Friday, 31 July 2009

The Return of The King

I’ve been blogging on Formula One throughout the season this year. Having come back to F1 after an absence of ten or fifteen years, I’ve enjoyed the racing a great deal. Although it’s fair to say I’ve probably enjoyed the BBC’s coverage just as much. I mock Jake, DC and Eddie, and I ridicule Brundle because I think it’s pretty funny. But secretly, I like what they do.

Mostly though, this year has been a voyage of discovery into the labyrinthine politics and behind-the-scenes shenanigans. It’s this that has kept me fascinated me throughout the last few months.

I had made a formatting decision early on that I would only blog on the subject during Grand Prix weekends, folding in any appropriate fun and games that had happened since the last race, and summarising them neatly before moving on to the day’s events. Unfortunately, it was getting to the point that I would take up my laptop to describe a qualifying session, and knock out a thousand words on Max Mosley and KERS before they’d even started their engines.

So this week I am faced with the problem that there is just so much going on in the world of Formula One, and there are three and a half weeks till the next race. With poor old Felipe Massa still in intensive care, and BMW on their bike, I was already making notes for the next race weekend.

This week though, I simply have to break with my self-imposed tradition and write about the news early. This week, Michael Schumacher came out of retirement.

Firstly, let’s talk about Felipe Massa. After his brush with Rubens Barrichello’s rear suspension last week, he is now out of intensive care and, in the long tradition of medical bulletins, he is reported to be “cracking jokes.” Despite his improving condition, he is to remain in Budapest for the time being. His Brazilian doctor Dino Altmann said that Massa “looks like a boxer,” but the fact the doctor is flying out of Hungary today indicates that Massa is out of danger.

So, with Massa in one piece but unlikely to make the grid for Valencia in three weeks’ time, Ferrari needed a short term replacement to drive their car. I imagine the board meeting where they discussed this was very interesting. Chief engineers and team managers all scratching their heads and tossing around the names of test drivers. In the corner is the glowering “technical adviser,” still very much on the payroll. He coughs gently and silence falls. All heads turn to him.

“Gentlemen. If I might make a suggestion…”

So Schumi is back behind the wheel. The world is sitting up and taking notice. Will he still have it? Will he be struggle with the technology which has advanced so much while he has been away? He probably doesn’t even know what KERS stands for. Actually, nobody else does either.

Is this a step too far for an old champion? He is almost universally acknowledged as the best driver to ever sit in a Formula One car, but I suppose four years in the paddock has to make even the best rusty.

It’s not as dangerous as in boxing – seeing Evander Holyfield coming out of retirement again to take on the enormous Nikolay Valuev was not just sad, but also dangerous. Fortunately, the seven foot monster is a hapless gorilla rather than a boxer, so Holyfield survived to start his latest retirement.

Although F1 is a lot safer these days, Massa’s accident, and Alonso’s flying tyre in Budapest have proved that it is still a contact sport. You have to feel that Schumacher will be okay though – he is so icy cool that he’ll probably end up winning the bloody race.

In the back of my mind, there is the concern that he is pretty much the reason I stopped watching F1 all those years ago. However, it was not him so much as his uncompromising domination of the sport. Even if he were to return to that metronomic form for the next couple of races, it can only ever be a temporary aberration to the status quo, and so I’ve got to appreciate the drama.

Whilst on the subject of Fernando Alonso’s missing wheel, the Renault team have been suspended from the European Grand Prix as a punishment for allowing him out of the pits without securing his the wheel-nut. They are appealing, and the likelihood is they’ll end up with a fine or a points deduction.

Still, a hefty Bridgestone bouncing down the track at 100mph is no laughing matter and there ought to be a significant punishment, although in my heart of hearts, I feel sorry for the poor mechanic who missed his mark and didn’t quite get his spanner in place.

Related Articles:
Felipe Massa’s Accident – The Hungarian Grand Prix, 26th July 2009

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Athletic Endeavour

In my recent fevered state, I’ve been doing a lot of laying on the sofa with a blanket pulled up to my nose. Barely able to move my calcified limbs, I have harnessed the power of Sky Plus, and spent most of the day watching sport.

I’ve been closely following the World Swimming Championships, and the heated debate over polyurethane outfits – good for breaking world records, bad for grumpy old former world record holders in the studio. So bored have I been, that I have sat through the interminable morning heats. In, say, the Men’s 200m Freestyle, there are thirteen heats, the last three of which are seeded, meaning that, in practical terms, the qualifiers will come exclusively from those heats. The ten previous heats, therefore, are almost laughable. Until you have seen the national champions of Mauritius and Burkina Faso go head to head, you have not know futility.

More interesting, though, was the athletics from Monaco on Eurosport last night. As with any sporting event in the principality, there were frequent shots of the royal family enjoying the action from their gilded box; and the more recent phenomenon of Jenson Button’s dad. The F1 driver lives in Monte Carlo so had turned up to watch a bit of real sport, and right beside him, there was his ubiquitous old man, revelling in the usual permatan and pink shirt – untucked and unbuttoned to the navel.

Eurosport’s coverage of just about anything is woefully amateurish when compared to that of the better-funded broadcasters, but they often cover events that even Sky wouldn’t touch with a bargepole. For example, they are the only place to go for swimming heats, any cycling event that is not the Olympics, or North American Timbersports (seriously, don’t knock it till you’ve seen it.) However, it was a surprise that they were the only network that could be bothered to cover a major Athletics Grand Prix meeting.

The Eurosport modus operandi is to carry live feed from a host broadcaster, and to grab two relatively sober and articulate people from each country, put them in a booth in their respective homeland, and ask them to commentate on what they are seeing. The result can sometimes be ham fisted when you realise that the commentators has no additional information to you the viewer, and is basically watching the same feed that you are.

Their amateurish state was best summed up during the Tour de France, when viewers were invited to email the commentary team. The email address given out was something like I can imagine one of the commentary lads getting on Yahoo and setting it up for themselves that morning, rather than having anything as professional as a domain name.

Back to athletics, and one of the advantages of Eurosport is that, because they don’t have any presenters on-site, they actually cover the field events. This may sound silly but think about the last BBC-covered athletics meeting you saw. After each race they cut back up to the stands to listen to what that grinning gobshite Colin Jackson has to say about it, then cut to a pre-recorded interview with yet another British contender. Only when the next race is about to go do they cut back to the action.

On Eurosport they don’t have that dubious luxury, and so the cameras stay on the field events. If you’ve ever attended an athletics meeting in the flesh, you’ll know that there is always something going on in the arena. I went to last year’s Olympic Trials and had a great time, even without Brendan Foster mispronouncing names and bemoaning the state of British men’s middle distance running.

So, from Monaco, I enjoyed the men’s Pole Vault and a spectacular women’s High Jump. Neither event would have been carried live by the BBC, because neither involved a British person. The High Jump in particular was a high quality head to head between Blanka Vlasic and Ariane Friedrich.

Vlasic is a kind of weird-looking Amazon of a woman, but really knows how to play a crowd, and can jump over a plastic bar better than anybody else. Believe it or not, I used to be quite the high jumper in my youth – I was a sixteen-year-old North of England Schools Champion as it happens.

I know you are probably thinking I’m a bit short and stocky (alright, fat) to be much of a high jumper, and you’d be right, if a little insensitive. But I reached the full majesty of my five foot nine at an early age and, for a few all too brief pubescent years, towered above my contemporaries. Also, my relationship with the pie and the pint were not as abusive back then, so my slender build remained.

Actually, what I am thinking right now, is that I can’t believe I’ve written over 160 blogs and not yet managed to brag about my schoolboy athletics medals.

I eventually gave up the High Jump as I found it to be too much of an existential challenge. After all, there may be something inspirational about continually raising the bar, challenging yourself even further with every leap. But even when I won competitions, the bar would be inexorably raised to a point beyond my ability. Every competition therefore ended in failure. Three times.

I started to lose interest in the element of competition, the other jumpers were of no consequence to me, only the inevitable failure that would signify the end of my event, and the limit of my endeavour. No matter how successful I was in the early rounds, the end loomed, hanging over me and weighing me down.

I don’t know. Maybe I was reading too much into it. But I was an odd kid.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Hapless Footballers Number 3 – Zlatan Ibrahimovic

This week, Barcelona completed their protracted purchase of Zlatan Ibrahimovic from Internazionale. The extraordinary cost of getting their man was £40m cash, Samuel Eto’o, and a year’s loan of Alex Hleb, after which time they have an £8.6m purchase option.

This is an enormous amount to pay for a man who I have never ever seen have a good game. I should clarify here, I am not really arguing that Ibrahimovic is rubbish – he can’t be – but that in my admittedly limited experience, he is all mouth and no boots.

There is a serious point here because although I will freely admit I’m hardly a connoisseur of Serie A games, where Ibrahimovic appears to excel, I do watch a lot of Champions’ League football. In the last five or six years, I have not once seen him do anything of any note. Is it then appropriate to tar him with the same brush that so often used to stick to his new Barca teammate Thierry Henry? That he is not a “big game player.”

Ibrahimovic had been in Italy since 2004, when he moved to Juventus. He had two seasons there which, at least initially, brought two league titles. When the Calciopoli bribery scandal came to light, Juve were stripped of their last two titles and relegated to the second division. Zlatan jumped ship and moved to Internazionale, recently crowned champions by default.

In his three years at Inter, he has won three titles, was named Footballer of the Year in 2008, and he won the Italian Golden Loafer last season. So Ibrahimovic is clearly not complete knickers – Roberto Mancini, Jose Mourinho, and now Pep Guardiola have placed him at the spearhead of their attacks.

However, Eto’o was also top domestic scorer last year in a much better league, and has consistently been the most successful centre-forward in Spain for the last six or seven years. It is extraordinary that Barca not only rate Ibrahimovic as better than Eto’o, but £40m better.

Eto’o only had one year remaining on his contract, and has agitated for a move previously, so perhaps Barca were happy to cut their losses and move on to a new pivot for their incomparable attack. Not averse to the self-eulogy, Eto’o said, “I made history at Barcelona but that chapter is over.”

Ibrahimovic also has a legendary self-regard. This is no bad thing, as Eric Cantona proved. You have to admire a man who once said in a post-match interview, “there is only one Zlatan.”

He is very popular in Sweden, and well regarded in Italy, but his admirers appear to be restricted to these countries (and Barcelona). If he can prove his class in Spain, I’ll gladly eat my words, but as far as I’m concerned, he’s hapless.

Related Articles:
Hapless Footballers
2. Dimitar Berbatov. 28th May 2009
1. Nicklas Bendtner. 8th May 2009

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Hungarian Grand Prix

Twenty four hours after qualifying, the grid was a little preoccupied with Felipe Massa’s injury. As the session finished yesterday, I was under the impression he was just a little shaken, but in truth, the outcome was worse than first thought. It was, however, far far better than it could have been.

As the drivers assembled on the grid, Massa was still in Intensive Care at a local hospital. The spring which fell off Rubens Barrichello’s car had hit Massa’s helmet above the left eye at around 120mph. The helmet stayed intact but the visor crumbled and Massa had a cut above his left eye, “bone damage” to the skull, and “brain concussion.”

With that in mind, there was a slightly sober feel to the grid as the party started. For his grid walk, Martin Brundle had Eddie Jordan alongside him. The dynamic didn’t really work as Jordan was far too busy talking to ask any questions. Brundle eventually gave up being polite and walked off, microphone in hand, leaving Jordan trailing behind him, still talking.

At the end of yesterday’s qualifying session, Massa’s accident had distracted from the fact that the timing system had gone down leading to the drivers scratching their heads and exchanging times to establish the pecking order. By the time the official results were announced, Mark Webber had to be pulled out of the shower to attend a press conference.

Speaking of Webber, after his first Grand Prix victory in Germany last time, the BBC had pre-recorded a film which featured Jake Humphrey cycling in the woods with Mark Webber. Bearing in mind that this is how he smashed up his leg over the winter, the beeb were taking a bit of a risk. I had visions of Humphrey ploughing into Webber’s bike and taking them both over a precipice. If it happened, they cut it out.

With the grid having such a diverse range of cars at the front, the start was crucial, and Alonso followed up his victory in qualifying with a terrific start. Behind him, though, Mark Webber and Lewis Hamilton battled through the first two corners to take up the chase. Sebastian Vettel, sitting on the front row on the grid, was seventh after the first two turns – a poor start followed by a bump in the crowd from Raikkonen on the first corner.

After a very fast first few laps, the lighter Alonso started to lose pace. Lewis Hamilton, who had overtaken Webber to seize second, was scorching towards him. On a short strategy, Alonso came in before Hamilton could catch him. Unfortunately, replays showed that the hapless mechanic on the right front tyre had not properly tightened the wheelnut. As Alonso went out, his wheel already looked wobbly, and within a minute, his tyre was bouncing off down the track.

A few laps later, Vettel seemed to suffer a similar problem to Barrichello’s in qualifying, something in his rear suspension failing. Afterwards, he would blame it on the bump from Raikkonen at the start. Whatever caused it, a pit stop failed to put it right and, within twenty laps, the two front row starters were out of the race.

Meanwhile, Lewis Hamilton had snatched the lead after Alonso’s retirement and held it firmly. His first grand prix win since last year demonstrated that the changes McLaren made to their car had been very effective. The near-hysterical clip of his reaction on the in-car radio said everything about how pleased he was.

It was unexpected but it was no fluke. He was consistently the fastest driver on the course, the pit-stops worked perfectly, and he was never under any pressure.

Likewise, Brawn’s deteriorating performance can no longer be put down to misfortune. He may be leading the Championship, but Jenson Button only finished seventh, and Rubens Barrichello scuttled in tenth. It worked in their favour today that Hamilton and Raikkonen as it kept Mark Webber in third. The threat from Red Bull is very real and, with seven races still to go, this championship is far from over.

Related Articles:
Qualifying – Hungarian Grand Prix Qualifying, 25th July 2009.
Last Grand Prix – German Grand Prix, 12th July 2009.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

Hungarian Grand Prix Qualifying

There was a peculiar choice of features from the BBC before qualifying as they first devoted an extraordinary amount of airtime to Jarno Trulli’s charity, then showed us what looked like an expensively made film from Finland.

Trulli’s noble endeavour to raise money for the victims of the horrendous earthquake in his home region of Abruzzo is worthy of praise, and he has clearly been doing some great work to raise funds, and bring hope to the people still living in tented villages. However, the fifteen minute feature seemed a little excessive – I wonder how hard he had to lobby the BBC to get that sort of exposure.

Next up was a film showing Heike Kovalainen riding his skidoo across the snowy wastes of his native Finland. Then we cut to a Nordic log cabin and Jonathan Legard interviewing the driver around a wood fire. It all seemed a little over the top to discover that the young fella was committed to winning and focused on one race at a time.

As we returned to Hungary, where there’s a race happening this weekend, the team were in the Red Bull garage. David Coulthard has clearly been taking lessons from Martin Brundle, and took a microphone around the garage, poking it under the noses of the startled backroom team.

Of course, he was driving for that team less than a year ago, and he is still on the Red Bull payroll as a consultant – whatever that means – so he has amazing access. Still it was odd that, ten minutes before the first qualifying session started, the team were happy for him to wander around distracting him.

The Hungaroring near Budapest was described this week by Murray Walker as “Monaco without the houses.” This is an elegant way of saying it’s bloody impossible to overtake, thus making qualifying more crucial than usual.

In the first qualifying session, the cars danced around the track like Kovalainen skidoo on a frozen lake. Grip was clearly an issue and several drivers found themselves going wide on corners.

Since the last race, Torro Rosso carried through on their threat to sack Sebastian Bourdais, bringing in nineteen-year-old Jaime Alguersuari. Extraordinarily, due to the ban on in-season testing, he had never driven a Formula One car before today. The other drivers muttered that it was unsafe to have him thrown straight into a Grand Prix. I suspect they are just bitter at Alguersuari’s direct route to success – like veteran stand-up comics slogging off young comedians with a Channel 4 series because they haven’t “played the clubs.”

Torro Rosso get their new boy out early so he could drive himself into some kind of comfort. Unfortunately, he was tracking only eighteenth in qualifying when he went out for a second run. Moments later, the car was rolling to a halt with an apparent mechanical fault, bringing out the yellow flag, and condemning Alguersuari to the back row in his first Grand Prix – about the same as Bourdais. But I’m sure he’ll improve.

Incidentally, poor old Bourdais is taking legal action against the team for firing him. I don’t envy him a court case where his former employers try to legally prove he is incompetent. That’s not going to be a fun few days is it?

The whispers gathering around the Renault team was that Nelson Piquet could be next to get the boot. This weekend, he has been given all the upgrades that his teammate Fernando Alonso has had for several races, but the implied arrangement was that he needed to use them to perform or he would be out.

He came storming through the first session, out-qualifying Alonso and finishing fifth. However, in the second session, normal service was resumed, Piquet finishing fifteenth, where he will start the race. Flavio Briatore, his team boss, has previously fired drivers mid-season, and Piquet will need a great race tomorrow if he wants to avoid signing on next week.

With the last couple of races seeing Red Bull overhauling Brawn’s early-season supremacy, there was a school of thought before this weekend that the higher temperatures in Hungary would lead to Brawn restoring their dominance. However, the evidence of qualifying disproved that notion.

Neither Brawn driver looked particularly comfortable and Rubens Barrichello actually failed to make it into the final qualifying session.

It has been a difficult fortnight for Rubens. After a frustrating race in Germany, where team tactics arguably cost him several places, he reacted angrily (and very publicly) straight after the race. Still in his race gear, and with the anger evident on his face, he told reporters, “It was a good show from the team of how to lose a race. I did all I had to do, I was first to the first corner. They made me lose it.”

Since then, he has apologised to Ross Brawn and the rest of the team, but he is clearly not a man in the zone. As today’s qualifying showed, the difference between success and failure is measured in tenths of a second – if Barrichello is not 100% settled, then his performance will suffer.

There was an ominous period in between the second and third qualifying sessions, as the second had been effectively ended by the yellow flag which followed Felipe Massa driving his car directly into the tyre wall.

He appeared to have driven directly off the track and into the wall with no effort to turn his wheel. The speculation on potential car problems was wild, but the mystery began to unfold when Barrichello came out and explained his lack of performance in Q2 by saying that his rear suspension had felt odd and he had lost grip.

Replays showed that a small metal tube had fallen away from Barrichello’s car, thus slowing him down, but had then bounced up and struck Massa on the side of the helmet, knocking him senseless for a few moments, during which time he left the tarmac and came to an abrupt halt in the tyres.

Massa took no further part in qualifying but, by the end of the session, reports suggested he was nothing worse than shaken up. With him relegated to tenth, and Barrichello even further back, the results of qualifying gave us a diverse grid.

On the front row, Fernando Alonso put the boot into Piquet by winning his first pole since he was world champion. Red Bull maintained their presence at the front with Vettel in second, and Webber in third. Lewis Hamilton recorded his best qualifying position of the season with a fourth place start, and poor old Jenson Button was seventh.

Related Articles:
Last Race – German Grand Prix. 12th July 2009
Last Qualifying – German Grand Prix Qualifying. 11th July 2009

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Stubbs Out

The biggest transfer news of the Summer so far emerged this week when the BBC revealed that third string presenter Ray Stubbs would defect to ESPN Sports.

ESPN have taken over the games for which Setanta held the rights until they imploded last month, and, although they have decades of experience in broadcasting Baseball, American Football and Dodgeball, they are pretty new to Unamerican Football, and so will need to build a team from scratch. Who better to lead it than Stubbsy?

Stubbs has been at the BBC for as long as I can remember and has always filled the gaps left by the holidays and absences of more accomplished presenters. When Gary Lineker takes the week off to go to The Masters every year, Stubbsy gets the call, stepping effortlessly into the Lineker loafers and prompting the Alans to mouth their platitudes.

Being a scouser, he first came on the scene during the Lynam / Rider days when a regional accent invariably exiled a young reporter to Burnden Park or Gigg Lane. When Lineker stepped straight off the pitch and ahead of Stubbs in the pecking order, a lesser man would have walked away for the riches of Sky, but Stubbs persevered.

As the BBC has changed its attitude to those accents in their presenters, Stubbsy was once again bypassed as Brummie Adrian Chiles got the Sunday night MOTD2 gig.

Finally, the advent of the red button lent our man a regular gig in the shape of Score – the BBC’s woefully inferior comparison to Sky Sports’ Soccer Saturday. Stubbsy does his best but to go up against the peerless Jeff Stelling is always going to be a thankless task. And the best broadcaster in the world would struggle to wring charismatic chat from Lee Dixon and Garth Crooks.

When Setanta launched its Premiership coverage two years ago, their dream team of Steve McManaman, Les Ferdinand and Tim Sherwood was the stuff of dreams – prompting literally hundreds of fans to sign up to their service.

ESPN have laid their cards firmly on the table with their choice of Stubbs as front man. As they assemble the rest of their team, expect fireworks – Chris Waddle as chief Alan? Graeme Le Saux as pitchside reporter? First division all the way, and not in a good way.

Related Articles:
Collapse of Setanta – Don’t Mess With Murdoch. 10th June 2009

In The City

After the Kaka shambles in January, you would think that Manchester City would have learned a lesson and been a little lower profile about their transfer activity this year. So far this Summer, however, City have spent several weeks making headlines by being linked with an increasingly preposterous roster of players from across Europe before settling for Premiership stars slightly below the top rank who have followed Robinho to Eastlands, universally claiming that they are excited by “the project.”

In all seriousness, if one of them was just honest with the fans, and said, “Bloody hell, they have offered me double salary, I’d be a fool not to go for it!” I’m sure they’d be respected for it.

To give City’s Arab overlords their due, they have been as good as their word and kept Mark Hughes in the manager’s job. Last season was not an overwhelming success and, despite their protestations that Hughes had not been given a specific target, the money spent last Summer would suggest they were expecting more than a tenth place finish.

Hughes it is, though, who has been given another Summer to spend reckless amounts of money in assembling a squad list to rival the top European clubs.

Last Summer, as Robinho joined Pablo Zabaleta, Vincent Kompany and Jo in Manchester, there were whispers that Hughes was not signing the players at all. The theory was that the owners had engaged agents to sweep up the available European talent, and that Hughes was largely unaware of the activity until he showed up to shake hands at the press conference.

I suspect this is a gross overstatement of the reality, and that Hughes was consulted before agents were employed. The idea that Hughes is some bumbling, old-fashioned sheepskin wearing boss, and simply could never have heard of a player like Jo is just insulting.

The January 2009 transfer window betrayed the grip that Mark Hughes had on transfer policy with the two biggest names – Craig Bellamy and Shay Given – indisputably Hughes purchases.

This Summer had started with a similar focus on workmanlike “Hughes players.” The first two signings were Stuart Taylor, signed from Villa as back up for Given, and Roque Santa Cruz – a long time Hughes favourite from his old club Blackburn. To be honest, Santa Cruz is one of those players that I’ve never really seen have a good game, but Hughes knows him better than I do, and has spent over a year trying to sign him, so he can’t be terrible.

Since then, there have been three big name signings, each of them poached from one of our four perennial Champions’ League contenders, and each of them a further statement of intent that, this year, City will be serious contenders.

Firstly was Gareth Barry, signed from Villa but taken from under the nose of Liverpool’s Rafa Benitez, who had been tracking Barry like a bloodhound for two years. Last Summer, Barry had been all but wearing the Liverpool kit until Villa manager Martin O’Neill persuaded him to give Villa another year.

Villa fans of my acquaintance were pleased to see him finally go after all the speculation, but Barry was almost universally condemned as a mercenary in the press.

Next signing through the door was the controversial Carlos Tevez. After his ill-fated spell at West Ham, where his goals kept them in the Premiership but condemned them to years of abuse and litigation after it emerged they had broken Premiership rules by illegally loaning him from Kia Joorabchian’s company, he moved to Manchester United where, in his first season he became a terrace hero, but was then edged out by Alex Ferguson’s inexplicable signing of the hapless Dimitar Berbatov.

This Summer, as Tevez and Manchester United’s complex financial arrangement came to a close, Ferguson was offered first refusal on signing him permanently for £25m. Unfortunately, bewitched by Berbatov’s Slavic eyes and lustrous hair, he refused, and Manchester City have stepped it to offer Tevez a club which will allow him to live in the same cloistered community of pampered footballers, keep his daughter at the same school, and probably give him a better run in the first team.

Finally this week, there was the somewhat surprising signing of Arsenal’s Emmanuel Adebayor. Adebayor has scored a lot of goals for Arsenal, but the general feeling among their fans is that he has been lacking commitment since he was denied a move to Milan last Summer. Rather like Barry, he has left his old club under something of a cloud, and will be very curious to see whether he will recapture his form of 2007-08 for City.

Worryingly for Arsenal fans, Arsene Wenger has made his usual complacent noises at losing one of his top players, saying, “Big clubs lose players. Arsenal have always lost players and continued at the top level.” His insistence that his squad could cope will be worrying for Arsenal fans, who would rather hear about a quality replacement to help them shore up their position in the big four. Of all the top clubs nervously looking over their shoulders at Mark Hughes’ new squad, Arsenal should be most anxious.

We will now see what happens next for City. Last Summer, Robinho was signed with approximately thirty seconds left of the transfer window so, with six weeks to go till the end of this Summer’s sales, don’t be surprised if they buy again.

The other interesting question will be how long Hughes is given if the new season doesn’t start as well as they hope. After last season, the owners really backed Hughes where many more jittery boards would have thrown him overboard for a bigger name. That is to their credit but, if Hughes can’t convert this investment into a consistently high league position, he may well be replaced.

Related Articles:
28th My 2009 – Hapless Footballers Number 2 – Dimitar Berbatov

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Big John’s Big C

Poor old John Hartson has been diagnosed with testicular cancer. And it's the nasty advanced type that's spread to his brain. It sounds very similar to the cancer which very nearly killed Lance Armstrong. To be truthful, the prognosis is not great with this particular ailment: he has a long and painful programme of chemotherapy ahead of him.

There is no truth to the rumour that his doctors have called Eyal Berkovic and asked him to come around and kick the cancer out of Hartson’s head. This is not a therapy with a great track record, but would at least provide a neat sense of circular justice.

Testicular cancer appears to be the curse of the footballer. You never hear about footballers with bowel cancer, or lung cancer – I suppose the days are now gone when footballer would have a fag at half time. Former England international Geoff Thomas contracted leukaemia and has been a tireless campaigner since his recovery, but it seems to be testicular cancer which most often strikes down the footballer.

One famous survivor is Alan Stubbs. He was at Celtic when he was diagnosed and, as the Glasgow footballing community is famous for its even-handed approach to inter-club rivalry, fans were as sympathetic as you might expect.

When he recovered, the usual rib-tickling dressing room banter ended by giving him the predictable nickname Womble Stubbs. Womble, as in, “Stubbsy, has only got one ball (womble).” Genius.

I genuinely wish Hartson the very best recovery and, if he is as single minded as Lance Armstrong, he may even end up captaining Real Madrid to the Champions’ League in a couple of years. Frankly, as a former Wimbledon player, I’m sure he’ll settle for a starting place in the Womble XI.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Fear And Loathing In Astana

The upper reaches of the Tour de France standings are currently being dominated by the Astana team. Astana is the team of the pre-race favourite and 2007 winner Alberto Contador, of seven-time winner and all round super human Lance Armstrong, of German Andreas Kloden – twice second in previous Tours, and of Levi Leipheimer – another cyclist who has previously stood on the podium in Paris.

Both Kloden and Leipheimer are potential Tour winners with the right team behind them, but Contador was always the team leader, and it was understood that they would have to put aside their ambitions in order to help him win.

But that was before Lance came back.

The main problem is that Lance Armstrong has not been a team player since he recovered from cancer and began to single-mindedly win every race he felt like winning. On his return, the US Postal Team (which later became known by the name of new sponsor Discovery Channel) was built for him, around him, and by him. The directeur sportif (team manager) Johan Bruyneel was Lance’s confidant, and everything was geared around Armstrong.

After Armstrong’s retirement, the old team broke up and everyone went their separate ways, finding their own niche in other teams. Some of his loyal domestiques found themselves leaders in other teams, whilst some simply swapped their loyalty to another contender.

At this point, let me move the story to Kazakhstan, where the fledgling Astana team was being created around Alexandre Vinokourov. Firstly, Astana is the capital of the central Asian nation, and secondly, the most famous man in Kazakhstan is most certainly not Borat, but Vino. The blonde haired, blue eyed rider was one of the most exciting on the circuit in the early part of this decade, with a merciless climbing style, and an ability to sprint of the front of almost any pack. He had raced for the German T-Mobile team, but wanted to create his own team, nurturing Kazakh talent, as well as bringing in some of Europe’s best riders, and challenging for major honours.

He secured the sponsorship of the Kazakhstan government, and, wearing the light blue and yellow of the national flag, the Astana team joined the peloton.

Vino was my favourite rider. Although I admired Lance Armstrong, he is almost impossible to like, and I always enjoyed watching the more adventurous Vinokourov to the metronomic and relentless Armstrong. In 2003, he came third in the Tour; in 2005, after missing 2004 through injury, he came fifth and won a couple of stages; in 2006, he won the Vuelta a Espana.

In 2007, he had won two stages of the Tour before, the morning after his second win, the entire Astana team withdrew after positive blood doping tests.

Cycling has been riddled with doping, and I will gladly defend the sport’s efforts to rid itself of the stigma. The fact that there have been so many bad headlines is testament to the governing body’s determination to find the cheats. But that didn’t make it an less upsetting.

For the first time, I switched off. I didn’t bother to watch the rest of that accursed tour. He wasn’t the only rider that year to get thrown out, but he was the one that hurt the most. Say it ain’t so, Vino.

This brings us back up to date, and to the current Astana team. With the banning of Vinokourov, the management staff, and several other riders, the team was dead on the road. It was resurrected by Armstrong’s old directeur Johan Bruyneel who, looking for a place to call home after the disbanding of the Discovery team, set about building a new squad at Astana.

As you would expect from a man of his pedigree, he built a terrific team which, with Alberto Contador leading the charge won two of last three Grand Tours – Italy and Spain – but the Tour de France eluded them. 2009 was to be the year, with Contador one of the strongest men on the road, and a strong team to ride him to the front.

But that was before Lance came back.

From the moment Armstrong announced he would come out of retirement and link up with Bruyneel once more, there were rumours that Contador was deeply unhappy. He briefed the press so regularly to assert his status as team leader that his insecurity was painful to see.

So far this season, Armstrong has kept quiet and, by virtue of solid but unspectacular performances in the Giro D’Italia and other races, his potential as a threat has diminished. But then last Monday, he was in the break that was created by a freak cross-wind 20km from the finish. Contador was not in the break, and so lost valuable seconds to his rival.

In truth, the margin itself was negligible, and no neutral observer would blame Armstrong for his actions – he had been in the right place at the right time, and he had exploited it. Contador, however, had just as clearly NOT been in the right place and the situation spoke of the older man’s better brain for the game. Armstrong did not help the situation by caustically commenting in post-race interviews that Contador had not been unlucky, but had simply “not been there.”

On Friday, as the riders climbed the mountain into Andorra, Alberto Contador pulled away from the other contenders and established a gap that would eventually by nineteen seconds. Again, the margin itself is not as important as the moral victory. As Contador streaked away, Armstrong did not follow. The question is whether he was being a good team player and allowing his leader to establish a lead whilst marking his rivals from other teams, or whether he was simply not capable of matching his speed.

Either way, he once again showed a lack of tact in post-race interviews when he responded to questions about team spirit by saying, “the honest truth is that there’s a little tension. Alberto is strong and he’s very ambitious.” This is not how any domestique would talk about their team leader. It seems clear that Armstrong is determined to win this race, even if it at the cost of his own teammate’s interests.

The only question that remains is whether or not his 37-year-old legs can compete with the younger man over three weeks. As is so often the case in the Tour de France, the answer will lie in The Alps.

Related Articles:
Armstrong and Cavendish – Two Men Of Concrete

Sunday, 12 July 2009

German Grand Prix

Before today’s race, Mark Webber was the star of the show. Despite being a top driver for several years, he has never quite managed to win a race yet. Nor, until yesterday, had he managed a pole position. A personable chap, and the head of the unofficial drivers’ union, he appears to be popular with the other grid regulars. Despite the presence of the two Brits near the front of the grid, there was an almost tangible desire to see him win the race.

As much as Silverstone last time, the Nurburgring is drenched in Grand Prix history, and the BBC used its substantial archive to showcase a retrospective of the track, incorporating the Fangio footage alongside some clips of Nazi parades at the track, all underscored with some Wagner. When it comes to avoiding clich├ęs, we should probably be happy that they didn’t have David Coulthard in lederhosen.

We had the mandatory reference to the “original Nurburgring” which, I must admit, does sound amazing. It was originally a fourteen mile circuit around the mountains of the Eifel Forest which would be a horrendous challenge for the driver, but probably a bigger challenge for the broadcasters.

If you consider how many cameras are studded around the average Grand Prix circuit, it would probably take every lens in Germany to adequately cover fourteen miles. That’s why we keep seeing the same clip of Fangio going round the same corner – they only had one camera back in the fifties.

This is the ancestral home of German Formula One, it now fights Hockenheim for supremacy and has just started an arrangement whereby they will alternate the venue for the German Grand Prix.

Before the race, we had a tetchy interview with Michael Schumacher, with Jake gracelessly bringing up an old incident where Schumacher and David Coulthard had collided on the track and almost come to blows in the pits. We also had Martin Brundle, whose grid walk was most notable for his threat, thankfully unfulfilled, of showing us the drivers’ trackside toilets.

Finally, there was a young German boy band fellow knocking out the German National Anthem like it was a love song – it was like when they get Mariah Carey to do The Star Spangled Banner. Embarrassing and demeaning to everyone involve, but also a little creepy to hear “Deutschland, Deutschland. Uber alles,” rendered with such affectation.

As usual, the start of the race was where the action was. With a hairpin turn at the end of the start straight, it was always likely to produce a bottleneck. Lewis Hamilton made use of his KERS system to pull from fifth on the grid to be first going into the corner. Unfortunately for him, he hit the corner way too fast, overshot, recovered poorly, and emerged from the situation in last place, and with a puncture. After such pre-race optimism, his race was over before the end of the first lap.

Alongside Jenson Button at the entrance to turn one, Webber defended his pole position from the threat of the advancing Rubens Barrichello with a lunge to the right which, in the view of the stewards, was dangerous. Not only that, but it was also unsuccessful so Barrichello had already led Webber for the first few laps of the race, when Webber was given a drive-through penalty.

Unfortunately for Barrichello, this advantage was outweighed by getting stuck behind Felipe Massa after his pit stop. The Red Bull team got the tactics right and Webber worked his way beck to first place, eventually taking his first Grand Prix victory, with Vettel second.

The two drivers who failed to finish this race could, for very different reasons, be coming to the end of their F1 careers.

Despite a good result for one Ferrari driver, with Felipe Massa finishing third – only their second podium of the season – Kimi Raikkonen failed to finish. What’s more, he has continued to display his complete disregard for his employers by announcing he will compete at the Rally of Finland at the end of July.

After the Hungarian Grand Prix on the 26th July, there is a four week break until the exciting street circuit in Valencia hosts the European Grand Prix, so it's to be expected that the drivers will take a small mid-season break. However, I'm not sure Ferrari will be overjoyed to hear Raikkonen is spending his free time screeching around the icy forests of Finland.

It's really quite extraordinary that there is no contractual clause preventing him from doing it. I seem to recall Michael Schumacher had it written into his Ferrari contract that he would be allowed to play football during the winter break. Surely Kimi doesn't have a "rallying clause" in his contract?

The other non-finisher was Torro Rosso’s Sebastian Bourdais. He had qualified slowest, a full second down even on the hapless Timo Glock. Even before qualifying, there was dark talk of him being elbowed aside should he fail to impress this weekend. If that talk is true then we might have seen the Frenchman in his last Grand Prix.

Before the race, the BBC very deliberately interviewed Torro Rosso’s test driver Jaime Alguersuari. By the time we decamp to Budapest, he might be on the grid.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

German Grand Prix Qualifying

With a three week interval since Silverstone, it was inevitable that the politics of Formula One would take centre stage. A few days after the British Grand Prix, Bernie Ecclestone waded into the fray, tipping the balance towards the teams and effectively ending Max Mosley’s long reign as President of the FIA.

The teams, under the umbrella of the Formula One Teams Association (FOTA), made it very clear that they had no desire to breakaway, but that they felt unable to continue under Mosley’s autocratic leadership style. By giving a name to the problem, they explicitly gave Ecclestone an exit strategy.

After a meeting in Paris on 24th June, it was all over. Mosley emerged proclaiming that a deal had been struck with which all parties were happy – he played the whole thing as a triumph for his own negotiating skills, despite the evidence of the previous three months.

Then the bombshell. He would step down as FIA President at the end of his current term in October. Ecclestone had wielded the knife and, no matter how much he protested that it had always been his intention to stand down, Mosley was covered in blood.

When the detail of the deal was examined, it was nothing more than a non-specific expression of intent to reduce costs. Mosley’s hard and fast budget cap was dead, and lying beside him in the gutter.

Over the next few days the debate moved on to who would replace Mosley, and whether they would have sufficient independence and fortitude to regulate the teams. The pendulum had swung, and, although peace was breaking out, there was still some jockeying for position to be done.

Clearly stung by the humiliation, Mosley last week publicly accused FOTA of “dancing on my grave.” Crucially, he also claimed that he was, “under pressure now from all over the world to stand for re-election.” Painting himself as the reluctant speaker, he threw the cat among the pigeons with his implied threat to renege on his retirement decision.

On Wednesday night, the eight FOTA teams once more walked out of a meeting with Mosley, threatening to withdraw their 2010 registrations. Once again, the breakaway threat was in the air.

As the BBC coverage started, a pre-packed report on all the above shenanigans introduced Ari Vatenen as a potential rival to Max Mosley. Vatenen is a former World Rally Champion, which lends him credibility, and is well respected within the sport. In an attempt to raise his profile, he appeared on camera to meet Jake and the boys. Eddie Jordan was asked to interrogate him, and employed his usual incisive line of questioning: “Ari, we’ve known each other for a long time. I’m delighted to see you here. If you were President of the FIA, what would you stand for?”

After Vatenen presented his manifesto without a single challenging question, there was a great little film of Mark Webber meeting the Australian Cricket Team, over in Europe for The Ashes. Ricky Ponting, who is the chippiest of Australians when surrounded by Poms, seemed to get on well with Webber, and they obviously each knew a lot about the other’s sport.

The best moment was when Brett Lee enquired about Webber’s continuing recuperation from a compound fracture of the tibia and fibula with a chirpy, “How’s the leg going mate?” Got to love Australians.

On the track, qualifying was splendidly disrupted by rain. There’s always something exciting about rain at the Grand Prix, especially when it comes and goes during a session.

There’s always one surprise casualty in the first session of qualifying and, this time, it wasn’t Lewis Hamilton. Toyota’s Timo Glock managed to screw up every single hot lap he attempted. Missing a chicane during one lap, then sliding off the track in the next, he ended up racing round in the last minute, needing to improve his time, and, as spots of rain started to appear, the game was up. He will start the race from nineteenth.

Speaking of Lewis Hamilton, Eddie Jordan was actually talking up his chances before qualifying. His strong performance in earlier practice and some much publicised upgrades to the car prompted Jordan to predict a top three result in qualifying. Right on cue, Mercedes bigwig Norbert Haug appeared to make him look foolish, and intoning that this would be a little optimistic. There is controversy though within the team, as Hamilton has got all the upgrades, but his teammate Heikki Kovalainen has not. He is, we are told by Martin Brundle, “silently unhappy.”

The second session started in the rain, with everyone desperate to get out and put in a good lap. The first lap saw Nakajima, Massa, and Hamilton all go off the track, and everyone abandon their plans, coming in for intermediate rain tyres. As the water started to lash the track, they all started again – much more exciting for the blogger, if a little more frustrating for the drivers.

As the rain abated then fell again, Rubens Barrichello combined impeccable timing with good fortune and recorded a lap on dry tyres at just the right moment to take first place by two seconds. Less lucky was Fernando Alonso, who put dry tyres on just in time for the rain to fall again and was rewarded with a spin on his last attempt to qualify.

The final session appeared to restore normal service as the rain stayed off, the track dried out, and the familiar battle between Red Bull and Brawn for pole position was resumed. The driver on pole changed six times in the last minute but it ended Webber, Barrichello, Button, Vettel.

Interesting to see the Brawns performing well against Red Bull because, before qualifying, Ross Brawn had appeared to talk down his team’s chances. With much talk of tyre temperatures and weight distribution, there was an unmistakable pessimism in his voice.

Lewis Hamilton came in fifth which, whilst not quite as good as Eddie Jordan predicted, is no mean feat. It would seem that those upgrades really are making a difference.

Related Articles:
Previous Grand Prix – British Grand Prix
Previous Qualifying Session – British Grand Prix Qualifying

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Two Men of Concrete

The Tour de France has been rolling across the Mediterranean coast over the last few days, from Monte Carlo on Saturday, to Barcelona tonight. In the meantime, it has actually gone through France, and two men at very different ends of their careers have proved themselves to be what Stuart Pearce would call, “proper men.”

After the short first stage on Saturday, there were a couple of long flat stages set up for sprinters, and Mark Cavendish. The sprinter is an odd beast – he will sit inconspicuously in the peloton for a hundred and twenty miles before appearing in the last 500m and elbowing his way through to streak off the front of the pack. At the moment, there is no-one better at this than Cav.

On both days, his Team High Road squad did a terrific job of protecting him throughout the long stage across the southern coast of France but, on both days, he finished the race in style by muscling away from all his rivals. A good sprinter will lurk in a rival’s slipstream before leaping out at the last minute and flying past. On Sunday, as Cavendish flashed towards the line, his American rival Tyler Farrar lurked ominously on his wheel.

Contrary to Farrar’s expectations as he tried to draft Cavendish, the young British sprinter started moving AWAY from him. As they crossed the line, Cavendish raised his arms to start celebrating and was still moving away.

Following up with another win on Monday, he is wearing the green jersey of the best sprinter – this is his target for the Tour and, unless he falls off an Alp, he will get it. He is by far the fastest man in the world right now.

On Tuesday, it was the turn of the old stager Lance Armstrong to show the world he still has it. After three and a half years of retirement, he has come back this season and, whilst he has been impressive, he has not shown any of the dominant form of old and, at least outwardly, has been committing himself to supporting nominal team leader Alberto Contador.

But by stealing a few seconds on Monday he had manoeuvred himself ahead of Contador and, despite a little discomfort and discord within the team, Tuesday’s Team Time Trial was an opportunity for their Astana team to establish Armstrong in Yellow.

Eventually, he finished the day 0.22 seconds off yellow, but the thrill of the chase was so evocative of his glory days. He drove the rest of his team relentlessly on leaving them occupying half of the top ten spots in the race. Armstrong is now Astana’s top rider and it will be fascinating to see whether or not he goes back to supporting Contador, or keeps riding for his own victory.

Tomorrow there is the first real mountain stage as the riders move from Barcelona to Andorra, with the finish line outside a ski station. The Armstrong of old, sculpted from concrete would have used the stage to stamp his authority on the race. It will be interesting to see if his legs can propel him up like they used to. If they can, then I don’t believe for a second he’ll back off for the sake of his team.

Related Articles:
Giro d’Italia – Cavendish is a legend. 23rd May 2009

Friday, 3 July 2009

How We Laughed At Wimbledon

As I watched the Wimbledon semi-final between Andy Roddick and Scotland’s Andy Murray, a wayward Roddick serve drifted across causing a line judge to take evasive action and dodge the ball fizzing towards him. He seemed fairly nonchalant about the whole incident, but the crowd’s badly stifled mirth at what they seemed to perceive as a “humorous incident.”

I’ve seen this before at Wimbledon, and I’m not sure if it a sign of the fairly simplistic sense of humour of the average Wimbledon attendee, or if that nervous giggle is the only decent release of the enormous and obvious sexual tension that pervades the court. If it wasn’t for this poor line judge and his emergency manoeuvres, I think the whole stadium would descend into an angry guilt-ridden orgy by the end of the third set.

To be honest, the humour bar is pretty low on Centre Court. What ranks as humour at Wimbledon makes The 40 Year Old Virgin look sophisticated and nuanced.

When I was a kid they would always show us the veterans' match between Jimmy Connors and Ilie Nastase. Handing over with barely controlled mirth, David Vine would chortle something about them being characters and that we should expect "fun and games." Inevitably this meant Nastase touching up a dog-ugly line judge, and Connors jumping over the net, to which the crowd would erupt into paroxysms of belly laughs.

While we’re on the subject of Centre Court oddities, why are there uniformed soldiers, sailors and airmen dotted around the place? It’s hard to say exactly what they are doing but they appear to be performing some sort of usher duties. Coincidentally, today they had one of the seven black soldiers in the British Army there while the cameras were turning! But surely we have more pressing duties for our Armed Forces than guiding people to the strawberry stalls. I know it’s not exactly Trident in the scheme of things, but I’m not sure this a good use of our defence spending.

Maybe we could leave it to the Chelsea Pensioners in the front row to do the ushering. About time they earned their pension.