Monday, 30 March 2015

#F1 – Mercedes unsettled, Ferrari resurgent

Quite a few interesting things to have come out of yesterday's Malaysian Grand Prix in Sepang.  The big headlines were the first Ferrari victory since Spain 2013 – and the return of Sebastian Vettel to the top of the Podium, after a win-less season in 2014.  But we'll get to that…

In his interview for the BBC ahead of the race itself yesterday, Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg spoke of the disappointment of narrowly losing last year's Championship title to teammate Lewis Hamilton; however, he also said that he was 'over it' after just one day.  I'm sorry, Nico, but I'm just not buying it!

When you look at his driving (both yesterday, and two weekends ago in Melbourne), Rosberg is still very clearly feeling the effects of having lost out to his teammate at the end of the 2014 season.  Where Hamilton appears relaxed, confident and assertive on track – clearly a driver who is enjoying himself, and who has found a rhythm in the car – Rosberg seems cowed and nervous by comparison.  On several occasions, Rosberg has pulled out of overtaking manoeuvres, or has seemed half-hearted under braking, in a way which would've been quite uncharacteristic of him last year – and the way in which he is so frequently asking his team for information about other cars and other teams over the radio makes him seem jittery and unsure of himself.

To me, it seems obvious that Rosberg has not yet recovered psychologically from the toll of the 2014 title battle, and the damage which losing to Hamilton caused him; he won't truly be back to his old self until he can take the fight to Hamilton on track – and win – to start building his confidence back up.  Unfortunately for him, there seems little chance of his actually achieving this, at the moment – Hamilton has looked in another class so far this season, and he has made Rosberg (himself an exceptional racing driver) look naïve and ordinary by comparison.  Rosberg knows this too, and as a consequence Hamilton has him beaten before they even get into the cars.

However, for all his confidence, and all his momentum so far this season, Hamilton has his weaknesses too.  And this is where Vettel comes back into the picture…  I don't think Hamilton and the Mercedes team expected such a robust challenge from Ferrari this weekend, and I think the result was the Vettel caught them napping slightly.  For an élite racing team, that's pretty poor.

Once Hamilton realised he had a fight on his hands in the shape of Sebastian Vettel's Ferrari, he became agitated and surly, snapping at his race engineer over the radio and appearing to criticise the team for strategy decisions in public.  For all his tremendous natural racing flair, Hamilton is a driver who is quick to react when he believes he has been wronged – I wrote last year that his achilles' heel as a sportsman is how quickly he allows himself to descend into a 'victim' mentality when he feels things aren't going his way, and we saw signs of this again towards the end of yesterday's race, as he began to see a Vettel win as the most likely outcome of the afternoon's racing.

Hamilton can complain all he likes that he was put on the wrong tyre by his team, and that this is why he lost the race to Vettel, but this is just sour grapes – Vettel looked the better driver for the vast majority of the Grand Prix, and the Ferrari was clearly the fastest car in a straight line.  Hamilton could have been on any tyres, and it wouldn't have made a huge amount of difference, Vettel was just too strong for him.  Vettel thoroughly deserved to win in Sepang yesterday.  He was confident and self-assured, and he is obviously loving life at Ferrari!  I wonder whether this story strikes anyone else as familiar, though?  A confident, young German driver with a ruthless competitive instinct and forensic attention to detail who already has a few World Championships under his belt moves to a Ferrari team who've spent a few years in the wilderness, drifting aimlessly along while other teams take the glory – before long, Ferrari become a force to be reckoned with once more…

So, is Vettel the new Schumacher?  Well, more than one thing contributes to a racing team's success – that much is obvious.  But the fact that Vettel has been a positive influence at Ferrari, and that their return to form is at least partly linked to his arrival at the team, is (to me) self-evident.

But credit must also go to the designers – in particular, James Allison, poached from Lotus a couple of seasons ago.  It is worth remembering that when Schumacher left Benetton for Ferrari at the end of the 1995 season, he took with him the technical team of Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne who had made the Benetton team so successful; although he didn't come from the same team as Vettel, or at exactly the same time, Allison seems now to be filling that rôle, and the car he has designed for this season is better than anything Ferrari have produced for a number of years.

In short, for the first time in quite a while, we are seeing a Ferrari team with purpose and direction – a Ferrari team hungry to achieve success once more.  The link between this upturn in performance and the arrivals of Allison and Vettel is too strong to ignore; their influence is clearly having a big affect on Ferrari.  So where does this leave Kimi Räikkönen?

Räikkönen had a pretty torrid season last year – his first back with Ferrari after his sabbatical, and subsequent stint with Lotus – and played a poor second fiddle to Fernando Alonso throughout the season.  Although I would give the edge to Alonso on pure racing ability, Räikkönen is a great driver in his own right (and a former World Champion too, let's not forget!), and I do not think the gulf between him and Alonso is anything like as large as it seemed to be last year.  The 2014 Ferrari did not suit Räikkönen one bit – it was a pretty weak effort all-round from the Italian team, to be fair, but somehow Alonso was able to wring its neck to a greater extent than his Finnish teammate, who often found himself languishing outside the points as a result.

This year, Räikkönen is obviously much happier with the car he has been given, and his performances and attitudes on track have borne this out.  And yet, he still doesn't seem to get the joy his teammate does, in terms of race results.  Is Kimi the unluckiest man in Formula 1?  I would say there are plenty of candidates for that title, but Räikkönen's name has to be up there.

In Australia, Ferrari were running strongly, but had a few issues with pit-stops; those issues all happened when Räikkönen was in the pits, and never when Vettel was stopping for tyres.  In the end, Räikkönen had to retire due to safety concerns regarding a wheel which had not been put on properly during a stop, and he scored no points while Vettel went on to take his first Podium finish in Ferrari red.  Yesterday, Räikkönen was matching Vettel's laptimes during qualifying – until he got caught out by the rain.

The weather had a much bigger effect on the Finn than on his teammate, simply down to when they had gone out on track, and he ended up qualifying in eleventh place, nine grid slots down from Vettel in second.  And this meant that, at the start of the race, Räikkönen had traffic to deal with – he suffered an early puncture, and although a Safety Car period shortly after helped nullifying some of the time he lost as a result of the puncture, that set the tone for him, in a race where he was always trying to make up lost ground.  Fourth place was a decent result behind a flying Sebastian Vettel and the two Mercedes of Hamilton and Rosberg, but could he have tried for a Podium place if he hadn't been beset by yet more misfortune?  Surely his luck will have to turn soon?

I hope so.  A strong, confident Kimi Räikkönen is good for Ferrari, and good for F1 in general.  With Ferrari coming back into the picture, Mercedes still strong, and a mid-grid of exciting young talent and teams who have certainly improved hugely on their 2014 cars (which leads me to wonder whether Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo and Daniil Kvyat felt a little like they were both back at Toro Rosso this weekend, as both of their junior team's rookie drivers finished ahead of them?), this should be a fascinating season to watch as it unfolds.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Well, you can forget knowing who's going to win the Championship!

As things stand, with seven games remaining until the end of the season, the top four teams in the Championship are separated by only three points.  It's going to be a very tense end to the season – anyone can win the league, and anyone can be promoted.

Why, then, do some Norwich City fans insist on throwing their arms in the air and acting like it's all over after one result which doesn't go our way.  After the 2-2 draw at Huddersfield in midweek, I knew there would be some chump popping up on social media to say "well, we can forget all about automatic promotion now!" – and, sure enough, there was.  It was the same after we lost to Wigan (our only defeat in the past ten games).

Why do some hysterical fans think every negative result is the end of the world?  It's such a crass, short-sighted overreaction!

When things are this tight at the top of the table, anything can happen, and things can change very quickly.  Bournemouth have have spent more weeks at the top of the table this season than any other team, but last month they'd slipped to fourth place – now, however, they're back on top again.  A month ago, when we beat them 3-0 away, Watford were sixth – but going into this weekend's round of games, they were first.  It doesn't take much for the picture at the top of the table to change completely.  It's not over yet – and to think that one result (either positive or negative) has sealed our fate is incredibly foolish.

The Championship top ten (correct as of Sunday 22nd March).

As things stand, Norwich have the best record over the last ten games (seven wins, two draws and one loss) of all the teams in the Championship; we have the second best goal difference in the league (only Bournemouth's is better); only Bournemouth (8) have lost fewer games so far this season than us (Norwich and Middlesborough have both lost 9); and we are two points off second place, and three points off the top of the table.

So is automatic promotion 'out of the question' now?  Quite the opposite, in fact!  Given all those statistics, there is absolutely no reason why we can't catch the teams above us.  Automatic promotion is still eminently plausible, and the volatility of the race for promotion means that this is likely to remain the case.

Of course, promotion isn't guaranteed just because the statistics are in our favour.  This unpredictability works both ways; the likes of Derby, Ipswich, Brentford and Wolves will be looking up the table at Norwich, thinking "there's no reason we can't catch them" – and they're right.  But what it does mean is that promotion is up for grabs, and anybody at the sharp end of the league table has a chance of grabbing it for themselves – and if we just keep doing what we're doing, we've as good a chance as anyone, if not better.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Three cheers for boring races!

Well, maybe not three.  But one cheer, at least.  Yes, one cheer for 'boring' races!

Formula 1 is back!  The Australian Grand Prix which began the new 2015 season this weekend was hardly a vintage race.  But that doesn't matter.  What does matter is the baffling insistence by so many fans and media types that this does matter.  Let me explain…

Formula 1 is a sport.  It is not a 'structured reality' TV show, like recent E4 hit Taking New York – a 'reality' programme featuring real people doing real things, but where half of the action is scripted in order to ensure it is exciting and entertaining for the viewers watching at home.  The point of competitive sport of any variety is to find out who is the best at whatever sporting discipline is being contested – in the case of Formula 1, that discipline is designing, building, and driving a racing car – within certain agreed-upon regulations and guidelines.

My apologies if this sounds rather like I'm stating the obvious here, but it would appear that some people really don't get this!  So, let me be absolutely clear about this: since the objective of sport is to be the best it is possible to be, it is impossible to be 'too good' at it.  If you're so good that nobody else can keep up, you deserve nothing but congratulations – and your competitors need to get their act together.

Unfortunately, the nasty, pernicious idea that we somehow need to 'make' F1 more 'entertaining' seems to have surfaced again.  BBC Sport writer Andrew Benson writes:
"…the pressure behind the scenes to do something about [Mercedes'] advantage is only like to increase…"
Do something about it?!  That's pretty scary language.

What he means is to rig the competition.  Falsify the results.  Mercedes deserve their advantage over the rest of the field, because on merit they have a better car and better drivers than the other teams; team boss Toto Wolff is right to tell Red Bull's Christian Horner to 'stop moaning'.

What we saw on Sunday in Melbourne was an accurate representation of the relative performances of different cars and different drivers.  One car – and, especially, one driver – was streets ahead of the rest.  Fair play to them.  To tamper with that is to turn a competition into a farce – an artificial spectacle which has been staged to 'entertain' – and in doing so, you are defrauding spectators who have been led to believe that they are watching drivers racing each other on merit, not to a tightly-controlled script.

If you want guaranteed drama every time, go to a West End show.  If you choose to watch Formula 1, accept that if the reality is that one car is so much quicker than the rest it can't be caught on track, then that is how it should be.  I don't want F1 races to be 'staged' affairs; I can't understand why anybody would.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

An empty gesture

Oh, good!  The discourse of the 2015 General Election continues to be dominated by Televised Debates between the main party leaders (or between the main and not-so-main party leaders, or between one party leader and a cat named Gilbert).  Y'know, because it's not like there are any more important issues to talk about just a couple of months before an election – like policies, or anything…

I have written at length about why the TV Debates are a bad idea, and should be scrapped.  They are a farce which threaten to turn British politics into a soap opera with relatable 'characters' at which one can cheer or boo.  They pull focus away from local party candidates and onto party leaders, further diminishing the all-too-important link between constituency residents and their local parliamentary representative.  And, as we are already seeing, they dominate the news agenda ahead of the things people should actually be talking about.

Despite all of this, the TV Debates look likely to go ahead anyway.  But things still aren't straight forward!  David Cameron – the Prime Minister, and leader of the Conservative party – is still refusing to take part in the debates.  That is his prerogative.

Despite the fact that a debate between party leaders which does not include the leader of the current largest party – the party which is likely to be either the largest or second largest party in the next parliament too – would be rather odd, broadcasters are undeterred, and plan to go ahead with the debates with or without Mr Cameron.  That is their prerogative.

However, the latest furore in this saga that will not die is how broadcasters should treat the Prime Minister's absence (if absent he be).  Those keen to paint Mr Cameron as 'scared' of the debates (because who doesn't love political discourse which is lifted straight from the vernacular of eight-year-old playground bullies?) would like to see an 'empty chair' in his stead.  In my opinion, however, this would be the very worst thing the broadcasters could do, in the event of a debate which did not include the Prime Minister.

Imagine how this kind of debate would go.  Seven eerily-lit lecterns in front of a studio audience – six of them occupied by the leaders of the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, UKIP, the Green Party, the SNP and Plaid Cymru; one of them conspicuously empty.  What are those six other party leaders going to focus on?

I know what I would do in that situation, if I were one of those party leaders.

I would be at great pains to draw attention to Mr Cameron's empty lectern, at every opportunity.  I would address all my remarks to it personally.  I would highlight the Tory leader's lack of participation in the debate every chance I got.  In short, I would hope to 'win' the debate (or, at least, come out of it looking favourable) simply by showing up.

It's the obvious tactic, isn't it?  Some of our major party leaders are prone to some incredible gaffes (as are some of our minor party leaders), but I don't think any of them are stupid enough not to spot that.  By 'empty chair'-ing David Cameron, the broadcasters will let six other party leaders off the hook – allowing them to spend ninety minutes pointing and jeering at a 'pantomime villain' figure, making snide remarks about the Prime Minister to general applause, rather than putting forward their own policies and their own visions for Britain.

However much you may feel David Cameron would deserve such treatment for his obstinacy on the issue of the debates, we are often told that the advantage of having televised debates at all is to help voters make up their minds about which party to vote for come Polling Day; this farce of a debate would not do that – it would simply allow six politicians to hurl petty insults at a seventh politician who isn't there.  How is that a meaningful part of the democratic process?