got on you,” Doohan said.

“The other guys may be getting quicker, but the gap is staying the same. At some point in time the gap will close, but that could be a couple of years down the track.”

Doohan also spoke about Valentino Rossi’s resurgence this season, Dani Pedrosa’s future in the sport, and whether Aussie Moto3 rising star Jack Miller can handle a move straight to MotoGP next year.

Listen here – and leave your feedback.

The Inside Line #72: Words of wisdom

TILI Logo PrintIf it takes (racing with) one to know one, then Felipe Massa is well placed to comment. Right throughout his career, the Brazilian has driven alongside world champions – Jacques Villeneuve, Michael Schumacher, Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso – which made his comments last week on his teammate for this season, Valtteri Bottas, all the more interesting.

After such a difficult debut campaign last year, Bottas has shone in 2014 – indeed, Force India team boss Vijay Mallya [1] calls him “the star of the season so far” – and Massa believes the Finn has what it takes to be a world champion. It’s a big call for someone who hasn’t yet won a race, but it’s hardly the outrageous statement it would have been this time 12 months ago. This season has been notable for the changing of the guard in F1 – while results for the likes of Jenson Button, Kimi Raikkonen and Adrian Sutil have dried up [2], the younger brigade headed by Daniel Ricciardo, Bottas and Kevin Magnussen have made waves, a trend that brings the future of several drivers into sharper focus, for the right or wrong reasons.

The Italian Grand Prix was one Bottas and Williams had been looking forward to all year, and for good reason. With the FW36 routinely the quickest car through the speed traps all season, Monza – with its series of straights interrupted only by the occasional chicane – was the team’s best chance to take a race win on merit in a season dominated by Mercedes. A poor start scuppered Bottas’ chance of that maiden victory, but Williams could at least take some comfort from Massa’s first podium for the team while moving ahead of Ferrari in the constructors’ race in front of the dispirited tifosi.

A comprehensive review of the 13th round of the season features in this week’s episode of ‘The Inside Line’, while we also look at how McLaren hopes to bridge the gap from the midfield to the top three, and how Ferrari plan to turn things around after such a desperately disappointing season. Ticket sales were reportedly so poor ahead of Monza that the race organisers were offering 40 per cent discounts to drum up some interest – with so little to cheer about when it comes to the red cars this season, you can see why. [3]

Check out ‘The Inside Line’ on SPEED TV Australia (Foxtel/Austar channel 512) at 7pm on Wednesday September 10, and/or on ESPN (Foxtel/Austar channel 508 in Australia) at 8.30pm on Thursday September 11.

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[1] Dear Vijay – er, Daniel Ricciardo? Smiley bloke who drives for that energy drinks company. Puts four-time world champion Germans in the shade. Quite affable. Wins every now and then. Says “mate” a lot. Be sure to pay attention …

[2] For Sutil, they weren’t exactly dripping wet to start with.

[3] The crowds may have been down this season, but Monza is still the best podium of the year by some distance. Magic.