Joe-Pinions: Sports

10 Jan 2013 – My Personal Top 10 F1 Drivers (# 4)

Posted in Auto Racing, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 10/01/2013

A new year, a new blog post!

We march on towards the top of this list with the driver who occupies the # 4 slot of my personal top 10 F1 drivers.  But before we do that, let’s look at the list thus far:

10.  Nigel Mansell

9.  Jean Alesi

8.  Gilles Villeneuve

7.  Nelson Piquet

6.  Damon Hill

5.  Sir Jackie Stewart

We’re now in rarefied air, since any one of at least three of the remaining four drivers on my list would probably be tops on other peoples’ lists.  Remember, though, that my top 10 does not include the sport’s first 5-time world champion (the great Juan Manuel Fangio) or Michael Schumacher (a 7-time world champ who will never be one of my favorites).  So you can rule these two out.

The remaining four drivers on my personal list are all World Champions, of course, accounting for eleven titles between them.  But it’s not a simple matter of going by sheer numbers of titles won as far as ranking them.  I freely disclose that this entire list is more subjective than objective.

But that’s the fun of such a list, isn’t it?

So, then, the driver who sits at # 4 on my top ten list of F1 drivers is:

4.  Jim Clark

Before Senna, there was Clark.

Jimmy Clark, the youngest of five children born to Scottish farmers (and the only son), was universally lauded as the preeminent driver of his era, the benchmark, the one whose natural talent to drive racing cars was far in excess compared to everyone else.

I never saw Jimmy race – he’d been dead a full seven years before I was even born – but no other driver from before my time as a fan of the sport has captured my imagination as he has.

By the time fate ended his rule as the greatest Grand Prix driver of them all, he was the record holder for victories (25, from 72 starts, for an incredible strike rate of 34.72%!) and pole positions (33).  Jackie Stewart broke his record for GP victories in 1973, and it took twenty-one years until Ayrton Senna took the lead of the all-time pole positions list at the United States Grand Prix in 1989.

But it isn’t the magnificent statistics of his achievements that inspired my admiration for Jimmy.  Rather, it’s the sheer style of his driving and the beauty of his humanity which make Clark one of my all-time favorites.

Jimmy Clark:  2-time World Champion, winner of the 1965 Indy 500, and indisputably one of the all-time greats

Jimmy Clark: 2-time World Champion, winner of the 1965 Indy 500, and indisputably one of the all-time greats

Though I never saw him in his prime, there is thankfully enough film of him around to confirm just what everyone said about the way he drove:  He was the smoothest driver out there.  Jackie Stewart himself said of his fellow Scot, “Jimmy was absolutely a great driver, so smooth and understated when he drove yet went so fast.”

That is a huge part of my admiration for Clark.  That smoothness of technique blended with his spectacular speed against the stopwatch creates the illusion that this incredibly difficult and dangerous activity is something mere mortals could do.  To me it is the supreme magic trick, a mark of the work of the greatest masters.

And Jimmy was definitely one of the very best.

He drove anything and everything:  NASCAR stock cars; touring cars; sports cars; open-wheeled formula cars.  He even indulged in some rallying.

Just watching him at work, it’s easy to believe that Jimmy was born to drive racing cars.

In this onboard footage, observe just how slow and deliberate Clark is at the controls of his Lotus 25 at Oulton Park.

There is nary a hint of oversteer anywhere, or any other big steering corrections; he never locks the brakes up, never misses on any of his gear changes.  There are no curbs at the corner apexes, but even if there were the Lotus would never have clambered all over them as is the style today.

Big deal, right?

Then you look at the car – very obviously primitive compared to what today’s pilotes have under them – with its lack of downforce-producing wings, the narrow treaded tires, the lack of seatbelts (!), the aluminum monocoque chassis construction (carbon fiber was almost two decades away), the super-soft suspension, and you just cannot help but marvel at just how prodigious Clark’s natural talent and sheer feel must have been.  Granted, everybody else raced in similar cars, but Jimmy drove away from most of them, most of the time.

An interesting thing about Clark:  More than once he’d been asked about the secret behind his speed.  What made him quicker than everybody else?  How did he do it?  Sheepishly, Jimmy would often shrug and smile, confessing that he truly didn’t know how to answer that question.  He basically just got in the car and did his thing.

If driving a racing car is an art form (and it is, in my opinion), then Jimmy Clark was definitely Leonardo da Vinci in the cockpit.  The impression one gets when watching the great master at work is that his was a light touch.  When Clark is in his car, working hard but making everything looks so calm and gentle, it’s as if he is trying to paint in da Vinci’s sfumato technique:  What you see is beautifully delicate and fine, almost ethereal.

Jimmy three-wheeling a Lotus Cortina, and making it all look so easy.

Jimmy three-wheeling a Lotus Cortina, and making it all look so easy.

There is nothing harsh in Clark’s driving.  Even when he three-wheels his Lotus Cortina around corners, it never looks brutal.  Instead, it all looks natural, as if that’s how Lotus Cortinas should behave whilst attacking bends.

His ability to go so obviously quickly and yet look like he was out for an easy Sunday drive was a very rare gift indeed, and this made him a hero to many drivers, including Stewart, Senna, and Prost, themselves charter members of many a fan’s personal pantheon of F1 gods.

And yet, for all his prodigious natural ability, Jim Clark was a gentle, shy man.  He had a predilection for biting and chewing his fingernails (a nervous habit shared by one other driver on this list, in fact).  He was never bombastic, never one to cultivate attention to himself, never arrogant.

Nigel Roebuck, easily my favorite F1 writer of all time, once shared an anecdote featuring Jackie Stewart, Jim Clark, and a host of other Grand Prix drivers.  The story goes that, one day at the paddock at Monza, Jackie was very animatedly talking about how on one of his laps around the frighteningly fast Curva Grande, his Matra’s throttle stuck open.  These days, the Curva Grande is a straightforward corner, easily flat in a Formula 1 car.  But back in the mid-1960s, it was a frightening corner that tested a driver’s courage and will.  Anyway, obviously Jackie survived his moment without crashing his car; all he suffered was a huge helping of sheer fright.  His coterie of mates, of course, reacted with applause.  With impeccable timing, Clark then reportedly said, “Are you saying, Jackie, that you normally lift off there?”

It says much that someone with an ego as huge as Jackie Stewart always looked up to Jimmy.  Jackie once said, “We became known as Batman and Robin. And there was no doubt who was Batman and who was Robin.”

It wasn’t just his fellow drivers and competitors who looked up to Jimmy.  Colin Chapman, boss of Lotus, the only team for whom Clark ever raced in Formula 1, admired Clark like no other driver.  Their first encounter, in fact, was in a GT race at Brands Hatch on Boxing Day in 1958.  Chapman won that race, with Clark (at that time still very much an amateur) finishing in second.  Chapman was so thoroughly impressed with the young Scot that he offered Clark a ride in one of Lotus’ Formula Junior cars.  So began what is probably still the most famous driver-team owner relationships the sport has ever seen.

The Chapman-Clark collaboration was obviously fruitful; how else would you classify the entirety of Jimmy Clark’s professional career?  Two World Championships (1963 and 1965), his record-setting tallies in pole positions and victories, a famous win in the 1965 Indianapolis 500, all in seven and a half years as a professional.

His death at Hockenheim in an otherwise inconsequential Formula Two race on April 7, 1968 shook all of auto racing like very few accidents have.  More than a few drivers have been killed or maimed whilst driving a Lotus, but as Nigel Roebuck tells it, the mere mention of Clark’s crash was enough to move Colin Chapman to tears.

No one knows for sure what happened to Clark – most say that Clark could not have made a mistake even in the wet just past the old Ostkurve where he went off, that the fatal crash must have been caused by a mechanical failure or a deflating rear tire.  What is beyond dispute, though, is that everyone – EVERYONE – who had any emotional or psychological investment into auto racing was devastated.

Racing drivers are abnormally brave people, but Clark’s death forced them to confront their own mortality in a manner they perhaps never had to before.  Chris Amon‘s words spoken in reflection say it all:  “If this can happen to Jimmy, what chance do the rest of us have? I think we all felt that. It seemed like we’d lost our leader.”

When I think of Jimmy Clark, I often think of all the words that were spoken or written about him.  But I also think of him in pictures.  My all-time favorite photograph of a racing driver, in fact, is of Clark, taken by Jesse Alexander.  It is a candid shot of Jimmy right after his first Grand Prix victory in Belgium, won at the mighty Spa-Francorchamps in all its 8.76-mile uncut glory.

Jesse Alexander's iconic candid shot of Jim Clark, Spa-Francorchamps, 1962.

Jesse Alexander’s iconic candid shot of Jim Clark, Spa-Francorchamps, 1962.

Jesse Alexander’s photo is not of a man pleased with winning his first-ever Grand Prix, but of a haunted soul.  It might surprise you to hear that Jimmy hated Spa-Francorchamps like he did no other track.  Much of his hatred for Spa could be traced to 1960.  In just his second-ever Grand Prix, Clark finished fifth (and in the points) at the mighty Belgian track.  Unfortunately, two of his colleagues – Chris Bristow and teammate Alan Stacey – were killed in separate accidents at the same race.  Clark had actually almost run over Bristow’s decapitated body at the fearsome Masta Kink, a flat-out left-right in between houses that is still considered one of Grand Prix racing’s most daunting corners.  No wonder Jimmy is absolutely joyless during a moment where countless other drivers would have been celebrating wildly.

For all his seemingly otherworldly talent behind the wheel of a racing car, Jimmy Clark was a simple, straightforward person.  It’s no surprise at all to read and hear that his contemporaries not only respected him like they did no other rival, but considered him a friend.

There will probably never ever be another Jim Clark in Formula 1.  And that is probably how it should be.

19 Dec 2012 – My Personal Top 10 F1 Drivers (# 5)

Posted in Auto Racing, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 19/12/2012

So here we are, breaking into the top half of this Top 10 list of my favorite F1 drivers.  Where spots 10 thru 6 were perhaps filled with names that many fans would probably never put in their own top 10, I’d dare say it’s very likely that every single driver in spots 5 thru 1 would be in most observers’ lists.

The only thing that would differentiate one list from the other would be the order in which the names would appear.

Before we start with the driver in the # 5 spot, let’s recap our list so far:

10.  Nigel Mansell

9.  Jean Alesi

8.  Gilles Villeneuve

7.  Nelson Piquet

6.  Damon Hill

And now, my # 5 favorite F1 driver:

5.  Jackie Stewart

Jackie Stewart Modern 002

Jackie Stewart’s helmet livery, with its distinctive Tartan headband.

Whether they know about it or not, every single racing driver today and forever after owes a gigantic debt to Sir Jackie Stewart.  It doesn’t matter which championship series they compete in.  Motor racing will never ever be 100% safe, but thanks largely to Sir Jackie’s courage, dedication, and tireless efforts to the cause of safety in motorsports back when he was an active competitor, as well as his endeavors after his retirement from competition, the sport is immeasurably safer.

In an era where death was a fairly common occurrence in a Grand Prix season, Sir Jackie was a true pioneer.  Undoubtedly influenced by his accident at a rainy Spa-Francorchamps in 1966, Stewart became a passionate crusader for driver safety.  Many of his contemporaries, and some from previous eras, derided Stewart’s efforts to make auto racing safer than it was; likewise, he was branded a coward by old-school members of the motor racing press corps.  All of his critics asked, “weren’t danger and the possibility of dying in a racing car part of the allure of the sport?”

Some even asked this most unbelievable of questions:  “Didn’t he (Stewart) want to die in a racing car?”

Stewart, of course, was far more sensible than these romantic yet misguided observers and participants.  He saw motor racing not as a bloodsport that extracted its toll in lives and grievous injuries, but as a test of skill, talent, and courage.  Somewhat ironically, Stewart’s courage is most in display in his crusade to reduce the mortal dangers that all racing drivers faced.  His willingness to absorb all the slings and arrows of misguided criticism – even outright disgust from some quarters – for his quest speaks of a courage far greater than that required whenever he stepped into his Tyrrell’s cockpit.

Some may object to the following description, but I truly think and feel that Sir Jackie is a type of Messianic figure:  He took upon the crushing gigantic burden largely by himself, sacrificing a good measure of his own comforts, for the betterment of all those to follow in his footsteps.  Thanks to his willingness to carry that particular cross, we (the people who truly love the sport) somewhat take for granted the many advances today’s racers now enjoy:  Seatbelts, the HANS device, safety barriers at the circuits, run-off areas at dangerous corners worldwide, ever-safer racing cars are just some of the fruits of Jackie Stewart’s crusade for safety.  Where before you could have as many as a dozen or so racing drivers lose their lives in racing incidents, the rare story of a single racing fatality inspires such shock and disbelief today.

As far as legacies go, Sir Jackie Stewart’s is almost impossible to match.

Given his monumental contributions to the relative safety of modern motorsports, it might be easy to forget that Sir Jackie was a brilliant racing driver.  Though I don’t think statistics are the end-all, be-all, Stewart’s career numbers are impressive:  27 Grand Prix victories out of 99 races (for an astonishing strike rate of 27%, which roughly means he won slightly better than one out of every four Grands Prix that he contested); 17 pole positions from his 99 starts; 15 fastest race laps; 43 appearances on the podium; 359 career World Championship points (earned during an era when 9 points was the maximum possible score, and there was an average of 11.5 Grands Prix per season).  He won the Drivers’ World Championship three times in his nine-year career (in 1969, 1971, and 1973), and finished second twice (1968 and 1972, to Graham Hill and Emerson Fittipaldi, respectively).

As breathtaking as Jackie Stewart’s career statistics are, they really aren’t the reason why I rate him so highly in my personal countdown of favorite F1 drivers.  You see, Jackie is as famous for his approach to driving – both racing and on the road – as he is for his monumental achievements as a multiple champion and race winner.

As with Niki Lauda (and two more, yet-to-be-disclosed, drivers in this countdown), the hallmark of Stewart’s approach to driving is smoothness.

Here’s what Stewart himself once said about driving a racing car:  Well I think a racing car is something very special, almost in the breed of an animal. Not only is it like an animal it’s also like a woman. It’s very sensitive, it’s very nervous, it’s very highly strung. Sometimes it responds very nicely, sometimes it responds very viciously, sometimes to get the best out of it you have to coax it and almost caress it, to get it to do the thing you want it to do and even after you done all these things and the car is doing exactly as you want it to. It will immediately and with no warning change its mind and do something very suddenly and very abruptly.

Stewart’s words are poetic, eloquent for their straightforwardness.  Anyone lucky enough to have had seat time in a very powerful and responsive automobile, even racing go-karts, would appreciate the essential truth in Sir Jackie’s brief discourse.

And that’s a huge part to why I have Sir Jackie so high up on my personal favorites list:  His driving style, so smooth and precise, is poetic in its own way:  There is very little waste, just the purity of technique applied to making the racing car go forwards as quickly as possible.  He never looks like he is struggling, as all racing drivers do, even as he fights to keep his car right on the knife edge of control.

That he makes it look so easy is nothing short of genius.

5 Jul 2012 – Fernando Reigns in Spain

Posted in Auto Racing, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 05/07/2012

Sometimes the race falls to the swiftest.

Sebastian Vettel was the fastest driver of the 2012 Grand Prix of Europe weekend.  He won the pole position by a staggering .33secs over Lewis Hamilton.  Given the fact that P2 through P10 were covered by about .5secs, the gap between the pole and the second-fastest qualifying time is nothing short of astonishing.

He converted his pole position advantage at the start and led with imperious ease, leaving all his pursuers huffing and puffing in his Red Bull’s wake.  Things looked very grim for anyone who were hoping for an unprecedented eighth different winner in eight Grands Prix.

Behind Vettel, Grosjean had a great start from his P4 grid spot, hassling and harrying Lewis Hamilton.  After several laps of closely stalking the first of the McLarens, Grosjean put a brave move on the outside of the Turn 12 right-hander, which put him on the inside of the subsequent Turn 13 left-hand corner.  Grosjean thus seized second place and set off after Vettel, easing away from Hamilton without much effort.  Though he was around twenty seconds or so behind the leader, Grosjean was the only one setting comparable lap times to Vettel’s.

Other drivers were carving their way through the field.  The most notable of these was Spain’s own Fernando Alonso.  Alonso started from 11th on the grid, but he had a great opening stint, scything through the cars in front with sublime controlled aggression.  By the time he took his first pit stop at the end of Lap 15, he had climbed up to fourth place.  Post-pit stop, Alonso dropped to P9, though critically he just beat Kimi Raikkonen’s quick Lotus.  The upshot was that, after all the important stops and a collision between Bruno Senna and Kamui Kobayashi on the run down to Turn 8 which resulted in nothing worse than a wrecked race for Senna and minor damage to both cars, Alonso found himself in a charging P4.

Moreover, he was inexorably catching up to Lewis Hamilton lap after lap.

Vettel, meanwhile, was not only faster than everybody else, he was also using less of his tires.  He had the longest first stint among all the leading drivers – excluding those drivers who were evidently attempting to go through the race with just one tire stop – but he was still gradually stretching his lead over the impressively quick Grosjean.  For all but Red Bull’s staff and their fanbase, Vettel’s resurgence to the status as the unchallenged king of Formula 1 must have felt like the beginning of the end of this season’s exciting unpredictability.

The two-time defending World Champion’s dominance notwithstanding, there was still plenty of action in the race.  The battle between Jean-Éric Vergne Toro Rosso and the Caterham of Heikki Kovalainen ended in tire punctures for both cars – the left front for the green Caterham and the right rear for the dark blue Toro Rosso – and a retirement for Vergne.  Vergne was attempting to pass Kovalainen into Turn 12 when he inexplicably veered right into Kovalainen’s car, which resulted in the contact that damaged both cars.  The contretemps also caused the deployment of the Safety Car due to bits of Toro Rosso and Caterham littering the track, which obviously required the efforts of the brave marshals to clean up prior to the resumption of the racing.

The Safety Car period helped Grosjean immensely as it eliminated Vettel’s big lead.  Although all the leaders took the ideal opportunity to change tires, Grosjean was the biggest beneficiary of the Safety Car period.  The young Frenchman (who had made his Formula One debut on this circuit back in 2009 when he replaced the just-sacked Nelson Piquet Jr.) was now in the ideal position to challenge the Red Bull for the lead once the race restarted.

Meanwhile, McLaren had yet ANOTHER botched pit stop.  Hamilton dropped down behind Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen due to a problematic front jack which lengthened his pit stop.  The team’s other driver, Jenson Button, who had been suffering yet another miserable weekend away from the sharp end of the grid again, was also effectively punished by the Safety Car period due to the fact that he had pitted just before the Vergne-Kovalainen accident.  The upshot was that Button lost time in the pits changing tires while most of the rest of the drivers he was racing were able to pit under the full-course yellow.

The race resumed on lap 34.  Alonso pounced immediately, passing his old Renault teammate Grosjean with an audacious move around the outside of Turn 2.  A few seconds later, Alonso’s current teammate Felipe Massa became a victim of a Kamui Kobayashi banzai maneuver.  Massa was left with a puncture that dropped him down the order, while Kobayashi also limped back into the pits to retire with a broken steering system.

Lap 34 was also unlucky for the erstwhile leader Vettel.  Going down the long back straight past the bridge, the leading Red Bull lost drive and was swallowed up by the charging field.  Vettel’s car coasted for a couple more corners before the German abandoned his car, ripping his gloves off his hands in an obvious display of frustration.

With a championship battle that is so close and unpredictable, DNFs were potentially campaign killers.  I am certain that the same thought occurred to Vettel, Red Bull technical director Adrian Newey, and Red Bull team principal Christian Horner.

Anyway, Fernando Alonso now found himself leading in Valencia, much to the vociferous delight of his fellow Spaniards.  Romain Grosjean stayed in touch with the leading Ferrari with apparent ease.  Meanwhile, Daniel Ricciardo’s Toro Rosso was in third, benefiting from keeping track position during the Safety Car period whilst nearly everybody else changed tires.

Hamilton dispatched Raikkonen not long after the restart, then the pair of them swept by Ricciardo easily.  The sole remaining Toro Rosso took the hint and changed tires, which dropped him further down the order.

Grosjean shadowed Alonso, seemingly content to bide his time.  On lap 40, however, Grosjean was slow through the bridge between Turns 8 and 9, then was overtaken easily by Hamilton and Raikkonen.  His Renault engine suffered an alternator failure, which was the same exact problem suffered by Vettel when he had dropped out.  Grosjean coasted a little bit down the curving back straight, then abandoned his Lotus, displaying no histrionics whatsoever.  Perhaps he knew that he was in with a shot at victory.  His weekend in Valencia, while fruitless in terms of championship points or any other statistic, was bountiful in that he enhanced his reputation immeasurably with his performance.  Many felt that a win for Grosjean in the Lotus was imminent.

The race at the front, then, left Alonso in front of Hamilton and Raikkonen, then a big gap to everybody else.  Only the Hamilton-Raikkonen pair had any chance of catching up to Alonso.  However, Alonso was in inspired form in front of his home crowd.  He stretched his lead over his immediate pursuers.

Hamilton had no realistic chance to catch Alonso with Raikkonen being his constant shadow, and inevitably his efforts to stay ahead of the more efficient Lotus wore his McLaren’s Pirellis faster than Raikkonen did with his tires.  Raikkonen stalked Hamilton for lap after lap, until he finally overtook Lewis on lap 55 in a finely-judged maneuver.  By this point, Pastor Maldonado had crawled his way up to P4, his Williams clearly with more performance left in its Pirellis than Hamilton’s McLaren did.  On lap 56 (the penultimate lap of the race) Maldonado attacked, but Hamilton rebuffed him with some hard but fair defensive driving into the first few corners of the lap.  Maldonado smelled blood, though, and attacked again at the end of the DRS zone entering Turn 12.  Hamilton bravely braked just as late as Maldonado, keeping to the inside line going into Turn 12 and staying just in front of the Williams attacking down the outside.  Hamilton therefore had the line and squeezed Maldonado off the circuit, a hard but still fair tactic, which should have obliged Maldonado to surrender Turn 13 to Hamilton.  However, Maldonado did not cede anything and drove way inside the apex of Turn 13; his Williams clipped Hamilton’s McLaren, which pitched the chrome silver-and-red car into the outside wall and into instant retirement.  Maldonado damaged his own Williams’ front wing in the collision, which meant that not only did he not take Hamilton’s P3 away, he didn’t finish in P4 either; he finished in twelfth place, out of the points, by virtue of the 20-second penalty he was assessed for his role in the accident with Hamilton.  Such a huge waste, that accident was.

None of these things mattered to Fernando Alonso, though, as he took the checkered flag at the end of the 57th lap.  Alonso therefore became the first repeat winner of the 2012 season.

Vettel and Grosjean – indeed, Hamilton, Raikkonen, Maldonado, and several others – were faster than Alonso throughout the weekend.

But sometimes the race doesn’t always falls to the swiftest.

Sometimes, indeed, the swiftest are also the first to fall out of the race.

23 Jun 2012 – Hamilton Wins in Canada as F1 Remains Unpredictable

Posted in Auto Racing, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 23/06/2012

Lewis Hamilton won the Grand Prix of Canada two weekends ago, thereby becoming the F1 2012 season’s seventh different race winner in seven Grands Prix.  Not since the 1982 F1 season has there been so many winners in a season.

Of course, in 1982 ELEVEN drivers won at least one Grand Prix, with no driver winning more than two.

Thirty years on, it looks somewhat unlikely that we’ll see eleven different drivers win a race.  However, given the current unpredictability of the 2012 season, who’s to say that we won’t be adding on to the list of seven?

In my mind, there remain three more viable candidates to win at least one race, and two long shots.  The Lotus drivers, Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean, have been threatening to join the list of race winners at various points in the season.  Seven-time F1 drivers’ world champion Michael Schumacher in his Mercedes has also been strong, at least in qualifying; curiously, Schumacher’s race performances have been a little muted, though it must be said that he has been the victim of a few mechanical maladies in his Mercedes (perhaps this is just Karmic payback for all his years racing in bulletproof Ferraris?).  The Sauber pair, Japan’s Kamui Kobayashi and Mexico’s Sergio Perez, are also possible winners, but given their team’s budgetary limitations they may run out of effective car developments well before their other co-contenders do (especially the bigger, more wealthy teams).  Perez, in particular, has been hugely impressive, able to run at a strong pace without destroying his tires.  Fellow grid minnow Williams Grand Prix (the old-school F1 fan in me just grimaced typing that phrase) has already won a Grand Prix sans the benefit of a rain shower to mix up the running order (Pastor Maldonado in Spain), so who’s to say Sauber can’t turn the same trick at least once this year?

If Raikkonen, Grosjean, Schumacher, Kobayashi, and Perez all hit the lottery at some point in the 2012 season, that would mean we will have had twelve different drivers atop the podium.  That would trump the 1982 season’s total by one.

And then there’s Felipe Massa.  Though Massa’s been positively eclipsed at Ferrari by Fernando Alonso (who 1997 World Champion Jacques Villeneuve called F1′s “most complete driver” whilst he was a guest commentator on Sky F1′s coverage of the Canadian Grand Prix, an assessment I agree with 100%), the fact is he drives for Ferrari.  While Massa’s form has been depressingly bad for most of this season, the Ferrari is a car that is improving with each and every race.  Consequently, Massa’s performances have also begun a slow trend upwards as well.  With a few lucky breaks, who knows?

But enough about speculating about what might happen later on in the year.

Lewis Hamilton had a very strong weekend in Montreal, setting the fastest time in the first two Free Practice sessions on Friday.  He ultimately qualified in P2, though he was three-tenths of a second behind Sebastian Vettel’s pole-winning time.

At the start, Vettel converted his pole advantage into an immediate lead, with Hamilton and Alonso in his Ferrari in tow.  Behind them, the pack stayed remarkably intact.  Indeed, the first significant incident occurred on lap 5, when Massa squandered a strong start with a spin on the exit of Turn One.

The order at the front remained static, until Vettel called into the pits on lap 16 for a tire change.  Hamilton, who trailed the two-time defending World Champion by about two seconds, followed into the pits a few laps later.  Despite yet another less-than-smooth McLaren pit stop, Hamilton rejoined ahead of Vettel.  Meanwhile, Alonso stayed out until lap 20, building a good margin over the erstwhile leaders Hamilton and Vettel.  Alonso surrendered the lead to an impressive Romain Grosjean.

When all the significant stops were done, Hamilton led, with Alonso and Vettel scrapping over second place.  The 2008 World Champion was running at a strong pace and was easing away from his immediate pursuers.  As the race progressed, it became increasingly clear that Hamilton was on a different tire strategy compared to the battling double World Champions trailing in his wake.

On the fiftieth lap of seventy, Hamilton pitted for fresh tires.  Yet again McLaren had a poor stop (what IS it with the team’s pit stops these days?!?), so all of Hamilton’s hard work building up a margin seemed to go to waste as both Alonso and Vettel passed him and dropped him down to third.

However, with his fresh rubber and long straights followed by heavy braking zones, Hamilton had plenty of extra performance in hand due to his newer Pirellis.  He overtook first Vettel, and then Alonso, rather easily, seizing the lead that he kept until the checkered flag waved.

Meanwhile, both Alonso and Vettel continued to lose pace.  Not only did Hamilton leave them behind with imperious ease, but they were also getting caught from behind by Grosjean and Perez, both of whom also stopped for tires more than once.  By this point, it was clear that the one-stop strategy used by Alonso and Vettel was the incorrect one, but only Red Bull made the adjustment and called Vettel in for newer rubber.  Alonso’s pit crew never called him in, and so lost 8 World Championship points by finishing 5th (which earns 10pts) instead of 2nd (worth 18pts).

Hamilton thus became the 7th race winner in seven Grands Prix in 2012; Grosjean finished second, Perez third.  Vettel initially dropped to fifth, but caught the badly struggling Alonso before the end of the race.  Rosberg, Webber, Raikkonen, Kobayashi, and Massa rounded out the rest of the top ten.  Jenson Button, meanwhile, finished one lap behind his teammate in a pathetic 16th place.

And so the F1 circus moves on to the European Grand Prix, held on the harbor-side street circuit in Valencia, Spain.

Will we see an eighth different winner this year?

Or will we see our first repeat visitor to the top step of the podium?

10 Jun 2012 – Boxing Killed by Split Decision

Posted in Boxing by txtmstrjoe on 10/06/2012

Here I am, almost two hours after the fight ended, and I still can’t believe it.

Timothy Bradley “beat” Manny Pacquiao after twelve rounds in their WBO welterweight title fight.  Two out of the three judges awarded Bradley, the challenger, the win in what is surely one of the most controversial boxing matches of all time.

It’s certainly the one that makes the least sense to me.

The only one that remotely comes close in my mind is the Hagler-Leonard fight from 1987.  I saw that fight on television with my father, and though I was all of twelve years old at the time it seemed clear to me (as it did to my dad) that Hagler won that fight.

The Pacquiao-Bradley fight was nothing like the Hagler-Leonard fight.

The Hagler-Leonard fight was close.  It even looked like a close contest, with Leonard winning the early rounds, then Hagler coming back stronger and more aggressively the longer the fight went on.  Then, as I maintain to this day, it looked to me that Hagler won more rounds, earned more points, by hitting the harder punches, hitting more punches, basically out-working Leonard.  In contrast, Leonard held and clinched Hagler far more, tactics that tired and outclassed fighters usually employ to save themselves from getting hit more often that they already are.

I still remember the outrage my twelve year-old self felt when the ring announcer delivered the judges’ scorecards.

But the Pacquiao-Bradley fight…

Incomprehensible.

I’d love to know precisely what criteria boxing judges use when they do their job when the fighters’ fists don’t do the job and deliver a clear-cut decision.

How does one fighter win a particular round?

Is it by the number of punches hit?  By that measure, Pacquiao won easily, 253-159.  That’s a margin of almost 100 punches over twelve rounds.

Is it by the number of “power punches” hit?  By that metric, Pacquiao won easily too, 190-108.  That’s a difference of 82 power shots over twelve rounds in Pacquiao’s favor.

The only stat Bradley had the edge over Pacquiao was in punches thrown, 839-751.  This might suggest that he was the more aggressive fighter, but this interpretation would only hold true over the last two or three rounds, when Pacquiao had obviously backed off the gas and was basically coasting towards the end.  That’s smart boxing in most cases:  Why expose yourself to the risk of leaving yourself open to a potential knockout by staying aggressive when you believe you were winning the fight and had earned enough points via rounds won?

Judging just by what my eyes told me, the winner of the Pacquiao-Bradley fight was very clear to see.

Even my baby sister saw it clearly.  She said that Pacquiao was completely controlling the pace of the fight.  Absolutely true.  He was the aggressor for most of the fight.

To be perfectly honest, I had no rooting interest in the fight.  In the interest of full disclosure, I want to say that although I am a Filipino just as Pacquiao is, I thought Bradley was going to win this fight.  I told friends at work that, and I told my family the same on Saturday hours before the fight.

I simply thought that Bradley would win because he is younger, is a strong fighter, and is probably hungrier than Pacquiao is.

I honestly had no investment, whether emotional or financial (I don’t gamble money on sports – I can’t afford it), in the outcome of this fight.  I would have been indifferent no matter who won a fair contest.

But NOTHING irritates me more than something that is unfair and unjust.

And I wasn’t alone, insofar as the Pacquiao-Bradley fight was concerned.

The fans’ reactions, whether we’re talking about the ones who watched live in Las Vegas or the ones who bought the fight at home (no, I didn’t see the fight via pay-per-view), is near unanimous in the condemnation for the judges’ verdict.  The split decision was also condemned by every single commentator from the press that I follow on Twitter (for whatever that’s worth).

So many people saw the fight the same way as I saw it.

The wrong man won the fight and the WBO title, and he won it in the worst possible way.

He didn’t earn it.

Instead, the sport of boxing earned all the vitriol heaped upon it amidst allegations of corruption.

As Tim Kawakami of the MercuryNews.com Tweeted then later wrote on his blog, “If you can’t trust the outcome, can you go back to the sport?”

If the answer to Tim Kawakami’s question is “No,” well…

8 Jun 2012 – What Has Happened to McLaren?

Posted in Auto Racing, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 09/06/2012

Mark Webber won the 2012 Monaco Grand Prix, and Red Bull Racing became the first team this year to win multiple grands prix.

Six races into the twenty-race 2012 Formula 1 season, we have had six different winners from five different constructors.   Such a start is unprecedented in the history of this branch of the motorsports tree.

The big teams who have dominated the victories and champions lists for the past few seasons – Red Bull, McLaren, and Ferrari – have each taken at least one win, Mercedes-Benz (and Nico Rosberg) finally broke through, and even Williams (with Pastor Maldonado) has returned to the hallowed ground that only winners get to visit, territory that they used to tread on with imperious regularity.

But this blog post won’t be about Mark Webber.

It won’t be about Red Bull, either.

Neither will it be about this most unique beginning to a Grand Prix season.

Rather, this post will be about the McLaren-Mercedes team’s baffling season so far.

It all started out so auspiciously.

A front-row lockout at Melbourne seemed to promise so much.  At the onset, it certainly looked as if McLaren had addressed its biggest weakness relative to Red Bull, the lack of ultimate speed in qualifying.  To wit, Lewis Hamilton romped to the pole, with teammate Jenson Button just a couple of hundreths of a second away.  The fastest Red Bull, Australia’s very own Mark Webber, was almost .7secs adrift (and starting from fifth place).  Not only that, but it seemed as if the team had learned some valuable strategic and tactical lessons from Red Bull as well.  As Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel did last year with seemingly imperious ease at most of the races, they translated their superior qualifying position into an early DRS-proof gap at the front of the field.  After establishing such a strategic advantage, McLaren therefore had control the race’s tactics.  The lead car almost always dictates the pit stop sequences, and with nobody in front the leader also had the advantage of controlling his tire wear.  That was essentially the key to Jenson Button’s season-opening victory in Melbourne.  Even after the safety car periods, he would immediately just re-establish his DRS-proof gap over his immediate pursuers.

Meanwhile, Lewis Hamilton finished in third.  This was probably very disappointing for him (as I wrote in March), but looking at the big picture it at least gave him a solid start to his 2012 campaign.  It wasn’t as satisfying as a race victory would have been, for sure, but he might have taken some comfort in the fact that he finished on the podium and put 15 useful points into his account.

McLaren thus led the Constructors’ World Championship after one round of twenty with 40pts; Red Bull, who they probably consider their chief competition this season, left Melbourne with 30pts.  Ferrari, meanwhile, looked like a giant mess with a pig of a car and apparently only one driver capable of producing good results:  The F2012 was a very difficult car to race, and Fernando Alonso was streets faster than poor Felipe Massa, who sadly looks like he has never fully regained his form after his devastating accident in Hungary in 2009.

The team repeated its Australian qualifying feats in the following race in Malaysia.  Again, Hamilton took pole; again, Button was second fastest.  At the start, the McLarens narrowly avoided a fratricidal intra-team contretemps; the upshot was that Hamilton held his lead, and Button was in second.

Things didn’t stay that good for the team, however.  When the predictable onset of a Malaysian monsoon drenched the track, the ensuing race suspension served to scramble the race order as conditions became more difficult for the teams and their drivers.  When the race resumed some 51mins after the suspension was called, track conditions were still difficult.  Button ran afoul of a very slow Narain Karthikeyan and wrecked his front wing, as well as his chances for a good finish.  Hamilton, though, fell down the order to third when he simply didn’t have the pace to match either the surprising Sergio Perez in his Sauber nor the brilliant Fernando Alonso.  Still, a second consecutive P3 at the end meant that Hamilton was the only driver so far to have finished on the podium for each race run.  McLaren still held the lead of the Constructors’ championship, while Hamilton was second to Alonso in the Drivers’ title race.  Button was third after two races.

McLaren couldn’t make it three pole positions in three races in China, although Hamilton did secure his third consecutive front row starting position.  Nico Rosberg finally broke his duck and  took his first career pole position in the Grand Prix of China.  Indeed, Rosberg parlayed his first career pole into his first career Grand Prix victory, with both McLaren drivers finishing on the podium with him.  Button took P2, and Hamilton P3.  Button was actually in strong contention for the race victory, racing with strong pace and excellent tire management skills, but was hampered by a problematic pit stop late in the race whilst in a narrow lead.

Normally, McLaren’s pit work is topnotch; nobody saw Button’s bad pit stop in China as nothing more than a rude Shanghai Surprise, an aberration in every sense of the word.  The fact that the McLaren drivers now stood 1-2 in the championship race (Hamilton with 45pts now two points ahead of Button), with Button in particular looking superbly suited to adapting to the vagaries of the Pirelli racing tires, probably didn’t set off any real alarm bells within the team.

The team’s disastrous Bahrain Grand Prix, however, probably did.  Despite the fact that both McLarens were starting in the top four (Hamilton in 2nd, Button in 4th), they never displayed the necessary pace to beat the two-time defending World Champion Sebastian Vettel.  More disconcertingly, the McLarens also proved to be slower than the black and gold Lotuses, Nico Rosberg, and even Fernando Alonso in his Ferrari.  After their pace-setting opening to the season, it was a minor shock to the system to see the McLarens struggling against so many of their rivals.

But the bigger shock, at least to me, was to see the continuation of their poor form during the pit stops.  They arguably lost their opportunity to win in China due to Jenson Button’s tardy final stop, but with no less than THREE slow and disorganized tire stops (two for Hamilton and one for Button) in Bahrain it seemed that McLaren had a definite problem either with their equipment, their personnel (not too likely, in my opinion), or their pit stop methodology.  The bottom line remained unchanged, however:  As difficult as it is to win races and championships with impeccable work in the pits during the races, the task becomes near impossible when the pit crew suddenly becomes unreliable.

This becomes immeasurably MORE true when the competitive balance amongst the teams is so tight it’s impossible to predict who will win the next race.

But it wasn’t just the shoddy pit work that made Bahrain such a miserable race for the McLarens.  With just a couple of laps remaining in the race, Jenson Button’s car suffered first a broken exhaust, then, more terminally, a broken differential.  It ended Button’s fighting comeback that was one of the highlights of the final third of the race.  Given that Hamilton only managed an 8th place (and 4pts), this meant that McLaren ceded first position in the Constructors’ championship to Red Bull, and that Lewis lost the lead in the Drivers’ title chase to the winner of the Bahrain GP, Sebastian Vettel.

The Spanish Grand Prix only continued McLaren’s trend of misery.  Although Lewis Hamilton actually set the fastest time in Q3, thereby taking the pole position, he had to stop out in the middle of the circuit on his in-lap per the advice of his team.  The team was concerned that if Lewis continued on his way back to the pits and parc fermé, his McLaren would not have had enough fuel to provide the required 1liter post-qualifying sample for analysis and homologation.  The race stewards deemed this breach in the regulations severe enough to warrant excluding all of Hamilton’s times set in qualifying and therefore relegating him to the very back of the grid.  Given the fact that Button only managed to qualify in 10th, the operational botch (whether by design – perhaps McLaren deliberately put in such a low fuel load on Lewis’ final qualifying run to ensure he took pole in Barcelona – or through simple yet accidental negligence) on Hamilton’s car cost Hamilton not just the pole position, but also any realistic chance to compete for the victory.

Hamilton raced with great pace and controlled aggression, eventually finishing in 8th place, one position in front of his teammate.  Hamilton’s race was again marred by bad work by his pit crew:  On his first stop, Hamilton’s exit from his box was delayed when he was forced to stop because he ran over something.  Some said Hamilton’s right rear ran over an old tire; other reports indicated that Hamilton ran over a part of a pit mechanic’s foot.  Whatever the case, Hamilton’s McLaren jumped off the tarmac and bounced as it landed hard when it ran over whatever it ran over.

Meanwhile, Jenson Button, slow throughout qualifying, never looked to have the necessary speed to mix it up with the faster cars.  His 9th place was singularly disappointing, the 2pts earned a paltry reward for such a difficult weekend’s work.

And so to Monaco we go.  McLaren’s luck, in particular in Button’s half of the garage, continued its inexorable descent.  Although Lewis Hamilton did manage to set the fourth fastest time in qualifying (he started third after the fastest man in qualifying, Michael Schumacher, was docked five grid placings for his role in the collision with Bruno Senna in the preceding Grand Prix in Spain), Button never found his groove, never into making it into Q3.  Button started a sad 13th.  On a circuit where overtaking is nigh impossible, this was almost a proverbial death sentence on any realistic chances to win.

Predictably, Button hit trouble at the start, losing places and momentum when he had to avoid the crash that eliminated the Lotus of Romain Grosjean at Ste. Devote.  In the tight confines of Monte Carlo, Button never really had a realistic chance to fight through the field.  His race ended on lap 70 when he spun his McLaren at the exit of the Swimming Pool complex.  That he spun whilst trying to overtake Heikki Kovalainen’s Caterham must have been particularly galling to both Button and McLaren.

Hamilton, meanwhile, lost two places relative to his starting position and finished the race in fifth.  Never during the weekend did he demonstrate that he had race-winning pace.

F1

McLaren has many problems at the moment.  Chief among these is the fact that while its expected rivals – Red Bull and Ferrari, as well as Mercedes – all have clearly improved their cars as the season has gone on, other teams have also improved.  Sauber has been a pleasant surprise; Lotus, too, has been threatening to win a race or two before very long.  With so many threats from so many different fronts, McLaren will find it difficult to improve their position.

Another problem is the rash of sloppy work in the pits and operations side of the team.  Frankly, it’s shocking to see McLaren, of all teams, to have hit a run of just bad pit stops, costing their drivers valuable points and even race victories.  One bad pit stop is enough to terminally damage a team and/or a driver’s chances at a championship (just ask Nigel Mansell and Williams from the 1980s); the McLaren team MUST eliminate the tendency to make mistakes on their side of the pit wall, especially since their strongest rivals don’t seem to share the same tendency.

As a fan of the team, it’s absolutely disappointing to see McLaren lose its way increasingly as the season has gone on.  The strong performances in the first three or four races now seem to be nothing more than just a distant memory.

How will the team and its drivers respond?

More to the point, can they respond and somehow rediscover the McLaren magic they had earlier in the year?

25 May 2012 – Frank Williams and the Magic of South America

Posted in Auto Racing, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 25/05/2012

My apologies for the extreme tardiness of this blog report, but, unbelievably, I missed the Grand Prix of Spain from a couple of weeks ago when I didn’t hear my alarm clock go off.

Since I don’t have a TV at my apartment (I watch the races online live or, if I’m at my parents’ house, on their TV), there was absolutely no chance for me to watch a re-air of the race.  I begged the gods for one of my friends to come to my aid and provide me a recording (or some other way to watch the race) of what turned out to be a truly classic F1 race.

Though it took some time, I did have a couple of friends come through for me.  Thank goodness for their help!

As I type this paragraph, I have just finished watching the Spanish Grand Prix, a couple of days before the next race on the schedule, the Grand Prix of Monaco.  Since I have made it a personal goal to write something about each and every Grand Prix of this season, here then are my thoughts of the race:

Carlos Reutemann.

Nelson Piquet.

Ayrton Senna.

Juan Pablo Montoya.

Rubens Barrichello.

Bruno Senna.

All of these men have driven for Sir Frank Williams‘ eponymous Williams Grand Prix Engineering F1 team.

Three of these six men have also won at least one grand prix for Sir Frank.  The ones who never won in a Williams are Ayrton Senna, who was tragically killed in a Williams in his third race with the team; Barrichello, who drove for the team during two of its least competitive years; and Bruno Senna, the nephew of the great Ayrton who is still trying to establish himself at the top level of motorsports.

All of these men hail from somewhere in South America.  Reutemann is from Argentina; Piquet, Barrichello and the Sennas are Brazilian; Montoya is from Colombia.

By any measure, this is a hugely impressive roster of pilotes.  These are all names that mean a great deal to anyone with a nuanced appreciation of the history of grand prix racing.

After a riveting, enthralling 2012 Grand Prix of Spain at the Circuit de Catalunya, you can now add Venezuela’s Pastor Maldonado to the list of South Americans who have won a grand prix driving a Williams Formula 1 car.

Maldonado’s victory was the first of his F1 career.  Just as significant, this was also Williams Grand Prix Engineering’s first F1 victory since the 2004 Grand Prix of Brazil.

Maldonado started the 2012 Spanish GP from the pole position, even though he actually ended the qualifying period with the 2nd best time.  Lewis Hamilton, driving for McLaren, actually set the fastest time in Q3, but was relegated to start dead last due to the fact his car stopped out on the circuit because of a lack of fuel.  Hamilton’s McLaren contravened regulations stipulating the car must return to parc fermé after its qualification run and provide a 1-liter sample of fuel.

At the start, two-time F1 world champion Fernando Alonso took the lead from Maldonado with a hugely impressive take-off from his 2nd place on the grid, much to the approval of his adoring home crowd.  The Ferrari stayed in front, with Maldonado’s Williams (and Kimi Raikkonen’s Lotus in tow) staying in touch during the first part of their run.  Behind them, Hamilton was scything his way through the gaggle of slower cars at the back end of the grid.  The 2008 World Champion was 20th by the end of the first lap (from 24th on the grid).

The Red Bulls were among the first to make tactical pit stops (as opposed to Sergio Perez’s, whose Sauber was damaged after a contretemp with Grosjean’s Lotus at the long Turn 3 right-hander), with Mark Webber calling into the pits on lap 7 and Sebastian Vettel coming in the following lap.  The leading cars, though, took their first stops several laps later, with Hamilton being the notable exception.  He was the last to take his first scheduled stop on lap 15.

Alonso and Maldonado maintained their track positions through the first round of stops, the Venezuelan driving with impressive coolness and pace, keeping up with Alonso with remarkable ease.  The two leaders swapped positions at the second round of pit stops circa laps 20-30, with Maldonado’s Williams crew doing a brilliant job outperforming their counterparts at Ferrari.  Raikkonen had a brief stint at the front while Alonso and Maldonado made their pit stops, but he returned to P3 when he made his second stop of the race.

Maldonado stretched his lead over Alonso in the pursuing Ferrari, looking to have a small but crucial advantage in race pace.  In the current F1 era of KERS and DRS facilitating overtaking, it is critical for a leading car to lead a pursuer by more than 1.5seconds; at one point, Maldonado’s Williams led Alonso by around eight seconds or so, but the lead stabilized at around six seconds when Alonso decided to increase his own pace.

In the final round of pit stops, Maldonado’s crew had to deal with a problematic left rear tire change, costing the Venezuelan around 3 extra seconds.  Coupled with the fact that he stopped earlier than Alonso did (meaning Maldonado had a greater distance to cover on his last set of tires), conventional wisdom suggested that the time lost in the pits snafu would cost Maldonado and Williams any hope of winning the race.  The upshot of all this drama was that Maldonado’s lead over Alonso shrunk to about 3 seconds maximum after both drivers had come in for their final pit stops.

With Raikkonen again being the last of the three leading runners to call into the pits, Maldonado regained the lead over the Finnish champion.  Meanwhile, Alonso pushed hard to position himself into DRS range of Maldonado.  With the Venezuelan now on a tire conservation strategy (because of the extra laps he had to run relative to Alonso) and Raikkonen completely free of concerns over tire wear compared to both Maldonado and Alonso, the end game was shaping up to be special.

Could Maldonado stay in front of the Ferrari?

Could Alonso get a good-enough tow past the leading Williams-Renault and catapult himself into the lead of his home grand prix?

Could Raikkonen catch both leaders with his superior final-stint pace before the race ran out of laps?

Pastor Maldonado never made a mistake despite the red car menacingly close behind him lap after lap down the DRS zone on the main straight.  Alonso kept up the pressure for lap after lap, tantalizing his home crowd and Ferrari fans everywhere with the possibility that the two-time World Champion would become the 2012 F1 season’s first two-time race winner.  And behind them, Raikkonen’s pace was increasing lap after lap, shrinking his deficit to the leading duo.

By lap 63 of 66, Maldonado started stretching the gap between himself and Alonso, strongly suggesting that his Williams was using its tires much more efficiently than Alonso’s Ferrari.  So unless he made a mistake or hit some kind of trouble, Maldonado was in prime position to break his F1 duck and take his maiden victory.

With each corner it was clear that Alonso’s tires had fallen off their performance cliff, for not only was the gap to Maldonado growing inexorably, but the gap to Raikkonen behind was being decimated.  Would he even get to keep his second place?

Maldonado drove a faultless race, driving with cool precision and withstanding the enormous pressure of fighting with Alonso – perhaps his generation’s most complete F1 driver – for the entire race.  This was no mean feat, considering most people outside of Venezuela had never considered Pastor Maldonado to be anything more than just a journeyman.  This victory, as unexpected as it truly was, was won on merit.  It ranks as among one of the most memorable and impressive in all of motorsports as I can remember.

Spare some beautiful thoughts as well for Sir Frank Williams and his great team, one of Formula 1′s most successful ever.  After almost eight full years since their last victory, this unexpected win in Spain was a wonderful surprise.  Maldonado’s performance over the entire weekend owed nothing to luck – the weather did not assist him in any way, for example, as it stayed dry throughout the grand prix weekend.  How often do we get unexpected race results because of inclement weather?  Rather, this was a genuine, fully-deserved victory achieved in grand style.  Maldonado’s maiden victory may never be followed by another one, as some probably thought when Sir Frank’s team first entered the ranks of grand prix winners with Clay Regazzoni and the iconic FW07 way back in 1979.

But who knows?  This might only be the beginning of the latest renaissance for Williams Grand Prix Engineering.

22 Apr 2012 – McLaren Miserable in Bahrain

Posted in Auto Racing, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 22/04/2012

McLaren had a nightmare of a race in Bahrain.  Lewis Hamilton finished in eighth place, almost a full minute behind race winner Sebastian Vettel after a strangely muted race in terms of ultimate race pace and two separate badly-executed pit stops that conspired to drop him down the order.  Teammate Jenson Button ran with more pace, but as he did last week, he also lost places with yet another slow stop in the pits.  Ultimately, the bad pit work paled in comparison to Button’s car problems (his McLaren had a puncture very late in the race, then his Mercedes-Benz V8 sounded horribly sick as he coasted into the pits on the penultimate lap of the race), McLaren’s first for 2012.

Things certainly didn’t start so badly for the McLaren boys.  After all, Hamilton was starting from second, and Button from fourth.  Only the Red Bulls were faster in qualifying, with Vettel scoring his first pole position of 2012 and Mark Webber taking P3.  After the red lights went off, though, McLaren’s hopes of fighting with the resurgent Red Bulls were nothing more than a desert mirage.

Hamilton started sensibly, keeping his second place right at the outset, but almost immediately Vettel had created a DRS-proof gap ahead of him even before the third lap, when race control enables the Drag Reduction System for the first time in the race.  Hamilton held second place until his first pit stop, which dropped him from contention.  The 2008 World Champion had some notable battles with old nemesis Fernando Alonso as well as last week’s Chinese Grand Prix winner, Nico Rosberg.  His attempt to overtake Rosberg on lap 11 right after his disastrous first pit stop was particularly scary:  Rosberg swerved to his right and squeezed Hamilton completely off the track in between Turns 3 and 4.  Hamilton’s McLaren had all four wheels in the desert sand off the track surface, and in my opinion Rosberg’s “defensive” maneuver was stupid and dangerous.  That Hamilton did not lose control of his McLaren owes some to pure luck, and some to his skill as a racing driver.

(That Rosberg duplicated the trick and conspired to do the same to Fernando Alonso and completely escape ANY censure for either maneuver is stupefying to me; it indicates there are a few things fundamentally broken in F1 if moves like these are deemed legal.)

Meanwhile, Button slid down from his fourth place starting spot, running just within the top ten, seemingly content to run at his own pace until some fuel burned off.  He pitted on lap 10, dropping to 16th place, then immediately went on the attack, taking P8 from Fernando Alonso before running most of the first half of his race in P5.  Because of his poor start, however, he never got close enough to threaten Webber’s 4th place.

If Hamilton’s first pit stop was a disaster, it was frankly amazing to see his pit crew suffer a repeat performance.  For a team with a well-deserved reputation for having some of the best pit crew work in all of motor racing, it was shocking to see, to say the least.  That this was the THIRD such botch in two races surely must have the team’s boffins (never mind the drivers themselves) scratching their heads raw.

But as nightmares tend to go, there were a couple more shockers left in store.  Jenson Button also suffered with an extended visit to the pits, but this problem didn’t set him back as much as his teammate’s pit lane misadventures did.  However, the same could definitely NOT be said about first his puncture right at the end of lap 52, which forced him back into the pits for tire change.  The late-race tire change dropped him all the way down to unlucky P13.  However, a damaged exhaust caused not just an off-song Mercedes-Benz V8 engine note, but also, more critically, problems with his McLaren’s differential.  The problem with the differential put paid to Button’s race and heavily underlined McLaren’s terrible Grand Prix of Bahrain.

It used to be that problems with routine pit stops and mechanical unreliability were regular features of a Formula 1 season.  It was just simply impossible to expect every single pit stop to be executed perfectly, and for every team to expect both of its cars to finish every single race.  Engine failures, accidents, suspension and tire problems were all part and parcel of racing.

These days, though, such problems are aberrations.

And these aberrations, the type which cause you to drop out of points-paying positions, tend to decide the outcome of both the Drivers’ and the Constructors’ World Championships.

Although the Grand Prix of Bahrain was just the fourth race out of twenty, McLaren and its drivers lost a lot of points, especially relative to who are likely their strongest opposition this year, Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel.

Hamilton’s two points (and Button’s zero) just do not compare to Vettel’s twenty-five and Webber’s twelve.

McLaren’s two points are almost inconsequential compared to Red Bull Racing’s thirty-seven.

If neither McLaren driver lifts the World Champion’s cup at the end of the year, and if McLaren fall short in the race for the Constructors’ World Championship, they can all rightly point to their nightmares in Bahrain as one of the 2012 season’s critical moments.

16 Apr 2012 – Nico Nearly Man No More

Posted in Auto Racing, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 16/04/2012

Nico Rosberg.

Some might say that he has it all.

He has the pedigree of a Grand Prix winner.  He is, after all, the son of 1982 Formula One Drivers’ World Champion Keke Rosberg.  Sadly, though, in this way he’s not particularly special.  After all, he’s not the first scion of a Grand Prix superstar to carry on in the family business.  The Rosbergs, after all, are only following on from the Hills (Graham and Damon, thus far the only father-son F1 world champion duo in the sport’s history), the Villeneuves (Gilles and Jacques, Grand Prix winners both), and, to a lesser extent, the Brabhams (father Jack was a 3-time world champion; sons Goeff and David flew the Brabham family colors with pride in the 1980s and early 1990s).

He has built up the requisite experience in lesser racing series on his journey to Formula One.  He was the series champion in German Formula BMW in 2002, and was the inaugural GP2 champion in 2005.  Obviously he had won dozens of races in karting and other racing series as well before joining the Williams Grand Prix team in 2006.  Here again, Keke’s son is not particularly special:  Most F1 stars win their share of races and championships on their trips up the ranks.  Indeed, there are many champions in the junior formulae who don’t achieve too much once they get to auto racing’s grandest stage (Erik Comas, anyone?)

Rosberg spent four years with the formerly mighty Williams team (2006-2009), then was handpicked by Mercedes-Benz to fill one of their driver vacancies when they took over the 2009 Constructors World Champion Brawn outfit.  Though Rosberg occasionally had some very impressive outings whilst at Williams, many observers believed that he owed his new seat to the fact that he raced under the German national flag in his racing career (Nico actually carries dual-citizenship with Germany and Finland).

Cynical as that view may be, undoubtedly the move from Williams to Mercedes-Benz represented an improvement to the quality of the equipment at his disposal.  After all, Williams had not been a serious World Championship contender since 2004, which was also when the team last won a Grand Prix.  Since even before then, Williams had gradually been sliding further and further away from the sharp end of the grand prix grid.  Where before giants such as Mansell and Senna and Prost would engage in fierce political battles fighting for a controlling position at Williams, the team had become the refuge of journeymen drivers desperate to restart their F1 careers (Rubens Barrichello) or newcomers with no real hopes beyond just making up the numbers (Kazuki Nakajima).

Upon arriving at Mercedes-Benz, however, Nico Rosberg faced a strange challenge:  Seven-time World Champion Michael Schumacher was returning from retirement and reuniting with his old pal from Ferrari, Ross Brawn, at Mercedes.  It didn’t take long for the older German to mark out his territory, insisting that he, not Rosberg, had first call over who would race the #3 Mercedes-Benz MGP W01, thereby claiming however unofficially number one status in the team (traditionally, drivers who drove the lower-digit, odd-numbered car in a two-car team were the designated lead driver for that team).  Rosberg took the older German’s presence in the team in stride and simply did his best in the car.

Yet even in what should have been an apparently straightforward task Rosberg faced an uncommon situation:  Since he was far younger and far more attuned to the requirements of the current breed of grand prix car (F1 cars evolve constantly, oftentimes from race to race), the logical expectation was for him to show Michael Schumacher the way around.  Schumacher was handicapped by his three-year disconnection from the sport as well as by Father Time, in that his reflexes and reaction times would undoubtedly be slower than his much younger teammate’s.

On the other hand, Schumacher IS a seven-time World Champion; his prodigious talent for driving a racing car allied to his often ruthless approach on the track is a record-setting combination.  In terms of architecture, Schumacher’s ground floor was often higher than other, less talented rivals’ maximum ceiling.

Nico Rosberg, then, whether he admitted it or not, was in a no-win situation.  If he beat Michael Schumacher, well, by all rights he should, being younger and never losing the thread of continuity through his career as a Formula 1 driver.  And if he couldn’t beat the older German?  What else was new under the sun, for too few of Schumacher’s teammates had ever approached him in performance or results, whether they were contractually obligated to cede to the German champion or not.

I know this:  In my own mind, I thought that the only way Nico Rosberg could ever emerge unscathed in the battle against one of the all-time greats was for him to beat Michael Schumacher decisively at least 95% of the time, in both qualifying and in the races.  Nothing less than absolute domination of the much older Schumacher would do.

For the most part, Nico and Michael’s first two seasons as Mercedes-Benz F1 teammates lived up to my description of Rosberg’s circumstances; both literally and figuratively, it was a no-win situation.  Neither Nico nor Michael ever looked like serious contenders for grand prix victories, much less championship glory, in either 2010 or 2011.  The numbers say Nico outqualified his great teammate more often than not, but the difference in their best lap times was almost always skimpy rather than dominant in Rosberg’s favor.  At least to me, this suggested that Rosberg’s best was nowhere near the great Schumacher’s level, even many years past his peak.  And in the races, the elder German sometimes raced with more pace and polish than Nico did, especially in the latter stages of their second season together.

It seemed pretty clear to me that Nico was starting to drown in the rising tide of Schumacher’s resurgence and reemergence as one of Formula 1′s leading lights.  I’m only speculating, but when I connect the dots I think what has happened is that the Mercedes-Benz team has decided to follow Schumacher’s lead insofar as taking his inputs and feedback to guide them in their ongoing quest to design and evolve an ever-faster, ever-more efficient and effective Formula 1 car.  This is specifically why I thought Nico Rosberg should demonstrate his complete dominance over an older champion like Schumacher:  A Formula 1 team will always listen more closely and cater to the requirements of the driver who consistently and decisively gets the better results.  Though Rosberg was nominally that driver by virtue of the number of points he scored and his grid placement compared to Schumacher, the contest was too close.

Think of things this way:  If Schumacher is that close to Nico Rosberg in a car that, theoretically, catered to neither driver’s particular strengths, what would most likely happen if you designed and set up the car catering to Schumacher’s unique requirements?

To my mind, it’s no accident that Schumacher out-qualified Nico in the first two grands prix of 2012.  To me, this was a clear-cut sign that Mercedes AMG (as the team is now known) had finally decided to cater to Schumacher’s distinctive requirements.  It is only natural, therefore, for Rosberg’s performance and results to suffer.

Nico Rosberg, who supposedly had it all, seemed in real danger of becoming just the next “nearly man” in F1.  To be good, yet not quite good enough, is a curse for those who aspire to the highest levels of achievement.

The thing about Nico Rosberg, though, is that in the years I’ve watched him he has never truly shown that he had that kind of ambition, the kind that would push him beyond his talent’s limitations.  He has good natural car control and speed, but nowhere near the Vettel or Hamilton class.  He is reputed to be one of the more technically-accomplished drivers of the current generation, able to tune the car so that it is both fast and efficient; sadly for him, he has never been able to translate his skills at providing good technical feedback into developing his teams’ cars into better machines as the season progresses, the way Prost used to, and the way Jenson Button is now the best at.  If only he had something akin to Fernando Alonso’s steely determination, he might overcome his shortcomings and fulfill the promise hinted at by his pedigree and experience as a winner in his journey towards the pinnacle of motorsports.

In China, however, something clicked for Rosberg.  He took the pole position and won his very first grand prix in 111 tries.  He beat Michael Schumacher fair and square, as well as every other driver.  Quite like Button, Nico was able to get the best performance from his tires, maintaining a solid pace as well as keeping enough of his tires’ performance in hand in case he needed a hard push towards the end.

Sadly, though, I have a feeling that this will be Nico Rosberg’s one lone day in the sun, a day when he proved to be just good enough, and his rivals ran into some problems of their own (Button looked like a likely late challenger but for a botched tire change, and Schumacher was also victimized by some shoddy Mercedes AMG pit work).

Without wanting to take anything away from him, I think that Nico Rosberg, a grand prix winner at last, is now no longer just the next nearly man in Formula 1; rather, it’s going to be a case of one and done.

If somehow he does better, and he blossoms into a consistent Grand Prix winner after breaking his duck in China, then he deserves all the credit in the world.

28 Mar 2012 – Something Does NOT Compute in $2Billion Dodger Sale

Posted in Baseball by txtmstrjoe on 28/03/2012

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you may have noticed that I don’t often write about baseball.  In fact, I believe this is my first-ever post about what used to be called “America’s Pastime.”

Being a fan of the pathetic Oakland Athletics tends to dampen my enthusiasm, you see.

Yeah, I suppose I could go and support either one of my local baseball teams, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (ahem) or the Los Angeles Dodgers.  But I can’t.  Despite the fact I consider skipper Mike Scioscia to be one of the very best in the game, I just can’t become an Angels fan.  They’re a division rival of the A’s, and I can never root for such a close rival.  I admire Scioscia and have the utmost respect for him, but I can’t love him and root for the Angels.  And the Dodgers?  Well, I love the shade of blue they have on their uniform, but although a couple of my closest friends and my baby sister are fans of the team, I can’t root for the Dodgers either.  They did beat my A’s in the 1988 World Series, and I haven’t forgotten the sting from that.

So, yeah, being an A’s fan means I won’t write much about baseball unless there are just some stories about the Majors or about the game that I just want to share some thoughts on.

Presently, the big baseball story that caught my personal radar has to do with the sale of the Dodgers to a consortium that includes Lakers great Magic Johnson.

Honestly, what caught my eye about this story is not the fact that Magic is part of the group which registered the winning bid.  To be perfectly honest, I’ve not loved the Magic Johnson from his post-Lakers playing days nearly as much as I used to adore the basketball god that wore No. 32 for the Purple and Gold.

It’s not the idea that, now that a winning bidder for the L.A. Dodgers has been designated, the stench of Frank McCourt can finally be booted out of Chavez Ravine once and for all.  Even if the facts state that, under his tenure the Dodgers have started a climb back to contention on the field (appearing in the Major League playoffs in 2004, 2006, 2008, and 2009 after an eight-year drought), McCourt has done so much to destroy the Dodgers brand.  McCourt, a Bostonian, has been ridiculed and reviled as a self-serving, self-indulgent, disingenuous outsider who took ownership of one of Los Angeles’ most revered institutions without even spending a cent of his own money (he took ownership of the team on the backs of several “partners” who funded the purchase).  The Los Angeles sports media has crucified McCourt and his family for using the L.A. Dodgers as a de facto ATM, funneling the team’s revenues into funding their ultra-extravagant lifestyles (and doing nothing to increase the team’s on-field performance).  Even if I am not a fan of the team, I can’t help but notice just how harmful his time at the helm of this uniquely-storied franchise has been.  The Dodgers may not win every year, but they should never ever project a negative impression.  Under McCourt, the Dodgers’ image has been tarnished, a mere shadow of its old historic glories.  This, despite the team’s reappearance in the MLB playoffs.

No, what grabbed my attention was the reported figure for Magic Johnson’s winning consortium’s bid for ownership of the L.A. Dodgers:  $2.1BILLION.  That’s BILLION, with a gigantic, lit-in-a-neon-Dodger-Blue B.

Two BILLION dollars for a Major League Baseball franchise that’s been reduced to a sad, sorry punchline?  Two BILLION dollars for a team that, by most accounts, has been run into the ground once its owners decided they were going to get divorced?

Staggering.

Unbelievable.

Illogical.

Incomprehensible.

My first thought at hearing the amount of the winning bid was that, somehow, the value of the Los Angeles Dodgers skyrocketed to somewhere past Jupiter’s orbit in the Solar System despite its owner’s shenanigans.

That’s not even the kicker, folks.  Oh, no.

The real kick in the rear here is that, of that $2.1BILLION, around HALF will go to Frank McCourt himself.  Approximately $1BILLION will be deposited in Frank McCourt’s personal coffers.  Ostensibly, this obscene amount of money will still be left over even after Frank’s divorce settlement, his lawyer fees, and paying off his original creditors.

Frank McCourt gets to pocket around $1BILLION for agreeing to sell the Dodgers, even though he never paid a single cent to take ownership of the team in the first place.

Now how in the name of all that is sacred is this possible?

The sale of the Dodgers has exposed the festering sickness in the system.  How you care to define this “system” I’ll leave up to you.  You can say the bidders were all sick to register such obscenely large bids on what is obviously (to me, if to no one else) a horrendously inflated and arbitrarily-arrived at value for the Los Angeles Dodgers; you can say Major League Baseball, led by Commissioner Bud Selig, is ultimately responsible for this travesty, since it allowed McCourt to take ownership of the team in the first place; you can say America itself is sick, to allow such a cynical fraud of a transaction to even be legal.

No matter what, the sums just don’t add up.  Logic has been derailed, and we who live in the real world simply just don’t get it.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 178 other followers

%d bloggers like this: