Month: September 2015

The Inside Line #120: Dealing with grief

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My heart sank. “She didn’t make it through the night,” read the text message, and I felt every one of the many thousands of kilometres I was away from home. I’d lost a close friend, and knew that my emotions would be all over the place on a Thursday in a packed Suzuka media centre, not an ideal place to grieve.

Fast-forward a few hours, and while the message came from across the table rather than my phone, it was near-identical. “I lost a mate,” said Daniel Ricciardo as we huddled in the Red Bull hospitality unit, the skies dark, the rain streaming down as it was a year ago on the day Jules Bianchi suffered the crash that was to eventually end his life. “It’s pretty much how we left it,” he said to nobody in particular as he swept his arm towards the sodden circuit.

My task for Thursday was to write a feature about, of all things, loss. Maybe the task helped me with my own feelings, maybe it intensified them. The rest of the world wouldn’t care much for mine, but Daniel’s about his friend Jules were a lot more newsworthy. It’s rare in any sport to get an athlete to open up on grief, on loss, on bigger-picture topics outside of what ball they kick or hit, what car they drive, what bike they ride. But Daniel did open up, and the result was hard to listen to, enormously revealing about his character, and couldn’t have been put better. Australian sport, and F1 as a whole, is lucky to have him.

Last weekend’s Japanese Grand Prix was always going to be tinged with a degree of sadness after Bianchi’s accident at Suzuka 12 months ago, and those feelings were only heightened when the first two days of the race meeting took place under grey skies and on a wet track. As the weather improved, Suzuka was at its most splendid, in this writer’s view the best track in the world, and seeing the best drivers tackle it was as thrilling as ever. The circuit was and always is a positive; what wasn’t were headlines about Red Bull throwing tantrums (again) and the usual paddock BS masquerading as informed speculation as to which teams and drivers will be where next season (gotta get those clicks). All things that seemed a little irrelevant when you lose someone important to you. Daniel would concur.

A review of all the goings-on at Suzuka is the focus of Episode 120 of ‘The Inside Line’ this week. Check it out.

Learning from loss: Daniel Ricciardo

THIS STORY APPEARED IN THE SUNDAY AGE NEWSPAPER ON SEPTEMBER 27

Daniel Ricciardo’s mood was as dark as the sky that had spent the past 90 minutes dumping buckets of rain on the Suzuka circuit.

It was last year’s Japanese Formula One Grand Prix, and Ricciardo had slithered through the treacherous conditions in his underpowered Red Bull machine to find himself in sight of an unlikely podium finish. But nine laps from the end of the 53-lap race, the red flag was thrown, the race stopped, and Ricciardo was fourth. Frustrated by coming so close to a top-three result in such difficult conditions, his initial response was – atypically for Ricciardo – anger. But then the reason for the stoppage filtered through. There’d been an accident. A bad one. There was a serious head injury to a fellow competitor, Jules Bianchi. A replay of the incident was shown once, and no more. And Ricciardo’s mind started racing.

“Initially I was confused as there’d been a red flag, and I thought it was for weather rather than for any accident,” he tells The Sunday Age in an exclusive interview at Suzuka 12 months on.

“When the team told me there’d been an accident, that it was Jules and that it looked bad, I was confused because I didn’t see anything, which probably speaks for the visibility.

“I’d been fighting for a podium when the race stopped, so when I got out of the car, I was a bit pissed off. But there was a split-second change of mindset when I learned what had happened. Something like a podium just didn’t seem very important anymore.”

As information and misinformation swirled in the gale-force winds that pre-empted Typhoon Phanfone’s arrival onto the Japanese mainland that night, Ricciardo found himself – unusually so soon after a race – alone.

“I got changed out of my race suit and had some time to myself, and I had all these questions,” he remembers.

“You’re scared to ask too much as you don’t want to hear something you don’t want to hear, but you still want to know what the situation is. When I heard that he was unconscious and things didn’t look too good, that was when it hit home that it wasn’t just a normal racing incident.”

It was anything but. Formula One, through advances in safety, circuits with better run-off areas and more sophisticated medical facilities, and a healthy dose of sheer good fortune, hadn’t endured a driver fatality since Ayrton Senna perished at the San Marino Grand Prix two decades earlier. But luck conspired against Bianchi.

The Sauber of German driver Adrian Sutil had crashed at Suzuka’s seventh turn, and trackside marshals and a crane were brought inside the barriers to retrieve the car. But a lap later, Bianchi aquaplaned off the circuit at the same corner at over 210km/h, and as the marshals scattered, his Marussia car submarined under the crane, his head taking the impact.

Bianchi spent seven weeks in a nearby hospital at Yokkaichi in an induced coma with a diffuse axonal brain injury before being transferred to his hometown of Nice in France. But he never regained consciousness, his nine-month battle for survival ending on July 17 this year.

Driver deaths were an inevitable part of F1 in its earliest days from 1950, but today’s generation of pilots were largely immune to loss. There had been enormous accidents with miniscule consequences – Mark Webber ended up with little more than a sore ankle after a terrifying backflip in 2010 in Valencia that would have likely been a fatal accident even 10 years previously – but the loss of drivers at the wheel seemed to be part of the past.

It took a freak set of circumstances to drag death back into F1’s present, but it didn’t make Bianchi’s loss easier to stomach. The Frenchman was a Ferrari Academy driver, on loan to the backmarker Marussia team, but in line to drive for the Prancing Horse in years to come. A bright future for a popular driver was extinguished in a millisecond.

Ricciardo was devastated. When he first moved to Europe at the age of 17 to pursue his motorsport dreams, Bianchi was one of the first young drivers he came across. They trained at renowned driver fitness facility Formula Medicine in Viareggio in Italy together, and hit it off immediately.

“We were the same age, and we got on really well from the start. We trained pretty hard, but we also liked to indulge afterwards with some good Italian food,” Ricciardo remembers.

“I hadn’t been in Europe long and didn’t know too many people, and he was really good to me. He was racing the French Formula Renault Championship and I was in the Italian championship, so we exchanged phone numbers and kept in touch.”

As they successfully made their way through the various junior formulas, Ricciardo with Red Bull backing, Bianchi tethered to Ferrari, Formula One seemed a certainty. Ricciardo got there first, cutting his teeth with the backmarker Hispania team from 2011, while Bianchi stepped out for his first race in Australia with Marussia in 2013. They stayed tight, shared laughs, and always got along. And then came Suzuka last October.

Ricciardo admits now that he didn’t know how to react when Bianchi was repatriated to Nice last November. For the past two years, Ricciardo has lived in Monaco, just half an hour away. Once he waited for the initial media circus surrounding Bianchi’s return to France to subside, Ricciardo wanted to go to his friend’s bedside. But every time he made plans to visit, something inside of him, something he couldn’t put his finger on, stopped him.

He’d learn some new information about Bianchi’s health, and talk to fellow F1 driver Felipe Massa, who lives in the same Monaco apartment building and was close to the Bianchi family. He kept putting it off. After July 17, it was too late.

Ricciardo stops short of using the word ‘regret’ about not going to Nice, but still struggles to articulate his feelings two months on.

“I thought about it a lot, and a big part of me wanted to see him,” he eventually says.

“But every time I thought about going to visit, I was in two minds. I knew it was going to make me upset and I was thinking about his family as well, and didn’t want to impose on them. They’d already been through so much. I just didn’t know what to do in that situation as it was something I’d never been through. There’s no right or wrong answer, and there’s no way to know whether I did the right or wrong thing by not going. I still don’t know now. I think I’ll never know.”

Ricciardo and a smattering of his fellow drivers attended Bianchi’s funeral four days later, and then fronted up for the Hungarian Grand Prix that weekend, pausing for a poignant minute’s silence before the race where they placed Bianchi’s racing helmet on the grid and surrounded it with their own. Those who knew him best were distraught. Massa, in tears, lined up in the wrong grid slot for the race and tumbled from a top-10 start to 12th place, his mind elsewhere.

“If you’re talking about what the best way is to prepare for a race, it was pretty horrendous, but we all felt as drivers that it was the right thing to do,” Ricciardo says.

“The whole week was a massive emotional rollercoaster – the race was Sunday and the funeral was the Tuesday – so your emotions were spent. We’d already got a lot of emotion out that week, so in a way the race was a chance to focus on something else and release the stress that had built up.”

Bianchi was known as a hard-charging driver – he’d scored the only points for the Marussia team in its brief history with a series of robust overtaking manoeuvres in Monaco last May en route to finishing ninth – and Ricciardo was determined to honour his friend’s legacy in a way Bianchi would have approved.

Red Bull has laboured through a largely anonymous 2015 season, its lacklustre Renault engine seeing it regularly trounced by its Mercedes and Ferrari-powered rivals, but the tight and twisty Hungaroring circuit meant its comparative lack of straight-line speed wasn’t as much of a disadvantage. But Ricciardo’s superb third-place finish was partly down to the track layout, and mostly earned by turning his grief into laser-like focus. It was his first podium finish of the year, and his emotions were plain to see, a hastily-scribbled message to Bianchi on his cap visible as he hoisted his trophy skywards, his glassy eyes barely holding a bursting dam of tears.

“The race in the end for me felt like a release, and I was aware of that during it,” he says

“It was hard to say how it was different, but it just felt different to any other race I’d done.

“In the last 18 months or so, I’ve ramped up my racing intensity and aggression anyway, but there was something that little bit extra that day that I wanted to really go for it as a way of paying my respects to Jules and not having any regrets. A lot goes through your mind, and I vowed that whenever I got in the car from then on, I’d put it all on the line and do it justice, because I had that choice to do that. He didn’t.”

At Suzuka a year on, Ricciardo admits Bianchi’s death has altered his mindset about life, not just sport.

“Losing Jules has given me some thoughts about how we live our lives, how you want to live your life from here,” he says.

“If you want to do something, you do it now, you don’t wait for things. You can’t.

“When things like this happen, they change your perspective. You ask yourself a lot of questions in the quiet moments about what you do, but I’ve never doubted the sport itself or whether I still want to do this. It’s something I’m still 100 per cent committed to. Maybe even more than ever.”

Ricciardo: Closed cockpits sooner rather than later
Since its inception, Formula One cars have been characterised by their open cockpits, but Daniel Ricciardo believes that could soon change.

A year after Jules Bianchi’s tragic accident at Suzuka, and just weeks after former F1 driver and IndyCar racer Justin Wilson was killed after being struck in the head by debris from a rival’s crashed car in the United States, the subject of closed cockpits has gained renewed traction amongst F1 drivers, and Ricciardo believes changes will be made while he’s still driving in the sport.

“We’ve talked about it in the GPDA (Grand Prix Drivers’ Association) meetings, and it’s been an ongoing discussion for over a year, actually before Jules’ death,” he says.

“It has to be a driver-driven thing. If it’s safer to put a roof over our head, then why don’t we do it? I love some of the risks of this sport – the street circuits, the fact you can put it in the wall if you get it wrong. But we’re not any less for having a roof over our heads. It doesn’t change the speed of the car, and if we crash, the impact is still the same. If it prevents anything else happening, then for me it’s a no-brainer. Why wait for another (incident) if there’s something we can do?”

Former F1 racer David Coulthard, who took the place of Ayrton Senna at Williams after the Brazilian’s fatal accident in 1994, says the sport has to move with the times.

“I don’t think anyone wants to see anyone get injured, but crashes are part of the visual attraction of the sport in the same way a Hollywood action movie without explosions and car chases isn’t going to work,” Coulthard says.

“But we have to live for our time. You can never walk away from something that could be avoided in the future by not taking an action. It would be a shame if we continued to allow the possibility for the ‘freak’ accident when it happens more than once, as we’ve seen with Jules, as we’ve seen with Justin.

“To knowingly not change something when we could would seem to me to be neglecting the opportunity to protect and to save lives. I would embrace anything that makes it safer.”

The Inside Line #119: Don’t tell anyone …

TILI Logo PrintMcLaren kept this one quiet, and it’s probably no surprise. The Italian Grand Prix won by Lewis Hamilton was McLaren’s 50th race without a victory – yes, you read that correctly. Jenson Button, Brazil, 2012 for those of you keeping score at home. Hamilton was his teammate that day in his final drive for McLaren; since leaving for Mercedes, Hamilton has won 19 of those 50 races, and Nico Rosberg has added 10 of his own. Mercedes 29, McLaren 0. As career moves go, Hamilton’s was one of the better ones.

McLaren, like Red Bull, Toro Rosso and (let’s face it) anyone who doesn’t have a Mercedes engine this season had their eyes on Singapore last weekend as a race where they could score big points at a specific circuit that bears little resemblance to anywhere else on the calendar. More corners (23) than any other track and no straights of note at least had McLaren in the fight for points, so went the theory. Fernando Alonso had won in Singapore twice and had five podiums, while teammate Jenson Button had twice finished second. So their drivers were up to the task. The car? Not so much.

Post-Singapore, the final six races of this season will be tough going for McLaren, and can you imagine the tension this coming weekend at Suzuka at Honda’s home race? This week on ‘The Inside Line’, we take a look at both Grands Prix, reviewing Singapore last Sunday, and looking ahead to Suzuka this weekend. Arriving at the circuit this coming Thursday, a year after leaving it getting belted by rain and wondering about the fate of Jules Bianchi, will be a strange experience, that’s for sure.

Episode 119 of ‘The Inside Line’. This week. Check it out. Also worth checking out: this piece on McLaren’s former employee who has kicked on since he left. Not sure it was supposed to be funny, but the use of words those young people of today use made me laugh. As did “corporate drivel”, which is still very much alive and well if you’ve ever read a McLaren press release. “Mettlesome”, said the Frenchman “speaking” in English …

The Inside Line #118: Cheering the narrative

TILI Logo PrintNumber of times I’ve actually found myself cheering for a good outcome for Nico Rosberg: one. It was the aftermath of the Italian Grand Prix two weeks back, and when news came through that Lewis Hamilton (and Rosberg) were under investigation from race stewards for their tyres being under-inflated at Monza, I was hoping that Hamilton would be disqualified – not because I wished any ill against the man who will win this year’s world championship, but because I was hoping for the season to go as close to the wire as possible before he did. Cheering for the story, if you like. But then came the news that Mercedes had been able, unwittingly or not, to break a rule and somehow not be penalised for it, and that was that. Hamilton 25 points, Rosberg 0. Rosberg’s chances of winning this year’s world championship? Again, 0.

My Rosberg aversion doesn’t come back to his being a teammate of Mark Webber’s when he first came into F1 in 2006; much as I laughed at the ‘Britney’ jokes and the memory of Webber’s “Britney’s in the wall, mate” comment in Brazil that year, my view on Rosberg was never clouded by Webber’s thoughts on him in their time together, despite interviewing Mark more than anyone else I’d spoken to in any sport at that time. No, mine was more shaped by two of the worst interviews I’ve ever had the misfortune of doing in my time around the sport, one where I was openly and loudly berated by Rosberg for not ticking it off with his PR person first (which I had), the other where he was deliberately obstructive when he actually bothered to answer a question while spending the entire time looking over my shoulder for someone more important to talk to. Which wouldn’t have been hard, frankly (journos are usually at the bottom of the food chain in any F1 paddock, and I know my place), but it’s clouded my view of him ever since. There’s plenty of other people who treat anything in F1 as a transaction (as in ‘if there’s no direct benefit to me, I’m not doing it’), but you can at least pretend to be better than that … Plenty do. It’s not that hard.

Anyway, I digress. The seemingly baffling decision to allow Hamilton’s win to stand in Italy means we come to Singapore this weekend with the title slipping through Rosberg’s fingers. Sure, he’s never really been on Hamilton’s pace as he was last year, but perhaps that’s a product of Hamilton being five per cent better this year, and Rosberg five per cent worse. Perhaps there’s a hangover from coming so close to the championship and missing, as we’ve seen with other Grand Prix winners who never get as close again after not taking their one career chance (filed under ‘Webber, M.’). But right now, who would bet against Hamilton winning every race for the rest of the year? The car is up to it, he seems to be in better form than ever, and the competition isn’t exactly hurrying him over the line at many races where things go to the script. He’s won the past two Grands Prix; could he win the last nine of the season as Sebastian Vettel did in 2013? It’s certainly in play, and it’ll take more than my cheering for the narrative (or anyone else’s) to stop it happening.

We preview Singapore in Episode 118 of ‘The Inside Line’ this week – check it out.

The Inside Line #117: Piling on the pain

TILI Logo PrintFor a fourth straight year, there are no Italian drivers on the Formula One grid this season, and while the tifosi at Monza directed plenty of attention towards Sebastian Vettel last weekend, there was more than a smattering of support for Daniel Ricciardo.

As the son of an Italian who emigrated to Australia, Ricciardo is the closest thing the locals have to a ‘local’ driver, and Ricciardo has always loved the Italian Grand Prix, staying in his motorhome near the circuit and soaking up the atmosphere at one of the sport’s most iconic tracks.

It was always going to be a tricky weekend for Ricciardo and Red Bull Racing after it elected to fit new engines for the Australian and teammate Daniil Kvyat. Better to take the pain of grid penalties at a circuit that would only magnify Red Bull’s straight-line speed deficit more than any other in preparation for the next race at a track that’s the complete opposite in Singapore – and a track where they have the potential to do as well as they did in Hungary at the end of July.

All but sacrificing a good result on one weekend in the hope that it’ll pay off at the next race isn’t how Red Bull wants to go racing, but what other choice do they have this season? Other than not lashing out when it doesn’t win time after time after time, I mean? In the circumstances, Ricciardo’s charge from the back to the points was hugely meritorious. That his Renault engine lasted long enough for him to make it was, frankly, astonishing.

A review of the Italian Grand Prix features on this week’s episode (number 117 for those counting, mainly me) of ‘The Inside Line’. Check it out.

The Inside Line #116: The consolation prize

TILI Logo PrintSebastian Vettel is a man who likes to be in control. Sebastian Vettel is also a man who, for a German, has always had a strong grasp of the appropriate use of profanity in English. So when a podium finish at Spa was thwarted on the penultimate lap of the Belgian Grand Prix after his right-rear Pirelli exploded at well over 200km/h, Vettel was furious. Furious that his remote chance of a championship charge – one based on a run of 21 straight points finishes and unerring consistency – had likely been scuppered by a shredded tyre; furious that the tyre blowout, had it happened a few seconds earlier as he hurtled into the fearsome Eau Rouge and over the top of Raidillon – could have had more dire consequences than falling outside of the top 10.

“If this happened earlier, then I’m f***ed,” he raged.

“Things like that are not allowed to happen. If it happened 200 metres earlier, I’m not standing here now, I’d be stuck in Eau Rouge.”

It was hard to argue with him, and for those who have bemoaned Pirelli’s rubber since the company became F1’s sole tyre supplier, his stinging criticism was completely appropriate. But once his fury died down in the days after Spa, Vettel would have realised that a fifth world title – as unlikely as it was – is now almost certainly not happening in 2015. But the next race, as last year proved, is where unlikely comebacks can start.

At Monza last year, Lewis Hamilton came to the Italian Grand Prix after the controversial collision with teammate Nico Rosberg at Spa, and 29 points adrift in the title race. Given Hamilton’s often emotional response to adversity in the past, Rosberg looked to have played a brilliant and decisive card in his quest to become world champion. But Hamilton won in Italy, then in Singapore, and then seemingly everywhere else. Six wins in seven races after a moment that may have plunged the old Lewis Hamilton into crisis made him a worthy world champion.

It’s unlikely Vettel will ‘do a Hamilton’ this year; for one, his car isn’t good enough to allow for that relative to the Mercedes, and two, if a Mercedes finishes a Grand Prix, it’s usually in first and/or second place. But if Vettel can’t win the title, how about winning Ferrari’s home race in front of its devoted tifosi? From where Ferrari was this time last year, a Monza victory would be akin to a championship win. And Vettel, a three-time victor at Monza already, could certainly deliver on that front.

The Italian Grand Prix simply has to stay at Monza (that’s another blog post for another time), and we preview the final F1 race in Europe for 2015 this week on Episode 116 of ‘The Inside Line’. Check it out.

Keeping Track #43: Age hasn’t wearied Rossi, says Doohan

RossiAssen15podiumAustralia’s five-time 500cc world champion Mick Doohan says the Pramac Australian Motorcycle Grand Prix shapes as a crucial race in the three-way fight for this year’s MotoGP title.

Yamaha teammates Jorge Lorenzo and Valentino Rossi came into last weekend’s British Grand Prix at Silverstone tied for the championship lead, while reigning world champion Marc Marquez (Honda) has been the form rider of the championship since reverting to the 2014 chassis he used to win the first 10 races last year.

Phillip Island will host the third-last round of the 2015 season on October 16-18, with Rossi the defending race-winner.

Speaking to the ‘Keeping Track’ podcast, Doohan said he has been impressed by the 36-year-old Rossi’s bounce-back season. In his 20th world championship campaign, ‘The Doctor’ is well placed to win his first premier-class title since 2009.

“Age generally isn’t the issue,” Doohan said.

“Physically he’s in great shape … and a more calculated approach to racing has put Valentino in the position he’s in this year. There’s no reason why he can’t end up on top this season.”

Doohan said Marquez’s fearsome speed since a spate of early-season crashes means the 22-year-old Spaniard can’t be ruled out of the title fight.

“He’s got to win every race essentially, (but) you wouldn’t put that past him,” Doohan said.

“It’s getting harder as each race goes by, but that won’t stop him trying, and mathematically it’s still possible.”

Doohan also spoke about Jack Miller’s maiden MotoGP season for Honda, and why an up-and-down rookie campaign could be the making of the 20-year-old Australian as he enters the second year of a three-year deal next season.

Listen here – and leave your feedback.