Thursday, 17 April 2014

Whatever happened to Scott Speed?

Scott Speed - one of many ex-F1 drivers it is sometimes easy
to forget, but not always right to do so. Photo: F1Fanatic 
The career of a Grand Prix driver is a pretty precarious existence. For every Alonso, Vettel or Hamilton who becomes a household name to millions over the world, there are scores of other drivers who, having started on the greasy pole to F1, never made it. There are several others who, despite making it to F1, enjoy only a brief period in the sport - passing only transiently through the mind of the F1 viewer. During a particular period of mental idleness a few months ago I remembered one such individual - Scott Speed. Taken purely on the basis of his short F1 career, which spanned a season and a half in 2006 and 2007, Scott's career can be construed as unspectacular and underwhelming. Yet the more I thought about it, and the more I researched his subsequent activities, the more I thought there was something quite fascinating about his rise to, and fall from, the pinnacle of motorsport. The intriguing thing, of course, is that Speed is not alone; each path to F1 is, in some sense, distinct and each has required its own set of sacrifices and intense commitment. Yet all this is often easy to overlook when we focus on the guys at or near the front, or to forget once the less-successful have left F1, or the unfortunate guys who never made it. Here's an example that is perhaps, to some extent, a more notable one but, in the main, will bear similar hallmarks to the stories of other F1 alumni. For those reasons, I thought it was an example worth elaborating on.

Born in January 1983, Speed's father was an enthusiastic karter and he himself took up the sport at a young age. However, the American was slightly unusual from the outset in that, growing up as a passionate karter in California, he set his sights on reaching Formula 1, rather than IndyCar or NASCAR, the two principal series of the US racing scene. After showing aptitude for the sport in karts, Speed's big breakthrough came in 2002, when he was invited by drinks company Red Bull to the Paul Ricard circuit in southern France for a shoot-out against other American drivers. The reward up for grabs was four places on the Red Bull Young Driver Programme, which was then in relative infancy. Speed impressed by beating all-comers to win one of the places on the programme. The shoot-out explicitly aimed to find drivers who could tap into the American market for Red Bull drinks were he to become successful; thus the selection process appeared to have a whiff of the marketing ploy about it - particularly given the ramshackle organisation of the event and some of the selection criteria used. Speed was placed in the high-profile British Formula 3 Championship for 2003 but, far from following in the footsteps of other famous F1 drivers who raced in the series (Jenson Button, Mika Hakkinen, Ayrton Senna and Nelson Piquet to name but four), Speed struggled to get into the points throughout the season and finished well down in the standings.

A marketing ploy found out? Well, there was more to it than that. Speed had been affected by illness throughout the season and, as 2003 turned to 2004, he was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, a debilitating inflammatory bowel condition caused by problems in the large intestine. Speed and Red Bull spent the first few months of the year trying to get to the bottom of the condition and, by May, Speed was sent for surgery to help alleviate the problem. This was serious make-or-break stuff; the surgery was an experimental one and, if unsuccessful, the only treatment left for Speed might have been removal of (part of) the large intestine. This would have meant a colostomy bag was required, and would have signalled an abrupt end to his fledgling racing career. Mercifully, surgery was successful, and kick-started a dramatically rapid rise through the ranks for the American. Even before his surgery he somehow had taken the lead in the European and German Formula Renault categories, and when he returned he duly finished the job off, winning both championships. His successes saw him promoted to the new-for-2005 GP2 Series, which was replacing the International Formula 3000 Championship as the series immediately below F1. It was a pretty big jump from Formula Renault, featuring faster cars and longer races, but the dream of Grand Prix racing was getting closer.

Speed (no 1, foreground) was one of the stars of GP2's
successful inaugural year. Photo: Cahier Images Archive
In an inaugural season packed full of high-quality youngsters, including Nico Rosberg, Heikki Kovalainen, (Macau F3 winner) Alexandre Premat, Adam Carroll and Neel Jani, not to mention more established drivers like Gianmaria Bruni and Giorgio Pantano, Speed more than held his own. A win eluded the American, to be sure, but his remarkable consistency near the front of the field saw him finish a highly credible 3rd in the championship (trailing Rosberg and Kovalainen). His big strength was a smooth, 'supple' (in the words of F1 journalist Peter Windsor) driving style which was naturally kind on tyres and always made him a threat at the end of races. I saw this first-hand at Silverstone that year in the main Saturday race when, in the closing stages, he caught, attacked and eventually pressured home favourite Carroll into a mistake at Stowe corner to take 4th place with a few laps left (he was also to finish 2nd in Sunday's sprint race). By now, firmly established as a little more than just a marketing ploy, Speed was knocking on the door of an F1 drive. He was still associated with Red Bull, whose recent acquisitions of Jaguar Racing and Minardi offered a route in for Scott; he signed for the new Scuderia Toro Rosso team for 2006 alongside Italian Vitantonio Liuzzi, another Red Bull young driver who had won the last International F3000 title in '04.

After years of toil, and after overcoming a pretty serious illness, Scott Speed had made it to Formula 1; while the Paul Ricard test of 2002 may have had elements of farce about it, Speed had fully justified his selection by being the only winning driver to fully take the opportunities Red Bull had given him over the past few years. However, Speed's time in F1 was not a happy one. The Toro Rosso was not a tremendously competitive car and he and Liuzzi often struggled in the lower echelons of the midfield; although the drivers were quite closely matched, Liuzzi generally had the (narrow) upper hand around 65-70% of the time. Speed thought he had scored his first point in Australia, only to be given a time penalty for overtaking David Coulthard (in the sister Red Bull car) under yellow flags; Speed was not happy and apparently delivered a somewhat colourful attack on DC and the stewards in the aftermath. This was a recurring theme in his F1 career and even, to an extent, in GP2; Speed could be a spiky character and hence had difficult relations with the press and some parts of the paddock. All this, one suspects, would have been tolerated had things been different inside the team. However, even here relations were difficult. The general feeling appeared to be that he should have been more self-critical and focused; that the spiky attitude was symptomatic of a wider attitude problem of his regarding F1. After only modest improvement over 2006, and despite an eye-catching performance at the 2007 Monaco GP (where he just missed out on the points again in 9th), he was sacked after a nadir was reached at the 2007 European GP at the Nurburgring (where he retired early and was then allegedly involved in a physical altercation with team boss Franz Tost, supposedly initiated by Tost himself!). Reflecting a couple of years later, former part-owner of the team Gerhard Berger pulled no punches: "Scott Speed should never have been in F1! To be fair, he can be quick - but he doesn't have the commitment, doesn't have the skills. Franz and I saw it quite soon," he said in 2009. During a Q&A of questions sent in from F1 Racing readers last year, Tost was in a more diplomatic mood, stating simply: "he didn't do the job that we expected of him."

Although the team were unimpressed, and F1 was now a no-go area, the wider Red Bull racing unit kept Speed on side, placing him in American stock cars - firstly dovetailing a season in the ARCA ReMax series with one in the NASCAR Trucks series. This categories were completely different to GP2 or F1, and many single-seater racers have found the going hard in stock cars. Yet Speed belied the trend in 2008 by winning several races (four in ARCA ReMax, one in NASCAR Trucks) and battling for the ARCA championship. Again, his initial progress was remarkably quick, despite him ultimately losing the title in a controversial season finale. However, this was again as good as it got for Scott; although he was promoted to Red Bull's main team in the main NASCAR series (the Sprint Cup), he and the team struggled for results. Apparently unimpressed with his performances, Red Bull dropped Speed unceremoniously (he felt) at the end of 2010. This came at a difficult time for Speed personally and he initially sought legal action against the company with which he had almost grown up with in motorsport.

Speed's debut win in Global Rallycross at the X Games event
in Brazil. Photo: ESPN Images
In the end, the issue was settled out of court but Speed continued to struggle in his attempts to get a new foothold in NASCAR. Select substitute and guest appearances followed, but little else. The American was going nowhere fast until, in 2013, he accepted a last minute deal to race in the opening round of the 2013 Global Rallycross Championship. Despite the name, this is a mainly US-based series, which sometimes intertwined with the X Games and hence featured a range of rally drivers, former skate boarders (see Bucky Lasek), BMX racers (Dave Mirra) and, increasingly, the odd appearance from touring car racers (see Mattias Ekstrom). Into this environment came Speed, with little experience of lairy slides on gravel or jumping the car. Yet incredibly, on his debut, he won! Like ARCA, GP2 and Formula Renault, this was another example of Speed's strength in adapting quickly to the driving challenges presented by a completely new series. He promptly signed a deal to race the whole season and, though his overall season was more mixed, he won another race in Charlotte and finished 5th overall in the championship. In 2014, he will remain in the series with a new team, Volkswagen Andretti Racing (VARX) and hope to keep moving forward. Meanwhile, other former F1 drivers including Nelson Piquet Jr and Jacques Villeneuve are also wading into the world of rallycross. It seems strange (though it shouldn't), to think that when I first saw him race Scott Speed was another angry young man of 22 trying to make it to F1, the pinnacle of motorsport. Unlike many of his ilk, Scott made it but, unlike the very best, he was never a big figure in the championship. Now 31, he is older, but still competitive and still talented. However, the impression given is that he can also still get angry; the challenge is for him to curb that anger, and channel it positively into success in his current series - Global Rallycross (now, coincidentally and somewhat ironically, sponsored by Red Bull!). After another promising start to a new series, can he finally make the break through to sustained success in a fast-growing formula? We can't say yet of course, but it would be a nice ending to this particular unique story were he to attain it.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Manchester United's sobering season

NOTE 27/03 EVENING UPDATE: OK, weblinks and photos have been added and amendments have been made. A bit faster than expected, but hopefully this will be the final version.

Photo: Matthew Peters
Another defeat punctuating a couple of wins and, with it, another post-mortem by the dailies, and more head-scratching from the club's coaching staff. Fans are split by defiance, concern and outright contempt. A 3-0 defeat to local rivals Manchester City at Old Trafford has once more shone an uncomfortable spotlight on Manchester United Football Club and, in particular, their manager David Moyes. Despite being handed a six-year contract when he took the job on last summer, the murmurs around his tenure lasting beyond one season have got uncomfortably louder, albeit from a low starting point, after a season which has seen the club plummet to new depths in the Premier League era (since 1992). In an attempt to compartmentalise my thoughts on the current situation, I will try to use three ostensibly simple yet, for me, fairly enlightened quotes about the manager's predicament which I've heard in recent months.

"Nobody, not even Manchester United, have limitless patience"
The big credit in Moyes' favour is that he was Sir Alex Ferguson's choice to take over the reigns on that momentous day last May when Ferguson announced his retirement from management with the club's 20th top-flight title in the bag. As a result, and also because of a long run of success drawn from an ethos of backing the manager, patience has been the predominant response to Moyes' struggles.

This was entirely understandable and logical too. The former Everton manager was replacing the irreplaceable; a man who had won well over thirty trophies at United, including 2 Champions League titles and their first league title in 26 years (followed, over the next 20 years, by another 12 Premier League titles). Furthermore, the team Ferguson left behind, while on the right path, were still some way from being the end product and in need of further investment. Against that backdrop, Moyes deserved time to mould the team as he saw fit. Against that backdrop, we knew it wouldn't be easy; even in a pre-season of high change (rivals Man City and Chelsea also changed manager), a repeat title was unlikely.

Yet, after starting with a brilliant opening-day 4-1 win over Swansea at the Liberty Stadium on August 17th that carried the impression of 'business as usual' but appears more like an anachronistic dream these days, I suspect no-one - pundits included - expected him to struggle quite as much as he has done. The game-changer, for me personally, has been our form since the turn of the year. Since beating Norwich City 1-0 at Carrow Road on December 28th (the last game of 2013), our record has been P17 W7 D2 L8 in all competitions, and we have gone out of both domestic cup competitions (one of those wins included our exit from the Capital One Cup to Sunderland!). Before then, we had had defeats, yes, and record-breaking ones at that; West Brom, Everton and Newcastle all recorded their first wins at Old Trafford since 1978, 1992 and 1972 respectively. But we also followed it up with good runs of form, including a 12-match unbeaten run after the West Brom defeat, and a run of six successive victories in December. Those good runs encompassed some impressive performances, including a whopping 5-0 win over Bayer Leverkusen in Germany, the icing on the cake of a successful start by Moyes in the Champions League. What has been worrying since then is that we've hit another bad patch, but on this occasion haven't really managed to shake it off. Three wins in four before yesterday's defeat hinted at an upturn, but comprehensive defeats to Liverpool and City have dampened any positivity. It's why even the chance of Europa League qualification, let alone a Top 4 finish to reach the Champions League, is looking increasingly remote. This is one reason why, even among those who have hitherto been patient, this quality is now wearing thin, bearing out the quote above (which came from Sky Sports' The Sunday Supplement, possibly from Martin Lipton of the Daily Mirror). Recently, there has been a lot of discussion over whether to remove The Chosen One; a Moyes banner which has hung in Old Trafford's Stretford End since the Scot's appointment. It has stayed for now, but the opposition to Moyes is now coming from a vocal minority. Difficulty appears to be turning to decline before our very eyes.

Photo: Getty Images
"For Manchester United fans, it may have to get worse before it gets better."
So said Sky Sports commentator Martin Tyler in his closing summary after United has just been beaten by Sunderland in the Capital One Cup Semi-Final over two legs in a penalty shoot-out. At the time, it seemed to ring true for the following reasons: key strikers Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney were out injured; the team were in a bad run of form in the league, and the Champions League places were already slipping away; and this defeat, an exhausting one which culminated in a low-quality shoot-out (2-1 to Sunderland; credit to both goalkeepers though!) seemed to have removed our best hope of silverware for the season, or even a major final for Moyes to experience as manager of the club (we had already been knocked out of the FA Cup and, despite a good start in the Champions League, lifting the thing is never easy!). Alas hopes took a turn upwards when United responded to their difficulties by spending £37.1m to prise highly talented playmaker Juan Mata from Chelsea, while first van Persie and then Rooney returned from injury.

Yet Tyler's assessment has still stood the test of time. Dropped points against Stoke and Fulham (the latter a personal low point) have been followed by poor performances and comprehensive defeats against Olympiakos (1st Leg) and Liverpool. While I felt the City performance was better than those two, the fact that they scored the third goal at the end seemed to imply that they were toying with us; that they still had gears left in reserve. The reason behind this, ostensibly, has been two-fold. Our defence, with its mixture of young and old, is a bit unbalanced, and when the older players play we have to sit quite deep to not get exploited by quick strikers. At the other end of the field there is an abundance of proven quality (van Persie, Rooney, Mata, Adnan Januzaj, Shinji Kagawa, Danny Welbeck and, for his goal-poaching, Javier Hernandez) but the problem has been cohesion between the top players. My Dad, not a known footballing expert, summed it up in yesterday's derby when he noted how the players almost seemed to be passing for the sake of passing and no-one really seemed to be able to read what any other player was doing. Consequently, the fluidity and breathtaking speed of movement which so characterised the Red Devils under the Ferguson era has become, temporarily at least, a thing of the past. The team has instead looked ponderous, and players up front have been almost bumping into each other, something Van Persie complained about in the away defeat to Olympiakos.

The problem appeared to be how to maximise Rooney, Van Persie and Mata together. With Van Persie as the lead striker, Rooney would ideally play in behind or alongside him in the "number 10" role. Yet Mata, though he can be a bit more deep-lying, also prefers the number 10 role. One solution - putting Mata out onto the wing with Januzaj on the other side - hasn't worked so far, while Van Persie's recent injury (moving Rooney into more of a "number 9" role) hasn't been a blessing in disguise either (if the derby game is to go by). Given the recent absence of chemistry between Rooney and Van Persie, plus the former's recently signed new contract, my temptation is to say that the departure of the latter may be the solution (replaced by a Mata-Rooney axis with support possibly from Welbeck and Januzaj or the underrated if inconsistent Antonio Valencia in a supporting role; Welbeck can also play out wide). However, United's surging comeback against Olympiakos (winning 3-0 at Old Trafford - a feather in Moyes' cap - to qualify for the Champions League Quarter-Finals) was achieved with Rooney and Van Persie more cohesive and without Mata, who was cup-tied. Is the "Jose Mourinho solution" of leaving Mata out the uncomfortable solution to the United attacking algorithm? The answers won't come overnight, yet Moyes needs to end the season by presenting evidence of progress. This tactical conundrum leads us to...

How do you get these three players to play to their potential
together? Answers on a postcard to a Mr D Moyes, please.
Photo: Getty Images
"United are in the middle of an identity crisis"
A common refrain throughout this season has been that the United team is in massive need of a rebuild, a project that could take some time. To an extent this is true; in defence for example it may be the end for Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic (the latter's departure - to Internazionale - has been confirmed), as well as maybe Patrice Evra (though I personally would like him to stay for one more season - we can't lose too many leaders in one go!). Others, like Nani, Anderson and maybe Hernandez and Tom Cleverley may also be on their way out. Ultimately this was to be the criteria that Moyes would be judged on at Old Trafford; a multi-season assessment based on rebuilding the side. However, the state of the decline in form has led to questions that, if there is a necessary rebuild, is he the right man to do it? The initial results have not been promising, as there has not yet been tangible return on the investments of Marouane Fellaini and Mata.

Although the evidence is stacking up against him, I would like to see Moyes given more time and, to be sure, the majority of fans want him to do well at the Theatre of Dreams, and are perfectly willing to wait a little while for it to happen if that's required. The worry is, as mentioned, that the scale of the struggle so far suggests that even several seasons at the helm may not be enough; indeed, it may even go on to damage the club's medium-term prospects. No-one doubts that Moyes is a good man and that he has been working extremely hard to try and get on top of the problems he's faced. No-one doubts either, that his record at Everton was praiseworthy and commendable (though it has been devalued slightly by the impressive job his replacement Roberto Martinez has been doing at Goodison Park; Everton have sat above United for most of this season). However, he is an ostensibly awkward position that, even though fans are happy to wait for ultimate success to come along, he still must be able to show them evidence of positive progress between now and the end of this season at least. Specifically, he must show that he is nearer to solving the tactical puzzle presented by that array of attacking options (particularly since signing the highly talented Mata). Furthermore, when it comes to his transfer targets, he must be able to present a vision to the United board - and particularly to the football men on the board (the Sir Bobby Charltons and Sir Alex's of this world) - indicating where targets would fit into the team, and how he would like the team to play going forward.

There is an important corollary to the above point. There has been a lot of talk in the media, and from United's owners, about the need to spend and spend big. Yet if there is an initial lesson to be learnt from the acquisitions of Fellaini and Mata it is, on current evidence, that spending big money for big money's sake, or for a well-reputed big name, is not always the utopia it promises to be. In this sense I agree with former United full-back Gary Neville, from whom the above quote came during yesterday's derby. Yes, big money may well need to be spent, but let's target our buys and make our starting point the need to try and make sure we get value for money. If big money does need to spent, let's ensure it's for positions that really need to be filled, rather than because 'the player is good so let's just assume he'll fit into the team'; for the record I think both Fellaini and Mata are good players but I wasn't ever convinced that Fellaini was the sort of player United needed, and Mata has come into a position where there is already good competition, thereby leading to a difficult start, though of course there is still time for him to come good (Fellaini too, however unlikely it may currently appear).

It won't be easy, no, and, as Robert Burns wrote, the best-laid plans of mice and men can often go astray. Yet, while we do want Moyes to succeed, there also needs to be evidence that he is the man capable of delivering it, with initial progress soon even if ultimate success may take more seasons to deliver it. Although United are rank outsiders against reigning champions Bayern Munich in next week's Champions League Quarter-Final, one senses that two fairly strong performances will put him in credit even if we do go out, while repeats of Olympiakos away and Liverpool at home will not be favourably received. We wish him well with this intricate challenge, of course. But if there's one thing the last month has taught us, is that patience will not be unlimited.

CORRECTION 12/04: Earlier versions of this article attributed the "the best laid plans..." line to John Steinbeck. It was, in fact, the poet Robert Burns. The line, from the poem "To a mouse", was taken by Steinbeck as the inspiration for the title of his novel "Of Mice and Men".

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Six Nations: 2014 and a Rishi's Retrospective from 2003

Photo: Associated Press (AP Images)
The 2014 RBS Six Nations Championship came to an end on March 15th after four weekends of matches were completed over six weekends dating back to February 1st. While last year's tournament started with a bang but fizzled out with more of a whimper (a crushing win for Wales over England to win the title aside), I must say I really enjoyed the tournament this time round. Even to an untrained eye, I thought some of the matches were played to a really high standard and, as a general rule, it was good to see teams try to play expansively; to augment defensive solidity with attacking flair. This bodes well for the Northern Hemisphere clubs with the 2015 World Cup coming up on the horizon, albeit that it is still around eighteen months away.

Congratulations must of course go to Ireland, who secured their second Six Nations title in six seasons on points difference with a gripping 20-22 victory over France in Paris. It was a worthy success and a fitting finale for former captain Brian O'Driscoll, arguably one of the greats of the professional era, who is retiring from the sport at the end of this club season, and for whom Saturday was his last international match. O'Driscoll has been the central figure in what has been an almost golden generation for Irish Rugby. Yet, despite glittering trophy cabinets at club level, many times over the years the Irish have ultimately fallen short of winning the big trophies at international level. Most notably, they fell short to France on points difference in the Six Nations in 2006 and 2007, despite having on paper the strongest team in the tournament. Whilst I generally support France over Ireland, I was genuinely pleased for O'Driscoll, who fully merited his fairy tale ending. Credit must also go to Joe Schmidt, the new Head Coach who found that right balance between attack and defensive discipline, and who helped mastermind a dominant win over Wales in Matchday 2 at home at the Aviva Stadium.

Behind the Irish, their main rivals for the tournament - England - have many positives to take from their Six Nations. Stuart Lancaster's side have come on in leaps and bounds since twelve months ago and flourished in a narrow victory over the eventual champions at Twickenham during Matchday 3. Their 29-18 conquering of Wales two weeks later, while not quite as high standards-wise, was still an emphatic response to their 30-3 defeat to their rivals in Cardiff last year. Ultimately, only a slow start against France - which ultimately led to defeat at the Stade de France - on the opening weekend cost England the overall title and, after three successive Six Nations second places, they now look ready to become the best team in the Northern Hemisphere. However, Ireland, Wales (who finished third) and even mercurial France (fourth and inconsistent but they went into the final day with an outside chance of the title) will of course all have something to say about that in the months ahead.

Ireland and England's fight for the 2014 Six Nations title went down to the wire (with France also having an outside chance) but, as in the 2007 title battle for example, the contest was being fought on two fronts, with the two main protagonists playing different teams but fighting to get enough points to not just win the match but also to win the points difference battle. However, when Ireland and England last fought it out for championship glory, it was all very different. Then, 11 years ago, the two faced off against each other on the final day of the championship at the old Lansdowne Road (which has since been demolished and rebuilt as the Aviva Stadium) in Dublin in a winner-takes-all encounter. Moreover, both were hoping to augment a title victory with Grand Slam success. England were continuing to establish themselves as an outfit which, under their Head Coach Sir Clive Woodward, would go on to win the Rugby World Cup in Australia later that year. They had won two Six Nations titles in the recent past - 2000 and 2001- but had lost their hopes of a Grand Slam on the final day of both championships. Ireland had denied England the Grand Slam on the same pitch two years earlier (actually 18-odd months earlier, as the matches in Ireland were postponed due to the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease) but, on this occasion, had an historic burden of their own; to win their first title since 1985 and their first Grand Slam since 1948! On balance, despite playing away from home, England started the match as favourites, but with Ireland capable of pulling off a mini-upset victory.

The encounter famously started in controversy when Irish President Mary McAleese had to take to the muddy grass to greet the Irish players, as both teams had lined up on the same side (rather than opposite each other) and both teams refused to move (England for psychological reasons; Ireland for superstitious ones). This only served to add extra spice to the event. When it got under way the first half ebbed and flowed with both teams having attacking opportunities. Irish full-back Geordan Murphy caused England problems with his direct, surging runs through the opposition defence but on all occasions England regrouped and managed to prevent a try with some strong tackling and, occasionally, last-ditch (scramble?) defending. At the other end, the English too struggled to breach the try line but, crucially, stole possession at a scrum which allowed scrum-half Matt Dawson to feed Lawrence Dallaglio to dive over for the only try (converted) of the half. Fly-halves Jonny Wilkinson and David Humphreys traded penalties elsewhere to give England a 13-6 lead at the interval.

This left all to play for in the second half but, rather than remaining an open and tight affair, England took advantage, monopolising possession and turning the screw on Ireland. The Irish held on gallantly for a while but England persisted and eventually found a gap to score through Mike Tindall for their second try of the game. With this try also being converted, England by now had a 20-6 lead and all the momentum for the final quarter of the game. Ireland, by now devoid of possession and tiring from their battling defensive efforts of earlier, were fighting against an onslaught from a team intent on proving their recently-acquired status as major World Cup contenders for the autumn. England went in for the kill and, before the full-time whistle, managed to add three more tries without reply; Will Greenwood (2) and Dan Luger the scorers. Wilkinson, the team's star player during this period, barely missed a kick with the boot and the forwards, instrumental in victory, were packed with leaders including Jason Leonard, Dallaglio and captain proper Martin Johnson. The Grand Slam demons of 2000, 2001 and even 1999 (when they lost both the title and the Slam on the final day) were thus truly slayed in an emphatic 42-6 victory.

Photo: David Rogers/Getty Images
Having recorded successes over several Southern Hemisphere sides over the previous twelve months, and ascended to the number one in de facto terms (the World Rankings were only introduced a month or so before the 2003 World Cup), England's Grand Slam success definitively illustrated their ability to handle tournament rugby when the pressure was at its highest (although the Six Nations is a table, the Ireland-England encounter was a winner-takes-all; almost like a knock-out). It was yet another important marker on their path to Australia; in the tournament, they overcame tense matches against the likes of South Africa, Wales, France and, in the final itself, the host nation (at the end of extra-time thanks to a dramatic Wilkinson drop goal) to become World Cup champions. Ireland had a decent tournament, qualifying from a tricky group stage with Australia but losing in the Quarter-Finals to France. As the squad developed, they became one of the strongest Northern Hemisphere outfits while England, by contrast, plummeted from 2004 onwards. Yet by the time the 2007 World Cup in France came round it was the English who finished as surprise runners-up (an outlier, as it turned out) while Ireland were vanquished in the group stage after underwhelming performances, albeit in a difficult group encompassing France (eventual 4th place finishers) and Argentina (3rd place). It was to take the replacement of Eddie O'Sullivan (Head Coach in both 2003 and 2007) with Declan Kidney before they were to finally exorcise demons of their own; doing the Six Nations-Grand Slam double in 2009 after a battling 17-15 victory over Wales in the final game. Five years on, in the present day, both teams are looking to write new chapters in their respective histories. And, after the 2014 Six Nations, both teams are looking well-placed to do it.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Rishi's Retrospective: Doncaster's derby delight

Photo: BBC
From the start of the 2009/10 season a partnership between Sheffield Wednesday Football Club and the University of Sheffield gave students the chance to watch games at Hillsborough for as little as £5 during the season (usually I think matches outside the term-time period - matches in the late summer, Christmas and Easter holidays - were excluded, along with the Steel City derby between Wednesday and Bramall Lane's Sheffield United). Maybe the commitment of going every fortnight was a bit steep for non-fans, but it still offered a good chance of going a few times a season if you didn't mind buying a ticket which invariably positioned you directly behind one of the pillars in the Kop End (the stand behind one of the goals where typically the most passionate fans sit)!

I hadn't taken up the offer too many times by the time February rolled around in 2010 (one game against Coventry City in mid-October with a Coventry fan, which finished 2-0 to Wednesday) but the fact that the February 16th match between The Owls and Doncaster Rovers was a South Yorkshire derby game encouraged me to go for a second time that season. Wednesday were, ahem, playing this game on Tuesday night but optimism was in the air; the win over Coventry was followed by a horrible run of form which eventually cost then-manager Brian Laws his job, but replacement Alan Irvine appeared to have turned the tide, lifting The Owls out of the bottom three and bagging a Manager of the Month accolade for January. In truth, I knew little of substance about Doncaster; I had been surprised to see them, newly promoted, in the Championship in 2008/09 and, since then, I was aware that they were ostensibly punching above their weight by occupying positions in mid-table of the division. By this point they were still above Wednesday in the table, and had won the corresponding match in Doncaster 1-0 in December. However, their form had fluctuated in recent weeks and this only heightened the pre-match tilting of the balance in the home side's favour.

The start of the game initially did little to dispel this notion. Wednesday came out of the traps strongly and Marcus Tudgay and Luke Varney both forced veteran Donny goalkeeper Neil Sullivan to make fine saves to keep the score at 0-0 in the opening 10-15 minutes. However, unbeknown to me at this stage, Doncaster's manager Sean O'Driscoll had been keen since his arrival in autumn 2006 to cultivate a passing style of football at the club. Whilst they may have started the game slowly, Sullivan's early saves allowed them to get their collective eye in and, once that happened, the complexion of the game changed completely. I personally tend to find it difficult to remember specific chances in a match, particularly several months or years after the event. Rather, my memories tend to be of the general narrative within the game, and my own feelings in response to that. As the first half wore on, it became apparent that Doncaster's ball-to-feet passing was not only neat but also effective, causing numerous problems for the Wednesday defence. I may not remember specific chances, but I do remember how initial mild bemusement turned rapidly towards intrigue followed by appreciation; a light going off in my head that "I'm watching something a bit special here!" The shifting sands were acknowledged collectively in the stands, though the responses from Wednesdayites were more fidgety and filled with nervous unrest. More vocal supporters advocated remedies beyond the modern-day footballing rulebook - "kick him!" being a call uttered more than once, albeit only from a handful of fans it must be said.

Doncaster Rovers manager Sean O'Driscoll was the architect
of his side's elegant passing game during his spell in
charge. Photo: David Davies/PA
For all that their elegant domination in the second quarter of the game had won me over though, my fear was that, if they didn't get a goal before half-time, they could be vulnerable to a Wednesday "smash and grab". Alas for all the work of their passing the opener was a one-in-a-million spectacular; a cross came into the penalty box and was met by Elliott Ward, who found the net with an acrobatic bicycle kick. This somewhat defied logic as a) Ward had only signed for Doncaster on loan on the day of the game and wasn't even in the matchday programme and b) he was a defender who, at his parent club (Coventry, coincidentally enough!), was more used to bagging goals from the penalty spot! The second half was almost identical to the first, with Wednesday probing a bit early on before being outplayed by Donny, who eventually wrapped up the game when a Billy Sharp shot was deflected into the net off Wednesday player James O'Connor (both teams actually had a player with that name, so the distinction is important!). The boys from the Keepmoat Stadium saw out the rest of the game fairly comfortably to record a 2-0 away victory. I probably had seen, and have since seen, more exciting football matches; however, I have never seen such an education in how football could, in many ways should, be played as I did that evening. In a related point, I also remember musing about a certain David vs Goliath quality that the game had to it. Wednesday's defence was packed full of tall, imposing, sometimes stocky players like captain Darren Purse, Mark Beevers and Tommy Spurr, while Donny's midfield was contrastingly populated with small, nippy players like Mark Wilson (former Man Utd youth player!), John Oster and James Coppinger. Their lead striker, Billy Sharp (on loan from his boyhood club Sheffield United!) is small too though also quite stocky. And yet it was the Doncaster midfield that controlled nearly all of the game with the sophistication of their passing; Oster, a former Premier League player and Welsh international with a controversial past, was particularly effective on the wing in partnership with full-back James Chambers, who was actually my man of the match for the way he ran himself into the ground for the whole game.

From my time in Sheffield I generally followed Wednesday more than United and it is Alan Irvine's spell in charge that I followed, and remember, the most. Although I liked Irvine, and could never fault him for effort, it was a period that I suspect most Wednesdayites would rather forget! After his fine start, the derby day defeat to Doncaster led to a slow but inexorable slide back towards the relegation places and, ultimately, they were relegated in dramatic fashion on the final day of the season after failing to beat Crystal Palace, with whom they were battling for survival. Despite huge financial strife Irvine started the following season well, with the team initially in the play-off positions. However, a poor run of form around the turn of the year killed any hopes of immediate promotion and this, combined with new ownership, eventually saw him sacked at the start of February 2011. Former Wednesday defender Gary Megson picked up the gauntlet and, after a mid-table finish in 2010/11, eventually set about putting the club on an upward curve. He did this in 2011/12 but was sacked before finishing the job of promotion off. Dave Jones (formerly of Southampton, Wolves and Cardiff City) came in and he did finish the job with an immaculate end to the season; Wednesday promoted in the second automatic position. Truth be told, I have followed the club a lot less since leaving the city in 2011. However, the impression one got was that despite the best efforts of Jones, Wednesday could never really shake off relegation battles in the Championship. He was eventually sacked in December 2013 and since then his replacement Stuart Gray has sought to move them further up the table; initially he has been a success, though The Owls are not out of the woods yet.

Doncaster had a bounce back in form after that win and, despite a late wobble, finished the season bang in mid-table, 12th out of 24. They started the next season in similar vein but a dramatic injury crisis saw them drawn into a late relegation battle, from which they staggered over the line - point by point - in 21st position! The injuries continued into 2011/12 and a poor start to the season saw the end of O'Driscoll. Doncaster then embarked upon an experiment with agent Willie McKay, with many of McKay's clients (read players) being signed by Donny (e.g. El-Hadji Diouf, Pascal Chimbonda). It wasn't enough and the club were also relegated at the end of that same (2011/12) season. Like Wednesday, they are now back in the Championship; unlike Wednesday, they did at the first attempt - in dramatic fashion after beating promotion rivals Brentford on the final day of the season. Although Donny weathered the storm of relegation pretty well, time has not been so kind to O'Driscoll. What should have been a great opportunity at Nottingham Forest saw him somewhat harshly sacked in December 2012. He quickly found work with Bristol City, but was unable to replicate the success he managed both at Doncaster and, previously, at Bournemouth. Bristol City were relegated from the Championship in 2012/13 and, despite a squad overhaul in the summer, fell quickly into the League One relegation places in 2013/14. Despite initial persistence by the club board, O'Driscoll eventually paid with his job. On this occasion, one had to conclude it was the right decision. It leaves him on the managerial scrapheap for now, and facing an uncertain future. It's undoubtedly not an easy position, but I hope he finds his way out of the woods, and I hope we see that style and philosophy grace the Football League again in forthcoming seasons. It would be a loss to English football, in my view, were that not to happen.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Rishi's Retrospective: Verdasco's Australian adventure

Welcome to "Rishi's Retrospective", a new idea of mine which revisits a sporting event from the past and analyses both the event itself and what has happened subsequently. The intention, loosely speaking, is to have an event each month which is relevant to the month in question. So for example, the entry for January will focus on an event in January from years gone by. However, this may not always be the case.

Fernando Verdasco hit the ground running in
2009 with this run to the Australian Open
semi-finals. Photo: Getty Images
Historically, the Australian Open has always offered the biggest chance for a surprise package to come through and win a Grand Slam, or have a strong run during the fortnight. This was common in the Men's Singles during the 1970s and 80s, when many top players didn't frequent the event, but continued even beyond then after they all started turning up! Examples include 1999, when Yevgeny Kafelnikov faced off against Thomas Enqvist; 2002, when Enqvist's fellow Swede Thomas Johansson was a surprise winner; 2006, when Greek-Cypriot Marcos Baghdatis lit up Melbourne with a brilliant run to the final; and 2007, when Fernando Gonzalez reached his only Grand Slam final. After a spell in more recent years where big names and top seeds populated the last four of the event the 2014 edition, which finished on Sunday (January 26th), was a blast-from-the-past. Stanislas Wawrinka won his maiden Grand Slam, topping a fortnight which featured upsets in both men's and women's singles - where Li Na won her first Australian Open title against Dominika Cibulkova, who was in her first final, and where Eugenie Bouchard (first semi-final!) starred.

So it is perhaps appropriate to make the first Rishi's Retrospective a flashback to a breakthrough Australian Open run from a few years ago; to wit, Fernando Verdasco in the 2009 edition of the event. The roots of Verdasco's run actually dated back to end of 2008 with that year's Davis Cup final, contested between Spain and Argentina. Rafael Nadal had had a superb year after winning the French Open, Wimbledon and the Olympic gold medal, not to mention the world number one ranking for the first time in his career. However, injury after such a gruelling and enormous year (even by his standards) meant he was unavailable for the final for Spain. After going 1-0 down, Feliciano Lopez beat a young Juan Martin del Potro to level the tie, before teaming up with Verdasco in the doubles to put Spain 2-1 ahead with a straight sets win over David Nalbandian and Agustin Calleri. Nalbandian was arguably the cream of the crop, and likely to beat Lopez if the event went to a decider (the fifth match). Therefore the pressure was high on Verdasco, who was playing Jose Acasuso (replacing del Potro) in the fourth game of the tie. The stakes were high, and the match was tense. Fernando won the first set but Acasuso edged a 2nd set tie-break and won the third, leaving him one set away from winning and forcing the decider. However, Verdasco dug deep and, after a mixed year, managed to come up trumps by winning the last two sets for a 6-3 6-7 (3-7) 4-6 6-2 6-1 victory. It was an emotional experience for the then-25 year-old: "It's maybe the most beautiful day of my life - I tried my best to win the Davis Cup and I'm happy for everyone in Spain."

Verdasco promptly went off to the winter break with his tail up, and worked extremely hard in the off-season near his idol Andre Agassi's base in Las Vegas with the American's former fitness coach Gil Reyes. The results were immediate, with a run to the final of the Brisbane International opening the 2009 season and then three straightforward wins in the opening week at Melbourne Park. However, he was still expected to fall short in his fourth round match against Andy Murray. The Briton had had a breakthrough 2008 of his own, winning Masters titles in Cincinnati and Madrid and reaching the final of the 2008 US Open. He had also started 2009 by winning the Qatar Open, where he beat Roger Federer en route, and if anything was the tournament favourite for the Australian Open. The match ebbed and flowed; Murray blasted out of the blocks to win the first set, Verdasco turned the tables in the second but Andy won the third convincingly to make it look business as usual. However, Verdasco drew into the belief he had gained from the Davis Cup win, as well as the work he'd put in during pre-season, and he kept going for his shots. At this stage of his career, Murray tended to run the risk of being too passive, leaving him vulnerable to players who went for their shots against him and managed to pull them off. Thus it came to pass as Fernando won the fourth and fifth sets to take a dramatic victory. Perhaps the point that best encapsulates the contrast in styles occurred with Verdasco facing one of many break points during a marathon 3-2 game in the fifth set. Starting at about 17:05 (17 mins, 5 secs) in this clip, Verdasco really hustles Murray around the court, dominating the rally and finishing it off with a smash under pressure. He went on to hold serve, broke in the very next game, and won the game 2-6 6-1 1-6 6-3 6-4.

I was of course disappointed for Murray (and maybe would've been less sanguine if I knew that his maiden Grand Slam title would have to wait for almost four more years!) but at the same time I couldn't help but feel happy for Fernando; it was really nice to see a guy I'd wanted to do well for a couple of years break free of the shackles which had been holding back, and hence break into new territory at a major event. The run continued as well, with victory over Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the Quarter-Finals setting up a Semi-Final against compatriot Nadal. In one of the greatest semi-finals the event has seen, the two went toe-to-toe with some of the most brutal hitting and high-revolution topspin you are ever likely to see (both are left-handed thus can generate a lot of topspin). Fernando struck first by taking the first set on a tie-break but Nadal dug deep to take the next two. Verdasco won the fourth set on a tie-break to take the match to a deciding set but Nadal just had enough to win it 6-4 for a 6-7 (4-7) 6-4 7-6 (7-2) 6-7 (1-7) 6-4 win, with the clock by now well past midnight local time.

On Sunday evening, Nadal beat Federer in five dramatic sets to take his only Australian Open title to date (after his defeat in Sunday's final by Wawrinka in four sets). Verdasco would never get closer to a Grand Slam final, but his breakthrough run in Melbourne did usher in an 2-season period where he featured much more prominently at the top of the game. While often seeded in the 15-25 positions before then, he spent most of 2009 in the Top 8 and consequently qualified for the end-of-year ATP World Tour Finals. He won three of his five ATP titles during this period at New Haven (summer 2009), San Jose (early 2010) and Barcelona (spring 2010). Additionally, he reached the second week of all four Slams in 2009 and reached the Quarter-Finals of the US Open in both 2009 and 2010 (in the latter year he beat David Ferrer in another five-set thriller en route). However, following on from that things have been harder for the Spaniard. Confidence had always been an issue pre-2008 Davis Cup and issues returned as 2010 turned to 2011; in particular, minor but persistent attacks of the 'yips' in his serve were a hindrance. He kept trying hard, but the belief ebbed and his ranking kept plummeting and, while he has reached five ATP finals since the start of 2011, he has failed to win any of them (previously, he had won 5 out of 13 finals, a respectable if still imperfect record).

Suddenly, at the 2013 Wimbledon Championships, buoyed by a change of coach, he had a surprise run to the Quarter-Finals. Again, he faced Murray and this time he took a two-sets-to-love lead. However, an older, wiser, more assertive Murray would not make the same mistake again and fought back to win in five sets en route to taking his first Wimbledon title. This time, Verdasco's bounce has been less pronounced and his ranking is again on a downward path after defeat in the 2nd Round in Australia to journeyman player Teymuraz Gabashvili. With his supreme hitting power, and the topspin he can generate, there is definitely an argument that Fernando should have achieved more in the game to date. Certainly I believe he should have won more ATP titles - his current win-loss record in finals is very much on the disappointing side given his calibre and it would have been nice to see him maybe win a Masters 1000 event or reach another couple of ATP World Tour Finals.

However, it must also be said that Fernando's achievements in the game are still not insignificant and, in broad terms, he does indeed have much to be proud of - particularly that magnum opus of a fortnight in Melbourne Park five years ago, and his role in the 2008 Davis Cup win. I also do not subscribe to the view, espoused by some, that he should have become a dominant force in the game. Yes, it is true that he has some fearsome weapons which have the potential to worry even the greatest players of this great era. However, the thing about being a player who goes for his shots is that you need to make those shots very often to be a serial winner in the game. In this era, with supreme athletes like Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Murray and Ferrer assertively getting so many balls back in court, players like Verdasco have to take ever greater risks and it is in my view unrealistic to expect that kind of approach to work successfully on a consistent basis. Only Federer, with his greater mix of shots and with his artistry, has really pulled it off (although maybe there is hope for Wawrinka to follow suit) and even then his head-to-head record with great rival Nadal is 23-10 in the Mallorcan's favour. Hopefully Verdasco, aged 30 now, still has an ATP title or two left in him if he can re-find his form (even if only in patches). A repeat of Melbourne, however, is unlikely - though tennis fans like myself will always remember his 2009 run with a warm smile.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Top 10 races of Felipe Massa at Ferrari

While the Formula One teams are currently beavering away at their factories trying to finish designing, building and refining their 2014 cars, pre-season testing is not too far away. When the teams do pitch up to test their new cars - the first of a new generation of cars, built under a set of new rules - some things may take time getting used to. One of these will be the sight of Brazilian driver Felipe Massa in the blue-and-white overalls of Williams. It will be the first season since 2005 when he has not been resplendent in the red of Ferrari, from whom he departed at the end of the 2013 season when his contract was not renewed. It has been a fascinating journey, and one which ended on good terms, which has had many highlights. Here I'll try to pick my Top 10 races of Felipe at Ferrari and, in so doing, try and put each race in the wider context of his Ferrari career at that given time. The races themselves are not rated in any order of preference, and are merely listed chronologically.

1. 2006 MALAYSIAN GRAND PRIX (March 19th) 
Massa was a surprise choice to replace compatriot Rubens Barrichello in 2006 and seemed to prove as much after an erratic debut race in Bahrain. However, the next race in Malaysia - round 2 of the season - provided a better understanding of his appointment. Forced to start from the back of the grid after taking a penalty for an engine change, Felipe was assertive in the opening stages to overtake the slower cars and get into the upper half of the midfield. This gave him the platform to maximise the one-stop strategy he was on and, by maintaining a solid race pace throughout, he duly delivered. The reward at the end was 5th place, finishing ahead of team-mate Michael Schumacher despite starting over ten places behind his illustrious team-mate. Schumacher remained the team number one of course, but Massa sent an important signal to the paddock about his capabilities for the role of Ferrari driver in this very successful era.

2. 2006 TURKISH GRAND PRIX (August 27th)
Where better to proceed than to the scene of Massa's first F1 win. Having joined at the start of that season, he had already driven maturely in Sepang (see above), Nurburgring (scene of his first F1 podium), Indianapolis and Hockenheim, for example. These had helped illustrate development after some early-race mistakes in Bahrain and Monaco. However, the next step on the progression ladder was this win in Turkey's Istanbul Park.

Photo: Sutton Images
Truth be told, Schumacher had had the upper hand for most of the weekend. However, an error in qualifying let in Massa to take pole position. On race day, Massa got off the line cleanly to lead, but was expected to make way for Schumacher in due course. However, the Safety Car came out, forcing everyone to pit and seeing Schumacher lose out to title rival Fernando Alonso. Michael tried once and again to pass Fernando, but to no avail. This left Felipe to manage the lead out front with a solid pace and take a convincing maiden victory. An important step had been made on a challenging circuit he would quickly grow to love.

3. 2007 BAHRAIN GRAND PRIX (April 15th)
When Schumacher retired at the end of 2006, and Kimi Raikkonen replaced him, most observers (myself included) expected the Finn to have a clear upper hand. Yet in testing Massa continued where he left off in 2006; he continued to be humble, self-critical and to seek advice from Schumacher in order to improve his game. Despite that, a gearbox problem in Australia meant he played only a peripheral role in a debut Raikkonen victory. Worse was to come two weeks later, when he nailed the pole but lost out somewhat meekly to both McLaren drivers (Alonso and rookie Lewis Hamilton) and eventually finished 5th.

The pressure was on then, just a week later at Bahrain's Sakhir circuit. Felipe once again nailed the pole, but would he wobble again? He answered the question resoundingly - he would not. He traded fastest laps with Lewis Hamilton in a first stint as intense as you will have seen in the old Bridgestone + refuelling era to build a small lead, before pulling away in the second stint and consolidating that in the final stint to take victory. Since 2006 the pressure and the expectations had increased, and Felipe's level was rising to meet them.

4. 2007 SPANISH GRAND PRIX (May 13th)
The next round was the first of the European part of the season, held in Barcelona. Massa once again had the legs on both Raikkonen and the McLarens in qualifying and bagged pole. Come race day, home favourite Alonso was desperate to impose himself on team-mate Hamilton in front of his fans. He attacked Massa at the start, no doubt hoping for a repeat of Malaysia. However, Felipe stuck it out with him and in the end it was Fernando who lost out, being forced to take to the gravel. After that, Massa rode calmly to victory, despite the obstacle of a brief fire during his first pitstop!

The dynamic with Raikkonen was fascinating. Kimi was clearly the greater natural talent and once could, to an extent, see his desire to maintain his independence and break from Ferrari's past. However, Ferrari's recent past had been the most phenomenally successful in its history and Felipe, by tapping into that knowledge, was evolving himself into a better driver, and beating Raikkonen in the process. The Finn would recover to brilliantly and deservedly take the 2007 title from the McLaren drivers (Massa's own title challenge faded in the last few races), but the worm would turn once again over the course of 2008.

5. 2008 MONACO GRAND PRIX (May 25th)
Another poor first couple of rounds put Felipe on the back foot as he struggled with life post-traction control. With the intra-team battle swinging more towards Raikkonen, the Brazilian bounced back to win twice in three races - in Bahrain (for the second year running) and Turkey (for the third year running, moving him to remark: "I love Turkey! Maybe I should get a (Turkish) passport!"). These catapulted him back into the title race, but are superseded on this list by this race, which followed his Turkey win and includes one of my favourite Felipe moments. Massa didn't like Monaco and stated this quite openly in the build-up to the 2008 race. Ever since they'd got together in mid-2006 him and race engineer Rob Smedley had been working very closely together; Smedley understood Massa, kept him grounded and knew how to get the best out of him. In qualifying for Monaco, he was trying to get his charge to brake later for St Devote (Turn One), gently chiding him all the way ("It's St Devote man! There's a run-off - use it if you need to!" and "You're driving like a girl!"). With one lap left in the session, and his side of the garage semi-resigned to starting behind team-mate Raikkonen, Massa takes the plunge. He forces himself to brake that bit later and, to his surprise, the car digs in, the grip is there and the floodgates have been opened. The rest of the lap is on the limit and the end result? Pole! Massa and Smedley fall about giggling in the immediate aftermath, while Massa genuinely looks and sounds astonished in the press conference.

Come race day the track is wet but Felipe delivers a masterclass at the start to lead comfortably. However, an opportune glance with the barrier gives rival Hamilton a puncture. He pits, and ends up on precisely the right strategy for the race win! The opportunity is there, but it needs to be taken and Lewis does so brilliantly on the streets. Furthermore, the assertive BMW driver Robert Kubica defeats Massa on strategy and takes a fine second to cement his own title challenge. Felipe's weekend ends up imperfect in third place but it remains an important marker on a weekend where he moved mountains.

6. 2008 HUNGARIAN GRAND PRIX (August 3rd)
After taking the championship lead with victory at the French Grand Prix (an inherited victory, it must be said, for Raikkonen was cruising to the win before suffering an exhaust failure which forced him to settle for second instead), Massa had had two difficult rounds. Silverstone was an unmitigated nightmare after he spun repeatedly in the wet conditions. Hockenheim was better, as he finished third, but Felipe still received criticism for the way he ceded position to eventual winner Hamilton without much opposition at the end of the race, and for the way he was unable to catch compatriot Nelson Piquet Jr, who was running 2nd by dint of strategy rather than outright pace.

At the next round in Hungary McLaren again looked good and locked out the front row with Hamilton and new-for-2008 team-mate Heikki Kovalainen. Massa started third, but was out to prove a point; he made a breathtaking start to get alongside the McLarens before outbraking them successfully to take the lead into Turn 1. My sometime co-blogger on here, Arjun, claimed he hadn't exclaimed so loudly in a long time after that move! Indeed, Massa went on to control the race in his most comfortable environment of the front from that point onwards. The chasing Hamilton was laid low by a puncture and Felipe looked set to take a huge chunk of points back in the title race. Alas, the gods had one final twist, with engine failure robbing him three laps from the flag as Kovalainen inherited the victory. The critics were answered once again, but this time Felipe didn't get his just rewards in the points standings.


7. 2008 BRAZILIAN GRAND PRIX (November 2nd)
Massa bounced back after Hungary to dominate Valencia whilst he also won, more fortunately, in Belgium after Hamilton was controversially given a time penalty (I still disagree with that decision!). Massa also took a superb pole in Singapore, which I wanted to include on this list but felt I couldn't because, although it was a great lap, it was only one lap! In the race, he was cruising before Piquet Jr's controversial crash, combined with a nightmare Ferrari pitstop, relegated Massa to effective bystander for the rest of the race.

By the time the teams pitched up at Brazil for the final round, though, only Massa could stop Hamilton from winning the title. To do this he needed to score seven or more points than Hamilton did; in simple terms, if Felipe won, Hamilton only needed fifth. Having taken pole on the Saturday, Felipe drove a consummate race in wet-dry changeable conditions to win the race - job done from his side - his second win on home soil after success in 2006. Hamilton was in the pack but, for most of the race, had been in the Top 5. However, when the rain fell again late on, a mistake dropped him behind Sebastian Vettel's Toro Rosso...into 6th position! Suddenly the title was out of his hands! Frantically he tried to repass Vettel but to no avail, and on the final lap Massa crossed the line to - at that point - take an unlikely championship success! However, in one of the most dramatic finales in the sport's history there was to be one final twist; the rain fell more heavily on that last lap and penalised Toyota driver Timo Glock, who'd stayed out on slicks. Vettel passed him, and Lewis followed him through - to take the fifth he needed! The Briton took the title! It was an emotional rollercoaster for Massa, but the Brazilian impressed viewers worldwide with a profound demonstration of sportsmanship on the podium; in tears, he encouraged team colleagues, family and fans to be proud of what had been achieved, and not to be upset.

Photo: Sutton Images
This was very much the golden period of Felipe's Ferrari career, where his development reached a peak with a title battle. Many were not entirely convinced by Massa's title challenge but, as I've said more than once before, a Felipe win would have been a just reward for his self-criticism and his improvement at all levels, while in the races on this list he continually answered most (arguably all) of the questions critics posed of him. In the end, though, Hamilton won and, to be sure, he too was a worthy world champion. The next season would bring challenges of a wholly different nature.

8. 2009 BRITISH GRAND PRIX (June 21st)
Silverstone had rarely been a happy hunting ground for Massa but this was a fine performance in a season where Ferrari were not among the title challengers. They had been caught cold by the new rules for 2009, having focused development on the 2008 car until the final round because they were in a title fight. By mid-season, things were gradually improving but still hopes would have been small when the Brazilian started only 11th on the grid. However, on race day a strong start put him up to 8th and, despite falling to 9th, he proceeded to drive a very strong race on a two-stop strategy with a long first stint to finish in 4th position. It was an impressive result from his starting position.

By this point of the season Massa was again having the upper hand over Raikkonen, and he built on the Silverstone result with a podium at the next round in Germany. He led his team-mate in the title standings (22 points to 10), when his world would be turned upside down by a crash in qualifying for the following round in Hungary. A spring from Barrichello's Brawn GP hit him on the head, knocking him unconscious. He underwent emergency surgery in hospital for a fractured skull and, in the immediate aftermath, there were fears the contact with the spring (at high speed) may be life-threatening. Mercifully, Felipe would make an ostensibly full recovery, but he would not race again in 2009. By the time 2010 came around, Raikkonen had been replaced by Fernando Alonso and, almost overnight, there was a momentum shift at Maranello.

9. 2012 BRAZILIAN GRAND PRIX (November 25th)
Alonso, through both force of character and strength of performances, became the dominant figure in the team. Massa, coming back from the injury and struggling to get his round Ferrari set-up issues and the Pirelli tyres that came in from 2011, was relegated into a bit-part role. In 2010 he had to give up a win for title challenger Alonso in Germany; in 2011 he failed to finish higher than 5th all season (Alonso managed one win and several podiums); and, after a dreadful start to the 2012 season, his seat was rumoured to be under threat.

Having reached rock bottom, Massa and Rob Smedley redoubled their efforts to try and get their head around the car and the tyres. Initially there was an upturn but, even after things started to improve, there would be the odd mistake here or there that stopped Felipe from translating this into top-level results. By the end of the season, though, he really started to hit his stride. He made the podium in Japan and was strong in Italy, Korea and USA. However, he saved his best for his home race. With Fernando still in the title fight, Felipe played the team game to near-perfection. His attempt to pass Mark Webber early on gave Alonso a double-tow to pass both of them while, in a race of changing wet-dry conditions (shades of 2008!), he continued to race competitively and even ceded position to Alonso again later on in the race. In the end, Alonso's 2nd was not enough to take the title but it was not through the lack of effort from Massa, who finished 3rd, and was one of the drivers who really starred in this race.
 Photo: Clive Mason/Getty Images

10. 2013 BRITISH GRAND PRIX (June 30th)
Massa's strong end to 2012 raised hopes of a continued resurgence in 2013 but, under this era of F1, it was evident that he couldn't match his 2006-09 form on a sufficiently consistent basis - particularly in a Ferrari which again fell short on expectations and at times appeared quite pitch-sensitive (though Massa must of course take his share of responsibility for his own mistakes). Despite his inconsistency, Massa still had his moments in 2013 and this one - again at his usually not-so-happy hunting ground of Silverstone - arguably was the pick of the bunch. Massa was one of four drivers who suffered huge tyre blowouts at the Northamptonshire race track but, after limping back to the pits for a fresh set of rubber, he showed his mettle by charging through from the back of the field to finish 6th.

1) For quite a long time now I have not tended to support someone in F1, in the way that I'd support a football team for instance. However, in the interests of full disclosure I should say that Massa's attitude in the early years at Ferrari really impressed me, and ever since then I've always liked him and wanted him to do well. You could probably glean as much from the tone of this article!

2) Most of the information about the 2008 Monaco Grand Prix was taken from a fascinating article about driver-team relationships between the 2008 title protagonists (Hamilton, Massa and Robert Kubica) by Mark Hughes in the Autosport 2008 Christmas edition. I'm not sure where you can get hold of back copies of  Autosport, but their website may have more details.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Part 2/2: Top 5 Drivers of F1 2013

Earlier this week (on December 15th) I posted my Top 10-Top 6 from the 2013 Formula One season. That list can be found here and is now continued with a countdown of my Top 5 drivers from the season.

Photo: XPB
Rosberg is a driver who fascinates me; as F1 fans, we sometimes love to pigeon-hole drivers, but Nico is almost impossible to do this with. He is not (yet!) one of the elite (which I consider to be a Top 2+2 of Alonso and Vettel, followed by Hamilton and Raikkonen), but neither is he a fresh young gun (e.g. Hulkenberg, Grosjean), nor is he an older driver who’s fought for a title (Massa, Webber, Button).

What I liked about him in 2013 though, is also what I liked about him when he was first paired with Michael Schumacher in 2010; to wit, he didn’t care about pigeon-holes or labels and just let his driving do the talking. He dominated Schuey (against the odds, we now forget) in 2010 and, though that gap was eroded in subsequent years, he again let his driving do the talking against Lewis Hamilton in 2013. Ultimately, Lewis had the edge over the season, but Nico kept him very honest – outpacing him in wet conditions and about 30-40% of the time in the dry too. He started strongly and, despite Mercedes’ initial reliability and tyre wear woes, won intelligently at Monaco. He also won at Silverstone, holding off the charging Mark Webber in a chaotic race infused with tyre failures and retirements, and excelled at India and Abu Dhabi late on. Other than Vettel, Rosberg was one of only two drivers all season to win more than one race and, if he merits a label, perhaps it should bear the message he sent out to Lewis in 2013; elite or not, Nico Rosberg is here to stay as a serious competitor at the front of modern F1.

Photo: Getty Images
This should have been a triumphant tale of how Lewis Hamilton took the plunge with Mercedes and, in doing so, stuck two fingers up to the doubters (the majority in the paddock) who felt he’d made a gross mistake to take the risk and fly the nest from McLaren. Because by all accounts it was a successful season, encompassing five pole positions; a brilliant race victory in Hungary; four other podiums; and helping Mercedes to second in the constructors’ title. He was very unfortunate not to also win on home soil at Silverstone, having led comfortably before becoming an early victim of Pirelli’s tyre failures, though he recovered to finish 4th. However, the period after the summer break was different; he ceded ground to team-mate Nico Rosberg, visibly let his head go down and lost third in the drivers’ championship after a series of indifferent performances. Often seen as part of a Top 3 elite in F1 (along with Alonso and Vettel), for me Lewis still tends to have too many indifferent race weekends to be considered at the same level as those two guys over a 19-20 race season. In this respect I think he needs to occasionally be more focused and not get so down on himself when the odd setback happens. Ultimately he remains a huge natural talent and maybe these are problems easily solved by a very quick, reliable car. However, for now the jury is out; 2013 was a good season overall for Hamilton but, once again, he ended the campaign with as many questions looming about his career as answers provided.

Photo: Daily Cars US
By most accounts Alonso should be second on this list, and probably isn’t simply because his 2012 season was so good that it has redefined what we know he is capable of. Two wins in China and Spain were Alonso at his best, while he also performed miracles in the immediate post-summer break races (Belgium, Italy and Singapore). Elsewhere, though, it must be said that he did make the odd uncharacteristic mistake (e.g. not pitting in Malaysia; being overtaken frequently in Monaco; and getting in the wars in India) and also seemed to go off the boil for a while after Singapore (resurfacing eventually in Abu Dhabi to end strongly). His frustration (he was famously public in his criticism of the team in mid-season) and ambivalence was entirely understandable given that, not for the first time, Ferrari's mid-season stall in development meant they could not provide him with the title-battling car he almost certainly deserves. However, those indifferent race performances did overall point to a less effective season than 2012, to the extent that he just drops down to third.

Photo: Mark Thompson/Getty Images
When the BBC team made their predictions for the season, I was bit baffled by Radio 5live pitlane reporter Jennie Gow’s tip of Raikkonen for the title. After the Finn won the season-opening Australian GP so consummately in mid-March, I couldn’t help but think that she was onto something! In the end, a title battle never materialised but what continued to impress me was the sheer ability and dexterity he showed in the area of race management. He was practically made for this era of Pirelli tyres, with its challenge of conserving the tyres; managing the diverse grip issues that occur throughout the race; and knowing exactly when to be attacking and when to sit back. No further wins prevailed, but a series of second places (six in total) were testament to his natural ability in race management. Yes, the flipside is that he can struggle to generate tyre temperature in qualifying; yes, his sheer speed is less than in his McLaren days (by the end of the season, team-mate Romain Grosjean was often faster than him); yes, more than once he benefited significantly from the opportune appearance of Safety Cars (the German, Singaporean and Korean GPs). No, I don’t think he will beat Fernando Alonso at Ferrari next season, but with that sheer natural talent for driving you can never count Kimi out!

Photo: Reuters
Who else? In the early months, Sebastian managed to build up and consolidate a championship lead despite the superiority of the Red Bull having been smothered by very fragile Pirelli tyres. Once the shackles came off, and once Red Bull returned from the summer break with some new upgrades, he absolutely dominated; he once again mastered the unique driving style demanded by the RB9 car, to win his fourth consecutive world title at the age of just 26. In the process, he even tied up some statistical loose ends by winning his home GP for the first time (incredibly also his first GP win in July, his birthday month), and by finishing the season with nine consecutive wins (equalling a 60-year old record set by Alberto Ascari in 1952-53). We still haven’t seen him in a truly uncompetitive car since his Toro Rosso days but if the Red Bull is good next season, expect Vettel to get the most from it and his rivals to be very worried indeed.