Sunday, 29 June 2014

Rishi's Retrospective: Hiroshi Aoyama's 250cc title win

Hiroshi Aoyama celebrates his 2009 250cc
title success in Valencia. Photo: Honda
A glance at the roll call of champions in all three of the series in Grand Prix Motorcycling (125cc/Moto3, 250cc/Moto2, 500cc/MotoGP) over the last twenty or so years, perhaps beyond, will reveal a certain dominance of Italians and Spaniards. I think this, to an extent, is a cultural thing; scooter-ownership and riding is common amongst mid-teen Italians far more than it is in the UK, for example. In Spain, meanwhile, there are some very high quality junior formulae for young aspiring riders to get their teeth into before they join international series. However, with its proud recent history of bike manufacturing, not to mention established racing series on its own, it must have seemed - in the 1990s (before I was into MotoGP admittedly) and early-2000s - that Japan was also about to join the party in a big way.

During this period, a generation of talent (mostly) raised in the high-growth boom years of the Japanese economy started taking on, and beating, the world's best. Step forward the likes of Haruchika Aoki (1995 and '96 125cc champion); Tetsuya Harada (250cc champion in 1993 and runner-up in '98, when he arguably was only denied by some very underhand tactics from his main title rival); and the late Daijiro Kato (250cc champion in 2001, tragically killed in an accident at Suzuka in 2003 after a promising start to his MotoGP career). Plenty of others also challenged for titles in the Grand Prix categories during this period, including Tadayuki "Taddy" Okada, Tohru Ukawa and Youichi Ui (whom a friend of mine used to support in 125cc). However, as the 2000s progressed, Japanese talent has started to drift away from the upper echelons of motorcycle racing and stories have success have been fewer and far between. For the most part, one has had to look beyond Grand Prix motorcycling to its cousin Superbike racing, where Akira Yanagawa had had his moments in the 'glory days' (late 1990s-early 2000s), and where Noriyuki Haga agonised fans worldwide throughout the 2000s with a few near-misses in his quest to finally win the World Superbike title (he never did in the end). Beyond that, Ryuichi Kiyonari* - a man who sometimes seems to embody Winston Churchill's description of Russia ("a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma") - has mixed introspective confidence crises with three superbly taken British Superbike titles (in 2006, '07 and 2010). But otherwise, the only notable success in recent times for Japanese riders was Hiroshi Aoyama's 250cc title success in 2009.

It is a success whose story does bear repeating, in my view, in this edition of the Retrospective, because it was in many ways a surprising success. This is because of two main reasons. The first of these was the depth of competition in the field. Aoyama had been racing permanently in 250cc since 2004 and during that period had established himself as an extremely consistent racer in the series; his championship finishing positions were 6th, 4th, 4th, 6th and 7th respectively. He'd always been a rider others had had to watch out for, and he had stacked up favourably against some series big names in the past (e.g. former champion Manuel Poggiali) but he was rarely the out-and-out "man to beat" in the series himself. Going into 2009, the impression was that several riders were on paper stronger than he was, including reigning series champion Marco Simoncelli, Alvaro Bautista, and possibly also Hector Barbera and the quick-but-inconsistent Mattia Pasini (2 Spaniards and 2 Italians, for those still counting!). The second was the bike "Hiro" was on - Scot Honda. 2009 was the final year of the 250cc world championship before its replacement by 600cc "Moto2" bikes in 2010. While Aprilia (who ran Bautista, Barbera and Pasini) and Gilera (Simoncelli's team) continued to develop their 250 GP bikes until fairly close to this time, Honda had stopped development on their bike for some years previous to 2009 and thus Hiro was faced with an older, on-paper less developed machine relative to his rivals.

The Scot Honda bike was one Aoyama felt comfortable riding
and pushing to the limit. Photo: Scott Jones (turn2photography)
However, the apparent negative of having an older bike, and moreover not one tailored to him, actually proved a positive for Aoyama. Explaining what had marked his most successful periods in 250cc, he opined that "I think it's a combination with the bike. Sometimes good combination, sometimes not". In the same interview, with motomatters.com, he also said: "this Honda bike is fit [built] for everybody, not just fit for you [like a factory bike might be]. But somehow I feel comfortable with this bike, and I can push a little bit more in the corner, and this is a good point of the bike." Clearly, despite age and non-bespoke qualities, the Aoyama-Scot Honda combination was working well, inspiring the rider with confidence to push the limits, and leading to a string of positive results which catapulted him to the title battle right from the start of the season. On top of that, Aoyama's consistency, intact as ever, stood him in good stead as mistakes crept into his rivals' efforts. Hiro finished every race (though he did have a scary excursion at the final round in Valencia!), never lower than 8th, and recorded four wins, three second places and five 4th places en route to the championship. Meanwhile, Simoncelli - who in 2011 was Aoyama's team-mate at Gresini Honda in MotoGP, and remains sorely missed after being killed in an accident in Sepang, Malaysia that year - missed the opening round through injury and was not fully fit until Round 3; although he shone thereafter, taking six victories, he was always playing catch-up and thus couldn't ever quite make up the difference to his Japanese rival. He eventually fell at the final round too when needing a win (plus results to go his way elsewhere) to claw back the points deficit. Bautista started the season more on the front foot, and was the man to beat for a while, but two DNFs in the closing rounds of the season ultimately cost the former 125cc champion a chance to win the 250cc crown. Pasini was quick but never a title threat after a season hit by a staggering eight DNFs, while Barbera lost too many points early in the season but ended up pipping Simoncelli to 2nd in the standings after a strong ending.

The awkward timing of the "middle race" of the MotoGP race weekend (too late for breakfast, too early for lunch!) means that I ended up supporting Aoyama's title win by following race results closely, but not actually watching many races. However, a few memories do stand out. Firstly, a race at the Sachsenring, where Simoncelli and Alex Debon had broken free early in the race. At the end, the chasing pack were catching them quite quickly, and Bautista was the fastest of the lot. Time and again he slid down the inside of Aoyama (defending 3rd) but, in the pressure of a title battle, Hiro never once missed his braking point, or tried to turn into Bautista. Rather he let Bautista come through, and then overtook straight back past by 'undercutting' him when Alvaro ran even a fraction wide. In the end, truth be told, Alvaro took 3rd and Hiro 4th on the last lap (Marco and Debon were just out of reach), but an important marker of maturity had been lain down. My second memory is of qualifying at Misano, where Aoyama pulled a stonking lap out of the bag late in the day to steal an unlikely pole. The usually reserved Hiro celebrated quite freely as well, showing how much it meant to him. My final memory, though I've only seen footage of the incident, came from the Dutch TT in Assen (a 'classic' race held traditionally on the last Saturday of June). At this point (Round 7/16), Bautista had held the upper hand in the title race, and on race day he and Aoyama had diced fiercely for victory. On the penultimate lap, Aoyama (leading) ran slightly wide at the entry to the final corner. Bautista, seeing his opportunity, tried to take the racing line for the second part of this chicane, hoping to take advantage. However, in the split second it took him to do that, Aoyama had already recovered his mistake. The result was that Bautista smashed into the back of Aoyama; a pure racing incident. The Spaniard fell and, though thankfully unhurt, was out on the spot. However, Hiro managed to stay upright and he held on to win. This was a crucial moment, as he took the lead in the championship, and it was a lead he would hold until season's end.

Since 2009, Aoyama has had a mixed time of things in MotoGP (plus one year in World Superbikes in 2012) since graduating from 250cc after his title win. That 2011 year with Simoncelli was probably his most competitive season (the comparison with Marco, who was clearly quicker, is not quite fair as the bikes they had were slightly different, despite being run by the same team). Other seasons have been more disappointing. After the initial relief and happiness I felt when he won in 2009, I didn't really think about his achievement very much. However, as time has gone on, I have found myself remembering it again. More than ever, I'm happy that Hiro won in 2009 and am impressed by what he achieved that year. It might not have been smooth going since then but, if "Hiroshi Aoyama, 2009 (and last ever) 250cc World Champion" is to be his magnum opus, then it's certainly not a bad one to have!

*=Since writing this piece Ryuichi Kiyonari has won Race 1 of the British Superbikes race at Knockhill, Scotland. It is his first win in the series for three years. From small acorns...?

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Thoughts on England's World Cup campaign

England trudge off after an ultimately crucial defeat
to Uruguay in Sao Paolo. Photo: Shaun Botterill - FIFA
2014. Another World Cup year, and another England campaign that - with it - ended in disappointment after their elimination from the competition was confirmed on Friday - when Costa Rica's surprise but richly deserved defeat of Italy made progression a mathematical impossibility for England. Expectations were lower this time, to be sure; there was not a repeat of the belief in 2006 and 2010 in particular that the Three Lions could win the thing. The group, additionally, was not an easy one (though depictions of it as a Group of Death are, in my view, equally misplaced; Group B and Group G - England are in Group D - are both harder). However, there was optimism that the team may at least reach the Second Round, and that the Quarter-Finals (England's traditional stumbling block in the Sven Goran Eriksson era (2001-06)) would be a realistic target to shoot for. So a group stage elimination is still a disappointment. Here are some of my thoughts about England's performance during the tournament (with one game still to play, a 'dead rubber' against already-qualified Costa Rica in Belo Horizonte on Tuesday - June 24th).

AREAS OF BROAD CONSENSUS
The awkward thing about a World Cup group stage elimination is that you don't have a lot of matches to go on. As opposed to a league campaign at club football, where one invariably has around 40-50 games to judge a team's performance, a World Cup group-stage elimination judgement must be made on only two or three games. As such, furthermore, I think there is a broad consensus over the two matches England played. Against Italy, to whom they lost 2-1 in Manaus a week ago on Saturday (June 14th), they played with verve and attacking intent. This was very positive, as they created many chances, scored a very well worked goal through Daniel Sturridge, and were a lot closer to Italy than they were when they were beaten by the Italians at Euro 2012 (despite that match going to penalties). There were some defensive weaknesses, to be sure, but mostly these came from England's left flank. Leighton Baines had a poor game as Matteo Darmian and Antonio Candreva continually got in behind Baines to put the ball into the penalty area or pull it back to create Italian chances. In mitigation, Baines was not helped by the lack of support further up the pitch; manager Roy Hodgson had played Wayne Rooney on England's left side, but the Manchester United striker no longer has the engine to do the full extent of the defensive duties that his position demanded. This gaping hole, combined with Italy's general ability and experience (particularly that of Andrea Pirlo), saw the Azzurri win the day but left England still buoyed.

Against Uruguay, in the second game which England also lost 2-1 (this time in Sao Paolo on Thursday June 19th), it must be said that England did not reach the same heights. Credit must go to the experienced Uruguayans, and their manager Oscar Washington Tabarez (who guided them to 4th place in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa) for this. They showed good intensity, closed down spaces, were physical when they needed to be (they probably got a little bit of refereeing benefit-of-the-doubt in that area) and didn't allow England the opportunity to create the chances or show the attacking verve they did against Italy. On top of that, it must be said that England had a weaker game defensively; Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielka have proven themselves in the Premier League for a few seasons now but there was always a feeling that they didn't quite compare with defenders of England sides past (e.g. John Terry, Rio Ferdinand, Sol Campbell and Jamie Carragher). This was shown up in Sao Paolo in an underwhelming defensive effort underlined by a very softly-conceded second goal (where Luis Suarez was allowed to run unopposed onto a flick-on to score). Another who played a part, unwittingly, in Uruguay's winner, was England's captain Steven Gerrard (who flicked the ball on when competing for a header!). Having played 'in the hole' (the space between the central defenders and the more attacking midfielders) brilliantly for Liverpool during the Premier League season, Gerrard struggled to get near those heights in Brazil with a couple of disappointing performances. This was because teams sought to explicitly restrict the space he was offered, which constrained his game. In the aftermath of England's exit, with him being unable to adapt to this approach after a long season, one is left wondering whether a Liverpool great and tremendous England servant has seen his international career come to the end of the road.

SUBTLE AREAS OF DISAGREEMENT
It has become fashionable in the aftermath of the Uruguay game to make a more widespread criticism of the England defence. To an extent, this too is justified; they looked pretty disorganised at points in the match (particularly early in the 2nd Half). However, for Uruguay's (and Suarez's) first goal, whilst the defence made mistakes, I think you have to give credit to the attackers. For me, Edinson Cavani made the goal with two moments of skill and intelligence. Firstly, he delayed the cross for just a fraction of a second, which caught Jagielka out, as he was ball-watching (still anticipating the cross) and was thus caught out by Suarez's accompanying run. Secondly, Cavani's ball was perfectly flighted to evade Jagielka's jump but meet Suarez, who in turn delivered a clinical finish. So chapeau to the attackers, more than kicking the defenders, though admittedly they could have done better. Moreover, as a wider point, it has become fashionable to criticise the whole defence together for not being good enough. However, I thought Baines played better against Uruguay and was a good attacking threat in the 2nd Half. Glen Johnson isn't a great player but he had his moments going forward in particular and set up the equaliser for Rooney against Uruguay; yet he seems to be one of those England players who attracts criticism for the sake of it, a sort of modern-day Owen Hargeaves or Emile Heskey (Emile did sometimes deserve it to be fair!).

The other thing, which I noticed but didn't seem to be picked up elsewhere, was how tired England looked when they got back to 1-1 on Thursday. Rather than building on their forward momentum and seeking a winner, immediately it was Uruguay back on the attack and England on the back foot and struggling a little. For Uruguay's winner, the poor positioning of the defenders was not only a technical deficiency, in my view, but a symptom of tiredness (the same analysis could be extended to include Gerrard's flick-on). Had England fought back from an early 3-0 deficit, say, this would have been understandable. However, they were only behind for just over half-an-hour, and by one goal at that. Moreover, England enjoyed the lion's share of the possession (around 66%) and there is a counter-argument which says that it is usually the team without the possession which gets tired, because they're always chasing the ball.

It all got me thinking about whether the time has come for a winter break in the English game, if only to break the season up a little rather than make it a 40-50 game sprint-marathon as it is currently. In the past I have always been against this idea, but as I've got older I've thought more and more that it can work, particularly if scheduled outside the much-loved festive (Christmas-New Year) period of fixtures (e.g. just after the FA Cup 3rd Round). It's true that the underlying issues around the England team are factors like grassroots coaching, facilities and methods; as well as opportunities for young English players at Premier League clubs and, yes, these are important issues to be resolved. However, I also think the "Finlay Calder principle" (a Scottish Rugby flanker from the 1980s and early-90s who once suggested that, for the national team, it doesn't matter how many players are playing the game at the end of the day because you only need to put out your best 15 - in rugby - players) does have some weight too; it's not just quantity but quality too and, even in these supposedly meagre times for young English players in the Premier League, we have seen some promising young talent come through recently (e.g. Wilshere, Barkley, Sterling, Shaw, Oxlade-Chamberlain, John Stones, Andros Townsend). Thus not only long-term solutions are required but short-term improvements too and a winter break, even on a trial basis to begin with, might just help with this.

SHOULD ROY STAY?
I'll keep this bit brief but my first thoughts, as some others have argued, was no. My basic reasoning was, firstly, England lost both games in the World Cup and, most importantly, international managers tend to be hired on "World Cup-to-World Cup" cycles. However, on further reflection it's worth noting that this young side of Roy Hodgson's has come together quite late in the day, and in reality needs time to gel and grow as a unit. Roy, surely, deserves time until Euro 2016 to further this process? Moreover, I'm not sure how much appetite there is for the FA to rip everything up and start searching again for a management utopia that has always proven elusive (ultimately) in the past. Thus, on that basis, I think he should stay - for now at least!

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Analysis: What ingredients make up an underdog F1 victory?

Panis' victory lap at Monaco in 1996. Photo: Jack Nicholls blog

Eighteen years ago last month, a flying Olivier Panis charged through from 14th on the grid to take victory in the 1996 Monaco Grand Prix. Panis' victory was the first (and only) win of his F1 career, and was his Ligier team's first win since they were title contenders back in 1981, when Panis' compatriot Jacques Laffite was at the wheel. It was the sort of unlikely success in the sort of strange race (only three drivers completed the final running lap, and only seven were classified, in a wet-dry affair) that is a small but equally crucial part of sport's compelling narrative. Developments in technology, sports science, psychology and, in some cases, timetabling make such events even more rare these days (though they have never been, and never should be, a common occurrence). However, as the anniversary of Panis' incredible feat came and passed, it focused my mind on some of the elements which help bring out "underdog victories" in Formula 1 particularly - and some other examples of underdog victories within the sport.

1. INCLEMENT WEATHER
This is the big one on this list. Wet weather, or wet-dry weather, is very good, relative to other factors, at shaking up the world order in F1. In my view, there are three key components to this:
  • The first is random variability. Wet weather, or wet-dry weather, invariably introduces an element of randomness to the event which can catch out anybody. At the 1972 Monaco GP, Jean-Pierre Beltoise was the surprise winner, dominating for the uncompetitive BRM team in what were truly atrocious conditions. More recently, even some of the best wet-weather drivers of all time have sometimes been caught out, sometimes through no fault of their own, by the sheer randomness related to aquaplaning and very low visibility. Thierry Boutsen won in Australia in 1989 when leader Ayrton Senna crashed, unsighted, into Martin Brundle's Brabham (fortunately no-one was hurt). And Damon Hill won for Jordan at Spa 1998 after leader Michael Schumacher crashed into the back of David Coulthard's McLaren after the Scot, struggling with his car, unexpectedly slowed.
  • The second is set-up. Weather forecasting is inherently uncertain (though huge developments have been made in this field by technological developments which allow meteorologists to precisely simulate  and evaluate a range of possible outcomes). So should you set the car up for a wet race, or a dry race? Sometimes, going against the grain in this respect can work wonders for a team. Panis' win at Monaco was bolstered by his Ligier team's decision to go for a dry set up. Having pitted for dry tyres at the right time, he leapt up the field and, on the dry tyres, was absolutely flying - often being the fastest on the track.
  • The final component is strategy. One example is switching from wets to dries (or vice versa). At the 1975 Dutch Grand Prix, James Hunt and the Hesketh team changed from wet to dry tyres at precisely the right moment; Hunt then held off Niki Lauda's Ferrari to score a famous win for a small and somewhat rebellious outfit. There is also the need to factor in likely Safety Car interventions and whether or not the race will run its full allocation of laps, or be terminated at the two hour time limit. At Brazil in 2003, both Giancarlo Fisichella (driving a Jordan) and Jos Verstappen (Minardi) filled the fuel tanks heavy and ran an ambitious one-stop strategy, which their respective teams hoped would yield big points in a chaotic race packed with incident. Verstappen crashed in the atrocious conditions but Giancarlo executed Jordan's plan to perfection - taking the victory, albeit on videotape after he was initially declared 2nd in error. The Irish outfit in particular revelled in the opportunities wet weather offered; they did a similar thing (heavy-fuelled one-stopper) in 1999 to win the French Grand Prix with Heinz-Harald Frentzen.
Jordan liked the wet. Here's Eddie
with HH Frentzen after winning in
France in 1999. Photo: Getty Images

2. INTER-TEAM TYRE VARIABILITY

Although there will always be an element of different circuits favouring different cars, this general trend tends to be exacerbated by tyre performance. It is always a huge challenge for the teams, who are unable to control this variable as well as their aerodynamic solutions, for example. However, it must be said that tyre variability has caused a lot more "near-misses" than genuine underdog victory successes.
  • The first set of examples are when there is a tyre war; that is, two or more different tyre suppliers competing against each other. One may be bigger than the other but, usually, the law of comparative advantages can allow the tables to turn. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, for example, Goodyear were generally the team to beat. However, that did not stop Pirelli from having their days in the sun (usually by being gentler on their tyres in extreme conditions I believe). Five of the Top 10 on the grid of the season-opening 1990 US Grand Prix, and Pirelli-clad Tyrrell driver Jean Alesi nearly won the race the following day. Tyrrell were the biggest threat during this period (at least until Benetton became Pirelli-shod in 1991), with Alesi also bagging a podium in Monaco '90 and Stefano Modena having his moments in 1991.
  • More recently, under a single supplier, Pirelli have been given an explicit remit to spice up the racing by making the tyres as awkward to understand as possible. This has tapered a bit this year, after the approach raised genuine safety concerns during 2013. However, the halcyon days of this era was 2012, when seven different winners won the first seven different races of the season. The pick of the bunch? Often inconsistent Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado driving a race of brilliant control and speed to win the Spanish GP; a first win for his Williams team since 2004!
Williams team celebrates Maldonado getting to the end of
a Grand Prix. And winning it! Photo: Sky Sports

3. HIGH ATTRITION
This is correlated with wet weather, it must be said. The inherently random element of wet races, as mentioned earlier, tends to increase attrition rates. Moreover, attrition rates are generally much lower these days than they have been for most of F1's history. These days, it is common that three-quarters of the starters finish the race; even with the huge upheaval of the new-for-2014 rules, one has tended to get around 13 finishers minimum for all races. Thus even events which are hard on engines (e.g. Monza, Sepang, Spa) don't tend to lead to a flurry of retirements, or an underdog victory. Neither do season-openers (traditionally high attrition - particularly in the 1970s but even before and since - due to new cars being debuted).
  • However, there is still an example when this can give us an underdog victory (outside of wet races). This happens when one team is particularly dominant. Thus, if that team hits problems (e.g. one mechanical failure and one accident), it opens the door for others. We saw this during the domination of McLaren in the late 1980s - for example when Gerhard Berger won the 1988 Italian GP, or when Alessandro Nannini won the hugely controversial 1989 Japanese Grand Prix. Moreover, during a dominant 2004 for Ferrari, Schumacher's retirement and an off weekend for team-mate Rubens Barrichello helped Jarno Trulli deliver an immaculate maiden (and sole) victory at Monaco. The question is, with Mercedes dominant thus far, will we see a repeat in 2014? 
Berger leads home Alboreto for an emotional Ferrari 1-2 at
Monza in '88, a year McLaren dominated. Photo: LAT Archive

CONCLUSIONS
Developments within F1 have helped teams try to control some of the variables which have helped give us underdog victories in the past. Additionally, I sometimes feel that, because the teams can now simulate situations so accurately so as to quantify, with a certain degree of confidence, what the 'best' outcome is, they are more likely to follow that path. Thus, maybe this engenders an environment where one is less likely to see a relative minnow like Jordan 'lean against the wind' to pull off an unlikely success.

Having said that, though, you only need to watch the pack shuffle during a wet race (or even a wet qualifying session), or to remember the huge variability we saw in many teams' performances during the early part of 2012, to remember that the teams still can't control everything. In such a context, I am therefore optimistic that - as illustrated by Maldonado two years ago - underdog victories are still with us and that we will continue to see them in the future. And if they are becoming more rare, then maybe we will appreciate them just that little bit more when they come around.


FAMOUS F1 UNDERDOG VICTORIES THROUGH THE YEARS
Here's a little bit more about some of the underdog victories I've mentioned earlier in this post - including links to highlights of the races (where applicable). I've tightened up my definition a bit here to focus on cases where both driver and team are (or were) considered underdogs, rather than just one or the other.

-2012 Spanish Grand Prix
Lewis Hamilton secured a runaway pole but was sent to the back of the grid for running out of fuel on his in-lap (his team hadn't put enough in). This left Pastor Maldonado of Williams as the surprise poleman, with Ferrari's Fernando Alonso alongside him. When Alonso led off the line it looked like the more experienced driver would win out. But Pastor stuck with him, ran an 'undercut' at the second stint, overtook Alonso, and then held him off, under pressure, on older rubber at the end. A super victory.

-2003 Brazilian Grand Prix
Dreadful wet conditions and controversial tyre rules meant a somewhat chaotic but hugely dramatic race. Many drivers - including Michael Schumacher - crashed at Turn 3. The likes of Rubens Barrichello, David Coulthard, Kimi Raikkonen and Mark Webber all had their moments. But Jordan's decision to put Fisichella on a heavily-fuelled one-stopper paid dividends in a big way when the red flag came out just after he had come through the field to lead. A great strategy by the team, perfectly executed by Fisi.

-1996 Monaco Grand Prix
In some respects the inspiration behind this post. Panis qualified 14th, pitted earlier than his rivals for dry tyres (timing it to perfection), and set a series of fastest laps to move up to 4th. Next, he overtook the race's mobile chicane - Ferrari's Eddie Irvine - by literally muscling his way past at the Loews Hairpin. He then overcame a spin and benefited from mechanical retirements for Damon Hill and Jean Alesi in front. He then held off McLaren's David Coulthard in the closing laps to take an ultimately deserved win.

-1989 Japanese Grand Prix
Ah! The late 1980s! A time of great drivers and big rivalries - Senna, Prost, Mansell, Piquet. Anyone else? Well there was this bloke in a Benetton called Alessandro Nannini, who was taking on the big guns after years in an underfunded Minardi. This was a man who doggedly scored his first podium at the 1988 British Grand Prix despite spinning on three (three!) separate occasions, and who battled for wins at Hockenheim and the Hungaroring in 1990. Not for nothing did then-Autosport scribe Richard Asher write in 2007 that "no underdog came in a more attractive package as Alessandro Nannini...and the best thing was he kept giving us glimmers of hope!"[1] Alas Nannini did repay the hope and deliver - sort of! He inherited the win somewhat in Japan after Prost and Senna collided, before Senna was controversially disqualified for missing the chicane. But, hey, you had to be behind Senna when it happened and Sandro made sure he was best of the rest that day in Suzuka.

-1972 Monaco Grand Prix
In truly treacherous conditions, Beltoise scored the last win for the BRM marque by dominating in Monte Carlo. There were murmurings that he may have benefited on the day from having a V12 in the back of the car, but the scale of Beltoise's achievement is summarised most eloquently by Nigel Roebuck (see title link). As Roebuck added in 2012: "Jean-Pierre was never the most assertive of drivers, but it was as if he realised this was his one shot at winning a Grand Prix, and that no-one was going to take it from him."

[1] - Richard Asher's comments were taken from an article "Our Heroes", published in the Autosport 2007 Christmas Double Issue (13-20 December). Asher's hero was, of course, Nannini!

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Team-by-team Premier League season review (Part 2)

Last week, I provided a review of the teams that finished in the bottom half of the 2013/14 Barclays Premier League table. This week, it's time for the top half.

10. NEWCASTLE UNITED (W:15 D:4 L:19 GD:-16 Pts:49)
I suspect, after the trials and tribulations Newcastle had balancing the league with a Europa League campaign in 2012/13, and after a tumultuous summer including few signings and the controversial appointment of Joe Kinnear as sporting director, that if you'd given Newcastle fans 10th place (including wins over Chelsea and Manchester United and a draw with a resurgent Liverpool) before the start of the season, many would have actually taken it. Yet as it happens the season ended in open revolt by the fanbase around St James' Park, ostensibly disillusioned with the whole club, and not for the first time! So why is this? Mostly it is the Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde element of Newcastle's season, I suspect. Each of the victories described above were superbly taken, but there were also a lot of heavy defeats thrown into the mixer over the course of the season. At times they looked great, at others dreadful. Another reason is a perceived lack of ambition (as with West Ham), with the club cutting its cloth (as with Aston Villa, although Mike Ashley's strategy in this matter has often appeared far less coherent than Randy Lerner's) by barely buying any new players this season, whilst instead selling star player and club captain Yohan Cabaye to Paris Saint-Germain in the January transfer window. Alan Pardew seems to have survived Kinnear (who left in February), and the difficult season end, but will have his work cut out to keep things moving forward next season. Whilst Newcastle have a decent squad on paper, many of their players are mercurial and the Toon Army must shudder to think how their season would have panned out without Cabaye and Loic Remy; the French striker famously shunned the Magpies at the eleventh hour for the big bucks of QPR in January 2013, but Pardew bore no grudges in coming back for him in the summer for a loan deal and was rewarded with Remy scoring many important goals this season when he was fully fit.

9. STOKE CITY (W:13 D:11 L:14 GD:-7 Pts:50)
In pre-season question marks were there over both manager and team. Could Stoke survive in the Premier League without Tony Pulis? Could Mark Hughes be the man to engineer that survival and even, whisper it, take the team forward as Pulis has done in the first few seasons of their Premier League tenure (most notably 2010/11)? In the end it was a resounding success for both. Hughes inherited a squad of solid professionals like Asmir Begovic (a bit more than solid, one of the league's best goalkeepers), Ryan Shawcross and Peter Crouch. To that he added mercurial yet talented players like Stephen Ireland, Peter Odemwingie and Marko Arnautovic. Thus was borne a season which, like Hughes' season with Fulham in 2010/11, started slowly but quickened apace as time went on to finish with a flourish. The big catalyst for their final season finish was 13 points out of a possible 15 in March, when Hughes was nominated for Manager of the Month, during which they beat Arsenal to add to wins over Man United and Chelsea. His management of the notoriously difficult Arnautovic, who impressed even early on in the season when results didn't always match performances, has been highly commendable and Hughes, reputation restored after a bruising spell at QPR, can look back on a first season well done at the Britannia Stadium.

8. SOUTHAMPTON (W:15 D:11 L:12 GD:+8, Pts:56)
It's easy to forget now that, back when it happened, Nigel Adkins' sacking seemed scandalously unfair. In many ways, it still does; is that how back-to-back promotions is rewarded?! But credit must undoubtedly go to his replacement Mauricio Pochettino. This season Southampton have been a joy to watch, playing football with a poetic fluidity. What's more, he has done it on the back of long-running youth policy, as well as a core of players from their Championship days. It has therefore been a shot in the arm for the English national side too, to see the likes to Adam Lallana, Jay Rodriguez, Rickie Lambert and young full-back Luke Shaw thrive under Pochettino this season at St Mary's, with the likes of James Ward-Prowse waiting in the wings. Alas the cloud to this silver lining came from boardroom unrest and, correspondingly, reports that Pochettino's days in charge may be numbered. He stayed until the end of the season but, with his contract up for renewal, is strongly reported to be on his way to Tottenham Hotspur this summer. This could be a huge blow, and it will be important for the Saints to ensure they make the right choice as a replacement to hold onto as many of their best players as they can and, correspondingly, keep progressing within the division.

7. MANCHESTER UNITED (W:19 D:7 L:12 GD:+21 Pts:64)
It was always going to be difficult to replace the irreplaceable - Sir Alex Ferguson. Hand-picked by Sir Alex, David Moyes stepped up to the plate and gave it his best shot but no-one expected him to struggle quite as much as he did. The killer was ultimately United's form in the New Year; a series of underwhelming performances saw the club drop out of the battle for the Top 4, as well as exit the Capital One Cup on penalties in the Semi-Final. That's before we mention lacklustre defeats to Olympiakos in the Champions League (though United fought back to win the tie and, overall, the Champions' League was one of Moyes' successes, with the team reaching the Quarter-Finals); and Liverpool, Man City and Everton in the league. What was disappointing was not just the fact that United were getting beaten, but the nature of these defeats. Where earlier in the season talk had been about a rebuild, the questions as the season went on were: 'is Moyes the right man to oversee the re-build' and 'how quickly can a period of transition become a period of managed decline'? After defeat to Everton on the Easter weekend, the club concluded that the answer to both questions were 'no' and 'potentially very quickly' respectively; hence, Moyes was sacked. Personally, I would ideally have liked to have seen him given more time - possibly until the turn of the calendar year - because I thought there had been some indication of (necessary) improvement since the City defeat. However, I suspect it is easy in such cases to fall into a politician-esque trap of seeing 'green shoots' when in reality there are none. The Everton defeat again highlighted our deficiencies and, if the United board had come to the conclusion that he wasn't the right man, it was better to sack him at that point rather than go into the summer with a feeling of mistrust and potential factionalism pervasive around Old Trafford and Carrington. Louis van Gaal has recently been announced as Moyes' replacement; he has had big success and a history of working with big clubs, but also has his own way of doing things. It could combust, but hopefully won't and, although I think an assault on the league might be a step too far in 2014/15, his aim must be the Top 4.

6. TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR (W:21 D:6 L:11 GD:+4 Pts:69)
What I find quite sad about this is that Andre Villas-Boas' tenure in charge will ultimately be dubbed a failure. Yet he scored more points in 2012/13 than Harry Redknapp in 2011/12 despite, in my view, having a weaker squad than Harry had had that season. This season was a challenge, with a whole group of players being brought in to replace the outbound Gareth Bale. They started the season quite well but some of the new players integrated better than others and once the fixture list got busy (with Europa League and Capital One Cup to consider) the bandwagon came off the rails, with some heavy defeats to Liverpool and City precipitating AVB's departure. Tim Sherwood came in and, although his public outburst after the defeat to Chelsea in early March was a step too far in my view, he did do a pretty good job and his win percentage was very good. In that context, it was a job well done and his sacking was harsh - despite his inexperience coming up at times. More than any particular manager, I feel Tottenham's problems are structural; in particular, transfer policy must be more focused and feature greater collaboration between the Director of Football (currently Franco Baldini, previously Fabio Capello's assistant in the England team) and the manager. Additionally, I think at times a defeatist mentality relative to North London rivals Arsenal persists at White Hart Lane and this is proving a very hard nut to crack; they perhaps missed their best chances to beat The Gunners in the league in 2011/12 and 2012/13. A related point (regarding mentality) also regards their ability to balance Europa League with the Premier League. Granted, this is never easy but, for me, Tottenham should have the squad depth to weather it better than they have done. Some of their players seem to openly loathe playing in the Europa League and this is an attitude I find quite baffling; European competition is European competition, however you slice it.

5. EVERTON (W:21 D:9 L:8 GD:+22 Pts:72)
A really impressive season for The Toffees, at Goodison Park, who played their part in the Merseyside revival this season. Outgoing manager Moyes had left a stable base, but felt he had taken the team as far as they could go. Roberto Martinez came in as an FA Cup winner with Wigan, but with doubts over his underlying managerial ability; he was good, yes, but how good? Martinez answered the question resoundingly with a very impressive season; Everton played with freedom and fluidity throughout, in Martinez's preferred style, and consequently moved up the table, briefly looking likely to take the final Champions League position (4th) in April before they dropped points in the last few games. Players like Leighton Baines, Ross Barkley and Seamus Coleman have come on in leaps and bounds under Martinez, while shrewd loan signings Gareth Barry, Gerard Deulofeu and Romelu Lukaku played integral roles along with Kevin Mirallas. Without those loan signings next year, Martinez may expect a rougher ride unless a next batch of loan signings come in; however, flush with the confidence this season has given them, expect them to continue to be a thorn in the side of their bigger-spending peers when August rolls round again.

4. ARSENAL (W:24 D:7 L:7 GD:+27 Pts:79)
I think this has to go down as Arsenal's strongest season for a while. They hit the front very early and, while few people expected them to stay top of the league, I was impressed by the way they kept bouncing back from setbacks - some of them quite chastening (heavy defeats to Liverpool, Chelsea and, to a lesser extent, City). For a while a more dramatic slide in form in the early spring put their Top 4 position under threat, but Arsene Wenger kept faith in the players and they delivered after a charging Everton hit the buffers in the last few weeks. On top of that, Wenger finally ended his 9-year trophy hoodoo with victory in the FA Cup, beating Hull City 3-2 from 0-2 down in the final. The big-money signing of Mesut Ozil had fans salivating but, in all honesty, a good start faded into a challenging first season in the Premier League for the German international. Better developments came from Aaron Ramsey (a real revelation who repaid Wenger's faith in him), Mathieu Flamini (a shrewd free transfer), and the centre-backs Laurent Koscielny and Per Mertesacker (neither are perfect and had the odd shocker but overall they were very consistent). Overall, I think the team is coming along nicely and the mental fortitude that perhaps was missing with the previous generation of 'kids' in the late-2000s appears to be more prominent with this group of players. Some acquisitions are still needed, most notably up front (despite Olivier Giroud's improvement and Yaya Sanogo's underrated impact on the Cup success), to sustain a league challenge throughout the season. However, this is a team moving the right direction for sure.

3. CHELSEA (W:25 D:7 L:6 GD:+44 Pts:82)
Self-styled 'Happy One' Jose Mourinho returned to the team he put firmly on the map with multiple trophies in his first spell in charge from 2004 to 2007. And at times, the master tactician reminded us all of his peak-level brilliance; witness several supreme performances over their rivals - particularly the free-scoring Liverpool and Man City. The Blues also had a good run in the Champions League, reaching the semi-finals and getting close to the final. With a new front line next season, it would take a brave man to write Mourinho's Chelsea off. However, I can't help but feel the flaws of the front line this season have been exacerbated by Chelsea's style. Fair enough to Jose that he likes his teams to be well-organised and well-drilled defensively but, Eden Hazard aside, does he stifle their attacking threat at the same time? Consider this: in the last 11 league games of Rafael Benitez' spell as interim manager last season, Chelsea took 26 points out of a possible 33 and scored 20 goals (they also won the Europa League in this period). The goals-per-game ratio is not dissimilar to Mourinho's this season, but it's worth mentioning that Chelsea seemed to be developing an exciting attacking game built around a midfield axis of Juan Mata, Oscar and Hazard. Mata and Fernando Torres both scored 20+ goals that season. Yet this season Mata was frozen out, while Torres barely scored a handful of goals. I couldn't envisage that end-of-season side struggling to score goals and consequently dropping points to the likes of Sunderland, Crystal Palace and Norwich City at home, like Mourinho's team did in their quest for the title this season. Fair enough, Mourinho's approach may yield goals as well as defensive solidity next season - a classic case of taking one step back to take two steps forward - and, in the long-run, his managerial credentials are impeccable. However, this is his second trophy-less season in a row and, in that context, he is probably facing his most difficult period as a manager to date. I repeat that it would take a brave, or arguably stupid, man to write Mourinho off. However, it's still worth pointing out that he is going through a relatively dry spell in his managerial career at the moment, and that Chelsea's spell back to the absolute summit may well be a bumpy one if Mourinho's re-orientation of their style struggles to yield dividends next season.

2. LIVERPOOL (W:26 D:6 L:6 GD:+51 Pts:84)
The surprise package of the season. There were whispers about a Top 4 challenge, but no-one could have realistically forecast that Liverpool would have gone into the final handful of games as title favourites, and finished a close second. Brendan Rodgers has done a fantastic job bringing some brilliant football to Anfield this season and, so nearly, a first league championship in 24 years to boot. To be sure, this Liverpool team had weaknesses; most notably, a weak defence if put under the right pressure. In the end, defensive errors (not captain and club icon Steven Gerrard's slip against Chelsea per se) over the whole campaign were the biggest factor to them falling short. However, Rodgers' great skill, to me, seemed to be an ability to ensure players focused on what they could do, rather than what they couldn't do, and to play to those strengths. By focusing on their direct attacking prowess, Liverpool had a tendancy to race out of the blocks and put a couple of goals on the board before teams knew what had hit them. With that in the bag, their defensive weaknesses tended to be protected. Within this framework Rodgers' man-management of Luis Suarez was successful, and the Uruguayan had a very strong and controversy-free season - winning both the PFA and Writers' Player of the Year awards. Additionally, Daniel Sturridge scored goals; Gerrard adapted impeccably to a deeper midfield role; Philippe Coutinho was a threat; and Raheem Sterling and Jordan Henderson were both revelations of the season. Sadly for Reds fans, the uncertainty over Suarez's future (an annual affair, it seems), combined with the need for defensive investment, has meant that it may get worse before it gets better. Yet this season showed they are a force to be reckoned with in English football again and, in time, we may well come to view 2013/14 as being to Liverpool what 1991/92 ended up being for Man United (at least in broadly similar terms); a near-miss which ushered in the successful years that followed.

1. MANCHESTER CITY (W:27 D:5 L:6 GD:+65 Pts:86)
For the second time in three seasons the trophy was wrapped in the light blue ribbons of Manchester City, only this time there was no repeat of the final day drama that prevailed in 2011/12. Like Liverpool, City's season challenge was built on the back off a powerful attacking unit, albeit one probably built on a mix of deft passes (think the likes of David Silva, Sergio Aguero and Samir Nasri) and sheer power (think Yaya Toure and Edin Dzeko), rather than Liverpool's tendency to attack directly and at pace with players running different lines. It was also built off the back of a brilliant home record at the Etihad Stadium, where they barely dropped any points all season. Manuel Pellegrini replaced Roberto Mancini in the close season and the calm Chilean, who trained as an engineer before committing full-time to football, impressed me with his demeanour and the way he dealt with the different challenges that came his way over the course of the season. Chief among these was his treatment of Joe Hart, the England goalkeeper who was dropped and then gradually and successfully re-integrated into the side after a drop in form. Additionally, he addressed their initial poor form away from home quite early on, so that this was nipped in the bud; when the crunch came, a second victory over Everton at Goodison Park in over twenty years was important in winning the title. Finally, he dealt with injuries to key players like Aguero, Alvaro Negredo and captain Vincent Kompany, though it must be stressed that their huge resources and squad depth also means they are able to weather such setbacks better than most if not all of their rivals. Nonetheless, whichever way you slice it, to end your first season in England with two pieces of silverware (City also won the Capital One Cup by beating Sunderland 3-1 in the final) is a highly commendable achievement for Pellegrini, and rivals must be in no doubt that Man City will be extremely tough to beat again next season. 

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Team-by-team Premier League season review (Part 1)

The 2013/14 Barclays Premier League season came to a close last Sunday (May 11th) with success for Manchester City, their second league title in three years. It was an ultimately underwhelming season for my team - City's local rivals Manchester United - but a fascinating one nonetheless. In fact, more so than in some other seasons, it seemed every team in the league had a fascinating story to tell this season. So I've revived a concept I did once before, two-thirds through the 2009/10 season, and will attempt to do a team-by-team review. This time, rather than doing it alphabetically, I'm going to do it in table order - starting at the back.

20. CARDIFF CITY (W:7 D:9 L:22 GD:-42 Pts:30)
After years of near-misses, Cardiff finally annexed the Championship title in 2012/13, and Premier League beckoned. To be sure, staying up would always have been difficult. The squad did need some investment, and I can sort of see Vincent Tan's argument that manager Malky Mackay's record in the transfer market in the summer was mixed. However, not all Malky's signings were duds, he did get them promoted, and they were showing some strong fighting spirit under him (wins over Man City and South Wales rivals Swansea; a draw with Man United). Thus to treat Malky the way he did - both the public undermining and the final sacking - and to divide the team in that way, was really quite shameful. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer replaced with Malky, coming with a very good track record in Norway (two consecutive league titles and a cup win with Molde). However, staying up was never going to be easy and in the end Ole fell short. So the dream ended in a nightmare for Cardiff fans but, given the upheaval that's happened, Solskjaer deserves the chance to try and spearhead an immediate return to the 'promised land' next season.

19. FULHAM (W:9 D:5 L:24 GD:-45 Pts:32)
A hugely disappointing season for a team that was on paper more than good enough to stay in this division. Then again, maybe we were missing something. During some fairly persistent spells of poor form in 2012/13 I'd sometimes wondered if Martin Jol's penchant for mercurial skilful players had its downsides; Dimitar Berbatov and Bryan Ruiz are brilliant on their day, but will they get you out of a bad run of form? Chief football correspondent for the Evening Standard James Olley also pondered the wider demographic issues at the club; had they let the club grow old with too many short-term fixes over several seasons? Both issues are likely to have played a part as, most notably, a dreadful defensive record (85 goals conceded in the league) was not abated or substantially improved despite the club going through three managers; Jol being replaced by Rene Meulensteen before German troubleshooter Felix Magath replaced Meulensteen in February. It looks like a potentially steep rebuild for The Cottagers, hopefully involving their promising batch of youngsters, but more troubled teams have bounced back at the first attempt, so hope is not lost.

18. NORWICH CITY (W:8 D:9 L:21 GD:-34 Pts:33)
Chris Hughton is a good man and, indeed, had a good first season at Carrow Road. With new investment bringing in Gary Hooper, Ricky van Wolfswinkel and Leroy Fer, hopes were high that the club would keep moving forward - matching Hughton's successes at Birmingham and Newcastle. Alas they struggled to score goals (league lowest of 28 this season); possibly due to Hughton's intrinsically defensive outlook and Hooper's injuries earlier in the season. The Chief Executive of the club started getting agitated midway through the season but, every time this happened, Hughton would deal with it impeccably and results would start to flow. However, an underlying confidence crisis was setting in at the club and slowly but surely they got pulled into the bottom three. With a horrible end-of-season run of fixtures, the club reasoned they had nothing to lose and replaced Hughton with youth coach Derek Adams. However, they couldn't get themselves the results they needed and ultimately returned to the Championship after a three-season stay in the Premier League.

17. WEST BROMWICH ALBION (W:7 D:15 L:16 GD:-16 Pts:36)
A strange season for a bit of a strange team. On paper they had a good mix of solid, consistent players (e.g. Steven Reid, Jonas Olssen, the hugely underrated Youssef Mulumbu) and creative players (e.g. Chris Brunt, Stephane Sessegnon, the on-loan Morgan Amalfitano - scorer of a quite brilliantly impudent goal at Old Trafford, even if I admit it myself!) and, indeed, they proved themselves a difficult team to beat over the season (15 draws - far and away the most in the division). The problem was, they had a difficulty winning games too (7 - the joint-lowest)! On balance, I think the simple conclusion was that they lacked Romelu Lukaku's goals from 2012/13 and, from that, a knack of closing out games was gradually eroded. However, all this led to Steve Clarke being quite harshly sacked and replaced by former Real Betis manager Pepe Mel. This was, with hindsight, a huge risk; Pepe was inexperienced in the Premier League and wanted to play a high-tempo, pressing game that the players were not used to. While some players did pretty well out of the change of style (it was good to see Graham Dorrans thriving at The Hawthorns for, in my view, the first time since the Roberto di Matteo days), the senior players flat-out disagreed with the change and it could have descended into an ugly conclusion. However, it is to the credit of the players, supporters and coaching staff (including Mel, who as a neutral I really warmed to!) that, ultimately, they put it to one side for the good of the club and, point by point, stumbled over the line to safety!

16. HULL CITY (W:10 D:7 L:21 GD:-15 Pts:37)
Did really well for two-thirds of the season, building a campaign for safety off the back of a great home record at the KC Stadium (25 of their points came from there). Credit to them for chasing glory with the FA Cup; though their league form dropped away quite dramatically at the end of the season their safety showed this to be the right approach. A very good FA Cup run ultimately ended in an extra-time defeat to Arsenal, but not before they'd given The Gunners a real fright by going 2-0 up inside eight minutes. A real feather in the cap for Steve Bruce, whose built a good squad of talented but down-to-earth and hard-working footballers at the club (most notably a spine of the team featuring Allan McGregor, Curtis Davies and Tom Huddlestone), and worked wonders as a result, despite some unrest in the background over whether the club's name was going to be changed to Hull Tigers.

15. ASTON VILLA (W:10 D:8 L:20 GD:-22 Pts:38)
It's worth remembering the context under which Paul Lambert was brought to the club in summer 2012. Specifically, the club were keen to get the wage bill down and wanted to try and replace older, more experienced players with younger, cheaper and potentially hungrier players. Villa's inexperience at times in 2012/13 saw them slip to heavy defeat yet, despite that, they managed to reach safety with a game to spare - Christian Benteke the protagonist with so many goals. This season, hopes were for the team to keep moving forward with this young team now more experienced (and a couple of players added - e.g. Leandro Bacuna and the on-loan Ryan Bertrand). On balance this year Villa were slightly more clinical and better at grinding out results than they were a year ago, they achieved safety again and, on their day, they could still play very well (see their draw with Liverpool in January). However, Benteke suffered a strong bout of Second Season Syndrome and they also had too many poor results again, despite not hitting the lows of 2012/13, and the overall improvement was not substantial. Hence the until-then patient Villa fans began to get restless. Owner Randy Lerner perhaps realised that more investment was needed and, realising that he was not the man who could provide that investment, has put the club up for sale. From the outside, he has always come across as an earnest and honourable owner and I hope his finds the right buyer to take this proud Birmingham club forward.

14. SUNDERLAND (W:10 D:8 L:20 GD:-14 Pts:38)
Another team who've had a strange season! A dreadful start under Paolo di Canio didn't immediately get better under his replacement Gustavo Poyet. However, from about mid-December to early March they seemed to get their act together, propelled by an impressive run to the final of the Capital One Cup; safety looked likely at this stage and on-loan midfielder Ki Sung-Yeung impressed me in particular during this period. Yet, having lost that final, they promptly went into freefall and, bottom of the table with a run-in including trips to The Etihad Stadium, Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford, they looked doomed. At which point they re-energised, took seven points out of nine at those grounds, and surged through to safety with a game to spare! Poyet called it "a miracle" and undoubtedly did a great job in the run-in, but if he stays he'll need to try and get to the bottom of this team's inconsistency. If they do into the market this summer for players, a more coherent transfer policy than last summer's splurge under Di Canio will be crucial.

13. WEST HAM UNITED (W:11 D:7 L:20 GD:-11 Pts:40)
Credit where credit's due to Sam Allardyce; the man has skin as thick as a rhino and overcame a huge injury crisis around the turn of the year to steer The Hammers to safety, the catalyst being a run of four successive wins in February. When it comes to keeping clubs in the Premier League, he is a safe pair of hands and this will be important with the move to the Olympic Stadium coming up on the horizon. Personally, I've also enjoyed reading his weekly columns in the Evening Standard on a Friday (both this season and in 2011/12)! Which begs the question: why is his position under threat? The answer, I think, is not style of play per se but lack of ambition in performances. West Ham have spent some decent money and brought some good players in over the years (including Andy Carroll and Stewart Downing last summer; and Antonio Nocerino on loan in January), yet they have seemed content to eke out results when it's mattered, and to play underwhelmingly against stronger opposition, and even weaker opposition once safety was assured. This kind of approach will not yield a good return on Allardyce's investment, and is why the owners are looking for a change; therefore, it is not as crazy a move as it looks on the surface. However, write Allardyce off at your peril; he readily agrees this season has been disappointing, and managed to take Bolton to the UEFA Cup, so his ambition is there but, if he does get another chance, he must show this with improvement next season.

12. SWANSEA CITY (W:11 D:9 L:18 GD:0 Pts:42)
It was always going to be a harder season given they had to balance the league with a run in Europe in the Europa League (their prize for winning the 2013 Capital One Cup). On top of that, they had injury problems, not least to their star of 2012/13 - Michu. In that context, I thought the sacking of Michael Laudrup was unduly harsh; he was keeping their head above the water okay, and had reached the Europa League knock-out stages. Garry Monk's accession brought stability to the club and its culture of passing football and, though results were slow to come by, he ended up finishing strongly and deserves a second chance at things next season. Sometimes in the Premier League we see big-money signings fail to deliver (how many people now remember former Middlesbrough man Afonso Alves?!), so big credit to Wilfried Bony for his prolific season at The Liberty Stadium this year after signing for a club record fee last summer; their season could have been a lot less comfortable without his 22 (in all competitions) goals.

11. CRYSTAL PALACE (W:13 D:6 L:19 GD:-15 Pts:45)
Back in October, I questioned whether this team were destined for a Derby County-esque nightmare campaign. I was particularly worried about the demeanour of their manager, the normally sparky Ian Holloway. My intuition about Holloway was sound (he resigned two weeks later), but my worries about Palace subsequently weren't; they have been the surprise package of the season. After deliberation, Tony Pulis was brought in to replace Holloway and he has done a magnificent job at Selhurst Park. Not only did he improve them defensively, as expected, but he played to their attacking strengths too; wingers Yannick Bolasie and Jason Puncheon have come on leaps and bounds this season and were crucial to their success. It reminded me of Stoke City's best season in the Premier League under Pulis - 2010/11, in my view - where they augmented their defensive game with incisive attacking down the flanks through Jermaine Pennant and a revitalised Matty Etherington. Stoke didn't quite match that in subsequent seasons but it was good to see Pulis back to his best at Palace this season and I was happy to be proved wrong about their season!

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Rishi's Retrospective: Imola 1994, 20 years on

The tragic weekend of the 1994 San Marino GP at Imola saw the
deaths of Ayrton Senna (left) and Roland Ratzenberger (right).
Photo: Getty Images (via IBN Live webpage)
Taking place from 29th April-1st May 1994, the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix, one of the darkest race weekends in the sport's history, is a possible entry for both April and May in this hitherto monthly series of retrospectives. If I'm being strict about this, this will probably be treated as the April one, despite me only getting round to writing it in early May, but in reality it can be seen simply as a retrospective which is not attributed to a specific month. This is particularly so given that in so many ways it is the most significant race that has taken place during my lifetime.

I was only four years old when the paddock pitched up at Imola for the first European race of the 1994 Formula One season. My memories of the race are (very) limited, but I do have a hazy recollection of me going hyperactive early on in the race - round about the time when Ayrton Senna had his critical accident exiting the Tamburello corner - and my Dad telling me sternly to keep quiet, him naturally recognising the severity of the accident far more acutely than I did, and me - slightly confused - consequently retreating upstairs. For some time afterwards (though I can't recall how long exactly), my parents initially would tell me that Senna was "in hospital", because they were understandably cautious about introducing death too suddenly in case it alarmed me too much. However, to make a wider point, what made the weekend such a transformative event in the sport's history was arguably how it alarmed the public as a whole.

Before the weekend of the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix there had been almost twelve years since the last death at a Grand Prix - Riccardo Paletti at the 1982 Canadian Grand Prix. Although Elio de Angelis had been killed in testing in 1986, this was otherwise an unprecedented era of safety in Formula 1, during a period where the sport grew rapidly due to expanding television coverage and exciting sporting rivalries and personalities (which included Senna, Alain Prost, Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell). Thus, when Roland Ratzenberger was killed in qualifying for the San Marino race on Saturday, and followed the next day by Senna - the biggest name in the sport - on the Sunday, a much wider audience had been exposed to the horror of a Grand Prix driver being killed at a race track then was the case in 1982 (a season during which Gilles Villeneuve had also died in qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix earlier in the season), let alone earlier when other big personalities and world champions in the sport were killed at the wheel (e.g. Alberto Ascari, Jim Clark, Jochen Rindt). My Dad, for example, got into the sport in 1980 and was still new to the sport when Villeneuve and Paletti had died in '82, but many other fans hadn't even known that event. While efforts to make the sport safer had been ongoing since the late 1960s, the feeling that it simply wasn't right that someone should die doing what they loved was reinforced more powerfully than ever after Imola '94, and promptly led to a raft of changes and procedures which were to take the safety of the sport to the next level. This was a multi-level initiative, encompassing car design (e.g. stronger wheel tethers - Senna's death was caused on impact by the suspension arm coming back and piercing through his helmet - and greater cockpit protection); track design - not just at Imola, which was re-designed post-1994 (e.g. longer, tarmac run-offs; moving away from metal barriers to tyre walls or more sophisticated TecPro barriers); and improvement of medical procedures at the racetrack when an accident happened (e.g. ensuring injured personnel could get medical attention within seconds, something long-time F1 medical delegate Professor Sid Watkins had been working tirelessly on since he came to the sport in the late 1970s). Although his micro-management of the sport in the later years of his Presidency would grate with many fans, FIA President Max Mosley deserves huge credit for driving these changes, and for helping initiate this next cultural shift in the sport. In fact, it is sad that Mosley and Sir Jackie Stewart have such poor relations, because both of them have done so much to improve safety in F1, Stewart having initiated the first wave of changes in the late 1960s and early 1970s, even against some of the wishes of his peers.

Since that dark weekend at Imola we haven't seen a (racing driver) death at a Grand Prix in 20 years, a truly staggering achievement. Moreover, we have seen drivers emerge unscathed from huge accidents, including Jenson Button's at Monaco a decade or so ago (2003), and Robert Kubica's horror shunt at the 2007 Canadian Grand Prix. It has meant that younger fans of the sport have been able to experience Grand Prix racing and its joys without having been exposed to some of its potential horrors. However, as Felipe Massa's narrow escape in qualifying for the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix reminded us, motor racing - like anything - will never be truly safe.

SENNA, RATZENBERGER AND THE WIDER WEEKEND
Naturally, the fact that it was Ayrton Senna that died was one of the things that sent shockwaves through the watching world. Senna was the biggest name in the sport at the time, a truly superb driver and a popular and charismatic figure away from the track. In a sense, this is another of Imola 1994's legacies. Senna would undoubtedly have been remembered as a legend of the sport even had he still been alive today, and his huge rivalry with Prost will remain as one of sport's most intense. However, the premature and truly tragic nature of Senna's death has, in my view, elevated his legendary status to still higher levels. As Richard Williams, a British journalist who wrote The Death of Ayrton Senna a few years ago, recently wrote in F1 Racing magazine, every modern-day protagonist of the sport will always be compared to Senna:
Sometimes it seems as if he is the 23rd driver on the grid of every single Grand Prix: not just the champion who set the standard against which all aspirants must measure themselves in terms of basic virtuosity, inherent charisma and focused ambition, but the man whose terrible fate...acts as a permanent evocation of Formula 1's death-or-glory appeal, long after that image has ceased to possess very much factual justification.
Focusing on the "setting the standard" side of Williams' point, it must be said that in many respects there is nothing inherently wrong with this; Senna was arguably the fastest driver to ever sit behind the wheel of an F1 car, drove some truly great races, was highly competitive and had an emotive, other-worldly charisma about him off the track that drew fans to him. Let's not forget too, the Senna Foundation - which he was in the process of setting up when he had his tragic accident but which continues to carry his legacy thanks to the tireless work of his sister Viviane and her team at the foundation. However, I for one am always naturally cautious against excessive lionisation of any individual. No-one is perfect in this world and Senna too was not averse to controversial tactics in wheel-to-wheel combat, not least when he drove into Prost at high speed at the 1990 Japanese Grand Prix. Yes, Senna had justifiable criticisms about some of the background to that accident and, yes, in terms of their rivalry Prost too was not averse to controversial action (think the same GP a year earlier, when Prost seemed to turn into Senna at the chicane, though again there are nuances to this debate). However, the point to be made is that it is important that, despite Senna's mystique and charisma, an objective discussion about the Brazilian's career as a driver is not all-white, but most also contain shades of grey, just as would be the case for his peers and for other F1 greats (including the current crop of aspiring F1 greats).

Williams' F1 Racing article came as part of a Senna-Imola 1994 special which contained three articles on the Brazilian, but nothing on the other driver who perished that weekend - Roland Ratzenberger. The Austrian was driving for the fledgling Simtek team in his first F1 season and had already finished 11th at the Pacific Grand Prix that season when he suffered a huge accident at the Tosa corner in qualifying, from which he suffered a fatal skull fracture. It is important that Roland is not forgotten when the F1 world comes together, every year or landmark year, to remember Imola '94 and I have been heartened to see that, nearer to the event, coverage has also featured him. Although always a hard-working and popular driver while coming through the ranks, he was unlikely to ever achieve Senna's level of success, or his global popularity, of course. However, the fundamental elements at play here - of a human being dying doing a profession that they loved - also ring true here. Moreover, here was a guy who changed his date of birth (from 4th July 1960 to the same date two years later) during his motorsport career because, as a fairly late starter, he feared his age might prevent him from realising his lifelong dream of racing in Formula 1. This, too, was a terribly sad tragedy.

If anything there was something eerie about the whole weekend. Before Ratzenberger's crash, Rubens Barrichello was seriously injured at the Variante Bassa corner in a high-speed crash. And on race day itself, there were two further accidents; at the start, Pedro Lamy crashed into the stalled Benetton of JJ Lehto and a wheel went into the crowd (luckily no-one was seriously injured), whilst later in the race a wheel fell off Michele Alboreto's Minardi as he exited the pits, injuring two mechanics. In the aftermath, three-times world champion Niki Lauda summarised the weekend's events concisely: "For 12 years, God had his hand on F1. This weekend, he took it off." Perhaps it is best to finish with comments from motorcycle legend Valentino Rossi. In his autobiography, talking about a tragic motorcycling weekend at Suzuka in 2003 (where former 250cc champion Daijiro Kato was killed), he echoed Lauda's comment and elaborated on it:
"That's why Kato's accident, in my opinion, was so significant. I see it as a warning, which goes something like this: 'you're awash with money...improved motorbikes, everything grows, fans go wild, but now this is the bill...please come back down to Earth and restore some sanity to the sport.'" 
The tragedy of Imola 1994 - the fatalities and the near-misses in front of a shocked watching world - was indeed that stark warning for F1 and indeed motor racing as a whole. As described above, sanity was subsequently restored to the sport on the safety front - where it had perhaps started to lag in the years immediately preceding it. Hopefully, for F1, a position of insanity will never be reached again. As Rossi also concedes, and as we have seen since 1994 with some of the examples mentioned earlier, 'accidents can and will happen' but, if there must be another fatality in F1 in future, it must not be through complacency on the safety front of those who administer and run the sport, however impressive the improvements have been since 1994 so far.

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.