Month: October 2014

The Inside Line #79: Running to stand still?

TILI Logo PrintThe only thing better than Jacques Villeneuve and an open microphone is Jacques Villeneuve stuck in a bus full of journalists in the pouring rain in a traffic jam. With a captive audience and a chance to talk about his favourite subject – himself – the 1997 world champion had us all grinning as we inched along the one road out of Suzuka after the Japanese Grand Prix earlier this month, and there was nothing that was off-limits.

Villeneuve’s thoughts on celebrity girlfriends, his dad, the sound of modern-day F1 cars and Mark Webber’s transition to the Le Mans series [1] all had an airing, but things went very quiet when the subject turned to Fernando Alonso’s likely destination for 2015. It was the topic de jour after Sebastian Vettel’s announcement that he was leaving Red Bull the previous day, and with the reigning world champion set to wear red, Alonso was on the move – and most likely running to McLaren, and a McLaren with Honda engines as the Japanese manufacturer returns to the sport. People tend to forget that Villeneuve and Alonso were briefly teammates at Renault for the final three races of 2004 [2], but everyone remembers the Canadian’s association with Honda, in the early days of the British American Racing experiment with Craig Pollock, ingenious double-liveried cars that were short-lived, and a whole lot of money spent for few results.

With Alonso’s tenure at Ferrari petering out as the Prancing Horse looks set for its first season without a victory in 21 years, Villeneuve wondered openly if things would get worse before they got better for the Spaniard if he joined a Honda-powered McLaren outfit. Honda would be behind the eight-ball, he reasoned, and the company’s way of working when he was involved a decade or more earlier would make it hard to catch up. Some off-the-record tales of his own experiences were touched upon. Later, he wondered if the man regarded as, at the very least, one of the three best drivers on track along with Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel [3] had been out-manoeuvred off it. “Sometimes in F1 you also have to know how to pull the strings, and (Alonso) doesn’t always do that as well,” Villeneuve reasoned.

Alonso’s future plans – McLaren, a 2015 sabbatical or perhaps a move to Mercedes in the medium-term – are given the once-over in Episode 79 of ‘The Inside Line’ this week, while we also preview the upcoming US Grand Prix in Austin and touch on Nico Hulkenberg’s contract extension at Force India [4].

You can watch ‘The Inside Line’ on SPEED TV Australia (Foxtel/Austar channel 512) at 7pm on Wednesday October 29, and/or on ESPN (Foxtel/Austar channel 508 in Australia) at 8.30pm on Thursday October 30.

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[1] This was a very, very interesting topic – and one I’ll delve into another time. Short summation of Villeneuve’s assessment: ugh.

[2] Alonso came fourth, fifth and fourth in those three races and amassed 14 points (34 points in today’s money); Villeneuve’s best result was 10th for zero points. I’m not surprised you forgot …

[3] In whatever order you choose, I still have Hamilton-Alonso-Vettel as the best three drivers in F1, despite two of those three destined not to win a race this year. As for the others, Pastor Maldonado makes the top 22, just.

[4] Hulkenberg has fallen off the face of the earth in the second half of the season after being so impressive in the first half, a contrast to his 2013 season where he did the complete opposite. He’d still surely do a better job at Ferrari than the driver that team will retain between this season and next, but the German seems destined to only drive for mid-grid teams, which is a shame but probably justified.

The Inside Line #78: Quite the surprise

TILI Logo PrintYes, I thought it was all over too. When Nico Rosberg made a half-hearted attempt at passing Lewis Hamilton on lap two of the Belgian Grand Prix in August and wholly made a mess of Hamilton’s left rear tyre with his front wing, I figured Hamilton’s world title chances were cooked. Rosberg finished second to Daniel Ricciardo, while Hamilton grumbled and groaned over the radio, clearly disinterested in driving around to finish 14th at best, and whined so much that the team eventually retired the car. The post-race fallout – Hamilton scurrying away from a closed door-meeting at Mercedes to blab that Rosberg said he had done what he’d done on purpose, Rosberg coolly suggesting sometime afterwards that it was just a racing incident as he tried to look disappointed about having a 29-point championship lead – was all very predictable [1]. But just as things looked to be heading down an obvious path, Hamilton flipped the script.

As responses to a moment that I felt might have ended his title hopes go, Hamilton’s four straight wins – with Rosberg second in three of those races and in a different class – has been enormously impressive and a massive surprise. Sure, the advantage Mercedes has over the rest of the field is so pronounced that second place is the worst possible result for Hamilton or Rosberg if their cars are reliable or they don’t hit one another, but Hamilton has held firm after a moment I expected would break him and raised his game. Other than learning Hamilton has more steel than I thought, I’ve also learned that (a) sections of the British media, whose cheerleading after Belgium for Hamilton stopped just short of involving pom-poms, might have slightly over-reacted [2] and (b) Rosberg isn’t cut out to play a villain [3]. The booing on the Spa podium clearly rocked him, and he’s been a shadow of his former self as the season has progressed and Hamilton has applied the blowtorch. The scorecard after the Russian Grand Prix stands Hamilton nine wins, Rosberg four – and perhaps more tellingly, Rosberg has now finished second nine times in 16 races, seven of them when Hamilton has won. And yet the championship remains up for grabs. Should double points in Abu Dhabi rob Hamilton of the title, Rosberg’s championship “victory” should enter the sport’s record books accompanied by an asterisk. [4]

A look at how Hamilton has positioned himself perfectly for the title with three races remaining is the main focus of Episode 78 of ‘The Inside Line’ this week, while we also look at people with happy faces (Romain Grosjean, thanks to Lotus finally securing an engine supply deal with Mercedes next season), people with sad faces (Jenson Button, as he wonders if the final three races of this year will be the last of his career), and update Jules Bianchi’s status two weeks after his shocking accident at Suzuka shook the F1 world to its core.

Check out ‘The Inside Line’ on SPEED TV Australia (Foxtel/Austar channel 512) at 7pm on Wednesday October 22, and/or on ESPN (Foxtel/Austar channel 508 in Australia) at 8.30pm on Thursday October 23.

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[1] At the time, I thought Rosberg had played Hamilton perfectly, knowing him as well as he does …

[2] A post-race podcast by one of the sport’s British broadcasters after Spa mentioned Rosberg was German once or twice … In related news, one of the panel probably undid the top two buttons of their shirt. And no, it wasn’t Theodore Slotover.

[3] When someone is trying to show that they’re not affected by something and not doing such a great job of it, the game is up. Even if he did care about being booed for much of the back-end of 2013, Sebastian Vettel did a pretty good job to wear his best poker face as it went on.

[4] After Russia, someone tweeted this gem: Hamilton could win in Austin and Brazil before a DNF in Abu Dhabi; Rosberg could finish second in Austin, DNF in Brazil and win Abu Dhabi. Hamilton 11 wins, Rosberg five for the season. Result? Rosberg wins the title, 342 points to 341 … I won’t tell Bernie if you don’t, OK?

The Inside Line #77: Matters of unimportance

TILI Logo PrintThe scene, given what was going on outside, was altogether surreal. The Mercedes hospitality unit, so regularly in the eye of the media storm this season, was an oasis of calm at Suzuka on Saturday morning of race weekend, as the world’s press staked out the Red Bull and Ferrari areas either side of the Mercedes set-up in the wake of Sebastian Vettel’s announcement that he was leaving the former and (by association) headed to the latter.

With chaos going on either side of us, I sat with Mercedes executive director (business) Toto Wolff, media guru Bradley Lord and a stuffed replica of Lewis Hamilton’s dog Roscoe, which an enthusiastic Hamilton fan had made and dressed up in Mercedes gear before presenting it to a bemused Hamilton the day before. [1]

The topic of the day was Hamilton (not his dog), but Wolff was warming up on other matters. Namely the significance of F1 in the grand scheme of things. Wolff is a man who made his millions well before he ever stepped into an F1 paddock, so he sees things differently to most. He stabbed his finger on the table repeatedly to make his point as the media frenzy continued outside.

“Maybe coming in from a business background gives you a more relaxed perspective on what’s going on here,” he started, sweeping his hand in the general direction of the paddock.

“This sport is the most unimportant important thing in the world. It’s Formula One – it’s sport and it’s entertainment, but there’s much more important things going on out there.”

Two days later, I sat bolt upright in my chair as my flight out of Nagoya surfed surges of wind, the remnants of Typhoon Phanfone that had skirted the coast the night before. You know the turbulence is bad when the flight crew are ordered to their chairs for an hour; they sat still, not speaking to one another, as the flight bounced up and down like a tennis ball. The only sound was from people unable to keep their food down and whining kids [2]. And for whatever reason, Wolff’s words popped into my head. And his words were very, very right.

On an F1 weekend that was as crazy as anyone can remember, a driver lay in an operating theatre in a critical condition after hitting a service vehicle that was inside the barriers of the circuit retrieving another car. In a race that was started in a torrential downpour at the scheduled time despite everyone knowing four days out that the weather was only going to worsen on Sunday afternoon. That the service vehicle was on the track in virtual darkness with the rain intensifying without a safety car controlling the field was insanity. But the show, apparently, must go on. The way the weekend was handled was a complete screw-up from start to finish. Several people in the sport, not least the drivers and Jules Bianchi’s co-workers, conducted themselves with great dignity afterwards; others, as Will Buxton’s excellent blog from the coalface reveals, did the complete opposite. F1 is the most unimportant important thing in the world, after all.

I know Bianchi as well as half the grid I’ve had minimal dealings with; the odd press op here and there, a nod to say hello in a group situation, that sort of thing. But since his accident at Suzuka, few people with any connection to the sport can think about much else. Even if that thinking means putting up vision of Bianchi’s accident while selling ad space for something banal before it plays, which some outlets have disgracefully done [3]. You certainly learn a lot about people, good and bad, in times in crisis.

But yes, the show must go on – and with Russia’s F1 debut ludicrously scheduled a week after the Japanese Grand Prix, the teams and drivers went to Sochi last weekend with heavy hearts for the next stop on the calendar. Whether F1 should be going to Russia at all is a subject for another time, but when there’s wheelbarrows full of money involved, we shouldn’t be surprised [4]. My heart sank when I heard the track described as a mixture of South Korea, Valencia and Abu Dhabi (ugh), and while it looked reasonable, the layout (and perhaps more importantly, the lack of tyre degradation) produced the dullest race of the season. That said, you sense Lewis Hamilton didn’t mind too much …

A Russian Grand Prix review is the focus of Episode 77 of ‘The Inside Line’ this week, while we also look at the end of an era at Red Bull Racing with Vettel’s departure, and pause to reflect on Bianchi’s predicament as I wonder if the sport will learn anything from such a terrible incident.

You can watch ‘The Inside Line’ on SPEED TV Australia (Foxtel/Austar channel 512) at 7pm on Wednesday October 15, and/or on ESPN (Foxtel/Austar channel 508 in Australia) at 8.30pm on Thursday October 16.

 

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[1] You thought I was joking.

[2] And from the bloke who decided to sneak a quick cigarette in, sending everyone’s heart rate skyrocketing when a smoke alarm went off.

[3] Just when you think standards couldn’t plummet any lower …

[4] In a related story, the track map for the Azerbaijan circuit set to host the European Grand Prix in 2016 was released this week. As one Twitter wag noticed, it looks a little like a man’s hand clutching a big pile of cash. Coincidence?

Keeping Track #37: Rising son: Gardner junior on right track

Remy Gardner at Motorland CEV - 2014Australia’s 1987 500cc world champion Wayne Gardner believes son Remy has the talent and toughness to use a wildcard at this week’s Tissot Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix as a springboard to a full-time Grand Prix ride.

Remy, 16, will compete for Team Laglisse Calvo on a KTM in this weekend’s Moto3 race at Phillip Island, 25 years after father Wayne won the first 500cc world championship Grand Prix held at the Victorian coastal circuit.

The Sydney-born teenager has been a front-runner in the Campeonato Espagnol de Velocidad (Spanish domestic championship) this year, and made his world championship debut at Misano for the San Marino Grand Prix in September.

That race came just a week after Gardner emerged unscathed from a horrendous accident in the Spanish domestic series at the Navarra circuit, where he fell from his bike early in the race, was momentarily knocked out, and run over by another rider.

Speaking to the ‘Keeping Track’ podcast, Wayne Gardner says his son’s response to the biggest crash of his career showed he has the mental strength to match his burgeoning riding ability.

“I’m regarded as one of the tough guys of the sport, but for 16 years old, Remy is extremely tough,” Gardner said.

“He’s very focused and determined, which follows my traits. That accident was just horrific; I couldn’t breathe and I had to have a cold shower after it. But he didn’t even get one scratch on him, and he wanted to go straight out and race. One week later, he’s in the Grand Prix at Misano.”

Gardner says his son’s riding style should mesh well with the fast and flowing Philip Island layout, where Wayne took memorable back-to-back wins for Honda in 1989-90.

“Remy’s extremely fast in fast corners, and the general consensus in Spain is that Remy’s got big balls – like his dad, everyone keeps telling me,” Wayne laughs.

“This year, he’s really picked his game up in the high-speed corners. His little mistakes this year have only been in first-gear corners, where he’s given it a fistful of throttle and not quite on the right line. You’ve got to have a certain style for fast stuff and you’ve got to change your style for the slow stuff, just for one or two corners. Remember, Phillip Island has two slow corners …”

Gardner also spoke about the challenges of relocating his family to Barcelona three years ago so Remy and 14-year-old brother Luca could pursue their racing careers.

Listen here – and leave your feedback.

The Inside Line #76: Dominoes, snakes and ladders

TILI Logo PrintWhat was that I was saying about things happening at the Japanese Grand Prix? I’m not sure I’ve seen a press room react like it did seven minutes before final practice in Japan last Saturday, when an email innocuously titled ‘New Team Driver Line-Up for 2015’ lobbed into inboxes of every open laptop. There was initial silence, some disbelief, and then all hell broke loose as the sport’s insiders reacted to the news that Sebastian Vettel was (definitely) leaving Red Bull Racing and (almost certainly) off to Ferrari next season.

That a final hour-long practice session was taking place 20 metres away was of little interest to most of the 400 or so hacks in the press room, who were a little preoccupied. With so many seats still up for grabs for 2015, we needed one domino to fall to set off a chain reaction; the domino fell alright, but not the one we thought, and certainly not at the time we suspected.

How did Vettel keep his intentions to himself until the last minute? Firstly, he doesn’t do social media, and there was a certain irony that a man who ignores Twitter almost broke it in the 30 minutes after his announcement. And then there’s his manager, or lack thereof; a little-known fact outside the sport is that Vettel manages himself, does his own contract negotiations and generally keeps his own counsel. It’s hard for a leak to emerge if the one person who knows what’s going on keeps his mouth closed, which the always-careful German makes a habit of. Yes, he speaks, but when you listen to any of his carefully-crafted soundbites for the press (and by association, the sport’s fans), he doesn’t really say anything of note very often [1]. Quite how Christian Horner felt when Vettel sent him a text message on Friday night at Suzuka asking to have a chat would be interesting to know. Sick to the stomach, probably, but also confirming something he would have suspected would happen. That Vettel is moving to Ferrari isn’t a surprise; what took most people aback was the timing of it and that it was kept so quiet. Loose lips sink ships, and all of that.

Speaking of sporting events suitable for nautical vessels … a comprehensive review of a sodden Japanese Grand Prix is the focus of Episode 76 of ‘The Inside Line’ this week, where the build-up to a race that had significant title implications was almost forgotten [2] in the wake of the Vettel news and everyone keeping a beady eye on the progress of Typhoon Phanfone. Don’t get me started on maintaining the 3pm start time for a race that could have been held easily before midday with no interruptions (that’s a rant, er, considered piece, for another time). [3]

Also in this week’s episode, we preview next weekend’s inaugural Russian GP through the eyes of the man who’ll take Vettel’s place at Red Bull next season, Daniil Kvyat. The 20-year-old looked as surprised as the rest of us when he was hastily announced as Vettel’s 2015 successor on Saturday in Japan (in the sixth and final line of the hand grenade/press release that stopped the F1 world cold); with just 15 F1 races under his belt, Kvyat has a big, big climb ahead of him next season. [4]

Check out ‘The Inside Line’ on SPEED TV Australia (Foxtel/Austar channel 512) at 7pm on Wednesday October 8, and/or on ESPN (Foxtel/Austar channel 508 in Australia) at 8.30pm on Thursday October 9.

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[1] The young and more carefree Vettel was one of the better interviews in the paddock with his sense of humour and Little Britain-inspired profanity-spiced English; these days, there’s a cautious world-weariness about his interactions with the media.

[2] The Hamilton cheerleading by certain members of the press stopped for about 10 minutes on Saturday. It soon picked up again, mind you.

[3] Sigh. More sighing.

[4] Everyone that drove for Red Bull-backed teams used to be called Sebastian/Sebastien. Now it’s various versions of Daniel. Perhaps people can start to learn to pronounce the names of Red Bull’s 2015 drivers properly, particularly ones who have won Grands Prix. It’s ‘Rick-ardo’ (mate), get it right …

A wild weekend at Suzuka

It was a Japanese Grand Prix that will be remembered for many reasons – the official passing of the torch at Red Bull Racing from Sebastian Vettel to Daniel Ricciardo, Vettel catching the F1 world on the hop with his decision to quit the team that brought him up for a future at Ferrari, a race held in atrocious conditions that could have/should have been avoided, and more sadly, the accident for Jules Bianchi and its frightening aftermath. Sport becomes completely insignificant when someone’s life is at stake; everyone in F1 has their fingers crossed for Bianchi and his family.

Among the many other things I did in Japan this year, I sat down with Daniel Ricciardo for The Sunday Age, and was on the spot when Vettel caught the sport by surprise with his decision to quit the reigning world champions. Big thanks to Andrew Tate for the coffee and hearing my sales pitch out, and to Chloe Saltau, who had the shoe on the other foot this time …

Linkage below:

Daniel Ricciardo rides the Bull 

Alonso stoush was a defining moment 

Vettel stuns F1 by quitting Red Bull