Tuesday, 23 September 2014

#F1 Singa-Poor joke in the title

I suppose it was about time Lewis Hamilton had the rub of the green, so-to-speak, in terms of reliability issues.  With Nico Rosberg in trouble from from the formation lap, Hamilton drove a faultless race from pole to capitalise on his rival's woes, bringing home twenty-five points to edge ahead of Rosberg in the World Drivers' Championship standings.  Talk of the race in Monza two weeks ago being 'a turning point' was not entirely misplaced, it would seem.

At least we get a chance to knock some of the nutty conspiracy theories on the head.  Earlier in the year, a few people were convinced Hamilton's mechanical issues were being orchestrated by the Mercedes team because they decided Rosberg would be a 'more fitting' World Champion.  Patently ridiculous though that is, it echoes the sort of nonsense we got used to hearing from some fans of Mark Webber who were convinced Red Bull were deliberately sabotaging Webber's car in order to favour Vettel.

Mercedes aren't deliberately going to fix one of their cars to have to retire from the race - costing their team, and one of their drivers, a decent haul of points.  They weren't 'sabotaging' Hamilton earlier in the season, and consciously favouring Rosberg for the title; I'd have thought that was obvious to everyone - but just in case it isn't, the issues on Sunday show that, more often than not, these issues do 'even out' over the course of a season.

However, this Championship is still wide open.  The momentum may have swung Hamilton's way; having taken the lead, he may well be the favourite for the title now - especially given his performances in the last two races, where he has looked absolutely unbeatable.  One statistic I'm not overly fond of seeing, however, is the comparison in the number of races won - Hamilton has won seven races this season, against Rosberg's four.  However, you don't win Championships by having more race victories than your teammate; this is a race series, not a one-off event, and Rosberg understands as well as anyone the importance of consistency over the course of an entire season.

What's going to be interesting now is Rosberg's response.  He seemed calm enough in the immediate aftermath of his retirement in Singapore, but this is the first time the reliability issues within the Mercedes team have really hurt his side of the garage, and with Hamilton inching ahead in the title race it will be fascinating to see how Rosberg handles the pressure.  I think he has the mental steeliness to cope well.

Ultimately, it could be the mechanical reliability which decides this Championship.  Is that fair?  Possibly not.  But Formula 1 has always been about designing ultimate racing machines - about technical prowess, as much as driver skill.  To say that the quality and durability of the cars shouldn't play a part in the competition is to misunderstand the sport.  Whether Hamilton or Rosberg ends up being crowned 2014 World Champion - because it will be one of those two drivers, whatever the Red Bull team say - can you really say whichever one of them wins it in the end won't be a worthy Champion?

Friday, 19 September 2014

Who is asking 'The English Question'?

As you probably know by now, Scotland voted 'No' to independence from the rest of the United Kingdom in yesterday's Referendum.  (If you didn't know, and you're now annoyed with me for posting 'spoilers', you can get stuffed.)

Much of the post-Referendum talk today, however, has been about England, and the so-called 'English Question' which now has to be answered (apparently).  My question, however, is this: who is asking this English Question?!  So far as I can see, it's mainly politicians and and political commentators all asking each other.

As a brief summary of what this English Question (also often known as the West Lothian Question) is supposed to be, consider that devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland means that any issues which affect only those countries are handled by their own devolved legislatures - the Scottish Parliament, and the Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies - whereas, with no regional legislature of its own, issues affecting only England are still handled by the national Parliament in Westminster.  This means that only members of the Scottish Parliament debate and vote on issues which affect only Scotland, but issues which affect only England are debated and voted on by MPs from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in Westminster.

Yeah, I get it.  It's 'unfair'.  But it's difficult to get worked up over this stuff.  I mean, really?  I find it difficult to believe that there are people all across England furious that Scottish MPs are voting on things.  Honestly, I do.  After all, as the always astute Hopi Sen explains, the inherent asymmetry of the United Kingdom means that this issue is considerably less problematic in practice than it is in theory.  How much does this 'problem' actually affect people's day-to-day lives?

I understand the theory behind it.  I just think politicians who are desperate to show England that we won't be getting a raw deal in the post-'IndyRef' world are barking up somewhat of the wrong tree.

I like to think I'm fairly engaged with politics.  I'm already planning my all-night 'General Election and Curry Party' for next May (contact me for an invitation - seriously, you're very welcome).  I don't find politics off-putting.  But I struggle to get excited about the idea of an English Parliament, or devolution to Regional Assemblies, or any of the other suggestions which have been put forward as potential 'West Lothian Answers'; they simply don't inspire me.

Maybe I'm wrong.  Maybe there is a burning desire across England for devolution, and I'm just not 'getting it'.  But I somehow doubt it.  I think we'd know.  I can't help but feel that the political classes have got themselves worked up into a lather over a topic which a considerable proportion of the general population aren't that fussed about.  At least, I'm not that fussed about it.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Scotland decides

Scotland decides. But we're all affected.

As the people of Scotland go to the polls today to vote in the Referendum on their independence from the United Kingdom, we're all eagerly awaiting the results. I'm certainly not going to be so foolish as to stick my head into the gaping, toothy jaws of the 'IndyRef' - which has chewed up and spat out far better writers than I - by proffering my opinion on the various issues surrounding the vote here.

But I do struggle to understand the attitudes of some of the people of the rest of the UK. The idea that this is "Scotland's vote", and the rest of us should just keep out of it, is a nonsense. (Of course, this stance isn't exactly helped by the rhetoric of some of the more extreme Nationalists in Scotland, who are keen to tell the rest of us that this is nothing to do with us, and we should stop trying to get involved!)

This sort of isolationism is sheer delusion. English, Welsh or Northen Irish people who want to wash their hands of the whole affair and pretend it's nothing to them are kidding themselves; whatever the outcome of the vote today, our country (and by that I mean the whole of the United Kingdom) is going to go through some pretty major constitutional changes, and that's going to have an impact on everyone.

We can't just disengage from the whole thing. The vote may be confined to residents of Scotland, but the repercussions won't be. Like it or not, we are all vested interests.

Monday, 15 September 2014

I got a free album, and U got one 2!

There has been a considerable backlash at the news that, along with launching the new iPhone 6 the the iWatch (more on those to come) and killing the only version of the iPod worth having, the iPod Classic (the heartless bastards - more on that, also, to come), Apple have given every iTunes user a free copy of the latest album by U2 - Songs Of Innocence.  But I can't, for the life of me, think why.

There has been such a tremendous fuss about this that I've found myself wondering whether there's some nasty small print detail I've missed which allows Apple and U2 to harvest your organs if any of the band's members need a transplant at any point in their lives.  There isn't.

You're being given something free-of-charge.  Something for nothing.  It may not be something you wanted, or something you like, but you'd have to be a serious churl to claim that owning it diminishes your life in any way.

Claims that the album is being 'forced upon' you are, of course, hyperbolic nonsense in every sense; you don't have to listen to it - you don't even have to download it, if you don't want to!  The choice is yours.  That makes about as much sense as saying you're being 'forced' to use a stopwatch because your phone came with one as one of its set of 'stock' apps - or saying you're being 'forced' to eat raspberry jam because your housemate left a jar of it in the fridge before going away on holiday.  It is complete rubbish, in other words.

As for the album itself…?  I actually didn't mind it.  I know it's 'fashionable' to disdain U2 - as it is Nickelback, Coldplay, Jamie Cullum and Justin Bieber - but if you care more about whether it's 'fashionable' to like a band or not than whether their music is any good then you're an idiot.

Instead of instantly feeling aggrieved at the whole incident, I actually downloaded and listened to Songs Of Innocence before deciding how I felt about it - and I found it not in the least bit objectionable.  Who knows?  I may even listen to it again.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

#F1: Where now for Ferrari?

Following the news that Ferrari boss Luca Di Montezemolo has resigned after twenty-three years in charge, I am once again left pondering the uncertain fortunes of this veteran Italian marque in Formula 1.  Ferrari are synonymous with Formula 1; of the eleven teams currently competing in the sport, only three names have been a constant presence on the grid throughout the whole time that I've been following the sport - Williams, McLaren, and of course, Ferrari.

Steeped in history, romance and Italian passion, Ferrari's presence in Formula 1 may have been consistent over many decades, but their performances of track have been anything but.  For anyone who grew up, as I did, during the period of great Ferrari dominance in the late '90s and early '00s, and for whom a Sunday lunch still doesn't quite seem complete without the inevitable strains of the seemingly never-ending Italian National Anthem emanating from the television, Ferrari's recent period of misfortune has been rather difficult to fathom.

So, what is to be done about it?  Di Montezemolo has paid the price for the past few years of Ferrari malaise, but now is the time for the team to look to the future, and start to rebuild.

When all-time great of the sport Michael Schumacher arrived at the team in the mid-'90s (having already won the World Championship twice at Benetton), Ferrari were in a mess.  Together with technical chief Ross Brawn and designer Rory Byrne (who followed Schumacher to Ferrari from Benetton), Schumacher transformed the team; the rigour, the passion, the point-blank refusal to accept anything less than the absolute best which Schumacher and Brawn brought into Ferrari dragged the team back up to the sharp end of the grid, and the culture of winning this attitude instilled within the garage eventually (after a series of setbacks including a broken leg in 1998) brought Schumacher - and Ferrari - a further five consecutive World Championship victories.

The Ferrari team of 2014 is a pale shadow of the slick race-winning operation of ten years previous.  They are crying out for another Brawn, another Byrne - and, above all, another Schumacher.  But where will they come from?  The Formula 1 paddock isn't exactly awash with the kind of people capable of shaking Ferrari out of their current malaise.

Ferrari's current driver line-up of Fernando Alonso and Kimi Räikkönen is, on paper, the best on the grid.  But in practice, whilst they are both great drivers, Räikkönen is cut from very different cloth when compared to somebody like Schumacher - his 'iceman' persona is the opposite of the seven-times World Champion's zeal - and Alonso, whilst fiery and passionate in his own way, can seem a little petulant on occasion.  In truth, there are maybe two, or possibly three people currently in Formula 1 who would be able to rise to the challenge of kicking Ferrari back into shape - the task of convincing them to leave their current teams, however, would be nothing short of gargantuan.

The only other option, then, is to look outside the current Formula 1 sphere.  A few years back, there was speculation that hugely successful MotoGP rider Valentino Rossi could make the rare switch from two-wheeled racing to four-wheeled racing, and join Ferrari as a driver.  I was excited by this left-field prospect at the time, and a little disappointed not to see it come to fruition.  Maybe something similar might emerge as this season starts to come to a close?  If so, at least that would show Ferrari's ambitions to be moving in the right direction.

Monday, 8 September 2014

#F1: Monza Bonanza

It has been my goal for a while, now, to post a short write-up of each Grand Prix in the days following it (or, at least, before Qualifying for the next race starts!), even if nothing truly remarkable has happened, as some kind of 'regular feature' on this Blog.  Although, in all likelihood, it is doubtful whether I shall successfully be able to navigate this small, dreamlike coracle of prose between the Scylla and Charybdis of work commitments and laziness, I am going to attempt it nonetheless - and therefore humbly set out my thoughts on yesterday's Italian Grand Prix in Monza herein…

Hamilton back to his best

I wrote here after Monaco about how important it is for Lewis Hamilton not to let himself get dragged into a downward psychological spiral of victimhood, and to carry on racing his way rather than always comparing his fortunes on-track with Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg's.  It was clear that Hamilton was not happy after what happened between himself and Rosberg on the first lap in Belgium two weeks ago, so I was very pleased to see that he seemed to have put that behind him as he came to Italy.

Hamilton was too much for Rosberg in Qualifying in Monza, and took a brilliant Pole position.  His start was poor, and he ended up chasing the race in fourth place; it would've been easy, at this point, to get disheartened again, and to turn into Mario Balotelli - "why always me?"

Thankfully, Hamilton didn't let this happen - he put the disappointments of the start behind him, knuckled down and set about the task of reeling in Rosberg's lead.  After the first lap, Hamilton was flawless; he didn't do a thing wrong as he hunted down Rosberg, and it was one of the most dominant and complete performances I have seen from him recently.  (The speculation that Mercedes 'ordered' Rosberg to give way to Hamilton as 'punishment' for the incident at Spa is so inordinately stupid that I shan't address it here.)

If Hamilton goes on to win the Championship this year, this race at Monza will be looked on as a turning point in the season; I hope his new positivity continues as we go to Singapore in two weeks time.

Rosberg not a bad egg

The booing of Nico Rosberg on the Podium - both last time out in Belgium, and again in Italy yesterday - is simply not on.  He is a racing driver, paid to deliver results for his team, and at the moment he is leading the Championship - fair play to him.

Personally, I do think it would be brilliant to see a British driver win the title again, and there is no question that Hamilton has the means to overhaul Rosberg's lead in the remaining races.  However, if Rosberg is crowned World Champion after the final race in Abu Dhabi, he will have won the title on merit and he will be a worthy Champion.

Penalty precedents

Another talking-point after yesterday's race was the five second time Penalty given to Kevin Magnussen by the Stewards after they deemed he had 'forced' Valtteri Bottas off the track while defending his position from Bottas' overtaking manoeuvre into the Turn 1 chicane.  I disagreed with this decision, and took issue with the Penalty for two reasons.

Firstly, the Penalty was issued as a 'Five Second Stop/Go Penalty' - ie. to be taken in the Pit Lane - but it was decided that, as no further Pit Stops were planned (Monza is traditionally a one-stop race), the five seconds could simply be added to Magnussen's overall finishing time.  In my view, this changes the nature of the Penalty - and, therefore, changes the nature of the race.  The Stop/Go Penalty is about more than just the time you lose in the Pit Lane - the time you spend stationary puts you at a different place on the track, possibly amongst different cars also fighting for position.  The result of this is a different type of race.  Simply adding the time on at the end of the Grand Prix removes this element of uncertainty, and turns the race into something of a time-trial event for the cars involved; Formula 1 has never been about that.

Secondly, the Penalty itself was overly harsh on Magnussen, who was defending his line from Bottas' oncoming Williams.  Neither car was driving dangerously (unlike Esteban Guttiérez' weaving around on the straight when he hit Romain Grosjean's Lotus and gave himself a puncture), it was simply a 'racing incident' - the sort of thing which is perhaps to be expected when cars are fighting for position on a race track.  I worry that the Stewards will set a precedent for giving Penalties for ever more minor incidents, thus making the drivers more cautious in their approach, reducing overtaking and on-track battles and sterilising Grand Prix racing.

It is, perhaps, ironic that this creeping trend towards risk aversion comes at the same time as a whole new slew of ridiculous proposals to 'make the sport more exciting'.  I have almost lost count of the number of time I have written about how moronic it is to try and 'engineer' and 'create' drama in motorsport, and how making the racing more artificial is an insult to the fans.

We were treated to some fantastic on-track action at Monza yesterday, from the likes of Bottas and Magnussen, as well as Jenson Button, Sergio Pérez, Felipe Massa and Daniel Ricciardo - that the powers-that-be in F1 could seek to discourage this sort of wheel-to-wheel racing through ever more petty Penalties, while at the same time hoping to manufacture more fake 'excitement' is mind-boggling.  The racing we saw yesterday was raw and real, not 'created for our entertainment' by titanium skid-blocks and tyres which barely last five laps; I would hate a situation to develop where the only overtaking moves we ever see are DRS-assisted in specially designated zones, and racing instinct has been neutered by the fear of incurring punishment for being too bold.

Ricciardo a rising star

Each time I see Daniel Ricciardo race, I am more impressed by him than I was the last time.  He is a master at seeing space on the track, reading situations and picking braking points, and he is a joy to watch in the car.  Given the right car, he will go on winning races for a long time to come.

I confess I entertained the possibility that Ricciardo's appointment at Red Bull (a 'promotion', if you like, from the junior Toro Rosso team) was in order to provide four-time World Champion and apple of Helmut Marko's eye Sebastian Vettel with a compliant teammate, already well versed in 'the Red Bull way' of doing things.  Various rumours had circulated last year about the possibility of Fernando Alonso or Kimi Räikkönen stepping into the second Red Bull alongside Vettel, and speculation was rife that Ricciardo was eventually chosen because Vettel had been reluctant to have his status as Red Bull's de facto Number 1 driver challenged by another word-class former Champion.  Given the way the season has gone for him so far, perhaps Vettel is now wishing he did have Räikkönen or Alonso as his teammate, after all…?

The Pit Lane brain drain

If this season has taught us anything, it is the importance of high-ranking technical staff within a Formula 1 team.  Any team which has enjoyed periods of dominance within the sport would not have been able to manage that without a visionary heading up the technical side of the operation - Ross Brawn at Ferrari (and, later on, at his own 'privateer' team), and Adrian Newey at Red Bull are perhaps the best examples in the modern era of Formula 1.  If further proof were needed, however, we need only look at the fortunes of two teams whose fortunes this season could scarcely be more different from their results last year.

Williams have had a dismal time in recent years, and hadn't really produced a car capable of challenging for Podium finishes for ten years.  This year, however, they have reemerged as a serious force in the paddock, and yesterday they overtook Ferrari to claim third place in the Constructors' Championship (that this happened at Ferrari's home race could only have added insult to injury for the veteran Italian marque who haven't been able to produce a decent car since 2009).  The decision of the Williams team to switch to the Mercedes engine for this season was inspired (the Mercedes is easily the best engine in the field), but when it comes to designing a car the capture of Pat Symonds as a technical director is huge, and with him on board Williams have shot back up the standings as a result of his influence.

Contrast this with Lotus, who were, this time last year, the closest challengers to the dominant Red Bulls.  Last year's Lotus was a very well-designed car, even on a much tighter budget than that available to most of the top teams in the paddock, and was particularly remarkable for how kind it was to its tyres.  This year, however, the Lotus team has seen an exodus of talent, with highly-rated designer James Allen leaving to join Ferrari, and star driver Kimi Räikkönen following suit, and team boss Eric Boullier jumping ship to McLaren.  Lotus now find themselves adrift at the back of the field, with a car which looks about as easy to drive as a ride-on lawnmower, and considerably less enjoyable.  In yesterday's race, Romain Grosjean - who finished on the Podium more times than any other non-Red Bull driver in the second half of last season - found himself fighting for most of the race with the Caterhams and Marussias which are generally referred to as the 'back teams'.  How the mighty have fallen!