Sunday 27 February 2011

Why does Fernando Alonso get such hate?

It's not very often that I pay much attention to what The Sun newspaper are saying, but yesterday was a partial exception. I had my attention drawn to their article published that day about Fernando Alonso, wherein they reported with considerable vitriol how Tom Bowers' recent book on Bernie Ecclestone contains 'shocking claims' of how the 'spiteful Spaniard' practiced 'treachery' towards his then team-mate Lewis Hamilton in 2007. I couldn't see anything new in the article (just regurgitated three-and-a-half year old talk about blackmail of Ron Dennis and the like) and can only guess it must have been the slowest of all slow news days in the tabloid's Sports Department. But the fact that the article, and its tone, existed at all got me wondering, and not for the first time, quite why Fernando Alonso inspires the level of hate that he does?

Before I go any further, I ought to declare an interest (which regular readers of the blog may have worked out already): I'm a Fernando Alonso fan. Hopefully not a slavish one, or one that does not always give other drivers respect and admiration, or credit when they deserve it, or one that does not criticise Alonso when he deserves it. But I'm definitely a Fernando Alonso sympathiser, and it's for these reasons that I find the malevolence Alonso seems to inspire rather hard to stomach.

Granted, one should take the tabloids' F1 coverage with several truckloads of salt. It's clear they have their own needs, and accurate reporting that will be appreciated by F1 enthusiasts isn't a priority. Instead, they seek to appeal to the 'mass market' or casual F1 observer, whose interest in the sport probably doesn't extend far beyond supporting the British drivers, and appealing to such readers' sense of moral outrage makes good copy. Yesterday's Sun article ticks those boxes. But it's not just in the tabloids that contempt for Alonso can be found: fans' forums have plenty, as does the specialist motor sport media (I won't name names). As Nigel Roebuck has commented: 'anti-Alonso sentiment...seems rife in this country'.

Saturday 19 February 2011

F1 not full of Middle Eastern promise

Not for the first time F1 has found itself encroaching on the front pages rather than the back in recent days, and not for the right reasons. Protests and unrest in Bahrain, against the ruling government and Khalifah royal family, have dominated news bulletins, particularly as security forces have sought at various stages to counter protesting crowds by firing on them, killing several people. And this of course gives F1 a problem, as the fraternity are due to gather at the Sakhir circuit in Bahrain for a pre-season test starting on 3 March, and then for the season's opening race on 13 March.

Bernie's current line is 'wait and see', but at the time of writing it's impossible to see how either the test or the race meeting can go ahead in Bahrain. The security risks are obvious, even if there is a period of relative calm in coming days it will only take one protester to decide that the global audience of an F1 event is too good an opportunity to miss drawing attention to their cause in an extreme fashion to give us a catastrophic outcome on several levels. In addition to any human tragedy, the legal implications (not to mention the damage to F1's image) of the event going ahead and, perish the thought, someone being killed amidst the unrest don't bear thinking about, especially since the official advice of the UK and US governments is not to travel there unless it is essential.

Further, this whole case is perhaps an inevitable consequence of F1 'following the money' via holding rounds in countries with such regimes, despite well-documented concerns about their human rights records. The financial benefits of the Bahrain round to F1 are obvious - they throw sums of money unthinkable to 'established' F1 countries at the Formula One Group for the rights to hold a race (in the case of Bahrain it's thought to be in the region of £37m annually), despite the absence even of much local demand for tickets. And the reason they do this is as an elaborate application of admittance to the 'international community', or a 'branding exercise' as the Crown Prince of Bahrain called it. Further, F1 doesn't just have a stake in terms of the race events, McLaren is 42% owned by the Bahrain government. But the flip side is that oppressive regimes have a tendency to oppress people.

Thursday 17 February 2011

Looking back: F1's Phantom Races

There's been lots of coverage today of unrest and protests in Bahrain, and (in our blinkered F1 mindset) the possibility of the cancellation of the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix in March.

That got me thinking (taking the blinkered F1 mindset to its logical conclusion) about F1's previous when it comes to cancelling races, so I sought to list such instances. The list (see below) turned out to be surprisingly extensive, and up until the mid-1980s F1 calendars were often astonishingly fluid by modern standards.

It probably won't surprise you that most of the cancellations were due to money running out, though there are also some gems in there. The Belgian Grand Prix of 1985 was famously postponed for three months after the fraternity took part in the first practice and found the track crumbling as a result (a fuller account is here). My personal favourite though is that in 1983 a 'Swiss Grand Prix' at Dijon (another way of describing a second French Grand Prix of the year) was canned after French television refused to provide coverage of two races in a season!

Saturday 12 February 2011

Thoughts on Bobby K and Renault

Robert Kubica's crash last Sunday while competing in the Ronde di Andora rally is by now well-documented. And despite the encouraging early signs of recovery and his own clear determination, such are his injuries it looks like he'll be out of racing for some months.

This of course is a tragedy on many levels. Most of all it's a tragedy for Robert, who has an almost primal urge to compete and take machinery to its limit. Further, it comes literally days after the evidence from the Valencia test was that Renault could well have made a large performance step at the start of this season, raising the possibility that Kubica would finally get his hands on a car as competitive as he deserves it to be.

It's also a tragedy for F1 - it is the sport's pinnacle and the more top drivers that are in it the better it is for everyone. And make no mistake, Kubica, without hyperbole, can be bracketed among the top of the top. He's spent his time in F1 invariably getting his car into places it has no right to be, including still being in title contention right up to the penultimate race in 2008, while driving a BMW that had barely been developed since mid-season. He's bloody quick, incredibly consistent, highly committed and pushes his team effectively. Moreover, he has a Prost-like ability to avoid driving errors - if you try to think of a time that he has trashed an F1 car it's incredibly difficult to cite an example. It's not for nothing that the likes of Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton really fear the day that Kubica gets his hands on a set of wheels that do justice to his towering talent. As his technical director James Allison said, 'If we can give him a car that's even half capable of getting a championship he'll get one'.

Saturday 5 February 2011

Testing times: what we learned in Valencia

The 2011 F1 season kicked off in earnest this week with the first test session of the year taking place at the Ricardo Tormo circuit near Valencia. All teams were represented (eventually, in Lotus's case), and eight out of the twelve teams piloted their 2011 cars.
It is a truth held to be self-evident that little can be read into testing times, but that we'll nevertheless do our best to decipher clues from them on who's hot and who's not approaching the new season.

Above film of Valencia Testing 2011 courtesy of Sutton Images

So, what can be read into the three days' testing at Valencia? First, the usual disclaimers. There are many variables which make reading much into the fastest times from testing hazardous in terms of predicting who'll be on top in qualifying in Bahrian in March. Fuel loads, and therefore weight penalties, vary, possibly to the tune of several seconds per lap, as do programmes in terms of number of laps run in a stint, whether or not KERS is being used etc. Track conditions also vary throughout each day and between days. Then there's the fact that the intense rate of development will ensure that cars now will be virtually unrecognisable come the first race meeting.