Month: March 2015

The Inside Line #94: History means nothing

TILI Logo PrintOctober 1999, and the Formula One world discovered what it’s like to sweat – really sweat. The first Malaysian Grand Prix has just been run and won by Ferrari’s Eddie Irvine, who snatched a four-point championship lead going into the final round of the season in Japan a fortnight later over McLaren’s Mika Hakkinen after a race best remembered for Michael Schumacher’s comeback from a broken leg [1]. The heat and humidity of Kuala Lumpur certainly made their mark on the field – except Schumacher, who looked as fresh as a daisy as always after gifting teammate Irvine the win – and the first of the modern iteration of Hermann Tilke tracks had opened to rave reviews.

Schumacher, of course, was just a two-time world champion then; after Hakkinen defended his title successfully at Suzuka that year, Schumi ran red rings around the rest for the following five seasons, cementing his status as one of Germany’s favourite sporting sons. The German Grand Prix at Hockenheim and the European Grand Prix at the Nurburgring were routinely two of the best-attended races on the calendar; the races at Spa and the Hungaroring could have been considered as pseudo German Grands Prix given the number of Schumacher fans in the stands, and he was reasonably popular at Imola [2] and Monza as well. It was almost easier to list the races that weren’t Schumacher ‘home’ races than those that were. F1 in Germany was big, big business.

Sixteen years later, as the Formula One teams and drivers gathered at Sepang for last weekend’s 17th Malaysian Grand Prix, where are we now? A German team, as Schumacher was then, is F1’s dominant force; Nico Rosberg, no matter how German he may or may not be [3], is one of two men with a realistic chance to win this year’s world title. Yet last year’s German GP at Hockenheim was notable in that it attracted just 52,000 fans on race day (and seemingly 52 fans in total for the rest of the weekend) to watch Rosberg win from pole and Mercedes-powered drivers lock out the podium. And it will perhaps go down as notable for being the last German Grand Prix full stop. As F1 expands to new countries with shiny new Tilke-dromes good and bad [4] (there are six circuits other than Sepang on this year’s calendar penned by Tilke), the presence of the heartland of the sport is being whittled away. No France since 2008. Now no Germany. What’s next? Silverstone? Monza? In just 16 years, that’s a quite staggering shift.

The demise of the German Grand Prix – and if it will ever return – is examined on Episode 94 of ‘The Inside Line’ this week, while we also review the events at Sepang last weekend, where spats off-track very nearly stole the show from the events on it. F1’s star quotient was at least enhanced with the return of Fernando Alonso and Valtteri Bottas, but even after Sebastian Vettel’s shock win for Ferrari, there’s nothing that leads you to believe that this season will be anything other than a benefit for a certain German team. Which, remember, doesn’t get to perform at home this season.

You can see ‘The Inside Line’ on Fox Sports 5 and ESPN this week if you’re in Australia [5], and check local guides if you’re watching elsewhere.

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[1] And was on pole by nine-tenths of a second having missed the previous seven races. Clearly taking the piss.

[2] Just a great, great circuit to watch F1 cars. Such a shame it’s no longer on the calendar. But hey, we have Bahrain …

[3] Perhaps Lewis Hamilton’s shit-stirring last year had more meaning than he realised. The German fans just don’t seem to relate to Rosberg as one of “theirs”.

[4] Nobody is missing Korea and India, but Istanbul Park was fun while it lasted.

[5] I’ve given up wondering when Fox will broadcast each week’s show; as long as it’s on sometime …

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The Inside Line #93: Bleating while taking a beating

TILI Logo PrintNobody likes a whinger – especially when the people doing the whingeing have had things mostly their own way for a very long time – which made Helmut Marko’s comments in the Albert Park paddock after the Australian Grand Prix a bit hard to take. Yes, the team that has won four of the past five drivers’ and constructors’ titles had endured a miserable season-opener, its lead driver coming home a lapped sixth as Mercedes ran rings around the rest – but threatening to withdraw from the sport unless the rules are tweaked in their favour really grated.

There’s no denying that Renault has left Red Bull even further behind the ultimate pace than last season based on what happened in Melbourne [1], but as I see it, that’s not up to the sport’s regulators to fix. Would we like to see a more competitive fight at the top of the F1 pecking order? Sure. Who wouldn’t, besides Mercedes themselves? [2] But to my mind, Mercedes shouldn’t be held back because it has done a better job than everyone else. Every team and engine manufacturer had the same chance to do things better when the new-for-2014 rule changes came in; should Mercedes be penalised for doing something so well that the others can’t keep up? Rather than artificially handcuff the team that has made the best fist of F1’s regulatory revolution, shouldn’t the others lift their games? Or do we dumb down F1 to the lowest common denominator based on that hard-to-define concept of ‘the show’, in case the casual fans get distracted by something else and turn their attentions elsewhere? [3]

Sure, predictability is never a good thing. But so is predictable unpredictability. Remember 2012, when seven different drivers won the first seven races of the year? When, yes, even Pastor Maldonado managed to take a race win in a result that, years from now, will look like a misprint? For the sport’s purists, it was a maddening time. Pirelli’s tyres were having far too much of an effect on the racing, even the teams seemed to have no idea what was coming next, and a lot of very clever people were made to look foolish because of the four black rubber contact patches between car and road were so hard to work out. Of course, some hastily-penned rule changes that year saw an air of familiarity return to the sport, with the team that had interpreted that year’s rules the best staying at the top. And the year after, that same team won 13 Grands Prix, including the last nine of the year. That team, of course, was Red Bull; that year not even two seasons ago. People have very, very short memories in this game; stamping your feet and having a childish ‘it’s not fair’ tantrum is wholly unedifying. Life isn’t fair, so why should sport be? Take your medicine, work hard, do better, and move forwards if you have the capability. Seems to be an approach that has worked for Mercedes, after all.

Post-Australia posturing has taken some of the focus away from the other 18 races on this year’s calendar [4], the first of which takes place at Sepang in Malaysia this weekend. Mercedes might really show what they have on the wide-open sweeps of Hermann Tilke’s first and still best circuit layout, and while that seems a given, the storylines elsewhere are harder to read. Can McLaren recover even a bit from the embarrassment that was Australia? Are Ferrari really back, or are Williams still Mercedes’ greatest challenger, relatively speaking? Will Christian Horner spend a lot of the weekend moaning? [5] And in the heat in Kuala Lumpur, a much more brutal test for man and machine that a cool sunny Sunday in Melbourne, will more cars finish than there are points-paying places available? On circuit and off, it should be a fascinating weekend. Predictable or not.

A Malaysian Grand Prix preview is the focus of Episode 93 of ‘The Inside Line’ this week; check it out on Fox Sports 5 (9pm AEST Wednesday) and ESPN this week if you’re in Australia, and check local guides if you’re watching elsewhere.

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[1] Can’t help but wonder if Red Bull are trying to cite underperformance as a way to extract themselves from their Renault engine supply contract to move to, say, Ferrari – or even someone else not in the sport (yet)?

[2] Well, apparently Nico Rosberg wants a closer fight. Love that Sebastian Vettel called him out on that comment in Australia. I reckon Seb would have quite enjoyed 2011 and 2013, and at least he’s not shy in admitting it. Rosberg couldn’t have sounded less genuine when he said what he said.

[3] Doing something to increase the volume of the cars and the teetering financial situation is far more important than ‘the show’ right now.

[4] Yes, 18 given Germany is cooked. How on earth can we be in a situation where we don’t have a German Grand Prix?

[5] It’s always enjoyable when Oliver Brown at The Telegraph in the UK sharpens his keyboard and takes aim.

The Inside Line #92: Shiny, happy people

TILI Logo PrintIt’s rare to wander the back of the paddock at a Formula One weekend and see so many happy faces, but Albert Park last Sunday night was one of those occasions. Everywhere you looked, there were smiles on dials, backs being slapped and hands being shaken. The Australian Grand Prix was the most predictable and unpredictable race we’ve seen in a while, and for both reasons, its participants had plenty to be pleased about. [1]

At Mercedes, where a crushing 1-2 finish was always on the cards after it dominated pre-season testing, consider Sunday a case of box ticked. Sebastian Vettel was back to his amusing self of his younger Red Bull days as he joked with Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg in the post-race press conference after scoring a podium on his Ferrari debut [2]. Felipe Massa was pleased to finish fourth at one of his bogey tracks, while near-namesake Felipe Nasr was almost speechless after finishing fifth for Sauber, a year after the team went an entire season without a top-10 result. Even Daniel Ricciardo, chastened to some degree after finishing a lapped sixth in a dreadful first race for Red Bull for the season, had something to smile about [3]. Based on the rest of his weekend, the fact his Renault engine managed to last all 58 laps on Sunday was worth celebrating, even if those celebrations came with a rueful shake of his head.

A sun-drenched Albert Park provided the perfect backdrop to kick off the season last weekend, and even if Melbourne’s 20th Grand Prix won’t go down in the annals as one of the most gripping races of all time, it was a good way to start the season. Now comes the pack up of freight and crunching of numbers ahead of Malaysia, where some teams (this means you, Red Bull) will want to lift their game, and others (ahem, Mercedes) will be craving more of the same.

A comprehensive review of the season-opener in Australia is the focus of Episode 92 of ‘The Inside Line’ this week, where we look at the extensive pre-race build-up, some international sports stars forced to kick a football in the name of publicity [4], and examine the race from every angle. Well, almost every angle, but one of the most memorable features on this weekend doesn’t need reliving any more than it already has been … [5]

Check out ‘The Inside Line’ on Fox Sports 5 (9pm AEST Wednesday) and ESPN this week if you’re in Australia, and check local guides if you’re watching elsewhere.

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[1] OK, maybe not at Lotus. Pastor Maldonado’s almost inevitable first-lap crash did raise the biggest laugh in the press room all weekend, mind you.

[2] Rosberg tried his best to relieve Vettel of his title of ‘German driver with most English sense of humour’ on Sunday, but just came across as sounding a bit forced and trying too hard. Harsh, but true.

[3] It’s sometimes hard to tell between a Ricciardo smile and Ricciardo teeth being gritted, but Sunday was at least 70% of the former.

[4] Make it stop, please make it stop …

[5] Arnold Schwarzenegger. Well played, sir.

In black and white

IMG_0276Let’s be honest, the 20th Australian Grand Prix to be held in Melbourne won’t go down as one of the more riveting races in the history of the GP at Albert Park, but as always it was pleasure to cover it for The Age and Sydney Morning Herald, ostensibly on a succinct brief titled ‘Ricciardo watch’, but with scope to spread my wings further. Job lists don’t get a lot better than that.

Thanks to: Spud (and a good feed whenever I see him at Age HQ), Chloe, Foges, Lynchy, Janelle, Darrell and Scott, and others I may have forgotten. Looking forward to year 21 already …

Some links from the weekend:

Thursday
Why Ricciardo could be a future world champion

Friday
Ricciardo 10th in opening practice
Injury clouds season for Fernando Alonso
Engine failure ends day early for Ricciardo

Saturday
Ricciardo’s lamentable preparation continues
Finding Claire air
The man who shapes Ricciardo
Curbing Ricciardo

Sunday
Melbourne remains a graveyard for local drivers

 

The Inside Line #91: A rare trip beneath the radar

TILI Logo PrintDaniel Ricciardo was amused. It’s a December afternoon in Melbourne, and the Red Bull Racing star has just done an on-stage appearance at a busy city shopping mall with a huge crowd in attendance. Free from his work commitments for the day, some Christmas shopping was in order. But how to avoid any attention? A hat and t-shirt change later, and he looked – if you didn’t look hard enough – like a typical 25-year-old Aussie male after a festive season bargain. One shop visit later – as the cashier remarked that “it’s been really busy, there’s been some F1 driver in here or something …” as Ricciardo paid for his purchases – his mission was complete. It was a rare moment of anonymity on a whirlwind two days in Melbourne, and thoroughly enjoyable as a result [1].

Ricciardo’s star rose higher and faster than anyone in F1 – himself included – could have imagined last year, and while he’s more time-poor as a result, he’s embracing it. “Like anyone else I have my rough days,” he mused, trying to appear convincing as his ever-present smile briefly faded, “and some days can drag on a bit. But generally speaking it’s all about looking at the big picture and always being grateful for everything. I know all my mates would love to be doing what I’m doing, so that’s a good way to put it into perspective on the few days I feel sorry for myself. All the attention I’ve had has been positive. If it was more people saying I was crap or a dickhead, I’d be more grumpy!”

There wasn’t much chance of being accused of either of those last season, and it’s a very different Ricciardo who returns to Melbourne this week to open the 2015 season. Sure, the same attitude and smile that underpinned his rise last year hasn’t gone anywhere, but where results of note were considered a bonus last year, they’re expected this time. Plenty of armchair experts and some of the local media will be expecting that it’s a short stroll to the title after last year’s campaign of over-achievement [2], but he’s smart enough to know that’s not necessarily the case. Pre-season testing has Red Bull as perhaps the fourth-strongest team at best, and a repeat of his podium that wasn’t last year will be a mighty tall order. But it’ll be fun to finally get a read on who has what in reserve in qualifying at Albert Park at 5pm this Saturday afternoon. Few would be surprised if Mercedes locked out the front row [3], but behind them? Something of a mystery. Which is why having the season-opening race is a privilege that Melbourne should never take for granted, nor be complacent about.

That Australia season-opener is previewed through the eyes of Ricciardo on Episode 91 of ‘The Inside Line’ this week, while we discover why Kimi Raikkonen might fire a shot this year [4].

You can see ‘The Inside Line’ on Fox Sports 5 (9pm AEST Wednesday) and ESPN this week if you’re in Australia, and check local guides if you’re watching elsewhere.

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[1] On a scale of 1 to 10, his smile after that was at 11.

[2] Had a really, really interesting chat with David Coulthard off the record about this. He’s a wise man to be in Daniel’s corner, a real asset who tells it as it is.

[3] How far will the first non-works Mercedes be from pole. 1.5 seconds? Absolutely in play.

[4] Like him or not (and I’m clearly in the latter category as regular readers of this blog might have realised), Raikkonen can be very, very good when the car is decent and he has his motivation in order. I’m anticipating a strong season, and not only because he might get another big pay day next year …

Keeping Track #41: Hamilton could win two more titles, says Hill

HamiltonWinsHungaryLewis Hamilton’s best is yet to come – that’s the view of 1996 world champion Damon Hill, who says his compatriot is poised to reach the peak of his powers as he enters his 30s.

Hamilton took his second world title for Mercedes last year after winning his first for McLaren in 2008, and won 11 Grands Prix to take his career tally to 33 victories, fifth on the all-time win list.

The 30-year-old Englishman will begin his title defence at this weekend’s Formula One Rolex Australian Grand Prix at Albert Park, and Hill believes Hamilton is ideally placed to pick up where he left off in 2014, where he won six of the final seven races of the season.

Speaking to the ‘Keeping Track’ podcast, Hill said: “At 30, he’s still got the best years ahead of him – it’s when you’ve got talent, which he has in abundance, determination and fitness, and then start to marry that up with experience.

“I think between now and, say, 33-34, he’s certainly in contention for one, if not two, more championships.”

Hill won his sole world title in 1996 at the age of 36, a season which included a win in the inaugural world championship Australian Grand Prix at Albert Park.

The 54-year-old says he’ll be paying extra attention to 17-year-old debutant Max Verstappen, who’ll become the youngest-ever driver to start a Grand Prix in Melbourne this weekend.

“It does seem to me to be very young to enter into any complex professional sport like Formula One,” Hill said of Verstappen.

“I hope for his sake that he hasn’t been accelerated up to that level too quickly, because that can set you back for a very long time if you’re not careful.”

Hill also spoke about his memories of winning the first Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne, why he feels 2009 world champion Jenson Button continues to be underrated, and his 1996 world championship-winning campaign for Williams.

Listen here – and leave your feedback.