Month: December 2014

And that’s a wrap

Phew. Another year done, my 18th working in and around F1 to various degrees in a media capacity, and one that will be remembered for being more dramatic than the history books will show 15 years from now. You never stop gaining knowledge about the sport and the people in it year on year, so here’s what I learned in 2014.

1. One-team dominance can be fun
This wasn’t the Ferrari of the early 2000s, when Rubens Barrichello wasn’t allowed to race Michael Schumacher even when he was occasionally faster, and you knew the results of each race well in advance. Which, as a Rubens fan, I hated. Lost a little in all of the negativity off-track about F1 and the cacophony of noise that surrounded the lack of noise the new-generation cars made early in the season was just how awesome the W05 was this year, and Mercedes probably deserved more credit. Thanks goodness their drivers were allowed to race one another and were capable of racing one another. The right driver won the title, and given 2015 is shaping up as being more of the same, the driver who didn’t win will be better for his first taste of being in a title fight. Should be compelling viewing.

2. There’s no time like the present
Say you’d spent the best part of 20 years working on forming a professional relationship with someone who was an unloved battler who blossomed into a global sporting star. Say you’d done everything to make that relationship rock-solid, even if it came at a cost to your credibility, judgement, and reputation as you strategically elbowed people aside to maintain your position. And say you then missed your one golden chance for a big payday because you hung onto something that wasn’t there any more out of greed, trying to squeeze a few more drops out of the lemon, and another brighter, younger and more personable star eclipsed “your” cash cow and made him very much yesterday’s man. The lesson: spend it while you have it, and before it isn’t worth what it was. The world moves too fast these days to do otherwise.

3. F1 is better with Williams at the front
To my mind, the motorsport image of the year was Valentino Rossi standing on the top step of the podium at Misano in Italy, the massive crowd who’d invaded the track in the background, and everyone going nuts. MotoGP is undoubtedly in a great place when ‘The Doctor’ is at the sharp end, as is F1 when Williams is doing well. Everyone likes Williams, its people, the tradition and the history. To see a team with such a successful past having a bright future again was a heart-warming turn of events.

4. You can’t sell a secret
You’ve got something nobody else does, something that is established, isn’t lacking for star power and has the goodwill of the people on the inside of the sport to make a contribution. And then you fail to tell anyone about it, meaning it disappears into the ether and gets swamped by fictitious click bait about driver salaries and other mis-information from people who don’t know better. It’s all very well having something to sell, but nobody’s buying if you keep it to yourself.

5. Wolff was man of the year
He didn’t drive a single lap, and spent some of his year in plaster and with a red face. But thank goodness for Toto Wolff this season. Setting the groundwork for the Mercedes drivers to race one another – the ‘Rules of Engagement’ document established in Australia which had contributions from senior management and both Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg – saved us from a dreary season. Wolff stood by Mercedes’ decision all season when it would have been very easy to cave, and Mercedes – and the fans who wanted a sporting contest – got what it wanted as a result.

6. The sport can be its own worst enemy
Where do you even start with this? The sport doesn’t want or need young fans, apparently. The cars sound different, so let’s shit-can them. We’ll devote the final half-hour of a Grand Prix coverage to showing Bernie Ecclestone and Vladimir Putin sitting in the grandstand together (which made me feel slightly dirty for even watching). The sport doesn’t sell itself, relying on the teams to promote everything along with the various event promoters around the world, some of whom do a fantastic job, and others who do next to nothing. The press conference structure is old, tired and nobody wants to be there. The celebrities doing podium interviews nonsense hit new lows with Nelson Piquet in Brazil this year as he trivialised a world championship fight by making a crass, sexist and completely inappropriate comment. There’s so much to like about modern F1, but the sport seems to succeed in spite of itself sometimes.

7. Ferrari is the best at something
If there was an award for most comical management or greatest bloodletting this season, Ferrari wins by a mile. Sack two team principals. Sack the engine boss. Have the president leave. Have the worst season by your team in a generation thanks to a car with poor aerodynamics being propelled by an engine that was underpowered and no match for Mercedes. Oh, and piss your number one asset in Fernando Alonso off sufficiently that he wants to leave two years early. Even by Ferrari standards, that’s a crazy year. Nothing in any other team came close. Still, at least they have Kimi Raikkonen for next year …

8. Money can buy anything
Bernie isn’t in jail. Any questions?

9. Plagiarism is thriving
I interviewed a driver earlier this year with no-one else around, and conducted a test. I mentioned a word that they wouldn’t have used normally and framed a question so they’d agree with it, and more than likely use said word in response. Which they did. I then wrote the story, included the quote, waited 24 hours and typed the driver’s name and said word into Google. The first three pages of references contained the quote word for word, no attribution, spun into a million different directions in copy from publications and websites all over the world. One notorious bottom-feeder claimed it as an exclusive, as I knew she would. Amazing. Even in an industry where I’ve seen one big-name writer hover behind people while they’re crashing words into their laptops and then get on the phone to break an “exclusive” to their employer before the person had finished their story, that was impressive.

10. Be thankful for what you have
Media in most places is a bit of a basket case, and especially in Australia. Print media is worse. Print media for freelancers is worse still. And print media for freelancers who cover anything other than football … In the face of all of that, 2014 has been an amazing year, and I’m enormously thankful for those who have been and continue to be supportive. In no particular order, and with apologies to those I forget: Pete and especially Tim at Intrepid for handing me the keys and letting me drive. Andrew and Peter downstairs with the comfy couch, their professional approach, and pushing the extra one per cent. Marc and Aaron in Sydney for putting up with the email deluge at 2am and helping me maintain a run that started in 1998. Those at the AGPC who have thrown their support behind ‘Keeping Track’, which somehow has made it to 37 episodes. Spud and co at Spencer St for the space and finding budget where there isn’t any. Graem at Inside Sport for keeping the dream of long-form journalism alive. Tony for allowing me to pretend to be a radio person. Fox for picking up the phone when something big breaks. Gabi at Premium in Perth (and thanks, Norm). Thomas at Bauer. And everyone for reading. I’ll have another go next year. Can’t wait.

The Inside Line #85: Betting on red

TILI Logo PrintAnd finally, some good news. For Ferrari that is, when new signing Sebastian Vettel took to the wheel of a car adorning a Prancing Horse logo for the first time last week. Sure, it was a 2012 Ferrari – funnily enough, the same car Fernando Alonso used to narrowly miss out on beating Vettel to the third of his four straight world titles – but it was a Ferrari all the same. And Vettel’s face when he got out of it after some reasonably vigorous laps was a picture.

It’s been a strange year for the German, and one that, in years to come, we’ll probably look back at as being an anomaly. Over the new year, his great friend, mentor and confidante Michael Schumacher had a skiing accident with horrendous consequences. Soon after, he became a father for the first time. Then came the pre-season, where the RB10 could barely string two laps together, and it became plainly obvious after only a handful of races that a fifth straight title was a pipedream. And perhaps strangest of all was the sheer statistical advantage Daniel Ricciardo enjoyed over him. What appeared to be an unbreakable axis between Red Bull, Christian Horner, Adrian Newey and Vettel crumbled for several reasons [1], and by December, he was pounding around Fiorano dressed in red. Has Vettel’s career peaked, or is there another chapter to be written from next March with Ferrari? With the technical regulations largely intact season on season to 2015 after last year’s dramatic overhaul [2], it’ll be fascinating to find out.

Meanwhile, the guy who made Vettel look second-rate for much of the season was extolling the virtues of the guy who’s replacing him as he threw things into a suitcase in Monaco last week. Ricciardo was preparing to put a full stop on a crazy travel schedule that had seen him busier since the season finished than during it, with the FIA prizegiving in Qatar preceding a trip to London for Red Bull, a stop for a few days in Melbourne and finally home to Perth, but was multi-tasking as usual, and had some words over the phone about Danill Kvyat, and that moment at Monza when the Russian arrived at 350km/h into the chicane at Turn One without any brakes at the Italian Grand Prix. After one of the most outrageous saves of the year, Ricciardo admitted he was impressed. “I was watching the (Monza) race with my engineers afterwards when he had the brake failure and we all just said ‘whoa’ – he’s got some car control, that’s for sure,” Ricciardo laughed. “And he’s got some balls, let’s just say that.” Quite how that skill and, well, testicular fortitude translates to next season in a top-line team [3] will be as fascinating as how Vettel gets on with Ferrari.

That’s all for next year; on this week’s final episode of ‘The Inside Line’ for 2014, we run the rule over the top five teams in the constructors’ championship in part two of our season review. Some, like McLaren, didn’t have a lot to cheer about; others, like Williams, could celebrate one of the more dramatic turnarounds in form we’ve seen in a long while. Sir Jackie Stewart weighs in with some thoughts on Vettel’s Ferrari move, Toto Wolff predicts more tension between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg next season, and McLaren, well, does nothing. Jenson Button’s standing, in this writer’s eyes, has gone up several notches with his measured response to being kept in the dark about his chances of a 2015 seat; David Coulthard describes McLaren’s approach to its drivers as treating them like light bulbs – unscrew one, screw in another – but Button, as a former world champion, surely deserves better than that [4].

For one last time in 2014, you can watch ‘The Inside Line’ on Fox Sports 5 and ESPN if you’re in Australia, and check local guides if you’re watching elsewhere.

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[1] Reasons too spicy to list here.

[2] Recommended listening – Motorsport Magazine’s end-of-season podcast reviewing 2014. It’s a bit clunky and there’s barely anyone under 55 in the collection of experts, but the analysis of Vettel’s driving year-on-year is well worth the investment of time.

[3] The Dan and Dany show will be fun to watch next year, and Ricciardo predicts they’ll be a harmonious pairing. “I’ve known him for a few years and we got on well from the start, so it’ll be good to have him around,” he says.

[4] For all of that sentiment, the cheerleading from the British press has been insufferable this week. I’m not sure I can stomach another end of year review that paints Kevin Magnussen in the same light as, say, Pastor Maldonado, for no reason other than that he’s not Jenson Button.

The Inside Line #84: Potential over proof

TILI Logo PrintReady or not, here he comes. After just 19 Formula One races, Daniil Kvyat is graduating from Toro Rosso to drive for, let’s not forget, the team that has won four of the past five drivers’ and constructors’ titles. As much as he tried to play the whole detached too cool for school racing driver thing when he arrived in the paddock on Saturday at this year’s Japanese Grand Prix, the look on his face wasn’t fooling anyone. Vettel had dropped a bombshell by announcing he was leaving Red Bull that morning, and Kvyat’s name – the last two words of a press release that stopped the sport cold – seemed like an afterthought.

Kvyat may have been surprised Vettel was leaving, but he wasn’t surprised he was chosen over teammate Jean-Eric Vergne to step up. “Already this year we can see that experience itself is not playing a big role for Jean-Eric,” he shrugged, making it clear that he feels ready for a seat at Formula One’s top table even if his birth certificate suggests he isn’t. “I have been racing for a long time even if I have not been in F1 for very long …”

Kvyat’s right, of course, but is he right for what comes next? At the start of the season – where there was seemingly no chance that Vettel was going anywhere soon – Kvyat proved himself as a man to watch with points on debut in Melbourne and numerous outstanding qualifying efforts. But as the year went on – and after he’d been selected to partner Daniel Ricciardo next year – Kvyat’s results dried up completely. Yes, there was that outstanding fifth on the grid at his home race in Sochi, but he scored just four points in the final 15 races, none at all after being named as Vettel’s successor. Vergne, for his part, out-scored his teammate 22-8 over the season and nabbed more points in the final six Grands Prix that Kvyat did all year. But Vergne is out of F1 altogether next year. Make sense of that. He may not be a world-beater and certainly was hurt by his mediocre qualifying pace, but on talent, he’s good enough to be in F1. As is Jenson Button, but that’s another story …

In any other season, Kvyat’s promotion [1] would be the biggest story to emanate from Formula One’s lower-profile teams, but this year was different. The woes of Caterham and Marussia were one thing, but it became hard to use the word ‘survival’ with Caterham when Marussia’s Jules Bianchi was in such a life-threatening state. Sauber was pointless, Lotus helpless to do anything about a car that was ugly, underpowered and unreliable [2], and of the mid-grid teams, only Force India had plenty of reasons to smile, and even they came against a backdrop of financial uncertainty after their best season yet. And that’s not even mentioning McLaren, if we consider McLaren a midfield team these days … [3]

The first instalment of a comprehensive two-part review of the 2014 season is the focus of Episode 84 of ‘The Inside Line’, while we look at the reaction to Lewis Hamilton’s second world championship while hearing from the man himself. Other than the British tabloids hitting the bottom of their barrel of pun-tastic headlines (‘Yabba Dabba Lew’ – really?), I was astonished that some of the coverage made such a big deal about (a) Hamilton not getting completely trashed the night after winning the world title – a 10am hour-long press op on Monday morning will do that for you – and (b) that he shouldn’t be waving his national flag around after he won the title as he doesn’t live in the UK and pay tax. Give me a break [4]. The only driver to have made their home in the UK in recent F1 history was an Australian in Mark Webber – and I don’t recall seeing too many similar stories about Button back in 2009 when he scampered off back to his own tax haven with a world championship trophy under his arm …

Check out ‘The Inside Line’ on Fox Sports 5 and ESPN if you’re in Australia, and check local guides if you’re watching elsewhere – like here.

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[1] For what it’s worth, I’m not sure either Toro Rosso driver this year can come in and ‘do a Ricciardo’ next season, but I would have chosen Kvyat too.

[2] Any list of people who got it spectacularly wrong this season has to start with Pastor Maldonado. You have to wonder how he felt every time he was lapped by a Williams …

[3] The stats say they are. One podium on merit in two seasons sounds like the return a Force India or Sauber typically manages.

[4] Anyone who went with that angle in their copy that honestly reckons they wouldn’t do exactly the same thing in Hamilton’s situation is kidding themselves. “You know what, I’d really like to pay more tax” isn’t something anyone has said ever.