Sunday, 26 October 2014

The return of Yoann Gourcuff: This time for real?

Yoann Gourcuff (centre of pic) battles for the ball against
Montpellier last week. Photo: sport.fr
Last weekend, I was in Montpellier in the south of France, and part of the holiday was meant to incorporate a trip to the Stade de la Mosson, where Montpellier HSC football team play their home games. They were scheduled to play Olympique Lyonnais (often just referred to as plain old 'Lyon'!) last Sunday (October 19th). Alas, the second of two severe rainstorms to hit the usually dry, warm Mediterranean city at the turn of the month (from September to October) put paid to the stadium's use in the immediate future, as it was internally destroyed as a result of the flooding. The match went ahead on the date scheduled, but only after the fixture was switched to the Stade de Gerland, where Lyon play their home games. This news, in truth, frustrated me quite a bit (as it's not the first time it's happened to me this calendar year). Additionally, the rescheduled game was not exactly glorious for Montpellier either; Lyon trounced the 2011/12 Ligue 1 champions 5-1[1] after punishing Montpellier's missed chances at 0-0 and taking advantage of a rare off-day for La Paillade's defence. However, every cloud has a silver lining and this game also had one in the form of a fine performance from Yoann Gourcuff. Lyon's attacking midfielder scored a double (his first since 2009) and was the talk of French sports newspaper L'Equipe, as well as the sports pages of the French dailies, on Monday morning.

Why the excitement about one (admittedly very good) performance from one player? For the reason, one must rewind the clock the little. Five years ago, Gourcuff was the hottest prospect in French football. If 2007/08 was the season of Karim Benzema, then 2008/09 was the season of Gourcuff. Playing for Bordeaux on loan from AC Milan, Gourcuff chipped in with 12 goals and 8 assists as Les Girondins cantered the league title (stopping a run of seven successive titles from Lyon!) and the player bagged many end-of-season awards. His immense technical ability, and the sheer brilliance of some of the goals he scored, made him the talk of French football, and he was immediately branded as 'the next Zinedine Zidane'. Bordeaux moved quickly to make the transfer from Milan permanent and, as they started the 2009/10 season by picking up where they left off in 2008/09 (though they couldn't keep it up), the sky seemed to be the limit for the then-23 year-old from Brittany.

Quickly, it became apparent that such expectations were premature and, indeed, too lofty. Whilst no-one could doubt Gourcuff's talent and technical ability, the reason the comparison with Zidane failed was in two key areas. The first was personality-based: "Zizou" may not have been the loudest player in the dressing rooms he shared, but he still managed to exude authority and to guide those around him on the pitch. Gourcuff is also an introvert, even shy, but in a way that means he struggles to exert the same authority and leadership to those around him. Admittedly he briefly struck on a magic formula at Bordeaux, where he was the driving force behind a successful team. However, at AC Milan and, to begin with at least, at Lyon, he sometimes quietly went AWOL into a period of introspection when things haven't gone right (either for him or for the team as a whole), alienating his team-mates and coaches in the process. Sometimes, this approach has even rubbed people up the wrong way; Gourcuff found himself caught in the crossfire in one of the many battles which took place during France's farcical and tempestuous 2010 World Cup campaign, where it was said that him and Franck Ribery did not get on. Whilst Gourcuff could add himself to a fairly big list of players who had fallen out with Ribery, he also managed to make himself the object of some strong criticism from the usually more equanimous duo of Paolo Maldini and Carlo Ancelotti, his club captain and manager from his days at AC Milan. "Gourcuff at Milan was 100% wrong...when he played here, he did not want to make himself available to the group. He [also] did not learn to speak Italian immediately," said Maldini, whilst Ancelotti labelled him "egocentric" and "a strange lad", adding "it's a pity that he could not express himself well here, but the problem was only psychological in nature." At Lyon, whom he signed for in August 2010, initial manager Claude Puel often struggled with the mercurial talent of Gourcuff, and seemed frustrated that he didn't seem to be pulling his weight when things weren't going well.

An up-and-down career at club level has translated into an on-off
career at international level for Gourcuff (C)AFP/Getty Images 
The second reason, which has taken hold in particular since Puel's departure from Lyon in 2011, has been injuries. Gourcuff is now in his fifth season at Lyon and, during that time, has only played in around half of the team's official (league and cup competition) matches (110 out of 221, according to Le Monde). The newspaper adds that, in that time, Gourcuff's Lyon career has often gone through the same cycles: "the first step: an injury which takes longer to recover from than originally forecast. Then, a return, from which hopes are reborn, from [remembering] the heights of his talent. Two good matches, and there is talk of a comeback. A few other supporting performances successfully completed and there is talk of a return to the French national team...upon which a new injury comes to spoil everything again." All this has meant that he has been unable to build any sort of momentum even as he seeks to get pack onto the path he was on during that brief golden period at Bordeaux.

This season, under the new management of Hubert Fournier (ex-Reims manager) after Remi Garde (Lyon manager since Puel's departure) resigned at the end of last season, Gourcuff - who has taken a pay cut of around 30% with his new contract - again started on the treatment table after an injury picked up towards the end of last season. This time, with the support of Fournier, he has taken particular time to make sure the injury heals fully, and that he listens properly to his body before committing to a return. His return eventually came with a first start in early October against Lille, where he played his part with an assist in a 3-0 win, before his double put Lyon on their way to that comfortable win over Montpellier last weekend. As a whole, his performance playing in the hole behind the two strikers (Alexandre Lacazette and left-wing convert Nabil Fekir) in Fournier's 4-4-2 diamond has been a key part of Lyon's dynamic and positive performances in the last two matches. Today, Gourcuff is part of a Lyon team trying to stand in the way of a rampant Marseille, who have cantered to the top of Ligue 1 under the management of Argentine Marcelo Bielsa, one of football's real tactical philosophers[2].

Maybe in Fournier and his careful approach the Breton has found a manager who understands him and can nurture him back to frequent matches and a high level of performance. Maybe also, though, it is Gourcuff - now at 28 no longer French football's "Next Big Thing" - who has matured in the intervening period. Although his father, Christian (an ex-pro footballer and manager), questioned some of Maldini's specific assertions (e.g. about learning Italian), Yoann has already attributed the general problems at Milan to his age (19 when he moved) and to the difficulty he had adapting to a move to a huge club in a big city, compared to his youth development with Rennes much closer to home. And after last week's game Fournier added: "This is a boy who has ripened (matured), who has grown stronger after what he has been faced with...for Yoann, this was a successful match, in the image of the team." This is key. Gourcuff will now never be "the new Zidane", but he remains a very talented player with strong technical ability and a good footballing brain. If, with his maturity through the dark days, he can continue to deliver strong performances and integrate himself well with this Lyon team, he will be able to leave behind the problems he had when he joined the team (and also when he was at AC Milan). And if, through Fournier's diligence (if it persists), Gourcuff can be managed appropriately through a full campaign, then the doors could well re-open for a run in the French national side (with the Euro 2016 tournament due to be held in France). Yoann Gourcuff, no longer the Next Big Thing but finally getting a real chance to show his skills on a European and indeed global international stage? For fans of good football and, indeed, fans of skilful footballers, that sounds like something that would be worth cheering.

FOOTNOTES
[1] - The defeat was the first time that Montpellier had conceded five or more goals in a game for over 10 years. By incredible coincidence, I was at the game when it last happened - a match against PSG in February 2004 (clearly the video is not mine!)

[2] - I mostly wrote this blog post before and during the Lyon-Marseille match, but have only come to finish it afterwards. The final score was 1-0 to Lyon, ending an eight match winning run for Marseille. Who scored the winner? Yoann Gourcuff 

Saturday, 4 October 2014

What's going on at Ferrari?

(C) 2014 Ferrari/Ercolo Colombo
Throughout Formula One's 64-year history, one name - among the list of teams that have graced the sport - stands out as the most evocative: Ferrari. Other teams run them close, of course they do; Mercedes Benz, McLaren, Williams. Maybe even Red Bull, Lotus and Brabham. All have been very successful, and have strong fan bases. But none of them seem to quite have the global reach of the team from Maranello. For a while, during a particularly political period in the sport's recent history, it even led to the question: did F1 make Ferrari great or did Ferrari make F1 great? This is, of course, simplistic but I would argue that F1 made Ferrari great (or greater than they would otherwise have been), rather than vice versa.

For all of Ferrari's F1 history (they are the only team left from the first season of the world championship in 1950), and the patriotic pride they inspire in Italy, part of Ferrari's continued relevance in the sport stems, in my view (expressed here back in 2009 during that political period), from their resurgence at the turn of the Millennium. Michael Schumacher's five successive drivers' titles and Ferrari's six consecutive constructors' titles captured the imagination of a new fanbase, and helped ensure that the team did not fold or lose relevance in the way the likes of Lotus, Brabham and Tyrrell arguably did so despite their best efforts. However, fast forward five years and the team have yet to add another world title (drivers' or constructors') to their trophy cabinet. Moreover, 2014 has been their worst season for some time (2009 at least but probably longer), resulting in only two podiums so far this season, and a likely best finish of 4th in both championships. It has led to dramatic upheaval; team principal Stefano Domenicali resigned after Ferrari could only finish 9th and 10th in Round 3 - the Bahrain Grand Prix - while Ferrari chairman Luca Montezemolo[1] was removed from his position shortly after the team only picked up one 9th place in last month's Italian Grand Prix. Now, at this weekend's Japanese Grand Prix (October 3rd-5th), it looks as though their star driver of the past five seasons, Fernando Alonso, will leave the team at the end of the season after failing to win his much-coveted third world championship. It looks ominously as though the Scuderia are starting the third long drought of their history (1964-75 being the first one; 1983-99 being the second one). So why did it happen, what about the protagonists, and what happens next?

STRATEGIC ERRORS

Clearly, Ferrari - like every other team and individual in the sport bar Adrian Newey - were slow to see the full potential of the blown diffuser (whose nuanced driving demands Sebastian Vettel then maximised) and its impact on performance in the new generation of cars that came in at the start of 2009 (and were refined and developed, after the odd rules change, thereafter). They have fought for the title since then - missing out by the narrowest of margins in 2010 and 2012 - but never quite managed a title win, and rarely if ever produced a car that was genuinely the fastest. Pinpointing this problem as being related to the engineers being too innately conservative in their designing of the cars, Ferrari have responded by periodically reshuffling their technical team during this period. Aldo Costa, who had firstly replaced Rory Byrne as Head of Design & Development when Byrne retired in 2006, and was then promoted to Ross Brawn's old position of technical director, was fired in 2011 after their underwhelming start to that season. Pat Fry was signed that season, then promoted (after Costa's sacking), then reshuffled - following the appointment of Renault/Lotus technical chief James Allison in 2013. After some initial teething problems, Allison was another who mastered the blown diffuser era at Lotus and his engineering ability will be key for the team going forward (he had little input on the 2014 car).

Although there is a reasonable argument that the team waited too long to hire Allison, I do feel that there has perhaps been too much focus on personnel (from the team as well as the media) in this debate. After the 'dream team' of Jean Todt (team principal), Schumacher, Brawn, Byrne and Paolo Martinelli (head of the engine department) was broken up from 2006, the team remained competitive under the 'new guard' (e.g. Domenicali and Costa) who had been promoted. They retained the winning culture of the team and, with the regulations being quite stable, managed to win one drivers' title (Kimi Raikkonen, 2007) and two constructors' titles (2007 and 2008). However, the 2009-13 era proved to be completely different to what had gone immediately before. In addition to the new cars, there were now fewer opportunities for using testing to assess the viability of new parts. This was a key loss for Ferrari, who held a significant comparative advantage in this area because of their own test facility at Fiorano. It placed more of a premium, too, on the team's simulator and wind tunnel facilities. The team had issues in both these areas. When hugely experienced racer and tester Pedro de la Rosa joined the Scuderia from McLaren in early 2013 he spoke of the team's simulator as needing "a lot of work" and that McLaren - one of the pioneers of development in this area - had a simulator "a few years ahead" of other teams. Meanwhile, as 2012 had progressed, the team had admitted that the correlation problems between wind tunnel and track were systematic and they were forced to close their wind tunnel (using in the meantime the old Toyota F1 wind tunnel in Cologne, Germany) for upgrades and repair work. This work was only completed late last winter and thus will only impact the 2015 car and onwards. In an interview this summer Aldo Costa (now an engineer with Mercedes) claimed he had raised the issues with the wind tunnel back in 2008, but had been ignored over the issue. Costa was often criticised at Ferrari for, in short, not being Ross Brawn. However, maybe the team were slow to see that the problem with their cars being too conservative was more to do with just the team personnel, and that efforts with the wind tunnel and simulator should have been acted upon earlier. The Mercedes team's success in 2014 has seen Costa rebuild his reputation somewhat, as he was part of an engineering team that came up with the novel "split turbine" solution to the engine/power unit packaging challenge all teams faced.


Ferrari's second strategic error, this one regarding the next new era of cars we've seen in 2014, came by not seeing where the big gains would come from. Having spent years agonisingly trying to build a car that could beat the aerodynamically supreme Red Bulls, they thought that 2014 would once again be fought primarily on aerodynamics, and seemingly poured a lot of energy and resource into this area. However, with the huge change in engine power units coming in for 2014, and with Ferrari making their own engines (as they always have done), engines was in fact the area where the greatest gains would be made, even though aero remained important. Back in 2012, as work on this new generation of cars started, one man saw this better than anyone else. His name? Ross Brawn, by this point at Mercedes after a break from the sport in 2007. Although the new management setup of Paddy Lowe, Toto Wolff and Niki Lauda deserve credit for the way they have kept the momentum up, and managed a difficult intra-team rivalry, the advantage of the Mercedes engine has its roots in Brawn's vision. His patience and medium-term planning (at the expense of minute short-term gains) ultimately cost him his job (it led to the management reshuffle at the end of a mostly dismal 2012 season, and Brawn left at the end of 2013 because he didn't fit within this new structure). But his legacy lives on in the team's success this year. Ferrari, on the other hand, despite a commendable enough aero package, had an engine that, though reliable, was too heavy and down on power and torque compared to its rival. The result has been a team struggling to make the Top 5 in races as the Mercedes-engined cars[2], along with the ever-present Red Bull, got on top.

Whilst it is also true that Ferrari have made operational errors over the past few years, in my view these have not been any higher in number than that of their immediate rivals. Indeed, ever since they overcame the teething problems they had with their lights only pit system, they have had one of the most consistently efficient pitcrews over the past few seasons. Additionally, whilst the team has made the odd tactical error in races, this is to be expected from any team operating in a high-pressure environment like F1 where the variables sometimes change from lap to lap. True, the team's decision to pit Alonso early at the 2010 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, and release him into traffic that he spent the rest of the race trying to overtake, led to a race outcome that was to prove very costly and - as I have argued before - one which had repercussions beyond the outcome of that year's world title (which Alonso subsequently lost). However, I have also argued that it was a decision that was rational at the time, even though it ultimately proved to be very wrong. If the tyres had not come back to Vettel and the McLarens that day, the recent history of F1 would probably look quite different today.

DOMENICALI & MONTEZEMOLO

During the middle of the 2012 season, where no team was dominant and Fernando Alonso's consistent brilliance had put him in a strong position of the title battle, I remember thinking that, were Alonso would win, it would be a fitting reward for his team principal, Stefano Domenicali. The Ferrari lifer had sought to give the team a human face, after the ruthlessness of the Todt era had left some F1 watchers cold, and yet not lost the team's will to win and competitive drive. Although they would consistently fall short - sometimes by the narrowest of margins - I admired this approach, and also the way he would never fail to front up to the media; think of the amount of times he was told "it's not good enough, is it Stefano?" by BBC pundit Eddie Jordan, and the amount of times he would say something like "no, of course not! But what can you do? We have to do better, we have to keep working hard to fix the problems of the car!" And I always remember that, whilst the 2012 car was never perfect (from mid-season onwards it was a handy race car, but one that continued to struggle in qualifying and was never the outright fastest), he still put all his energy into throwing the collective weight of the team behind Alonso to try and push him over the line to that third title in the wake of Red Bull's late competitiveness (think of the team throwing upgrades on the car every race; the team breaking Felipe Massa's gearbox seal in Texas to ensure that Fernando started on the clean side of the track; and Felipe's immaculate team job in Korea and Brazil too). He wasn't afraid of taking tough decisions (the team orders decision in Hockenheim 2010; the firing of Costa, and Chris Dyer's demotion after the Abu Dhabi debacle), but - if anything - this may have been his biggest weakness. It was interesting to hear him admit, at a recent event in Italy, that he regretted not doing more to protect the team's inner sanctum. This conforms with the hypothesis that the sackings/demotions, along with other things, which took place may have precipitated a wider blame culture that has been identified at Maranello these days (on which see more below).

Luca Montezemolo will always be a key part of Ferrari's proud history. It was Luca who, as manager of the team, helped mastermind them back to the top in mid-1970s, forming a formidable partnership with methodical lead driver Niki Lauda while engineer extraordinaire Mauro Forghieri worked his magic on both chassis and engine. After a stint spent organising the Italia 90 World Cup tournament in football, Luca then returned and, recognising Jean Todt's skills, cut him the slack and the independence he needed to take the Scuderia back to the top after their second drought. Yet the feeling as Montezemolo exited stage right in the days after Monza, was that his tendency back towards micro-management, as well as the breakdown in his relationship with Alonso (though personally I don't blame him for the specific message of team unity that he made at Hungary last year), may have helped contribute towards the team's third drought (as it now appears to be). His public pronouncements - which once could be dismissed almost fondly as "Luca being Luca" - started to get quite tiresome, his attack on the "new-for-2014" regulations were at times aggressive, ill-informed and somewhat hypocritical (he had initially backed the rule changes). Thus, while he will always have a proud place in F1's - and Ferrari's, possibly even Italian Business's - history, perhaps the right time had come for a farewell[3].

IT'S THE DAWNING...OF A NEW ERA[4]

Sebastian Vettel pictured in an old Ferrari of Gerhard Berger
at this year's Austrian GP as part of an exhibition run.
(C) Divulgacao/RBR
Alonso and Ferrari seemed a marriage made in heaven when it was made. He would have de facto number 1 status (at least he would when he quickly got the upper hand over Massa), and the Latin environment would be a more comfortable fit than the colder, more clinical environment of McLaren in 2007. And after making a few surprising mistakes in his first season, he has grown and driven strongly at Ferrari; at times, his performances have really stood out and perhaps masked some of the deficiencies of the Scuderia. During those early days (second half of 2010 and even in 2011), I seem to remember him saying that Ferrari were the best team he'd driven for, that he wanted to finish his career there, and that the car (2010) the best he'd ever driven. Whilst this probably caused some scratching of heads at his old Renault team (where he won two world titles in 2005 and '06); it immediately endeared him to the tifosi. However, as each year has come and gone without a title, frustration has grown. It erupted last summer after some comments about wanting 'someone else's car' got him an 'ear tweak' from Luca Montezemolo and the relationship with the team has been on an unsound footing ever since. At last month's Italian GP, it always seemed to me that his team-mate Kimi Raikkonen got louder cheers from the tifosi than Fernando, implying that the uncertainty surrounding his future and his relations with the team had seeped through to the fans; although Raikkonen is Ferrari's last world champion, Alonso has been by far their strongest competitor this season, while Raikkonen has struggled. Either way, the overall disappointing performance of the 2014 car has served only to exacerbate the unhappiness between Alonso and the team.

Despite that, for a long time this year it has seemed that Alonso's best bit was to grimace and sit tight with Ferrari for 2015 while seeing how quick the car is and, correspondingly, whether there are better vacancies elsewhere. Ferrari, too, would ostensibly benefit from keeping - even for an extra year - a man most F1 watchers would say is the best on the current grid, even if some journalists probably overplay this slightly, and even if relations between Alonso and the team are not as strong as they once were. So why has it become clear over the past week that team and driver are due for a split at the end of 2014?

The answer appears to be that each side wanted certain guarantees from the other. Domenicali's replacement, Marco Mattiacci, has come in from Ferrari's North America road car division. Despite his lack of motorsport experience, he has approached the task of leading Gestione Sportiva (Ferrari's motorsport division) in a lucid, businesslike manner which has been commendable. One of the main conclusions he has drawn is to address Ferrari's conservatism in car design, even after the structural upgrades (e.g. to wind tunnel); on top of the firings/demotions outlined earlier, he said in an interview with Autosport that he felt a wider blame culture has inhibited risk taking at the team. Mattiacci is said to have faith in new technical director James Allison, but - it would seem - feels that turning the team around and back to world championship success could still be three or four years away; a medium-term rebuilding project. Alonso, who turned 33 at the end of July, no longer has time on his side to commit to this sort of project; he has become increasingly fed up at Ferrari, and is desperate to finally that third world title as soon as possible.

Thus it would appear that Ferrari have concluded that their best option, rather than having a year of "will he, won't he" with Alonso, and the potential pursuit of short-term gains at the expense of medium-term that this might foster, is to start afresh. And their preferred candidate is four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel, who announced today that he would part company with Red Bull after six seasons with their senior F1 team, not to mention many more as part of their Young Driver Programme. At first glance, it seems a bit strange again; Vettel has spent most of the year grappling to adapt his driving style to these new regulations and has been consequently outpaced by team-mate Daniel Ricciardo (who Ferrari also approached according to some reports). However, on the other hand, Vettel is young enough (27) and has already been successful enough to commit to the 3/4-year project that Ferrari seem to be demanding in order to get them back to the top. Such a project will also be a fresh challenge for a driver who has almost become part of the furniture at Red Bull. And maybe Vettel will bring the team-building skills to the team that Michael Schumacher mastered, but which were arguably the one chink in Alonso's armour (scroll down to Comment 6 for a discussion on this). Raikkonen is set to remain with the team in 2015, at which point it may be time for Ferrari to promote one of their Young Drivers; either Jules Bianchi (currently with Marussia in F1) or Raffaele Marciello (reigning European F3 champion currently racing in GP2), perhaps. Alonso's exact destination is unknown, though he being courted by McLaren and Honda, and they appear to be the only obvious option for 2015, despite the chequered past of the Alonso-McLaren partnership from '07.

It appears to be in this context that Ferrari have embarked upon their expedition back to the summit of Grand Prix racing. Both Alonso and Ferrari, one suspects, will feel regret and sadness that they were unable to win a championship together when the combination of the two seemed so promising at the outset of the relationship. In the words of football commentator Martin Tyler (speaking of another fallen red giant - Manchester United), it may get worse before it gets better at Maranello on this journey. But either way, it is time for the team to enter this new chapter in their long and illustrious history. The gelling of new team members with old; the twists and turns across different racing weekends - it will all be fascinating to observe. Ferrari's displays of high-handedness - when they occur - are grating to many F1 fans, myself included. Yet, ultimately, I would like to see them winning again one day fairly soon. And thus, in this endeavour, in this new chapter that they are embarking on with Vettel (seemingly), I say to them "Il bocca al lupo!"

FOOTNOTES
[1] - Luca Montezemolo is commonly known as Luca di Montezemolo in the British press. However, his full name is Luca Cordero di Montezemolo (he is a descendant of an Italian aristocratic family). My understanding is that, without the ""Cordero", the "di" is technically irrelevant. Just explaining why I have referred to him as Luca Montezemolo here (and maybe in some, if not all, my earlier blogs).

[2] - Mercedes, Williams, McLaren and Force India currently use Mercedes engines. In particular, it is Mercedes and Williams who have taken big advantage of this and been the most competitive of the four teams all season. However, McLaren (who will use Honda engines from 2015) and Force India have also had their moments.

[3] - to be sure, Montezemolo's departure is not just down to the F1 team's performance. It was mostly because FIAT chairman Sergio Marchionne and him were said to disagree over the future direction of Ferrari (in particular, over how exclusive the brand should remain, both in terms of sales strategy and whether the company should float on the stock exchange). However, the lack of success of the F1 team in recent years played a part too.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

An open letter to Andy Murray

Dear Andy Murray,

Hello Andy. I hope preparations are going well for the final leg of the 2014 season, which starts in China for you shortly. This is a strange time of the season, with perhaps little in the way of top-level Grand Slam glory. However, there are some pretty high-profile tournaments to win, and there is a chance to build a good platform for the following year. Many will remember the role Ivan Lendl played in your history-making 2012 season, but it's also worth remembering your strong end to 2011 setting things in motion. I still think the second of your three wins during that autumn - the 2011 Japan Open - was one of your finest; you played brilliantly in the final, even if maybe one could argue that Rafael Nadal was not quite in 'Grand Slam mode' when you beat him 3-6 6-2 6-0.

Of course the news in the past couple of days has been less about tennis in Shenzhen, Beijing and Shanghai and more about politics in the United Kingdom. On the morning of the Scottish Referendum on independence (Thursday September 18th), you publicly came out in support of the pro-independence "yes" campaign in a short post on Twitter. This quickly generated some quite strong feelings on both sides of the debate, and has become a hot talking point going forward. Sadly, I hear that the strength of feeling led to some unacceptable and frankly disgusting comments on social media. I obviously condemn this in the strongest terms.

It's a difficult one to try and articulate. Speaking purely from a personal point of view (in the interests of full disclosure I do currently work for HM Government, which is why I'm stressing that this is a personal view) from someone living outside Scotland (the so-called rUK), I wanted Scotland to remain as part of the United Kingdom. So ultimately, I suppose that any support you gave for 'yes' would broadly have been met with disappointment, and any support for 'no' broadly endorsed privately, whatever the way in which it was stated. You are of course entitled to your opinion and there is an argument commending you for putting yourself out there and coming down on one particular side.

However, even accepting that view, there is an element to this which makes me feel uncomfortable and, after some thinking, I think I've been able to pinpoint what it is. Much has been written since Thursday about how you took years to win the hearts and minds of 'middle England' and now, having done so in the last couple of years, the old suspicions and mistrust will resurface after your support for 'yes'. The point I would like to make is that this perception of you was, and has always been, far from universal in rUK. There are those of us that have supported you since your breakthrough in 2005 and, in particular, since Tim Henman's retirement left you as the main British hope and talent in 2008. We saw through all the 'anti-England' rhetoric that wrongly followed you for so many years. Many of us have friends and family, though, who - whether believing the 'anti-England' rhetoric or not - still didn't like what they saw. We tried consistently to put the case for the defence, we suffered the tough losses in Grand Slams and other major tournaments, we said 'chapeau' to those who played better on the day (tennis is not a tribal sport) while observing the gloating of non-fans on social media afterwards. We also, it must be said, were repaid in abundance by many ATP titles, Masters victories, an Olympics gold (and silver in the doubles) medal and, finally, those two Grand Slam triumphs. A huge testament to your persistence, drive and work ethic.

Yet by openly supporting the secession of Scotland (who you would then, not unreasonably in the case of a 'yes' outcome, compete for) from the United Kingdom, the indication you give is that you want no part in Britain except, presumably, to continue living here. The implication is that you give flagrant disregard to the support and emotional investment (in varying degrees, and I'm quite sure there are many in rUK who have invested more, as well as many others who have invested less, than myself) that those of us in Britain have given over the years (including when others have been more sceptical). In extremis, this could even be interpreted as not so much "thanks, but no thanks" as "thanks, but fuck off!" Thinking about this rationally, I am almost 100% certain that this was not your intention. You will no doubt point out to me that your criticism in that Thursday morning tweet was against the 'no' campaign, and that your endorsement of 'yes' was therefore not a wholesale rejection of Britain and its people, including your supporters. You may also posit that the application of this type of 'either/or' mentality to the separatism debate is precisely what you disliked about the 'no' campaign in Scotland.

However, I would argue that this issue is not confined to the referendum, and can be seen in other sporting examples. Golf will join the Olympics roster in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 and, in an interview shortly after London 2012, Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy was asked his views on whether he would compete for Britain or Ireland. Speaking about his feelings on the issue he said "what makes it such an awful position to be in is that I've grown up my whole life playing for Ireland under the Golfing Union of Ireland umbrella. But the fact is, I've always felt more British than Irish...I don't know [why], but I've always felt more of a connection with UK than Ireland." This was thoughtful to begin with, but it still received a strong backlash from Ireland and its golfing community. McIlroy recognised that, although he had expressed his opinions sincerely, he had failed to fully consider the hurt and puzzled disappointment his opinion would cause in an Ireland where he had been, and continued to be, well supported. A few days later, he clarified: "After everything that's happened [the interview and the backlash]...it really hit home with me how important it is for a lot of people and how important my success has been to them...It would be terrible to nearly segregate myself  from one of those groups that supports me". Finally, this summer, on the eve of the Irish Open in Cork, he announced that he would play for Ireland. This was in due course backed by the Team GB Olympics golf coach, as well as the golfing community as a whole.

The key point here I think is not necessarily McIlroy's final decision (which is also slightly nuanced because golf in Ireland, up to professional level, spans both the Republic and Northern Ireland). Rather, it is that he showed that he understood the sensitivity of the issue on both sides of the debate. I think this process of communication helped make his final decision easier to digest for people on both sides, including those - like the Team GB golf coach - who (logic suggests) would have loved to have had Rory in the Team GB fold. Even though I would not have agreed with your support for 'yes', I believe (or like to think) that, had you shown an understanding of the complexity of how your decision could have been interpreted - in a sporting context - by fans in both Scotland and rUK, this would have helped myself and other people who were hoping for an outcome of 'no' (or 'yes', had you gone the other way on this issue) to better accept your decision. The alternative option, of course, is to not give an opinion on the matter - the stance you maintained until a quick tweet on the day of polling.

Instead what we had was a quick post on Twitter supporting "yes" with only a criticism of the "no" campaign's tactics (i.e. their negativity) in support. And thus instead many of your fans appear to be, if not necessarily hurt (an emotion too strong for me, though maybe not for others), then left slightly disappointed and scratching their heads that their support over the years appears to have not been considered or acknowledged at all in a decision on a topic of such magnitude. Truth be told, memories are (mostly) short and a good trait of human nature is the tendency to forgive and forget. Your commitment, work ethic and success have been a huge credit for Britain on the world sporting stage, and when the dust settles that will never be forgotten and will continue to be a source of pride for many British sporting fans (myself included). However, for a while - just for a while - what happened on Thursday seems to have stuck in the craw somewhat, for myself and many others. And there is a chance, if only a very small chance, that - whatever forgiveness happens in future - things may never quite be the same again.

Yours Sincerely,
Rishi 

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Monza weekend race summaries

As indicated in my post last week relaying some of the things I experienced going to last weekend's (September 5th-7th) Italian Grand Prix, here are some corresponding race summaries from the races I saw. To be honest, it's nice to have a record of this down in one place to complement my earlier post but, at the same time, there probably isn't much value to add here compared to what viewers at home would have seen. Moreover, in some unavoidable cases gaps may have been filled in after the event, for both TV viewers and spectators in the stands (e.g. Daniil Kvyat's brake problem). However, on the other hand, this may be useful if for example you follow a series but don't often watch it or follow it very closely; or if you want to find out about some of the drivers or stories further down the field of a race, particularly because when I was in the stands I probably followed these battles more closely than I usually do when I watch on TV.

FORMULA ONE

The Mercedes team celebrate their 1-2, after Hamilton led
home Rosberg. (C) 2014 XPB Images

Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) gave his title aspirations a shot in the arm with victory in the Italian Grand Prix. Starting from pole, a technical glitch saw Hamilton drop behind team-mate and title rival Nico Rosberg (who also made a great start), as well as Felipe Massa (Williams) and the fast-starting Kevin Magnussen (McLaren). Both Massa and Hamilton cleared Magnussen before Lewis then cleared Felipe with an intricate move into Prima Variante (Variante del Rettifilo). He then chased down Rosberg, reducing the gap to around a second (i.e. getting within DRS range) shortly after the pitstops. It was shaping up to be a close battle, with the faster Hamilton chasing the man with track position, Rosberg. Alas Lewis' pressure told on Lap 29 of 53 when Nico overshot the Rettifilo for the second time in the race. Hamilton duly took over the lead and controlled it to win from Rosberg (who now leads the championship by 22 points) and Massa, who ended up having quite a quiet race but an important one, as it yielded his first podium of a difficult season.

Behind them, a train formed behind Magnussen which included Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull), Fernando Alonso (Ferrari), Sergio Perez (Force India), Jenson Button (McLaren) and Valtteri Bottas, Massa's team-mate. Bottas had had a very slow getaway and dropped as low as about 11th, but ended up taking 4th after a series of fine overtaking manoeuvres. The Finn's stock continues to grow and grow this season. Daniel Ricciardo (Red Bull) took 5th place; the Australian (of Italian origin) had had a slow start to the race, but benefited from a team call to bring his team-mate Vettel in early to get ahead of Magnussen. Whilst Vettel was successful it meant that he and his rivals (who all followed him and generally pitted a lap or two later) who were part of the Magnussen train all had to finish the race on older, quite worn tyres. Ricciardo, who had run long in the first stint, was thus on much fresher tyres. It was testament to his impressive racecraft that, despite having a slower Renault engine, he not only caught the train but worked his way to the front with a series of fine overtakes, and then duly pulled away. Vettel hung on to 6th, ahead of Perez, who had a really good race holding off Button to 7th. Magnussen was penalised 5 seconds for running Bottas off the road at Rettifilo and thus finished 10th; while Kimi Raikkonen caught the pack at the end to claim 9th after team-mate Alonso was forced out by an ERS failure - his two points a small consolation from a difficult home GP for Ferrari (their worst at Monza since 2005).

Valtteri Bottas (pictured here on Friday)
was quick all weekend and made a lot of
overtakes in the race after a start problem
Out of the points Daniil Kvyat (Toro Rosso) had a great race, storming through from 21st on the grid (after an engine penalty) to 11th (running a similar strategy to Ricciardo) but missing out on the Top 10 after a late brake failure (similar to Mika Hakkinen's for McLaren in 1998). Pastor Maldonado (Lotus) drove really hard all race but spent most of it on his own - in 14th! Sauber managed to get both cars into Q2 on Saturday but could only manage 15th (Adrian Sutil) and 20th (Esteban Gutierrez, after a collision and a penalty). Finally, a fired-up Kamui Kobayashi (Caterham) returned to his seat after being stood down for the Belgian Grand Prix a fortnight earlier to beat Marussia's Jules Bianchi into 17th, something the Banbury-based outfit will hope to reverse at the next round in Singapore.

GP2 SERIES

Saturday Race: McLaren young driver Stoffel Vandoorne (ART) held off race-long pressure from Arthur Pic (Campos) to keep his title hopes alive with victory in the GP2 Saturday race at Monza. Kiwi Mitch Evans (Russian Time) took a deserved third. Behind them, some good battles opened up, with Stephane Richelmi (DAMS) and Andre Negrao (Arden) heading the pack to come through 4th and 5th. Championship contender Felipe Nasr (Carlin) came through a scrap with team-mate Julian Leal and Daniel Abt (Hilmer), the latter having benefited from pitting early to leap into the points positions. Alas, in the end, Leal was penalised for forcing Abt off the track into retirement at the second Lesmo in a particularly robust overtaking move. Title leader Jolyon Palmer (DAMS) and current 4th placed driver in the standings Johnny Cecotto Jr (Trident) put in really strong drives; Palmer was relegated to the back of the grid for not providing enough fuel after qualifying, but stormed through to take 8th and the sprint race pole. Cecotto started down in 23rd but echoed Palmer's assertiveness in traffic to take the final point in 10th place. Marco Sorensen (MP Motorsport, 7th) and Stefano Coletti (Racing Engineering, 9th) rounded off the other points places, while Coletti's team-mate (and the home favourite) Raffaele Marciello was forced to retire after being caught up in an early accident triggered by Kimiya Sato (Pic's team-mate at Campos).

Stoffel Vandoorne en route to victory in Saturday's GP2 race

Sunday Race: Step forward Sergio Canamasas (Trident). His buccaneering rallycross act through the Ascari chicane on the opening lap triggered an accident between debutant Pierre Gasly (Caterham) and Artem Markelov (Russian Time). It also helped contribute (more indirectly) to an accident further down between Cecotto and Sergio Campana (Venezuela Lazarus) at Parabolica. This brought out the only Safety Car I saw during the entire race weekend (I did not watch the GP3 Sunday race so don't know if that had one). Not content with ruining those batch of races, Canamasas then ploughed into the side of Rene Binder (Arden), and made contact with the charging Marciello for good measure! The stewards eventually put him out of his misery by giving him the black flag. World feed GP2 and GP3 commentator Will Buxton was scathing about Canamasas' driving standards after the race. Up at the front, Sorensen attacked Palmer early on, but ran wide and dropped back behind Richelmi. With DAMS now running 1-2, it allowed Palmer to get away while Richelmi tried to soak up pressure from Sorensen and the hard-charging Coletti. The race was made memorable by a series of bold overtaking manoeuvres by Coletti, which moved him up to 2nd to chase after Palmer. He caught the Briton, but was unable to pass him. Jolyon extended his championship lead with victory (after the qualifying penalty!), with Monegasque drivers Coletti and Richelmi rounding out the podium. Sorensen was 4th, while Negrao cemented a strong weekend by finishing 5th. Nasr took 6th, Pic 7th and Adrian Quaife-Hobbs (Rapax) 8th after Jon Lancaster (Hilmer) was given a time penalty for having all four wheels off the track to pass Pic earlier in the race.

GP3 SERIES

Vosiou and Kirchhofer race for 3rd position before the former's
drive-through penalty in Saturday's GP3 race

Saturday Race:
 Jimmy Eriksson (Koiranen GP) kept his title hopes alive with victory as he held off Dino Zamparelli (ART) to win. Similar to the GP2 Saturday race (albeit without pitstops), Eriksson had a steady gap early on but Zamparelli reeled him in during the second half of the race, though wasn't close enough to attempt a pass. Behind them, Robert Vosiou (Arden) ran 3rd for most of the race, but was given a drive-through for a marginal call for overtaking under yellow flags call (I didn't know this at the time, I just suddenly saw he'd dropped back a lot of places!). Marvin Kirchhofer (ART) thus completed the podium, ahead of Emil Bernstoff (Carlin), Dean Stoneman (Marussia Manor) - who had unwittingly helped Kirchhofer on Lap 1 by outbraking himself and ramming the other car much further up the field as a result! - and title leader Alex Lynn (Carlin), who pulled off a couple of useful late overtakes to put more points on the board. Lynn's main title rival Richie Stanaway (Status) had a very slow getaway and despite picking up a few places thereafter could only salvage 9th place, just ahead of team-mate Nick Yelloly - who in turn just held off compatriot Jann Mardenborough (Arden) for the final point after a difficult race. Patrick Kujala (Marussia Manor) and Matteo Tuscher (Jenzer Motorsport) (7th and 8th) finished in the other points positions.

Sunday race: I didn't actually watch Sunday morning's GP3 race, making it my seat just before the start of the Sunday GP2 race, which was just after it. However, a race report of the race - in which Dean Stoneman held off Alex Lynn to win - can be found here.

PORSCHE SUPERCUP

Philipp Eng (in the yellow car) had a few good wheel-to-wheel
battles in this race. Here he did manage to retake his 8th position
down at Rettifilo. Apologies for part of my hand being in the pic!

It was a lights-to-flag victory for Sven Muller (Team Project 1) in the only Porsche Supercup race of the weekend on Sunday mid-morning. Austrian Klaus Bachler (Konrad Motorsport) put a bold move on title leader (and former A1GP driver) Earl Bamber (Fach Auto Tech) to take 2nd place, on a circuit where it was difficult for the Supercup cars to overtake because of the tightness of some of the chicanes. Bamber used this, and his defensive driving, to good effect to hold off title rival Kuba Giermaziak (VERVA-Lechner) for 3rd place, despite Kuba being urged on by the two Polish fans next to me. Michael Ammermueller (Lechner Racing) had looked impressive in the damp conditions on Friday, and ended up putting a solid drive in to finish 5th being Giermaziak; another former A1GP driver, the German was nicknamed "the Hammermuller" in the those days for his tendency to bash into (hammer into, get it?) other cars. Luckily, this particular character trait was absent on Sunday (and probably has been for some time for all I know). Nicki Thiem (Lechner Racing) was frequently referenced by the British commentator on the tannoy, after overcoming a difficult qualifying to finish 6th with a series of bold overtakes, ahead of Clemens Schmidt (Lechner Racing). Erstwhile Formula 2 driver Philipp Eng (Team Project 1) was in a couple of tight battles during the race but came through to take 8th, ahead of Briton Ben Barker (VERVA-Lechner). 18 year-old home favourite Matteo Cairoli (Antonelli Motorsport), a wildcard entrant who is currently leading the Italian Porsche Carrera Cup championship, qualified well up and came through unscathed to take a commendable 10th place (as well as fastest lap) on his Supercup debut.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

If it's (early/mid) September, then it must be...

The Autodromo Nazionale di Monza (circuit in red, old banking in grey).
I think they've added a few new stands beneath Grandstand 26 since this
photo was taken. (C) Monza website
The start of a new Academic Year for schools and universities? The return of workers from their summer holidays (la rentree, as the French call it)? The conclusion of the US Open tennis? Yes, all are plausible answers to the above (depending on where you live). However, the one I'm referring to is the Italian Grand Prix, which has traditionally been held at this time of year at the Autodromo Nazionale di Monza in every year of the World Championship (i.e. since 1950) except 1980. I've sort of wanted to go to the Italian GP, an event with a rich history, for a few years now, and this year I decided to take a leap of faith and go, incorporating a day walking around Milan, where I was staying, into the experience (I have actually been to the Lombardy region - including Milan, Como, Monza and Lake Maggiore once before, when I was 8, but I can only remember bits of it). What I've decided to do is focus on my experience of attending the race in this blog, and then I'm planning to add my thoughts about the actual racing in another one (probably at the weekend).

GETTING TO THE RACE TRACK (FROM MILAN):
The internet is very good at teasing out this sort of information, but there was a change this year. The options for getting from Milan to Monza by public transport, as core details, are as follows:

  • (Option 1) Train from Milano Centrale (every hour) or Milano - Puerta Garibaldi (every 12-15mins, direction Chiasso or Lecco, may be less frequent on Sunday) to Monza, followed by a shuttle bus (black line) to the grounds of the circuit, from which you then walk 15mins to the entrance. This runs from Friday to Sunday.
  • (Option 2) Train (every half-hour) from Milano Centrale to Biassono-Lesmo station (just outside the Lesmo curves of the circuit). Sunday only.
However, the difference is that, for Option 1, you can now buy a 8€ ticket, which incorporates use of the bus, for all three days. If not, then you must pay for the train and the bus (which used to be free) on each of the days you wish to use them. It is still quite cheap either way (€2.10 for a single train fare plus the bus fare, which I don't know!), but the 8€ option is best. For Option 2, the journey now costs 4€ for a return ticket (it used to be free). Although neither are now free per se, I think that the reason for the change is to encourage flexibility in the option you choose. Under the old system, the overwhelming incentive was to use Option 1 on Friday & Saturday, and Option 2 on Sunday (for all ticket holders). Under this new system, some three-day ticket holders might prefer to simply use Option 1 on all three days, for example. Having used both options over the weekend, I can report that for me it ran surprisingly smoothly and efficiently (there were delays post-race on Sunday, but these were minor). However, maybe I was very fortunate!

WALKING AROUND THE CIRCUIT
It is a good tradition from when I go to races with my Dad to walk around the circuit if we can (not the actual track necessarily, but its contours such that we can get to see all corners of the track). For Monza, a three-day ticket includes access to all stands (not just the one you've booked a seat for) for Friday, so it encourages you to walk around. My lesson learnt is to walk around the inside of the circuit, which is accessible from several underpasses. This is because most of the walkways between different grandstands are on the inside of the circuit, so directions are (usually!) clear and also you won't go long without seeing any action as you go from one vantage point to another. The circuit is in the middle of a woodland area in Monza's historic royal park, so it's also nice to walk in between all the trees and greenery, and to have all this so close to the circuit itself (Brands Hatch in Kent is quite similar in this respect for anyone who's ever been there). You also get to walk past some of Monza's famous old banking (on which races were run until the 1960s), and get an idea for just how steep it was! So it is overall a good walking experience.

A piece of Monza's old banking. Note
how steep it is!
However, it's also worth noting that the length of the track is quite long, so it does take quite a bit of time to do (Brands is a lot smaller by comparison - 5.8km vs 3.9km for the Brands GP circuit). Furthermore, the circuit is, roughly speaking, L-shaped (see map, top), and so are most of the walkways from one part of the track to the other. Hence to get from the Variante della Roggia (2nd chicane/Seconda Variante) to Parabolica using the walkways, for example, you can't really walk in a general diagonal direction. Rather, you have to walk a lot of L-shaped routes which, for those of you who remember Pythagoras' Theorem from school, will know is a longer way of reaching your destination! One grandstand I didn't spend a lot of time at but would recommend is No 6, which is on the inside of Prima Variante (Variante del Rettifilo) and you can see the cars under braking. The Parabolica ones are good too because, when I went there, it was a bit damp from a late-afternoon drizzle and the GP3 cars were taking some different lines into the corner as a result.

AT THE RACETRACK: SIGHTS & SOUNDS
Formula 1 is of course the main attraction for the Grand Prix weekend, while junior formulae GP2 and GP3, along with Porsche Supercup, form the rest of the bill. I watched the action from the 26C Grandstand, which is on the pitstraight and near the back of the starting grid. So you get to see the cars emerge from Parabolica, and accelerate their way down the straight, heading towards Rettifilo as they do so. Therefore you do see the cars for quite a stretch of the main straight, and you also get to see the action in the pitlane as well, so I don't have any regrets about watching from here. There is a TV screen nearby, and this tends to be big enough to see overtakes (elsewhere on the circuit) and the like, but not big enough to see detail (e.g. who's been handed out penalties, exact race positions). So there's sometimes an interesting challenge to try and read a race yourself, something I particularly enjoyed doing with Saturday's GP2 race. With Monza being a very high speed circuit, getting photos of the cars in action is not always easy (you need to get the timing right), but the obstacle is not insurmountable with a bit of practice I don't think, and I also imagine that it is easier in places where the cars aren't flat out (e.g. under braking for one of the chicanes, where you'd also see more overtaking moves being pulled off). Finally, one of the entry routes to the track for the now famous post-race track invasion at Monza is located next to Grandstand 26, so it was a good position for that too (I do believe there are other entry routes dotted around the circuit, or the main straight in particular)

Lewis Hamilton chasing down Felipe Massa for 2nd place
during the Italian GP. I never managed to get them in the same
shot! I think this was the lap Lewis passed Felipe.
One of the big talking points about this Formula 1 season has been the noise. With the generational change from V8 engines to V6 turbo-charged power units intended to improve efficiency, the cars are not as loud as they used to be. This has angered many F1 traditionalists. Personally, I agree that the GP2 cars did end up louder than the F1 cars, and did possess more of that that high-pitched scream people perhaps expect from their Grand Prix cars. However, I've got to say that I didn't have a problem with the noise the F1 cars made at high speed, which was still fairly loud without being earth-shattering, and which did have its own, deeper character and quality. If there was an objection I had with the noise, it was that the cars had a tendency to sound quite "guttural" mid-corner, something highlighted to me when I watched the last half-hour of Free Practice 2 from the Ascari chicane on Friday.

THE TIFOSI & OTHER SUPPORTERS
When it comes to support the Italian Grand Prix is, of course, Ferrari territory and a traditional pilgrimage for droves of passionate tifosi. This year was no different, I imagine, from other Monza races I've seen on TV in the sense that those red cars got the strongest support. However, the Maranello outfit have had a disappointing season featuring only two podium finishes, and are somewhat in a period of transition (the exact length of which in uncertain). Hence, the support from the tifosi was tempered by their somewhat muted expectations - particularly on a power circuit which suited the Mercedes-engined cars. There were the occasionally overt displays of support, to be sure; there was a particularly passionate flag-waving display before qualifying (helped by members of the fan club giving away free flags), and cheers when Fernando Alonso pulled a bold move on Sergio Perez on the opening lap of the race. There was also a nice piece of theatre when Luca Montezemolo appeared on the pitwall during Free Practice 3 on Saturday morning, waving and pumping his fist to the set of stands I was sitting in, and we responded in kind (of course I waved back!). However, elsewhere it felt a little like the tifosi were going through the motions in showing their love for the Scuderia.

Nonetheless, every cloud has a single lining and the absence of a Ferrari driver on the podium was counter-balanced to some extent, by one of Maranello's favourite sons returning to the Top 3 for the first time in 16 months; Felipe Massa remains extremely popular despite having left Ferrari for Williams in the close season, and his 3rd place was very warmly (and vocally) received, something Felipe also really appreciated. Additionally, there was strong support for race winner Lewis Hamilton. Part of this came from Italians who, I imagine, like his fighting spirit and heart-on-his-sleeve emotion for racing and winning. A lot of it, however, also came from a fairly large British contingent who had come over to support their man, along with Jenson Button & the McLaren team. This meant that Monza's traditional end-of-race track invasion still had a resounding feel-good factor to it, though it must also be said that there was some booing for race runner-up Nico Rosberg (which stopped when he gave his podium interview in Italian). 

Under the podium as part of Monza's traditional track invasion.
You might just be able to make out Lewis in the photo!
Beyond the tifosi and the Brits it was good to see pockets of support for others too. There were a fair few Red Bull T-shirts and support for their drivers, a few French people supporting Romain Grosjean, and a few from Scandinavia supporting their respective drivers (Kevin Magnussen for Denmark; Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Raikkonen for Finland; and Marcus Ericsson for Sweden - there was also a flag unfurled at the end of the race commemorating his compatriot Ronnie Peterson, a former driver who lost his life at Monza in 1978). There were even a few fans supporting drivers from the support races; I managed to work out that the woman next to me was from Poland, and her allegiances were to Kuba Giermaziak, a Pole currently battling for the title in the Porsche Supercup championship.

CONCLUSIONS
To be sure, no circuit is perfect and I've pointed out some of the holes Monza has during this article (e.g. the TV screens are quite small, and it isn't necessarily the easiest circuit to walk). I'm also sure that the atmosphere would have been even better had Ferrari been more competitive and competing for a race win or the title (particularly as they now haven't won a drivers' title since 2007). However, these were all, fundamentally speaking, minor issues (at least they were for me on this particular weekend). The atmosphere for the race weekend and for the podium was still really good - at least with Massa's podium and Hamilton's victory for the latter (the booing of Rosberg admittedly wasn't great, though I do agree with Edd Straw in Autosport that, while I didn't do it, others have a right to do it if they want to). The racing was also mostly really good all weekend, and I really enjoyed the whole experience I've described earlier of walking around the track, following the races and being amongst the crowd as we all cheered on our favourites and appreciated the impressive overtakes or defensive driving. So, in short, I'd definitely recommend it to any racing fans thinking of going, and I hope they're as fortunate as I was!

Ideally, some of the action above may have been better captured by videos rather than photos. I do have some of these, and may further attempt to upload them if I can. So far, it has been unsuccessful. However, if I don't have time or if it remains unsuccessful then I will just keep the photos instead! 

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Hereford United: The drama of their downfall (and my walk-on part in it)

Source: BBC Sport website
North London. A Friday the 13th (seriously!) in the closing weeks of the 2011/12 football season. I spent the day revising Advanced Macroeconomic Theory (search & matching employment models, for those interested!) and then, in the evening twilight, hopped onto the Tube to the end of the Northern Line (High Barnet branch!) to watch Barnet play Hereford United in a tense League Two relegation six-pointer. Both had had their heads above the water earlier in the season, but had undergone bad runs of form (in Barnet's case at least, losing matches even when playing pretty well); cut adrift of the teams above them, these two, plus the even more horribly out-of-form Macclesfield Town, would fight over one survival position in the Football League.

The match that took place was high on endeavour, but arguably low on true moments of quality. However, this was perhaps unexpected given the tangible feeling of tension prevalent around all corners of the ground; there was a lot riding on this game (there were only three after it) for both sides, and fans of both persuasions were desperate for the three points. As it happened, Delroy Facey (a journeyman who had played for Bolton & West Brom in years gone by but now looked about a stone or two too big for the professional game) used his physicality to good purpose by heading home Ben Purkiss's cross to give Hereford an initially deserved lead. Barnet regrouped, and replied when substitute striker Ben May (on loan from Stevenage) fired home later in the 1st Half. Both teams, at different stages, threatened to take all three points; Barnet had a very good handball shout (visible to us behind the Hereford goal but not to the referee, who was the other side) turned down, while at the other end The Bulls' Yoann Arquin had a great chance cleared brilliantly off the line by The Bees' Clovis Kamdjo. Alas, the game ended in a 1-1 draw, an overall fair reflection on the game but one which pleased neither side entirely, though Barnet (who were three points clear of Hereford - with a less favourable goal difference - and occupying the safe 22nd position) left the slightly more satisfied of the two.

As it happened, the result was not enough to save their manager, Lawrie Sanchez, who was sacked a few days later. However, the team claimed two wins from their remaining three games, seeing them narrowly escape Hereford's clutches (who managed seven points from nine against arguably tougher opposition) to safety on the final day of the league season (Macclesfield went down with a game left) - the third season in a row that they had secured safety on the final day. At the time, I was delighted by the news. During my year in North London, I'd taken the little club to my heart somewhat, following their progress closely and attending matches wherever possible (not often during a gruelling Masters degree year admittedly). I therefore saw the looming prospect of relegation from their shoes. Loss of Football League status meant loss of youth funding, which was crucial to Barnet, who had invested quite heavily (certainly for a club of their size) in The Hive, an impressive sporting facility where youth teams and junior sides trained and developed. Moreover, the club had for years sought a move away from Underhill - their home ground between 1907 and 2013 - where they had to pay a lease to Barnet Borough Council to use the ground and the land around it, and therefore to keep some money for a potential move to a new ground (particularly if the terms of any (renewed) lease became too prohibitive and made the need for a move more urgent, as was becoming the case around this time). Relegation would have constrained their ability to do this and would potentially have left them them facing an uphill challenge of finding a venue for home games, while remaining financially sustainable.

In the end, Barnet's luck ran out when they were relegated on the final day of the following season! However, that extra year in the Football League helped them make contingency plans for their home games (they expanded their facility at The Hive to host games as a medium-term option); and it seems that their financial position is not too precarious at this stage (touch wood!). Yet fast-forward two full seasons on from 2011/12 and the perils of loss of Football League status have bit very hard at both Hereford and Macclesfield. The Moss Rose side from Cheshire flirted with danger often behind the scenes last season, and were only cleared to start the 2014/15 season in the Conference Premier when major shareholder Amar Alkhadi found the money late in the day to pay an outstanding tax bill, as well as outstanding staff wages (including playing staff). At Hereford, the situation has been even worse. They thought they had pulled off a rescue of Jimmy Glass & Carlisle-esque proportions on the final day of last season, when they clambered above Chester FC to the safe position of 20th in the table. However, long-running financial problems failed to go away and, despite much leniency from the Conference, they were eventually expelled from the league in early June after failing to secure their financial future (Chester were reprieved as a consequence). Since being accepted in the Southern League (two divisions below the Conference Premier), their new owner has failed an FA 'fit-and-proper persons' test and they have continued to battle separate winding-up orders from former manager Martin Foyle and HM Revenue & Customs over unpaid debts. The orders have been repeatedly adjourned, most recently until September 1st. Until then, attempts to secure a Company Voluntary Arrangement for payment of the outstanding debts have been unsuccessful.

Hereford United fans protest against those they hold
responsible for the club's troubles. (C) Hereford Times 
What I find really staggering is the sheer amount of debt at the club. £225,000 (possibly much more) is huge for a club in non-league football, particularly when you consider the generous fundraising efforts that have already gone into keeping the club afloat (which total almost £100,000 themselves, and include one-off performances from comedian Omid Djalili - a Chelsea fan!). The first thought is that there must have been some serious financial mismanagement going on at Edgar Street, even taking into account the loss of funding and lower attendances associated with loss of Football League status. On further reflection though, perhaps it is an indication of the financial sustainability of football in England. The Conference is nominally a non-professional league, yet most the teams in it are now professional; it is effectively a League Three in all but name. Not only does this make promotion difficult, it also means relegated clubs with falling incomes have to keep splashing the cash to keep attracting players. One thing that I perhaps did not fully consider in my support for The Bees is that Barnet, despite their undoubted challenges, are perhaps helped by their catchment area; like most of England's big cities, the London area is a hub for both semi-pro and pro clubs and hence they are able to pick up players who maybe showed promise at youth level, but are now plying their trade semi-professionally while looking for a route into the pro game. The Barnet side on show that day in April 2012 featured several such players, including Ricky Holmes, Sam Deering and Kamdjo. In 2008, the club picked up Albert Adomah from nearby Harrow Borough FC; the winger now plays for Middlesbrough in the Championship and has even been capped by Ghana. West Midlanders Hereford, by contrast, are quite far from any major hub of football (even the West Midlands hub, which is more centred around Birmingham). Thus it is harder, I'd imagine, for them to find the players they want locally and, hence, they probably have to pay a premium to get these players in from other parts of the country. They have actually flirted with financial apocalypse before in recent years, so it leaves me wondering about the financial sustainability of a club in the area in which they're located. Having said that, you could make the alternative argument that the club should compensate for this by ensuring they have a sleeker (i.e. more cost-effective), smarter scouting system in place.

There are over 100 professional clubs in England today. That is a truly staggering achievement and one that is a real testament to the passion that the sport arouses in so many fans across the country. However, it is also far more than any other comparable league in Europe (most of whom tend to have 2, at most 3, professional divisions rather than almost five!). Although the news would be hugely sad for its loyal supporters, and provide a sad epilogue to the club's finest hour - a 2-1 FA Cup 3rd Round Replay victory over Newcastle United in the 1971/72 season, footage of which is still shown on TV every year as the ultimate FA Cup upset (it inspired Djalili's fundraising gigs), maybe a club like Hereford United is truly unsustainable, at least in its current form. After the summer it has had, the many months of problems it has had, maybe the only way for a club in its location to be truly sustainable at a professional level is to be reborn completely from the ashes of the current club, with a new ownership reforming its practices completely as a result, to ensure it is able to cope with the unique challenges that it faces.

TEAMS & SUMMARY FROM APRIL 2012 (BARNET 1-1 HEREFORD):
BARNET (Manager: Lawrie Sanchez): Dean Brill; Sead Hajrovic (Ben May 25), Paul Downing, Michael Hector, Jordan Mustoe; Mark Hughes (c), Mark Byrne, Clovis Kamdjo, Sam Deering, Ricky Holmes; Izale McLeod

HEREFORD UNITED (Manager: Richard O'Donnell): Adam Bartlett; Ben Purkiss, Byron Anthony, Michael Townsend, James Chambers (James Baxendale 77); Nicky Featherstone, Kenny Lunt, Will Evans (Yoann Arquin 57), Sam Clucas; Tom Barkhuizen, Delroy Facey (c) (Nathan Elder 90)

GOALS: Facey 11; May 31

REFEREE: Christopher Sarginson
ATTENDANCE: 3,189

Sunday, 10 August 2014

In-depth look: Canadian tennis' history-making generation

Milos Raonic (l) and Vasek Pospisil (r) after their history-making final at
Washington's Citi Open, which Raonic won. (C) 2014 Getty Images
The Citi Open, Washington D.C. The old Legg Mason Classic bolstered by the change to twin event status (both men and women play there at the same time) that came with the sponsorship change in 2012. It is one of the flagships of the North American hard court summer; a key for players' preparations for the US Open and an important event on the ATP and WTA tours. In the men's final last Sunday (August 3rd), history was made as this capital of the US of A was turned red and white and overgrown with maple leaves as two Canadians - Milos Raonic of Thornhill, Ontario and Vasek Pospisil of Vernon, British Columbia - faced off in the final for the first time in an ATP event, with Raonic coming out on top 6-1 6-4. Coming just before Canada's own flagship event - the Canadian Open, better known as the Rogers Cup, a Masters event - the timing was (almost[1]) perfect. Moreover, it serves to highlight the giant strides the Canadian professional game has taken in the last few years and, in particular, the last few months. This blog will attempt to chart the rise of Canadian tennis; try to look for the reasons behind it; and analyse future prospects.

THE RISE & RISE OF CANADIAN TENNIS
Whilst Canada's Rogers Cup had always been a popular event, and whilst the odd player had always done pretty well (e.g. Daniel Nestor's success - eight men's and four mixed Grand Slam titles - in the doubles, and a young Aleksandra Wozniak - arguably the first of this 'golden generation' before injury slowed her progress - getting far in several Slams during 2009), for me the Year Zero was Raonic's breakthrough run at the 2011 Australian Open (even more than Wozniak's precocious breakthrough a few years earlier). With his booming serve and direct, attacking style of play, Raonic caught the eyes of many as he reached the 4th Round, beating two seeds (Mickael Llodra and Mikhail Youzhny) en route. He quickly followed that up by winning the SAP Open in San Jose, his maiden ATP title and the first by a Canadian since 1995[2]. Although injuries took their toll in the second half of 2011, stalling his progress, he still won the 2011 ATP Newcomer of the Year award. Elsewhere, in the women's game Eugenie Bouchard showed promise in the juniors and in due course won the 2012 Wimbledon Girls' Singles title, marking herself as a player for the future. Whilst Bouchard was winning the Wimbledon Girls' title, compatriot Filip Peliwo was winning the Boys' Singles title; like proverbial buses, Canada had waited years for Grand Slam singles success (it had never happened at junior or professional level), only for two to come along at more or less the same time!

The boom, however, really started around 18 months ago. At the core of this, in the men's game, was a dream run by the country in the Davis Cup team event. In February, they shocked a powerful Spanish outfit to win their 1st Round tie, before beating Italy to set up a Semi-Final against a strong Serbian side. Although rank outsiders, Raonic dug deep to beat Janko Tipsarevic and Nestor & Pospisil teamed up to administer a shock five set win over Nenad Zimonjic and Ilija Bozoljac in the doubles to put Canada 2-1 up. Alas Serbia fought back to win 3-2, but the Canadian run caught the imagination of tennis 'mavens' (very knowledgeable fans, in this context; I put a definition in because I had no idea what the word meant until last week!) back home; hundreds of them made the trip to Serbia for the Semi, which was their best result in the Open era (i.e. since 1968). It was a testament, too, to the captaincy of Martin Laurendeau, in fostering a team spirit and confidence within the players.

Pospisil and Nestor celebrate the doubles win that put them
2-1 in the 2013 Davis Cup Semi-Final. (C) Tennis Canada
As this run was developing, Raonic won two further events during 2013, and became the first Canadian man to reach the Rogers Cup final since Bob Bedard in 1958, finishing the year just outside the Top 10 at 11 in the world. However, his incremental improvements were if anything superseded by the rise of Pospisil. Vasek hadn't really registered on most tennis fans' radar before 2013, but rocketed up the rankings during 2013 to move from 125 in the world to just outside the Top 30. Underpinning this run was a fine week of his own in Montreal (where the men's Rogers Cup was held in 2013; it alternates annually with Toronto, and the women's event goes the other way round - i.e. they played Toronto in 2013, but are playing Montreal in 2014), beating Tomas Berdych en route to the Semi-Finals, where he very nearly beat compatriot Raonic to reach the final! In the women's game, Bouchard reached the 3rd round at Wimbledon, the final at a WTA event in Japan, and rose up to 32 in the year-end rankings (from 144 at the end of 2012). It all earned her the accolade of 2013 WTA Newcomer of the Year. Here, too, was a player going places.

In 2014, the rise of Bouchard has been the big story. She has had a brilliant season, reaching the Semi-Finals of the Australian Open & French Open (only the second Canadian to ever achieve this in the women's professional game - after Carling Bassett-Seguso in 1984), and the Final at Wimbledon (where she was the pre-event favourite). She has caught the imagination of fans across the world (the so-called "Genie Army"); alerted talent spotters with her ambition; and risen to number 7 in the world. In the men's, Raonic reached the Semi-Finals at Wimbledon too (the first Canadian to do it in the men's singles since Robert Powell in 1908!), and has frequently reached the Quarter-Finals of Masters events and even the French Open, which is played on his weakest surface of clay. Pospisil reached the 3rd round of the Australian Open, and the final last week in Washington. Additionally, teaming up with USA's Jack Sock in the doubles, he triumphed where Bouchard and Raonic narrowly missed out by winning a Wimbledon trophy - beating the legendary Bryan brothers in the final of the men's doubles in five sets in front of a packed Centre Court crowd [3]. In the manner of 18 months, Canada has had a successful Rogers Cup run (in addition to Raonic & Pospisil, young Peliwo and journeymen pros Frank Dancevic & Jesse Levine all made the 2nd round), a brilliant Davis Cup run, and has now reached multiple Grand Slam Semi-Finals; even a couple of finals (one of which they won). This has been an incredible surge in recent times.

REASONS BEHIND THE RISE: A WHISTLE-STOP ANALYSIS
Inevitably, as Canadian players start to feature ever more prominently, questions will be asked as to how this has happened. Was it because of structures and work put in place by Tennis Canada, or was it simply coincidental - a group of talented, committed players who happened to come through at the same age? It is a pertinent question, in particular, for the UK - who hired Michael Downey in 2013 to head up their tennis federation, the LTA, having done the same job at Tennis Canada for a decade as these guys rose up.

To start with, it must be said that there is little credit Downey and his team can get for introducing the likes of Bouchard, Raonic, Pospisil and Wozniak to the sport. Moreover, between the ages of 12 and 15 Bouchard went to train at Nick Saviano's academy in Florida, so therefore her development at this stage was exogenous of the Canadian system. Raonic and Pospisil, by contrast, continued to grow up in Canada, benefiting from local coaches and honing their games at the country's National Tennis Centre in Montreal during their teenage years. However, even then Raonic's breakthrough came after a stint spent training in Spain (where he now has a training base in Barcelona, when he's not in Canada). In particular, Raonic was taken in by the competition, winning mentality and limitless ambitions of the players there; whilst he had honed his big serve on the courts of his local club, his stint in Spain seemed to encourage him to be more clinical when using it, and more clinical in his attacking game more generally.

However, tennis federation did still play its part in the successes. Downey, a man with a sports marketing background, used his strength to extract more revenues from the Rogers Cup (helped, of course, by this being something of a golden era for particularly men's tennis). He then re-invested this back into elite development with the brand new National Training Centre facility in Montreal (announced in 2007, delivered by 2009) the focal point. This influenced the decision to move Bouchard back to Canada after three or four years in Florida, in a collaborative approach which blended Saviano's coaching guidance with the Centre's new state-of-the-art facilities. The proof of the pudding is in the eating and Bouchard's junior development seemed to richly endorse this approach.

Bouchard's junior career included a Girls' Singles triumph
at Wimbledon 2012. Photo: Adam Davy/Associated Press (C)
The more sophisticated facilities of the new Training Centre, and the more integrated approach (a 'partnership' approach that Downey is believed to be very keen on), came on stream at the end of Raonic and Pospisil's junior careers (both are born in 1990 - Pospisil is six months older - so both came through the ranks at pretty much the same time), admittedly. However, the facilities are there for the players today, and the corresponding structures and personnel put in place to exploit the new facility have proved helpful. In particular, Downey was involved in hiring Louis Borfiga - Team Canada's Vice-President and Head of High Performance Athlete Development - from the French Federation. Borfiga, in turn, was responsible in helping Pospisil make contact with Frederic Fontang, at the end of 2012. And, according to veteran Canadian tennis journalist Tom Tebbutt last summer: "Rarely has a player mentioned his coach and given him 'props' (kudos) as consistently and often as Pospisil this season." In an interview with the ATP website around the same time, Pospisil pinpointed where he had been improving under Fontang's tutelage: "We have worked really hard to take my game to opponents. That means not getting bogged down in long rallies and striking the ball early...even adding an extra 10% of aggression can make a big difference. You can't hang back, wait against the top players and expect to win." For fans of Andy Murray - like Pospisil, a player with a strong all-court game and solid stamina (tour debut notwithstanding), the challenge sounds familiar. With the support of Tennis Canada, Pospisil - generally a higher performer than Raonic at junior level - has found a coach who has helped him take great strides in overcoming it, just like Murray did.

HOW FAR CAN THEY GO?
In terms of prospects, the shining star from this group appears to be Bouchard. She is a big talent - with an attacking game - fiercely ambitious and has ostensibly seemed unfazed by her staggering achievements already this year. Tebbutt again [4]: "The mantra all through her progress since making the Australian Open semi-finals is January has been a variation of 'this is what I've expected, this is what I've worked for, and I'm not satisfied with what I've achieved so far'." Although she was beaten 6-3 6-0 in the Wimbledon final by Petra Kvitova, this could be put down to the Czech playing an absolutely brilliant match; sometimes a really good player has a really great day and you have to doff your cap to them and Bouchard herself seemed to acknowledge this afterwards. However, her return to action post-Wimbledon, in this week's WTA Rogers Cup event at Montreal, was less successful as she suffered a shock 6-0 2-6 6-0 defeat to USA's Shelby Rogers in front of her home fans. Afterwards Bouchard, now 20, admitted to not dealing with the pressure of the event too well, perhaps a bit of a surprise given how well she had handled the pressure of her rise so far this season, and how she has taken the adulation of the Genie Army in her stride. It will be interesting to see if this is an aberration or the start of a pattern but, for now, her Grand Slam prospects remain the highest in the group. Incidentally, her compatriot Wozniak's prospects are no longer as bright as they once were, due to a couple of serious injuries. However, she will be hoping that an injury-free run will enable her to return to the Top 100 in the rankings and potentially make serious inroads into the Top 50; at 26, time is still on her side.

In the men's game, Raonic remains the strongest prospect. However, for me, he falls into a similar trap to the one John Isner falls into. His style, and comparative advantage, is in playing a big-serving, direct, attacking game. So he must play to those strengths. However, at the same time, it is quite difficult these days to achieve Grand Slam success with this approach, because the greatest players are such great returners and perhaps therefore aren't as intimidated by that approach as was the case in the 1990s, where big-serving attackers tended to dominate; in their Wimbledon semi-final, Roger Federer dealt with Raonic's approach quite easily in a 6-4 6-4 6-4 win. Overall, Raonic is stronger as an all-round player (both attacking and defensive) than Isner, and is stronger outside North America than the man from North Carolina, so his prospects are stronger. This, therefore, may bring him the odd Masters title and appearances at the year-ending ATP World Tour Finals (which only the Top 8 players in the year rankings attend). However, I still can't see him winning a Grand Slam, though he may prove me wrong. Pospisil's weakness is perhaps the opposite; although his all-court game is very good, his lack of weapons (in relative terms) may see him struggle relative to his peers - again at the highest level. He is probably someone who can reach the Top 20, win ATP events, but maybe struggle to get too far in Grand Slam or Masters events at this stage. However, as his game develops, injury niggles fade and confidence grows, there is still plenty of time for him to prove people wrong and surpass that, maybe even asking questions at the sharper end of Grand Slams at singles level on top of his doubles success.

17 year-old Francoise Abanda reached the Semi-Finals in
Paris and is one to watch. Photo: Stephanie Myles/Opencourt.ca
Another intriguing element for Tennis Canada is the younger generation coming through, who will have benefited more from the new National Training Centre (and related investment) more than this generation. In particular, eyes will need to be kept out for Peliwo, 20, (whose career has stalled somewhat since turning pro but, in fairness, this is not uncommon in tennis these days) and Francoise Abanda, a 17 year-old who has overcome a serious shoulder injury and reached the Semi-Finals of both Junior Wimbledon (pre-injury, in 2012) and the Junior French Open (post-injury, in 2014). Although she lost in three sets to Australian Open finalist Dominika Cibulkova at this week's Rogers Cup (6-1 3-6 6-0), she did enough to mark out her potential. And, with tennis participation levels up in Canada during Downey's tenure, more may still be added to this next list of young hopefuls in the next couple of years

Make no bones about it, the rise of Canadian tennis has been rapid over the past 18 months, and evident going even further back than that. The talent, hard work and drive of the pros and youngsters, combined with investment and integration by Tennis Canada, is driving standards ever higher. It is an exciting time to be part of the tennis scene in Canada and, even more tantalisingly, all the protagonists mentioned here seem to be getting better and better and better. Whisper it quietly, because the competition is fierce but maybe, just maybe, this will be one golden generation whose success will truly be 'golden'. After all, they're already making history.

NOTES
[1] - Why 'almost'? Because the Citi Open was directly before the Rogers Cup. Hence, it was inevitable that Raonic and Pospisil were not going to be in 'tip-top' shape for the Rogers Cup. Alas, Pospisil was beaten in Round 1 by Richard Gasquet (a reverse of the Citi Open Semi-Final, where Pospisil had beaten Gasquet). Raonic fared better, reaching the Quarter-Finals, but lost in three sets to Feliciano Lopez.

[2] - The previous winner, in 1995, was Greg Rusedski. Having grown up in Canada, Rusedski competed for them in his early days before switching allegiance to Great Britain, where his mother was from and where he now lives, later in 1995.

[3] - It was unfortunate that Nestor does not get more of a mention in this article. He is nearly 42, still playing on the pro tour, and was giving advice to Pospisil before Vasek's men's doubles final at Wimbledon. He has been an important standard-bearer for a long time now and his experience of the tennis tour as a whole will no doubt be useful for younger players to tap into. He is also known to be a bit of a chatterbox in the changing rooms ("He never shuts up. But when he goes on court and doesn't say a word!" quipped Andy Murray in this interview)!

[4] - Tom Tebbutt's blog was hugely invaluable in helping with the research of this article, and is really the "go-to" source if you want to learn more about how Canada's players are getting on, and indeed to pick up useful snippets about the professional game (and players) as a whole. It can be found here. He is a big tennis enthusiast and, in the 1990s, famously discovered that Pete Sampras suffered from thalassemia, a blood condition which can cause mild anaemia.