Monday, 15 October 2012

The Doping Olympics, could it work?

Last week, the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA)  concluded in a report that seven times Tour De France winner Lance Armstrong led “the most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping programme that sport has ever seen”. Of course this is a great shame that one of the legends of cycling cheated to win his seven titles, and has been subsequently stripped of them. However, the feat of winning the Tour De France seven times is still incredible, and there was still significant competition despite the doping as it seems that many others within cycling were also in on it and seeking to gain an illegal advantage. I can’t help but think though that with all the doping going on, the advantage they were seeking to gain had been wiped out by the fact that many others were also doing it and therefore levels out the playing field. Yes, there would have been the honest cyclists being left behind by the dopers, but it creates a two tier competition, those doping and those not doping, which makes me consider the question: could there be a separate completion category in sport where doping is allowed and all competitors are allowed to cheat to see what can be accomplished. The Doping Olympics if you will.

In all sports, there are rules over drugs and doping to stop competitors cheating, and in most of them there are examples where the rules have been broken, with Olympic events seeing many drugs cheats over the years. Notable cheats have been Ben Johnson who won the 100m gold in a world record smashing time of 9.79 seconds at the 1988 Olympics, and Marion Jones who won five athletics gold medals at the 2000 Olympics before admitting drugs use. But before we get hung up on the fact they cheated, just think about what they achieved for a moment. Johnson blitzed the field in his 100m final, breaking the world record with 9.79 seconds, a time which is still seriously quick even by today’s standards. It was a mega sprint and everyone was amazed with the race, before the cheat problems arose. Also with Jones, winning five gold medals in various athletics events is staggering, showing winning capabilities in a range of events. Armstrong also deserves some credit as he still won seven titles with fellow cheats as competitors. These are all remarkable feats, and they were all a result of cheating and seeking to gain an advantage, whether it’s through blood doping or other drugs. The shame about it comes when you consider the honest individuals who trained all their life to win without taking drugs or cheat, but have virtually no chance; that isn’t fair. So what if we remove the honest people from the competition and just have doped up competitors. This would therefore remove the sad aspect of an honest person having no chance, but still provides us with thrilling, amazing sporting moments, as well as good competition towards it, which would lead to even better results. It would be a chance to see what humans are physically capable of doing when there are no rules to slow them down.

Ben Johnson's amazing 100m sprint

Of course there would be issues raised over it, such as health and ethical issues. Some could say that it could have bad effects on the body and the person’s health to take drugs or participate in blood doping, however there are so many examples of drugs cheats within sport, and there have been no major health issues over taking certain performance enhancing drugs. Within cycling, 17 of the last 33 Tour De France victories have been won by someone cheating through doping and drugs including riders from the US Postal Service team, with whom Lance Armstrong rode. Doping and drugs have been tried by many people and there haven’t been adverse effects, just mind-blowing performances. Also, within professional sport already, competitors are surrounded by doctors and other medical staff, monitoring them so they would be in safe hands for taking drugs and spotting potential problems that could arise. Another issue could be that it doesn’t set a good example to children to have drug takers and cheaters as role models, but it’s not as bad as it sounds. Cheating is already rife amongst sport, such as diving in football which is the most popular sport in the world. Kids also get taught to cheat in many other things, such as video game cheat codes, and robbing the bank in Monopoly. Cheating is a way of life and everyone does it at some point in their life. If anything, it goes against cheating, as the competitors have become equal. If one kid robs the bank in Monopoly, then it’s unfair and cheating, but if they all rob the bank and end up with an equal share of money then no advantage has been gained amongst them, they are just going to have one heck of a game, as they all have lots of money. As for the drugs, is it such a problem? It teaches kids to push themselves and strive for the best, but also that drugs must be safe and taken under supervision, in the right environment. It’s a similar thing with motorsport: professionals race on the track, as it’s a safe, controlled environment, but not on the public roads. Motorsport is dangerous, but is very safe in the right environment, unlike on the public roads where it is serious. A small minority could look at motorsport and think ‘yes, I want to try that in my car down the high street’, but that is no reason to ban the sport. There is a clear distinction between right and wrong, and as long as that is message passed onto the public it should be fine.

The Doping Olympics could be a place where humans can push themselves to the true limit, and seek what is physically possible, using what is available to them to go faster for longer and win. The idea already legally exists in the normal Olympics, as athletes take energy drinks and other energy foods to give themselves an advantage and then there are artificially and scientifically designed prosthetics in the Paralympics, but it would just be taking it further to gain an even bigger advantage. It would no longer be cheating as everyone would be the same, and would provide such a spectacle as we’ve seen from current drug takers in sports, just without all the fallout afterwards about the cheating. As long as it was organised and carried out properly so that athletes knew and understood what they were entering as well as being monitored by medical staff throughout it should be fine. The normal Olympics would be there as the main event for ‘proper’ athletes, but then afterwards, there could be the Doping Olympics where they go to extremes. It would be the Olympics on drugs, and it would be phenomenal. It would provide additional benefits, as all the monitoring of athletes taking drugs in the Doping Olympics would result in good research to help officials find cheats in the real Olympics and put them in the right competition, and for the viewers it would provide all the excitement of smashing world records, but without the cheating drawbacks.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Michael Schumacher Retires - Again

Seven times world champion, Michael Schumacher as decided to retire from Formula One for a 2nd time after reaching the end of his three year contract with Mercedes. Schumacher initially retired from Ferrari in 2006, but after three years away, he returned to Formula One in 2010 with Mercedes. Schumacher is regarded by some (mostly Germans) as the greatest driver of all time and this is backed up by statistics as he holds almost every record in the book: most championships, most wins, most podiums, most pole positions, most wins in a season, most consecutive wins, most fastest laps, the list goes on and on.

Schumacher started his F1 career with Jordan in 1991, and there was a lot of luck and chance that he got the drive in the first place. Jordan started the season with drivers Bertrand Gachot and Andrea de Cesaris, but needed a spare driver for the Belgian Grand Prix after Gachot was jailed for assaulting a London taxi driver. Schumacher was then given a test by Jordan at Silverstone, where he set amazingly quick times considering it was his first ever drive in an F1 car. After this, Eddie Jordan asked him if he had been round Spa before, to which he answered ‘yes’, but this would turn out to be a lie as Schumacher had never been to Spa before and the best he could do was cycle round the circuit before the weekend. Jordan later stated that if he knew that Schumacher had never been round Spa before then he wouldn’t have selected him, in which case history could have taken quite a turn. For that weekend, he qualified a team-best 7th, however was quick enough for 3rd on another lap until a mistake at the final chicane. In the race he retired on the first lap, but his qualifying performance was enough to draw attention, with Benetton signing him controversially for the next race onwards.

This was the start of Schumacher’s first phase of success, with a first win one year later at Spa, and then his first world championship in 1994 followed by another in 1995. He became the youngest double world champion and seemed destined to win more, but he also fancied a challenge. For the 1996 season onwards, he joined a Ferrari team who hadn’t been successful at all in recent years with their last championship coming in 1979. Together with Technical Director Ross Brawn and the rest of the team, they set about turning the team’s fortunes. In 1996, Schumacher won three races, more than Ferrari had won entirely from 1991 to 1995, however they weren’t quite championship contenders yet. 1997 onwards is when Ferrari could finally challenge for the title, but it eluded them throughout the rest of the 90’s thanks to Villeneuve and Hakkinen winning the titles for ’97, ’98 and ’99. The turn of the millennium marked the change in fortunes for Schumacher and Ferrari, taking the title in 2000, his first for five years and third in total; followed by the titles of 2001, 2002, 2003, and 2004. For a five year period, Schumacher was unstoppable, for example: 2002 he finished every race on the podium, and 2004 he won 12 of the first 13 races. 2005 finally brought Schumacher’s dominance to an end, with Renault’s Fernando Alonso winning the championship, and despite a hard fought battle, Schumacher again lost out to Alonso in 2006. This signalled the end of Schumacher’s Formula One career, with him retiring at the end of 2006.

Or so we thought. After Massa’s spring injury at Hungary, Schumacher was poised for a comeback with Ferrari to fill in for the injured Massa for the remainder of the season, but a neck injury sustained after a motorbike crash prevented him. This was a major disappointment after all the hype building up his return, and he clearly felt disappointed that he couldn’t race again, so Ross Brawn seized the opportunity and offered him a full drive at his newly branded Mercedes team for 2010 onwards: The comeback was back on. After a 3 year gap, Michael Schumacher was back, but not as we knew him. His reputation and all the build-up surrounding his return resulted in high expectation for him, but for most of the season he was easily beaten by younger team mate Nico Rosberg. 2011 didn’t fare much better for him, with only the Canadian Grand Prix looking like he might get a podium, but he didn’t. This was damaging for Schumacher. He was nowhere near the dominant racer that everyone knew, and all that had been achieved was raising questions about whether his previous championships had just been down to a dominant car. 2012 has been better so far, with Schumacher out-qualifying Rosberg in most of the races and even gaining a podium, and a would-be pole position had it not been for a grid penalty, but he has suffered a lot of mechanical faults, causing him to retire, and he has been making stupid mistakes, such as driving into the back of Senna and Vergne. These mistakes have been too common throughout his return, with him losing countless front wings, especially in 2011. His comeback has been nowhere near what he expected or what we expected at the beginning of 2010, as back then he was talking about challenging for wins and maybe even championships; instead he was barely even challenging for podiums, and too often challenging for a top 10 finish. It therefore comes as no surprise that he has decided to retire at the end of the season. He could have stayed on if he wanted to, with Sauber offering him a seat, and any ‘low’ team would want him just for the t-shirt and cap sales he would bring. But he has learnt from the mistake of his return to Formula One and decided not to damage his reputation further.

Many will remember Schumacher for his dominant winning ways, others maybe for his failed comeback, but there will also be too many people who will remember him for his darker side of racing. Throughout his career, controversy has been with him almost every step of the way. Even after his very first race, there was a lawsuit from Jordan GP over Benetton signing him. He won his first championship in terrible circumstances, by driving into fellow championship contender Damon Hill in the final race of the season, putting them both out, but meaning Schumacher won as Hill couldn’t finish and gain the necessary one point he needed. In the final race of the 1997 championship, Schumacher’s car broke, and as he was being overtaken by Villeneuve, drove into the side of him in an attempt to stop Villeneuve finishing just like in 1994 with Hill. Luckily justice prevailed, and Schumacher was disqualified from the championship. Then in 1998 at Spa after running into the back of David Coulthard, he stormed down the pit lane into the McLaren garage to fight Coulthard, but some McLaren mechanics blocked his way, before Coulthard could “unleash” his “ninja warrior style” on him. Even in his dominant days, there was controversy with Ferrari issuing team orders to team mate Rubens Barrichello at the 2002 Austrian Grand Prix to let Schumacher win; and upon his return in 2010, returned the favour to Barrichello by almost driving him into a concrete wall at 170mph. Back in 2006, he also tried to stop Alonso qualifying on pole at Monaco by stopping his car on track bringing out the red flag, but backfired as he was penalised and forced to start from the back. Throughout his career, it seemed Schumacher would do anything to win.

Despite the statistics, there are still many who don’t think he is a truly great driver. The Daily Mirror’s Byron Young states he wouldn’t have him in his top 10 drivers, pointing out that he has only ever won two races from starting outside the top three rows, and only six wins from outside the top two rows. With this there were never any legendary drives that Senna or Moss would make, just plain, boring leading from the front as he had the fastest car by a mile and the only equal, his team mates, weren’t allowed to compete with him. So it does seem Schumacher’s career has been mixed, earning as many enemies as fans, but there are two things which do seem certain: winning seven world titles is impressive, no matter what, but it would have been best for him to have stayed in retirement for the past three years.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Are Manchester City going downhill?

Manchester City are currently sitting 4th in the Premier League with 12 points, the same as rivals Manchester United in 3rd and only one point off a surprise Everton in 2nd after the first 6 games. Initially this seems like a good place for the league champions considering it’s still relatively early stages of the season, however, all doesn’t seem to well.

Last night in the Champions League, they scraped a draw with Borussia Dortmund thanks to a last minute penalty from Mario Balotelli after they were on the back foot for much of the game. Manager Roberto Mancini admitted after the game that goalkeeper Joe Hart saved them after he was forced to make save after save to keep them in the game, but they shouldn’t be in the position where they have to rely on their goalkeeper constantly throughout the match. Dortmund outplayed them for most of the match, they deserved the away win, and should have put more goals past City to finish the game off. City did well to put two goals past Real Madrid in the first Champions League group game at the Bernabeu, but still came out losing 3-2. That is understandable as Madrid are arguably the best team in the world at the moment, but City didn’t help the situation in defence as I feel Maicon was a bad choice. Two years ago, Maicon got run ragged by Gareth Bale when they played Tottenham in the Champions League, so what was he ever going to do against the most expensive and possibly the best player in the world, Cristiano Ronaldo? Maicon was virtually non-existent; Ronaldo went past him as if he wasn’t there.

This is where Man City are falling down this season, their defence. In their 19 home league games last season, City only conceded 12 goals. This season, with only 3 home league games played, they are already a third of the way to that total, and most of the goals conceded have come from ‘lesser’ teams such as QPR and Southampton. In fact, Manchester City are the only defending Premier League champions ever to concede a goal in all of their opening 6 games of the season. On top of this, they crashed out of the league cup in the third round at home to struggling Aston Villa, losing 4-2. They may have fielded a ‘weakened’ side, but due to the sheer amount of players City have brought in since being taken over, they still have many world class players in their B-team. Their starting XI included Tevez, Balotelli, Milner, Barry, Kolo Toure and Lescott. That is a mighty team on its own that would easily finish in the top half of the Premier League, and with many of the players in the team fighting for a place in the first team, they cannot be accused of not trying. No matter how much managers and fans may dismiss the league cup, it is still a good competition to win, silverware is silverware (take note Arsene), so there is no excuse for City to let in 4 goals at home to Aston Villa in their first game of the competition.

Manchester City aren’t playing like the champions of England; a top team, yes, but champions, no. Apart from the Villa and Dortmund games they have been playing relatively well, attacking well, scoring goals, but the constant leak of goals at the back is going to cost them. They are making it tough for themselves despite facing mediocre opponents, such as Southampton, QPR and Fulham. Luckily, they don’t play Chelsea or Man United till the end of November and December, so they have plenty of time to sort out their defensive issues and start playing like the champions they are once again. October and the beginning of November should pose no major threat to City, and they should win all the games. They should be using these games to improve and stop the goals leaking in, if not then there could easily be a surprise upset from one of their opponents, such as West Brom. The Tottenham game in mid-November should be a good challenge, as Spurs appear to be on the up after Beating United at Old Trafford, so beating Spurs would put them in perfect stead for the Chelsea game and United game not too long afterwards, which are the most important games for them this side of Christmas. They need to improve now while they still face easier opponents, to give them a chance of defending their title.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Europe’s Ryder cup victory: Best sporting comeback ever?

Europe’s final day fight back victory against the USA in golf’s prestigious Ryder Cup has already got people calling it the greatest sporting comeback ever. Going into the final day, USA were leading 10-6, and only needed 4 ½ points of the 12 on offer for the final day, whereas Europe needed 8½. Making it even harder for the Europeans was the vocal support from the American Medinah crowd, chanting “U-S-A” for most of the tournament. Despite this, the European team led by Spaniard Jose Maria Olazabal managed to overhaul the American’s advantage to steal the necessary 8½ points to take the final scores to 14½-13½. The minority European crowd helped spur them on to victory with their alternate chant of “ole, ole ole ole” to further frustrate the Americans; not only had they lost an almost certain victory, but they were out-supported on their own turf.

Certainly, a truly memorable comeback not just for golf, but for the whole of sport. But was it the best sporting comeback? I’ve come up with 5 more memorable sport comebacks that could also be seen as just as difficult and amazing:

-1972 Olympic Basketball Final, USA v USSR

In 1972, the cold war meant relations between America and the Soviet Union weren’t at their best, so when they met in the Olympic basketball gold medal match (in Germany of all places), it was clear it would be a tense game. It couldn’t have been better set. The USA had been favourites to win the game as their team was undefeated in the tournament, and had won the previous seven basketball gold medals. It was America’s sport and they seemed destined to win and get a satisfying victory over their great rivals. All did not go to plan, though. They were trailing the whole game, but with then with the game at 49-49 and with seconds to go, they scored one point to take the lead for the first time in the match and make it 49-50 with only 3 seconds to go. The Russians bring the ball back into play, and the horn blows; cue the celebrations from the Americans, they have beaten the Russians in the finals seconds. But no, officials have to come onto the court to tell the jubilant American team that it wasn’t the end of the game, the horn was for a Russian time-out, and there were still 3 seconds to play. The Russians had 3 seconds to get the ball down the court and score a winner, and they were going to make it happen. Play resumes, the ball is launched down the court to be caught and bundled though the net within 3 seconds. The Soviet Union had done it, bringing an end to America’s dominance at their own sport, in the middle of the cold war, and it couldn’t have happened in more dramatic circumstances.
Dramatic final seconds coverage

-2011 Formula One Canadian Grand Prix

It turned out to be the longest Grand Prix ever at over 4 hours long, due to the horrible rain on race day but the 2011 Canadian Grand Prix also proved to be one of the best races ever and providing one of the greatest comebacks ever. The race started under safety car due to the conditions, with Sebastian Vettel on pole storming away with the lead. McLaren however were going to have a terrible start to the race. Lewis Hamilton hit Mark Webber going into turn one causing them both to lose places, and for Hamilton to end up behind his team mate Jenson Button. At the end of lap 7, Hamilton tried overtaking Button down the main straight, but due to the spray, neither driver could see each other well, and it resulted with Hamilton colliding with Button and hitting the pit wall. Hamilton was out, and Button pitted at the end of the lap for damage checks. Luckily, Button had no damage, but it turns out he broke the speed limit in the pit lane and was given a drive-through penalty, dropping him to 18th. The red flag came out on lap 25 for heavy rain and there was a 2 hour wait before the weather calmed. After the restart, Button made contact with Fernando Alonso, putting Alonso out and giving Button a puncture. By this stage he was 21st and last, with 30 laps to go. But Button was now a man on a mission. He is arguably the best driver in wet/drying conditions and in the next 20 laps made his way up to 4th place. Vettel was still in the lead, having been on his own for the whole race, but in the final 10 laps, Button took Webber and Schumacher to take 2nd place and was hunting down Vettel, cutting his lead lap after lap. Then on the final lap, Button was right behind and pressurised Vettel into a mistake of running wide, allowing him to take the lead and win the race, after being last just 30 laps previous. Button described it as the best win of his career and the race has been described as one of the best in Formula One history.
Race Highlights

-2010 UK Snooker Championship Final, John Higgins v Mark Williams

The final of the snooker UK Championship proved to be a great comeback story for two different reasons. John Higgins had just returned from a 6-month suspension due to a match fixing fiasco, and stormed into the final despite the recent lack of tournament play and damaging headlines. Adding to his troubles during his suspension, John’s father the great Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins died, making the whole time a much more difficult situation for him and his family. It seemed a wonder that he was able to come back into a major tournament and reach the final, which was an achievement in itself, but Higgins was determined to go one step further and win the title. Unfortunately, the final didn’t start well. His opponent Mark Williams was on form and built an advantage straight away meaning he started the evening session leading 6-2. The match was best of 19 frames, so Williams only needed 4 more frames to win. The first frame of the session Williams won taking it to 7-2, with it looking like he was going to carry on in his top form and Higgins trailing. But Higgins began to fight back, bringing it to 7-4, then 8-5. Williams got the score to 9-5, meaning he had match frame; Higgins had to win the next 5 frames in a row. He won the next 2 frames to take it to 9-7, but in the next frame, Williams looked like he was going to finally wrap it up. The score was 69-40 to Williams, he had a 29 point advantage with only 27 points left on the table, and the title was in his grasp. But still Higgins wouldn’t give in. After a battle of trying to snooker each other, Higgins forced the mistake on Williams, potting the cue ball, giving Higgins the extra four points he needed to then win the frame, which he did to bring the score to 9-8. Higgins now had the momentum. He won the next frame taking it to 9-9 and the deciding frame, where he pulled out a good advantage over Williams. However it wasn’t over yet, as he wasn’t able to pot the brown and another round of trying to snooker each other began, at which point Higgins took a major risk: rather than go for the safety shot, he went for a double across the entire length of the table, and amazingly pulled it off, followed by a long pot on the blue to win the championship. Williams was shell-shocked at the end, whilst Higgins celebrated and dedicated the win to his family, who have been through so much recently. A remarkable sporting comeback, not just for the match, but for the troubling issues that preceded it.
Final frames highlights

-2005 UEFA Champions League Final, Liverpool v AC Milan

AC Milan were clear favourites going into the game. They were the Serie A champions, whereas Liverpool had finished 5th in the Premier League, behind local rivals Everton in 4th place who took the final Champions League spot. Liverpool weren’t going to be in the Champions League next season unless they won the final, and qualified as cup holders. Almost all the stats were against Liverpool. AC Milan had won the competition more times than Liverpool (6 wins compared to Liverpool’s 4), they had won the completion more recently (AC Milan won it 2 years previous, whereas Liverpool won it over 20 years previous), and Milan had competed in more finals (10 appearances to Liverpool’s 6). The facts said Milan would easily beat Liverpool, and this seemed the case in the first half of the match. Milan scored within the first minute of the match to confirm why they were favourites. They scored two more later in the half to make it 3-0 at half time. This was easy for Milan, they were walking all over Liverpool; the question wasn’t who would win anymore, it was how many would Milan score. Half time marked a turning point though, Liverpool manager Rafael Benítez must have given the half time talk of the century as Liverpool came out to the 2nd half fighting. Firstly, captain Steven Gerrard pulled one back, two minutes later Vladimir Smicer scored a 2nd, and then another 6 minutes later Liverpool were gifted a penalty, where Xabi Alonso  scored to bring it back to 3-3. This was mad. Milan were arguably the best team in the world and had steamrollered them so far, and yet Liverpool had fought back from a 3 goal deficit to bring it level. Liverpool held on to the 3-3 draw, took the game to penalties and pulled out an early advantage with the score at 2-0 to Liverpool thanks to goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek’s ‘spaghetti legs’ distraction. Milan pulled one back on the 3rd penalty, and both teams scored the 4th, but now Milan had to score the 5th to stay in with a shout of winning. Coveted talisman striker Shevchenko took it, but Dudek saved it. Liverpool had won the Champions League despite being written off by many before the game had even begun, and certainly beyond hope at half time. It was the greatest final of the greatest club competition, and it had gained Liverpool a 2nd amazing comeback by being grated a place in next season’s competition even though they finished 5th in the Premier League.
Match Highlights

-Alex Zanardi

Alex Zanardi achieved his own unique comeback, starting 11 years ago and reaching its peak earlier this summer. What’s amazing about Zanardi’s comeback is that it was more than just one event, and more than one sport as well. Throughout the 90’s and early 2000’s, Zanardi was racing in Formula One, Indycar, and Champ Car, where he won the Champ Car title twice in 1997 and 1998. He moved back to Formula One for 1999, but unfortunately didn’t get a drive for 2000. Due to this he moved back to Champ Car for 2001, where he wasn’t quite in the same form of old, until a race at the Lausitzring in Germany. Here, he was back in his form of old, he was leading the race in the closing stages and came in for a final pit stop, however upon leaving the pit lane, he lost control of the car and spun into the track ending up sideways. One driver avoided him, a 2nd driver behind, didn’t and T-boned Zanardi’s car at 200mph. The impact resulted in Zanardi losing both of his legs. Medical help was tending to him immediately, but he was losing pints of blood. He was air lifted to hospital, and was read last rites on the helicopter. But he just about managed to hold out, made it to the hospital and performed lifesaving surgery. Since the crash, he had lost over ¾ of his blood and medically should have been dead, but he survived. He then started a long road to recovery with prosthetic legs, and only 2 years later was back behind the wheel of a specially adapted Champ Car with hand controls to complete the final 13 laps of the Lausitzring that he never did. Since then, he moved onto the World Touring Car Championship, where he achieved podiums and victories amongst fully able bodied racers, despite his handicap, which in itself is a remarkable. But then Zanardi wanted a new challenge, and began hand cycling. He was so serious about wanting to do well in hand cycling that he gave up motorsport to focus on it, and all the practice he did was for the London 2012 Paralympics. It had been announced that the Paralympic road cycling course would be using Brands Hatch race circuit, which spurred Zanardi on even more, it almost felt like it was meant to be. At the age of 45, he wasn’t the youngest entering the race, but even still managed to overcome the age factor and take not one, but two gold medals at Brands Hatch, as well as a silver medal. Ever since 2001, almost everything has been stacked against Zanardi, but he still managed to defy doctors, age, handicaps, and various other difficulties to be a success in two different sports. Personally, I think this is the greatest sporting comeback as it goes beyond sport. When he was medically dead, sport didn’t matter at all, but he still came back and he is still coming back after 11 years.
Alex Zanardi's Crash and His Recovery

Friday, 28 September 2012

The Great F1 Driver Market

The first major driver change for next year’s Formula one season has been confirmed, with Lewis Hamilton leaving McLaren for Mercedes. BBC chief analyst Eddie Jordan first revealed rumours about the potential move at the beginning of September, which was met with scepticism and confusion by many F1 fans. However, the move has now been confirmed, and in doing so has brought with it other changes influencing other teams. McLaren have brought in Sergio Perez from Sauber to replace Hamilton, and Michael Schumacher is now without a drive for next year, whilst it being unclear whether he will retire again or to pursue a race seat with another team.

There is no doubt that McLaren have the faster car at the moment, and the chances are that they will have a fast car again next season. So why has Hamilton decided to move when he ‘just wants to win’? Money and sponsors have played a big part in the deal with Mercedes being able to offer him more money and greater personal sponsor freedom so he can top up his earnings, whilst making a bigger brand of himself. This is what his XIX Entertainment management team would want as they would turn Hamilton into his own brand rather than be stuck with McLaren’s sponsors and be associated with the team instead. This would also bring a lot of money into XIX as they would take a substantial percentage of his earnings, so from their point of view Mercedes was the team to go for. Financially, it makes sense, but race performance is different. With the current cars, Hamilton would struggle to get podiums, let alone wins, unlike the McLaren where he already has 3 wins this season. Mercedes have had a mixed season; they got their first win since 1955 in China, but have mostly been in the bottom half of the top 10 for the rest of it, which is not where Hamilton would want to be. To satisfy Hamilton’s desire to win races, Mercedes need to improve and now is the perfect time. Hamilton has been promised #1 priority in the team, so the car will be built around him and will be made to suit him best which he hasn’t been able to get entirely from McLaren due to team mates such as Alonso and Button. Mercedes could also benefit from having a driver suited to the car. Since coming back into Formula One, Mercedes have had Schumacher, which was good for publicity and selling merchandise, but it was never a real long term option, so they wouldn’t have entirely based the car around him or Rosberg, as he would be leaving and a new driver would come in. This is Mercedes first chance to focus on the long term success, now they have a stable, long term driver line-up, and team principle Ross Brawn knows what it takes after achieving a similar feat with Schumacher at Ferrari. Initially, McLaren should have the upper hand over Mercedes, but with a wave of new technical regulations coming in 2014, and Mercedes long term focus, who knows where they will be this time in two years. Hamilton will be hoping they’ve stepped up to prove his gamble right.

With this comes many other driver changes, as McLaren needed to act quickly to get a replacement for Hamilton after initially stating they had no ‘plan b’ if Hamilton left. McLaren snapped up Perez from Sauber who has had a fantastic season so far, challenging for wins and gaining 3 podiums this year in a midfield car. Perez has been part of the Ferrari driver programme for the past few years, so earlier in the year it was expected that he would replace Felipe Massa at Ferrari next season, but this was dismissed by Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo, claiming that Perez didn’t have enough experience. This combined with Perez stating that being part of the Ferrari programme didn’t restrict what team he drives for meant McLaren were keen to sign him up to replace Hamilton. This would satisfy both McLaren and Ferrari as it means McLaren have a highly skilled driver coming with the benefit of extra sponsors, whilst Ferrari can sit back and let him gain the top team experience he needs. Once Perez is doing well and consistently challenging for wins and championships, I feel Ferrari could easily take him back. Ferrari is the team Perez would most want to drive for, especially being part of their driver programme, so when Ferrari say the word, Perez will join.

This still leaves Sauber with a spare seat and Schumacher without a drive. Peter Sauber said if Schumacher ever became available then he would try to sign him ‘immediately’. This means that if Schumacher decides to stay in F1, there will almost certainly be a space for him. Unfortunately for him, there is no space in the top teams for him with Red Bull, McLaren, Mercedes and Lotus having full driver line ups. There is Ferrari, but a Ferrari ‘spokesman’ said there is more chance of them signing Alberto Ascari than there is of signing Schumacher. This means the best team Schumacher could get into would be Sauber, but then there is the question of whether he wants to risk his reputation further by racing for a lower team. He has already arguably damaged his legacy already by coming out of retirement with Mercedes, so carrying on at an even lower team would no doubt damage it further. However, there could be a solution: Schumacher has been tipped for a team management job, so he could maybe try and combine racing and management/ownership. Schumacher has earned quite a bit of money in his time in F1, so he could quite easily buy a stake in a team (HRT for example) to become a team owner and be one of the drivers himself. A similar idea was proposed by Jacques Villeneuve with Stefan GP, but they didn’t make it to the grid. A Schumacher owned and branded team with him racing would bring floods of sponsorship money and an instant fan base due to his contacts, sponsors and fans, as well as receiving good coverage. The money coming in could transform a small team, and could send them up the grid, making it a success and repairing some of Schumacher’s damaged reputation.

With all the fuss about driver line-ups flooding round the paddock, it could be said that the main winners out of it will be Red Bull. They sorted out their driver line-up months ago so they can spend this crucial time of the season focusing on what matters, the championship. The other teams may be doing well, but they have been focusing efforts on sorting out drivers which could be pivotal in this year’s closely fought championship.