Monday, 31 August 2009

Belgian Grand Prix

After the streets of Valencia hosted their second Grand Prix, there was no time for respite before the gaggle moved up to a good old fashioned track with a great pedigree.

Spa-Francorchamps in the Ardennes Forest is a hilly and challenging course, with a deep ingrained sense of history. Many drivers past and present spent the weekend eulogising it as their favourite circuit, and the undulating Eau Rouge section taken at maximum speed was exciting enough to give the viewer an adrenalin rush, just from the on-board camera.

Former winner David Coulthard was wearing a very dapper jacket in the paddock whilst Jake indulged him, allowing him once again to reflect on past glories. The coverage was no more than four minutes old when Eddie Jordan was given his grumpy head to dismiss McLaren’s investment in computer strategy as a complete waste of time. “If you want to save money, get rid of them.”

Luca Badoer’s antics last week had led to a general feeling of pity from the rest of the Formula One world. In qualifying, he was ridiculed by the commentary team for taking his foot off the accelerator on his way up the Eau Rouge. He then secured what is becoming a customary twentieth spot on the grid before spinning off the track on his in-lap and smacking his rear end into the barriers.

The rumour is that Giancarlo Fisichella will be rescued from Force India and parachuted into the Ferrari team before the next race. If that’s true, then it’s a pretty strong indicator that Kimi Raikkonen is on his way out of the team at the end of this season, with Fisichella partnering the recovered Felipe Massa.

Fisichella was questioned before practice, but under lukewarm questioning from Jake and Eddie, he refused to confirm anything, although he was easily coaxed into saying that driving for Ferrari was a childhood dream.

As if to throw down the challenge to the Italian team, Fisichella finished top of the pile during qualifying. Force India have not threatened the front row all season but Fisi was inspired, and Ferrari will have taken note as they watched Badoer’s car being lifted from the track.

Like Valencia, the grid line-up was peculiar. Bearing very little resemblance to the World Championship standings, the first shock was the premature departure of both Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button. They qualified twelfth and fourteenth respectively. Spurning their opportunity to maximise, the Red Bull drivers also struggled, with Vettel and Webber qualifying eighth and ninth.

Behind Fisichella, the top slots were taken by other lesser lights of the paddock. Trulli’s Toyota was third, whilst BMW had a successful session with Heidfeld and Kubica finishing third and fifth. The only championship contender near the front was Rubens Barrichello who qualified fourth and would have slept well on Saturday night, confident that he would further eat into his team mate’s lead.

Since I rekindled my interest in F1 this year, I've remained puzzled about the various tyre choices available to the teams. It's evidently crucial to the relative performance of the cars, but my knowledge was poor.

As if directly addressing my confusion, David Coulthard voiced a charming little VT package underscored with some whimsical guitar music and punctuated by a sequence of computer generated tyres bouncing down the Spa track.
The relative merits were explained of the four different types of slicks, the intermediates and the wets. I now have a better knowledge, but am still mystified as to why it really needs to be so complex.

When we moved on to the grid walk, Martin Brundle seemed somehow subdued. Last week in Valencia, he had ostentatiously elbowed a female Australian journalist aside in his quest for an interview with Timo Glock. I suspect he had received a slapped wrist because he was much more restrained, although Trulli, Heidfeld and Barrichello all gave him some time. This despite the fact he was wearing a black leather jacket which I suspect he won during his time in sports cars in the early nineties.

As the race started, the first lap was a complete disaster for Brawn. Barrichello's anti-stall kicked in at the start line, with Raikkonen screaming past him. By the time they exited turn one, Barrichello was last, and Raikkonen was second, chasing Fisichella hard.

At turn four, with the traffic still very tight, Sebastian Grosjean bumped the back of Jenson Button, both spun off the track, and subsequently took out Lewis Hamilton and Jaime Alguersuari. With the World Champion and the Championship leader out of the race, the safety car came out and everyone took a breath.

As soon as the safety car pulled off, Raikkonen snatched the lead from Fisichella - his probable team mate in the next race – as Barrichello started a charge through the field, overtaking Raikkonen’s current team mate, the hapless Luca Badoer.

The pattern of the race at the front end remained fairly static with Raikkonen just ahead of Fisichella. The Force India gave the appearance of being faster than the Ferrari, but Raikkonen’s KERS meant that Fisi just couldn’t get past him. Eventually, the Finn won his first race since he last gave a damn, and Fisichella came in a couple of seconds behind him.

The smart money is on them being team mates by the time they line up for the next qualifying session at Monza in a fortnight.

Vettel managed to drag himself up to third place, but couldn’t overtake Rubens Barrichello for second place in the championship table. The Brazilian rescued seventh place and two valuable points from his disastrous start.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

European Grand Prix

One tiny muscle. The muscle that connects the skull to the top vertebra. Michael Schumacher damaged this muscle in February whilst testing a motorcycle. Although a relatively small component of his bionic body, this pull was enough to prevent him participating in Valencia.

In the press conference in which he announced his inability to take part, he was genuinely and visibly upset. “I am in one of my toughest moments I have faced in my career. For a moment, I felt like I was back alive. And now I have to cancel all this.” Heartbreaking really.

What’s more heartbreaking is that the poor sod had to go back to his day job, and spent the race showing Eric Clapton around the Ferrari garage.

Instead of Schumacher, Ferrari replaced the injured Felipe Massa with another old stager, Luca Badoer. He is a Ferrari test driver but actually retired from racing in 1999! He was obviously second choice, and he didn’t sound too optimistic about his prospects, making apologetic noises, and promising to do his best.

In the first qualifying session, Badoer finished twentieth, slower even than the Force India cars. There was some initial sympathy from Jonathan Legard and Martin Brundle but no such kid gloves from David Coulthard, who described his performance as, “simply not good enough.”

After failing miserably, and finishing a second and a half behind Alguersuari in nineteenth, he seemed pretty resigned to his status as makeweight. He said that he was just aiming to finish the race.

On the track, the temperature was extremely high, with Eddie Jordan grumbling about it being hotter than Bahrain, but Jenson Button was dancing around in his ice vest. The Brawn problem had been all about grip, and we have been told for several races that hot temperatures are essential for the Brawn tyres to do a good job.

Sebastian Vettel had sustained an engine failure in Saturday morning practice, meaning that the Red Bull team were frantically replacing it as qualifying started. The rules say that a driver can only use eight engines throughout the season, and Vettel is now onto his sixth. I’m not entirely sure what happens if the eight engines are all used – I would imagine the young German has cut out the floor of the cockpit and run along in the manner of Fred Flintstone.

The qualification ended up as a triumph for McLaren, with Lewis Hamilton following up his win in Budapest with a pole position, and Heike Kovalainen joining him on the front row.

At the start of the race, the McLarens got away well and held the first two positions. Jenson Button had a disastrous first lap, dropping to eighth, whilst the best performer was Luca Badoer, who made up six places during lap one.

In the commentary box, there was a little revising of opinion on Badoer’s abilities, but he managed to spin off the track on lap three so Brundle could go back to canning him. In fairness to Badoer, he did manage to finish the Grand Prix, but not before he had a stop-start penalty for crossing the white line exiting the pits, overshot another corner, and being lapped.

At the front, Lewis Hamilton took off from the front of the grid, and Kovalainen managed to keep Barrichello at bay. At the first round of pit stops, Barrichello leapfrogged into second place, and attacked Hamilton hard. Getting to within four seconds before the second round of stops, the McLaren team virtually handed the race to Barrichello by fumbling the stop. As Hamilton came to a halt, the mechanics didn’t have the tyres ready. Scrambling them out of the garage and out of their covers, the mechanics slowly replaced the tyres as Hamilton sat watching the race disappear.

After his corresponding stop, Barrichello came out four seconds ahead of Hamilton, and didn’t look back. Having threatened all season to win a race, he finally claimed his first Grand Prix victory since China 2004.

Ross Brawn had repeatedly said that conditions would suit the Brawn cars, and that made it even more of a shame that Jenson Button did so badly. Having made a poor start, he spent most of the 57 laps staring at the back of Mark Webber’s car, unable to get past, and only got ahead after the second round of pit stops. By that time, he was way off the pace, and could only finish seventh.

Kimi Raikkonen, whose mid-season rallying adventure ended with his car rolling into a Finnish ditch, came in third, conspicuously ahead of his aged team mate Badoer.

Sebastian Vettel was seriously let down this weekend by his equipment. Having lost an engine in practice, he dropped out of contention when his first pit stop had to be repeated due to a faulty fuel nozzle. Racing outside the top ten as a result, his race finished in a puff of blue smoke as yet another engine failed.

With Webber finishing ninth, it was a puzzling day for all the top title contenders. Barrichello’s win, coupled with the abject failure of his team mate and their rivals, puts him right back into contention.

Friday, 7 August 2009

Have a Coke, Have a Smile

Tonight, I had to begin my acclimatisation. As the first league game of the season kicked off on Sky Sports, I had to finally accept the fact that I support a club that is in the Coca Cola Championship. I’m a Newcastle fan, and Pam is a Middlesbrough fan, so as you can imagine last May was a fun time in our household as we both had to come to terms with the fact our teams were hopeless.

The fact that I had put a fiver on Boro to go down at 16-1 at the start of the season was scant consolation as I watched the burning wreckage of Newcastle follow them down on the final day of the season.

The big Championship kick off is tomorrow afternoon but Sky never knowingly accept an existing schedule and have pulled the Middlesbrough – Sheffield United tie forward a day in order to boost their Friday evening ratings. It’s nothing new for Sky to be showing Friday evening Championship games, but it is new to me.

Having become used to, and comfortable with, the Sky Sports mega-hype that surrounds even the most meaningless Premiership tie, I was a bit disappointed that Andy Gray couldn’t even be bothered to turn up. Presumably he’s still on holiday with Richard Keys, topping up the tan and reading his Rothmans.

Instead, we were welcomed to the 2009-10 season by some anonymous Sky Sports Newsreader over the theme tune of “You’ve Got The Love” by Candi Staton. Tragically, he was joined on the gantry by Championship standard “experts” Neil Warnock, Kevin Phillips and Peter Beagrie. Peter Beagrie! Imagine being in a league so crap that Peter Beagrie is considered an adequate pundit.

Neil Warnock is a pleasingly objectionable presence on any panel, but Kevin Phillips (depressingly, once again a Premiership striker this season) is possibly the most boring man in football. His voice is very similar to that of David Beckham, but he makes Becks look more flamboyant than The Great Soprendo. There was a point at half time where he launched into a soliloquy about Leroy Lita’s pace, and I actually lapsed into a coma. I only came round when Pam tried to steal my beer. Beagrie is actually the definition of the perfect Sky pundit – he only talks in tabloid headlines, tonight for example he constantly referred to the away team as “Sheff Yoo”

A pre-recorded interview with Boro manager Gareth Southgate before the match was unnerving in its intensity. It was a couple of minutes before I realised why. He was talking direct to camera rather than to the usual off-camera interviewer. Have Sky cut back by getting rid of Geoff Shreeves and implementing a Diary Room style interview?

Perhaps Southgate insists on this as part of his contract with the club. He does have a big nose but it is a bit self-conscious of him demanding to be filmed exclusively from this head-on angle

As the game started, Southgate emerged pitchside in his Italian suit and club tie, but the Sheffield United manager, Kevin Blackwell, in his cheap nylon Blades training top, was almost taunting him. This is how we do it down here, Pinocchio.

As the action progressed, commentated on by some bloke called Bill Leslie, ably assisted by Don Goodman, the attention inevitably strayed to the Premiership. Cutting away to the lurking figure of Martin O’Neill in the stands, there was much speculation over which players he had come to see. With the transfer window still yawning, and any half-decent players still vulnerable to poaching, it is going to be a very long season.