Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Flappy paddles and Vanity panels

Ahhh Formula One, we have missed you. It has only been two months since Jenson Button limped over the line at the end of a brilliant Brazilian Grand Prix and 2012 season, but it seems like so much longer.

In that time, us Formula One fans have lived a hollow existence, absentmindedly walking the streets early on Sunday mornings, making vaguely 'F1ish' noises, or shouting "LIGHTS OUT, AWAY WE GO" when the microwave gets to zero.

In fact, on my walk to work, I now employ a 'racing line' to get to the train station as quickly as possible and throw my hands in the air when slowed by a back-marker (pensioner). I even try to be the first to react when the lights flash on the train doors to let me off that sweaty, angst-filled metal tube...much like a Formula One car.

This time last year, I wrote a pretty decent piece proclaiming Felipe Massa to be the man to beat in 2012 and the master of the universe in general. My thoughts have changed slightly for the 2013 season, for three main reasons: Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull are just too bloody good, Felipe Massa isn't actually the master of the universe and I used up all my best jokes in that article. Yes, THAT was the peak of my powers.

So, what can we realistically expect from 2013? Here's my take on it, strap yourself in for a hilarious* preview of the year ahead.

* Probably mildly amusing at best, like when someone says 'lol' via digital communication or Russell Brand.

I should just say at this point that if you want a detailed analysis and genuinely worthwhile predictions from someone who knows what they are talking about, please go elsewhere. Here is my team-by-team guide.

Red Bull
Quite simply the antithesis of funniness. How on earth am I meant to blog about the unpredictable, amusing nature of Formula One when this team keeps bloody winning everything. And this team is Austrian. Name me one funny thing that has been influenced by Austria, other than Arnold Schwarzenegger's hilarious performance as Mr Freeze in 'Batman & Robin'. Exactly, nothing.

With three straight victories in the Driver and Constructors Championships, it is difficult to see beyond Red Bull making it number four. Unless Mark Webber does what we all know he yearns to do and takes Sebastian Vettel out in at least two of the races. And even then it'll be close.

With a multitude of tracks suiting the characteristics of the 'typical' Red Bull car, there should be enough opportunities to secure maximum points on any given weekend, making your painful early morning rise utterly fruitless. In fact, the team are even pushing for a re-introduction to the calendar of the AUSTRIAN Grand Prix...AT THE 'RED BULL RING' FOR CHRIST'S SAKE!

I honestly don't know what to expect from Ferrari this year. With Fernando Alonso guaranteed to have said the word 'maximum' at least 638 times over the winter, there is no doubt the team will have tried to provide a car which isn't...you know, hopeless. Not that this really matters to Mr Alonso, who could probably drive my dad's Toyota Avensis to a string of podiums if given the chance. The problem is the man I once deemed indestructible - Felipe Massa. Once again, the Brazilian appeared to turn the corner (the minimum requirement of a Formula One driver) at the end of last season. The problem is, knowing Massa, he probably turned that corner, only to go terribly wide at the next.

Unlikely to produce two poor cars in a row, the team should be near the top and if they are within half a second of Red Bull's pace, expect Alonso to really push Vettel (and Webber, at his customary two solid races) to the limit. That if is bigger than Alonso's eyebrows though.

Once again, the Woking team appear to have produced a very strong car to start the season, but that was only good enough for third place overall last year. With the absence of Lewis Hamilton likely to affect the overall performance of the team, it will be interesting season for McLaren. With Jenson Button and Sergio Perez likely to battle over who can make the least pit-stops, it could be that if the car is gentle enough on its tyres, McLaren could challenge at circuits which are typically demanding on the rubber (no sex jokes please), like Canada and China.

Even people who are qualified to make predictions will struggle to call McLaren's season, so I ought to have no chance, but I see them having a really strong year, particularly if the team can get the car working to the precise conditions Button demands. That said, they had thirteen years to get used to Lewis' favourite settings, and instead provided cars that often fell apart or had gearboxes made of clay.

The team have talked the talk by aiming for a top-three finish, and who is to say they can't do it? Well, me. I personally think the aforementioned teams will be too strong, particularly if Romain Grosjean hasn't got over his penchant for hitting more sidepods than apexes. With Kimi Raikkonen showing remarkable consistency last year, he could be in line for another strong season. With a year under his belt after his comeback, he may shed the caution which often cost the Finn more points. Usually kind on their tyres, it could be a strong year for Lotus, but I just can't see it, at least not yet.

Ahh Mercedes, what do we think? In my opinion, more of the same really. Lewis Hamilton arrives from McLaren and may be able to add a few tenths to boost the team, but it is more likely to only mean the difference between seventh and fourth than anything else. The British driver may be able to deliver the odd podium and victory which ought to be beyond his Silver Arrow, but a championship challenge appears unlikely, which probably means more testy post-race interviews and the return of that famous scowl.

Of course, we are forgetting Nico Rosberg, who is an outstanding driver and has the intelligence to ensure the team stay on his side if necessary. If Rosberg was only able to extract one win from this car last season, I find it difficult to imagine Lewis working miracles, although many of my fellow Hamilton 'fanboys' will argue differently.

Some of my 'contacts' (one person I spoke to once) thinks Hamilton could be the difference - and more - between mediocrity and consistent challenges for victories. I disagree, but I do see a season a little better than last for Mercedes, perhaps fighting Lotus for fourth place in the championship. I think their focus is on 2014, when loads of complicated rules come in and prevents us fans from really knowing what exactly is going on.

The midfield
Because I know you are all bored of reading this now, I'm going to make this brief. To be honest, I'm getting bored of writing it! By midfield, I mean Sauber, Force India, Williams and Toro Rosso, and none of them appear too capable of building on what were encouraging seasons last year.

Sauber, thanks mostly to the outgoing Perez, had a great season last year. Although Nico Hulkenberg is also a very good driver, can he continue that level of performance? Time will tell. Esteban Gutierrez looks promising too, but I think with regulations stable for this season, Sauber are unlikely to have the same impact they had last season, when Perez secured three podiums for the team.

Force India were very consistent last season, with Paul Di Resta driving well for the first half of the year, before allowing Nico Hulkenberg to dominate him in the second. With Hulkenberg gone, as a Scot, I will be hoping Di Resta can take his chance as team leader and deliver more strong results, although his teammate is yet to be decided. I think, I don't research much.

Williams scored their first victory since 2004 with Pastor Maldonado - that loveable chap - taking the win in Spain, before their performances tailed off and they ended up in eighth place in the Constructor's Championship, thanks in part to Maldonado's carelessness as well as his occasional brilliance. With Bruno Senna replaced by Valtteri Bottas...I don't know who that is or where I'm going with that point, so I will leave that sentence there.

And then we have Toro Rosso, who I think will finish ninth again. I know, how profound.

The new teams
Who aren't new anymore. I think the excuses now have to stop for Marussia and Caterham, who are going to have to step up or step away. With HRT going bust - before a legion of fans kicked them out themselves - we are left with eleven teams, which should actually help the quality of the racing...slightly.

I think - again - that Caterham can finally secure a point, while I see another season of struggle for Marussia. Max Chilton makes his debut in the Marussia this year, and it will be interesting to see how he gets on, but what is likely to be a slow car may limit his opportunities to impress. As I said, the excuses have to stop now and the points have to start coming in, or these teams will be long forgotten.

So there we have it, Formula One is back, and I am back with it, hurrah!

I honestly think we could have a great season on our hands, and it is genuinely difficult to predict the next few months. But as I have shown, predictions are useless - thanks Felipe.

Let the racing begin.

OH BY THE WAY, I also wrote a little piece towards the end of last year, concerning the business side of the sport. It's got interviews, columns from actual experts, some nice pictures and some serious F1 chat from yours truly. I don't even make that many snide comments in brackets or hit and miss jokes.

If you like that kind of thing (and why wouldn't you?) then click here.

Friday, 1 February 2013

Window of inopportunity (is that even a word?)

Ahhh February 1st, the footballing equivalent of New Year's Day or the day after your birthday.

Have you ever woken up with the cold light of day piercing the curtains, bringing to an abrupt end a fitful, uncomfortable sleep, with more questions than answers, and a dreadful combination of random lucidity, realisation and fear filling your every thought? "What did I do last night?" "How much did I spend?" Or, in Harry Redknapp's case, "What the hell is Jermaine Jenas doing here?"

On those awful, awful mornings, you spend the next few hours tramping about the house scratching your head, wondering if it is too late to right the wrongs of yesterday, but the evidence soon appears and you are left to scramble hopelessly around, stuck in damage-limitation mode. If we're going to continue this tenuous analogy which has gone way too far already, let me please ask this: how much did Peter Odemwingie have to drink last night?!

I am of course talking about transfer deadline day and, like most things in life, it turned out to be dreadfully predictable. Arsenal once again ignored their obvious need for an extra player or two until long after everyone had cared, signing Nacho Monreal from Malaga. By the way, Monreal looks like a strange mix of Peter Crouch and Luka Modric, which I find incredibly disturbing. The injury sustained by Kieran Gibbs in midweek meant that Arsenal were left without a recognised left-back for at least three weeks. I understand that Andre Santos occasionally tries to find his way to left-back, but the key word is 'recognised'...and I don't recognise Mr Santos as a footballer, let alone a specialist in a position.

By contrast, QPR had a very busy day. Knowing that heroic defender Ryan Nelsen was on his way to the MLS to teach soccerball, the Premier League's bottom club were keen to add a defender or six. Christopher  Samba duly arrived after a turbulent spell at that Russian club with the long name, while Jenas and Andros Townsend came later in the day. Incidentally, Harry Redknapp appeared nonplussed when asked about his association with transfer deadline day, but the man spends so much time leaning out of his car in front of a camera, answering benign questions, he should be made a spokesman for his local McDonald's Drive-Thru.

But seriously? QPR signed three average players and nearly signed two others? Am I the only one who finds transfer deadline day incredibly self-serving and tedious? Much like the Premier League itself, it is an opportunity to maximise interest and revenues in a declining entity. Remember when deadline day was exciting? Me neither, except a few times when a couple of billionaires went mental and bought everything in sight. The main excitement from yesterday was Odemwingie NOT signing for someone. Yes, the West Brom striker will now be left with a situation more awkward than Lance Armstrong playing 'truth or dare' and I can understand that that is vaguely amusing for a minute or two. However, gossiping about how people will have to deal with their workmates is not the domain of the football fan, we seem to prefer hypocrisy and beating the crap out of each other instead. Thanks again Millwall by the way.

Forgive me for making a political/economic point, but in difficult financial times, with a triple-dip recession looming, how can we justify a system which allows Mr Samba - a decent, but hardly world-class defender - to earn £100,000 a week? It is not Samba's fault, but such a vast inflation of his perceived talents are surely thanks in no small part to this ridiculous, over-rated, disappointing day. What the transfer window provides is a licence for men with more money than sense to take vast, unjustified gambles to promote their own image, at the inevitable expense of their club. QPR may have yesterday's activity to thank if they avoid relegation, but what if they don't? What if they are left with these expensive trophies which seemed so attractive the night before? What if, going back to the case of 'the morning after', the club are left with the awkward situation of getting them to leave without giving too much away and not looking like a prick?

In Arsenal's case, why did they have to rush to buy Monreal in the first place? Because they were left with Andre Santos. Why? Because of the deadline day of Autumn 2011, when Arsenal bought five (I think) players in a desperate bid to halt an alarming early-season slide. How many of those signings have proved to be worthwhile? Per Mertesacker still has the jury out, albeit in no rush to deliver a verdict, much like how Per is never in a rush...ever. Yossi Benayoun and Park Chu-Young have since moved on, leaving Mikel Arteta as the only success from that day...and he hasn't exactly set the world alight, has he?

Anyway, that's quite enough from me. I can't believe how many serious points I've made in this post, this is not what I want to do. That said, perhaps I am maturing into a more rounded, context-driven and focused sport writer. Maybe this the new me. Maybe this marks a change in the direction of this blog.

On the other hand, boobs.

Sport in 2013: One year on from my first spam.

I remember starting this blog exactly one year ago with a mission: set up humorous, provocative and generally fun collection of my musings and ramblings about the finest sporting events around the world, as often as possible. When I say the finest sports, I basically mean the ones I like, and when I say around the world, I invariably mean within the United Kingdom and when I say as often as possible, I of course mean whenever I can be bothered which, since July, has been about twice.

What has changed? Well, I still find growing a beard difficult and despite numerous (one) attempt(s), I remain incredibly thin and geeky. I decided I needed to take a sabbatical from the stressful world of stress-free blogging and took some time out to really find myself, spending long afternoons standing at the top of hills, staring wistfully into the distance with a solitary tear rolling down my cheek.*

* - Lying in bed thinking "I might do a blog today...nah, Everybody Loves Raymond is on"

Unfortunately, the beginning of my internship and employment related laziness coincided with the most remarkable period of British sport of my lifetime. Still bearing the scars of Andy Murray's Wimbledon defeat and Manchester United's incredible sacrifice of the Premier League title, I resigned myself to a 2012 full of heartache and despair.

Which of course was wrong.

Still, 2013 is a new year and - more importantly - February is a new month, so it is time to get that New Year/Month/Week's resolution sorted.