Joe-Pinions: Sports

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?

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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?

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