Month: November 2014

The Inside Line #83: End of the road

TILI Logo PrintI really enjoyed the on-track product in Formula One this season. The racing was, for a season where one team dominated like no team in the history of the sport, mostly enjoyable up and down the field. New stars like Daniel Ricciardo and Valtteri Bottas emerged; I had high hopes for the former but he pleasantly surprised me and himself with how well he did, while the latter looked like a gun from the start and delivered on that promise. I enjoyed Romain Grosjean’s radio rants, Jean-Eric Vergne’s ‘ah, what the hell’ approach to the final races after he’d been dumped by Toro Rosso for 2015 [1], and seeing Sebastian Vettel’s bottom lip stuck out when it became clear that Ricciardo’s stunning and assured pace in Melbourne in the first race was no one-off. And I enjoyed the fact the right man won the title.

I watched the goings-on from Abu Dhabi from afar after planning on being trackside for most of the year; commercial pressures with publishers being as they are, I wasn’t about to fly halfway across the world for the chance of something being published in an industry where the per-word rate hasn’t changed since before Jenson Button was an F1 rookie (and that’s when people bother to pay you for work they’ve commissioned). And I watched those goings-on with some trepidation because of double-points and me wondering about the fallout if Nico Rosberg managed to deny Hamilton a title that he’d earned the right to keep. Ten wins by Hamilton to Rosberg’s five meant it was slightly ludicrous that we even had a live title fight in Abu Dhabi, but to give Rosberg credit [2], he’d been right there all season, banking second places like no driver before and waiting in the wings for Hamilton to get it wrong. A smart, calculating strategy and one that almost brought the ultimate reward. While there were winners and losers in Abu Dhabi, both drivers finished 2014 with their reputations enhanced from their on-track deeds.

F1’s reputation for what is going on off-track, sadly, has been sullied by many this year. That’s a lengthy subject for another time, but there were times this season that I didn’t feel like a sports journalist at all. Discussing the perils of skiing off-piste, frantically researching diffuse axonal brain injuries, learning to instinctively spell ‘Azerbaijan’ and familiarising myself with the concept of crowdfunding weren’t things I expected to do this season, but it’s been that kind of year in F1. As always, it’s been a soap opera interrupted every fortnight for a car race, and while it hasn’t always been easy or fun, it has been compelling. And, as I always remind myself the moment the chequered flag drops on the final race of the season, my home race in Australia is next. 110 days away, for those counting at home. Vettel in red, the number ‘1’ on the nosecone of a Mercedes, Alonso posing awkwardly for photos with Ron Dennis in the Albert Park paddock, Aussie journalists asking inane questions about local football to Ricciardo [3] … it’s all of three months away.

Before that, there’s the final race of a season to sum up, which is the focus of Episode 83 of ‘The Inside Line’ this week. I had to do a double-take at the final standings graphics because of the inflated numbers thanks to double points, but they’re just part of a review that looks at the finale from every possible angle. Also, we take a trip through the Milton Keynes base of Red Bull Racing with none other than Mr Halliwell [4] as our guide. Mostly fun, a little clunky and great access, although I wish we could have eavesdropped on his phone calls a little more …

You can see ‘The Inside Line’ on Fox Sports 5 and ESPN if you’re in Australia, and check local guides if you’re watching in one of the 30-plus countries elsewhere that broadcast the show.

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[1] Vergne might have kept his job had he driven like that from the start. He definitely has the pace to stay in F1, but his pockets might not be deep enough, unfortunately for him.

[2] Which I rarely do, I admit. There were some really interesting insights on Rosberg in Will Buxton’s piece last week. I know and like Will a lot and there’s plenty of his energy in the piece (if a little too much of Will), but his anecdotes on dealing with Rosberg resonated big-time. If there’s someone in F1 who conducts every conversation as a transaction – “I’m giving you nothing unless there’s something in this for me” – more than Rosberg, I’m yet to meet them.

[3] That and seeing, say, German F1 drivers posing with AFL players for photos and having to make small-talk between shots are my best/worst cringe-worthy moments of F1’s annual visit to my home country. Just. Stop. It.

[4] Loved Claire Williams’ call last week. Spot on.

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The Inside Line #82: The perfect storm, or a perfect finish?

TILI Logo PrintAnd, finally, we’re here. The last race of the season and the dreaded double-points finale that, irrespective of whether it costs Lewis Hamilton the title or not, will change every record book in the sport, see teams finish in positions in the constructors’ championship they probably shouldn’t, and risks turning F1 into a laughingstock. If everything goes as wrong as it could, I genuinely fear for the fallout. As long as the right driver wins the title, I’m not bothered with how it plays out. And that right driver is undoubtedly Hamilton.

I’m no Hamilton fan per se or Hamilton apologist [1], but his dominance over the second part of the season deserves to be rewarded with a second world title. He’s clearly been the better of the two Mercedes drivers over the course of the year, and he shouldn’t have to finish second if teammate Nico Rosberg wins in Abu Dhabi just to secure his crown. Under the normal points system, as in the one we’ve almost done 95 per cent of this year’s races with, Hamilton would have to finish no worse than sixth to win the title, which sounds about right for a driver who has won double the number of races of his teammate. Quite frankly, if Rosberg does win the title thanks to double points, it’ll do him as much harm as good, as everyone will know he’ll be a world champion with an asterisk. “Rosberg was the 2014 world champion, but …”. Double points, as I may have mentioned once or twice [2], is a cheap gimmick to capture the casual sporting fan who probably isn’t into F1 in the first place. And threatens to incense those people who follow the sport through thick and thin, good time zones and bad. Worst still, it isn’t needed – and Abu Dhabi shows us why.

The atmosphere before the race at the Yas Marina Circuit in 2010 was electric. The air felt heavy, everyone was jumpy, your senses were on hyper-alert. With four drivers in contention for the title in the final race, something that had never happened before and hasn’t happened since, you had sporting drama, organically created, at its finest. That Sebastian Vettel won the title despite (a) being third in the championship coming into the final race and (b) having not led the title race all season until after that last race was a fittingly dramatic conclusion to a fantastic season of ebbs and flows. Who needs double points when you can have that? My vivid memories of that night were pushing through the Vettel victory celebrations to get to Mark Webber and be the only journo granted a one-to-one audience with him at the circuit, one that still pains me to listen to now [3], and seeing fellow Aussie Chris Dyer buried in his phone as he sat, very much alone, outside the Ferrari hospitality unit, a look on his face that suggested he knew he was going to be made the scapegoat for the tactical blunder that saw Fernando Alonso mired in the midfield and not able to do anything about Vettel winning the race and the title. Sure enough, Chris lost his gig and I never saw him at a race weekend again. Sporting and human drama wrapped up in one 90-minute race, no need for gimmicks and WWE-style nonsense.

A comprehensive preview of the final race of the year in Abu Dhabi, the championship permutations and the ramifications of either Hamilton or Rosberg winning the title is the main focus of Episode 82 of ‘The Inside Line’ this week, while we also look at the debate surrounding closed cockpits in the wake of Jules Bianchi’s accident at Suzuka just last month. It would be a huge step for Formula One to adopt closed cockpits given its history, but learning from Bianchi’s crash and what could be done to prevent such an avoidable accident in future has to be the priority of those in positions of power in the sport, more of a priority than screwing one another over for extra money and power at the very least. [4]

Check out ‘The Inside Line’ on Fox Sports 5 and ESPN if you’re in Australia, and check local guides if you’re watching in one of the 30-plus countries elsewhere that broadcast the show.

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[1] The cheerleading we’ll hear from a vast majority of the British media this weekend will be nauseating.

[2] OK, about 100 times. Especially here.

[3] There was no skill in getting Webber that night – after many years of a journo/sports star relationship with him, I just asked and caught him at the right time before he found something better to do – but having to deliver when I was as disappointed as I was for him was a serious challenge. Seeing him as devastated as he was and knowing him like I do, I knew that he was contemplating retirement from the sport there and then as we had to listen to the Vettel victory celebrations as background music to our laboured chat. As it was, my story set off a chain of events that was to impact my career from that night to now, and probably the future as well. Not all of it was great, but all of it – now – was worth it.

[4] As Bianchi remains in a Yokkaichi hospital in a critical yet stable condition, all of the grubby cash-grabbing, whining and posturing by people elsewhere in the sport is a disgrace, to be honest.

The Inside Line #81: Affix postage stamp here …

TILI Logo PrintAnd a big congratulations to Kimi Raikkonen. It took 17 races, but the Finn finally achieved something at the Circuit of the Americas in the US Grand Prix earlier this month. With yet another finish outside the top 10, Raikkonen fell to more than 100 points behind Ferrari teammate Fernando Alonso, the first driver pairing this season to be separated by three figures. And this from, remember, the driver who was brought in to bring Alonso into line, to give him the hurry up, and to make it clear that the Spaniard wasn’t calling the shots at the Scuderia. That went well, didn’t it?

Personal confession here: I’ve never brought into the Raikkonen mystique, why he’s had the following he has, and the attitude he takes to the sport that has paid him a lot of money over the years [1]. Before 2008, I appreciated his driving – his 2005 season for McLaren was spectacular for its consistent speed, and his win at the Japanese GP that year was the best I’ve witnessed in person, and frequently appears on lists of the best Grands Prix of all time. But since his 2007 title with Ferrari, he’s been mailing it in, quite frankly, and this second stint at Ferrari has the smell of a well-paid superannuation tour. Ferrari’s willingness to re-hire him after they paid him handsomely to go away at the end of 2009 is one of the craziest decisions imaginable. And to think he’s set to be one of the key holdovers for a team that, since March, has lost its team principal, engine boss, president and lead driver in eight months. With one man who was surely set to figure in Ferrari’s future still in a Japanese hospital, it’s been an awful year for F1’s most famous team. At least it hasn’t hurt them financially, right? [2]

Raikkonen came to mind in the past week as F1 made its annual trip to Sao Paulo for the Brazilian Grand Prix. It was at Interlagos, of course, that Raikkonen won the 2007 title after coming from the clouds to edge warring McLaren teammates Lewis Hamilton and Alonso in the final two races; more amusingly, Interlagos was where he did this in a Lotus. He couldn’t see the top of the championship standings with a telescope this season, but the weekend in Brazil was as compelling as always without Raikkonen’s involvement at the sharp end; one of the best atmospheres in the sport and an old-school circuit that’s a little rough around the edges is always a good recipe for drama [3], and you could have almost talked me into a double-points finale if it was held at a proper circuit with proper fans rather than a circuit in the desert once described by Mark Webber as “like a Tesco’s car park”. Note the use of ‘almost’ …

A comprehensive wrap of the second-last race of the season features on Episode 81 of The Inside Line this week, while we hear from another link to Ferrari’s past – you know, the past when they actually won races – in one Eddie Irvine [4], who is never short of something interesting to say about the sport and its participants. What he likes and doesn’t like about F1 2014 might just surprise you.

Catch ‘The Inside Line’ on Fox Sports 5 and ESPN if you’re in Australia, and check local guides if you’re in one of the 30-plus other countries that broadcast the show.

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[1] You’re being paid a lot of money to participate in the pinnacle of your profession. And like it or not, that money isn’t just for driving the car. It’s for being nice to sponsors, occasionally cooperative with the press, engaged with your fans and pretending to give a crap. Awesome natural talent and a hefty bank balance doesn’t give you the right to behave like a jerk, particularly when your results are nothing short of embarrassing.

[2] This is worth the investment of time and effort. Very interesting and explains a few things.

[3] Props to Trevor Long and his piece on the world’s best racetracks this week. Lists are used far too often these days by people filling editorial space who can’t write, but this is a good one – thought-provoking and with a nod to history while not ignoring the present. My personal rankings of the tracks on this year’s calendar: (1) Suzuka, because anyone who has walked it, let alone driven it, gets a new appreciation for it; (2) Spa-Francorchamps, not just for Eau Rouge but the double left-hander at Pouhon the causes a sharp intake of breath whenever you’re watching an onboard lap; (3) Sepang, the oldest and best Tilke track that has a little bit of everything; (4) Interlagos, for reasons detailed above; and (5) Silverstone, which has fallen down my personal list ever since Copse became known as ‘Turn 9’ on circuit maps when the start-finish line was moved. With less carpark-sized runoff areas, the Circuit of the Americas would make this list.

[4] Irvine in championship contention right to the end of 1999 still stays in my mind as being one of the most unlikely title tilts ever.

The Inside Line #80: A house of cards

TILI Logo PrintThe tower that sits alongside the start-finish line at the Circuit of the Americas (COTA) is a mightily impressive structure, but on Sunday it looked a little sad. As the field streamed away at the start of the United States Grand Prix, the three-letter abbreviations for just 18 drivers scrolled through as the cars climbed the crest to the first corner; while the first corner is usually the last time we see a Caterham or Marussia on the world feed at most Grands Prix, the absence of their combined four cars from the regular grid was keenly felt. And it’s a feeling we’re probably going to have to get accustomed to.

The lead-up to the US Grand Prix wasn’t dominated by the title fight between Mercedes teammates Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, nor was it centred around Sebastian Vettel’s antepenultimate [1] race for Red Bull or the fact that next year’s Mexican Grand Prix is ingeniously scheduled for a week after the 2015 race in Austin [2]. No, it was focused on who wasn’t at COTA, namely Caterham and Marussia. It wasn’t lost on me that they’d received more column inches and air time in three days than they’d managed for the rest of the season combined. With that sort of exposure, you could almost attract enough sponsorship dollars to, say, run an F1 team …

The money needed to finance even a mediocre outfit these days has become completely out of step with the available sponsorship market, acceptable levels and the logic of anyone who dares to step outside of the F1 bubble. An insightful piece by one of F1’s premier news breakers, Jonny Noble, in the lead-up to the event suggested that even an average team needs north of $120 million to survive these days. Per season. And for what? There are some teams who receive precious little TV time for the results they earn [3], while others like Sauber, who have historically punched above their weight but been downright awful this season, appear to be on life support, crippled by a car bereft of sponsors, no money for development and therefore no chance of a decent result, and a driver pairing that was hired for cash considerations more than ability. And it’s Sauber who was in my thoughts for most of the weekend. With Caterham out and surely unlikely to return, and Marussia making up the numbers at best when they are on the grid, the Swiss stalwarts are the next-most vulnerable team. What happens if they fall by the wayside too? Do we have 16-car Grands Prix? What happens to Lotus? Do promoters cite breach of contracts as the numbers of participants plummets? [4] Do the top teams want to, have to or even afford to run a third car? [5] Every time you asked a question, someone else came up with another. And none of the answers or solutions offered were particularly palatable.

With all this going on, it was easy to forget F1 was in the US for a race, and one where Hamilton was chasing history, attempting to win a fifth straight Grand Prix for the first time. Things didn’t look so good after qualifying, but Hamilton showed why he should be world champion this season with another superbly-taken victory. Were it not for double-points in the final race, he’d probably be world champion next weekend in Brazil. Sigh.

A US Grand Prix review – and a preview of Brazil next weekend with Felipe Massa front and centre – is the focus of Episode 80 of ‘The Inside Line’, while for Australian viewers at least, we’re now on Fox Sports 5 (channel 506) at 7pm on Wednesday November 5. And on ESPN (Foxtel/Austar channel 508 in Australia), if watching in standard definition is more your thing, at 8.30pm on Thursday November 6.

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[1] I’ve been waiting to use that since March, and got to use it twice in three days (thanks to Tony last Sunday morning).

[2] One review of the 2013 US GP suggested at least one-third of the attendance at COTA came from across the border in Mexico, just 400km to the south. How many of those people will show up next year if they can stay at home to see a race one week later, and what does that mean for the future crowds in Austin? And did anyone in a position of power consider that, or was it convenient to run the two races back-to-back to make for a shorter flight in the private jet? Why have one strong race when you can detrimentally affect the trackside crowd at two?

[3] If you’re wondering how Sergio Perez ended up on the podium in Bahrain this year because you’d barely seen him on the TV, you’re not the only one. Let’s just say he’d have received some more camera time had he been driving for another team. Almost fitting that his podium came in Bahrain too, come to think of it, given what happened in 2012.

[4] Had an interesting chat to Australian Grand Prix CEO Andrew Westacott about this for Melbourne radio on Sunday. He and his equivalents around the world will be watching future developments very, very closely.

[5] Mercedes’ Toto Wolff reckons a third car might cost an extra $25 million each year to run. For a car that might not be eligible to score world championship points …