Friday, July 30, 2010

Webber screwed by Christian Horner

Does Webber regret signing again with Red Bull??

This question, should by any measure be ridiculous. He is sitting second in the Championship 20 points clear of his teammate, with tracks that suit his car making up 5 of the remaining 6 races. After spending his peak years as a driver, struggling in sub-standard equipment Red Bull should be Nirvana for a driver in his Thirties, but many issues, not just Wing-Gate must give Mark pause for thought.

To understand why Webber would be frustrated it is important to look at his history. Like any driver from Australia, just getting into Formula 1 was a miracle, you could argue that if it wasn't for fellow Aussie Paul Stoddart buying Minardi at just the right time, Webber may never have gotten his initial break. With less talented pay drivers clogging up the back half of the grid, the struggling Minardi would never have taken Webber, regardless of his obvious talent, if it wasn't for Stoddart wanting to give a chance to a fellow Aussie, in fact, even being a fellow Aussie may not have been enough, the fact the Melbourne Grand Prix opened the season may also have been a factor, allowing Stoddart to own the media to start the season. Whatever motivated the Webber hiring, the fact is he got his chance and took it with both hands, then he had more luck when massive attrition at the Melbourne Grand Prix meant that he managed to score a lucky 5th in his vastly inferior machine, leading to the famous incident where race winner, Michael Schumacher, made his way down to the slum end of Pit Lane to congratulate the rookie for his remarkable drive, in a car that we later found out did not even have Power Steering (this seems ridiculous, I mean my first car a 1981 Ford Laser even had Power Steering, but it is true). Webber then went on to dominate his pay to play teammate and this led to an end of year move to the newly formed Jaguar Racing team. At this time it appeared that lady luck was smiling at the young Aussie, however, it was not long until she averted her gaze.

At Jaguar, Webber endured the troubles that existed for midfield teams in the crazy spending, no testing restriction F1 era and crushed teammate after teammate, until his talents were eventually noticed by F1 powerhouse Williams F1.

Williams had just come off a 4 year period where Montoya had driven brilliantly and been the only driver to consistently take the fight to the Ferrari powerhouse led by Ross Brawn and Michael Schumacher. At the time Webber had the choice to go to Renault and be Alonso's teammate but was advised by his Manager, coincidentally Renault Team Principal Flavio Briatore, to go to Williams where he would be the clear Number One and have the team built around him rather than be a clear Number 2 driver at Renault. At the time it seemed a great fit, the stoic down to earth Aussie seemed to fit the mold of Williams driver to a tee, but if he had looked closely, clouds were on the horizon.

The technical wizard of the glory years for Williams, Patrick Head had been promoted to a general engineering role at the start of 04, overseeing the whole factory. Day to day technical management had been passed to another Aussie, Sam Michael** meaning Webber would drive the first Sam Michael designed car in 05.

So Webber jumped in what appeared to be a dream seat as Williams became a nightmare of petty squabbling and political infighting. The first Sam Michael designed car was a lemon, the political infighting led to BMW leaving to form their own team after Webbers first year with the team. Williams were then forced to change Cosworth powerplants in year 2. The combination of Cosworth power and Sam Michaels conservative design style meant that Williams with all their finances and tradition, slipped into midfield mediocrity and saw Webber suffer the ultimate frustration of being in the rear view mirror of his old Jaguar. Even the best result of his Williams years could not be enjoyed, when at Monaco he got his first podium, but a strategy call that clearly favoured his teammate who was running behind him at the time saw their positions reversed after the stop, Heidfeld got 2nd as Webber finished 3rd, you could see Webber seething on the podium in what should have been a moment of joy.

When Red Bull took over the Jaguar F1 team, Webber returned to his old team and had a solid first season, but with the most innovative Technical Mind in F1, Adrian Newey, along for the first year, and designing his first car for year 2 you could see that better days were ahead.

When the Newey designed Red Bull lit up the timing screens in pre-season testing for 2009 all Webber fans could dare to dream. There was only one possible cloud on this horizon.

Red Bull is an Austrian team and they had just promoted young German Hot Shot Sebastian Vettel to sit alongside Webber in the sister car. For the first time Webber fans had actual concerns that maybe for once Webber might not wipe the floor with his teammate. As Button dominated the early races with the dodgy diffuser, Webber and Vettel were having an amazing even battle, Vettel qualifying better, but Webber outracing his young teammate in many races, but Vettel got the first victory for the team at China.

Silverstone seemed like it would be the occasion where Webber would get his maiden Grand Prix win. The Aussie dominated all the practice sessions and it looked like he would be a popular winner come Sunday if he carried his form into qualifying. Unfortunately the bad luck that had come to define Webber at this stage of his career struck at the worst possible time as Raikonnen blocked Webber on his final flying Qualifying lap, relegating him to second spot on the grid behind his teammate and that is how the race ended also.

The first win would have to wait until the German GP, ironic considering this was his teammates home race, even this could not be done easy for Webber, where he was given a drive through penalty after his team released him into the path of Barrichello in the Pit Lane. Webber drove brilliantly however and managed ot serve his drive through and still come out at the front of the field and drive to a stunning victory. He would have to wait until Brazil in the final race of the season for his second victory and with his teammate winning 4 races it appeared Webber was truly being challenged for the first time.

The unfortunate part is that the challenge is not a fair one.

It is clear now that Red Bull favors Vettel over Webber. 2010 has seen many examples of this. The most obvious of these has not been Winggate, the most obvious example has been the qualifying tactics of the Red Bull team. Any dedicated F1 fan knows that every extra lap done on the circuit in qualifying helps make the track a little quicker as more rubber is laid down on the racing line. It is rare indeed that Webber is given the privilege of being the 2nd Red Bull out for the last qualifying run. This favors Vettel and has been a source of frustration for Webber fans all year, but Wing-Gate bought it all to the surface.

With only 2 of the new wings available for the Silverstone Grand Prix, Vettel broke one his in practice, through no fault of his own admittedly it just fell off, but what followed was astounding. The two Red Bulls were over a second clear of the rest of the field and it was clear that qualifying would be a straight up fight between the two teammates. Amazingly Christian Horner then took the new wing off Marks car and handed it to his teammate before qualifying, giving him a clear advantage. That this happend just a few weeks after Horner had defended Sebastian and blamed Mark for an incident where all observers saw Vettel was to blame in an incident where Vettel tried a risky Overtaking move that took both Red Bulls off the track in Turkey, costing Mark a win and handing a 1-2 finish to McLaren only made the move seem all the more sinister.

In the incident in Turkey, Mark was leading the Grand Prix with Vettel behind him at the half way mark of the GP. The team told Mark that he would have to turn the power down on his engine to ensure he could reach the end of the race with enough fuel. Amazingly they did not give Vettel this same advice, even though the cars were identical, this allowed Vettel to run quicker than Mark up the straight, where he tried a crazy move down the inside into a gap that was not there and smash into his teammate, careening them both of the circuit, karma had its say as it put Vettel out the race, but it still relagated Mark to 3rd. The commentators at the time and everyone at home could see this was poor driving by Vettel, but when we woke the next day we saw headlines where Horner blamed Mark for not giving his teammate enough room. So you had dodgy communications designed to favour the German, then even the Red Bull PR team took one teammates side over the other.

Marks frustration must have been boiling at this time, for in this environment for the team to clearly take Sebastian's side in what was really a 2 car race at Silverstone was just stunning. Thankfully Webber used the frustration to his advantage lauching a great move off the start, passing his teammate at the first corner (cleanly) and running away to a satisfying victory.


Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Hawthorn Confusion

Are the 2008 Hawks back?

This is the question that has moved from the back of the brain to the tip of the lips of the Football public over the last few weeks. There are many good reasons for optimism, however if you look closely big concerns remain evident.

The major concern is an inability to close the deal, yes its an obvious flaw after 2 close losses to Geelong and now the agonizing 'interchange infringement' draw with the Saints. What is concerning though is that too many people are happy to make excuses for the Hawks and praise them for their guts, and extol their virtues for getting so close, but all this conveniently forgets that this team won the Premiership just 40 games ago.

Nor should we forget that this was no end of an era premiership, Hawthorn had the youngest list in the competition on that magical September afternoon. Croad and Crawford are the only losses from the Premiership 22, and with Rioli, Franklin, Roughhead, Mitchell, Hodge, Sewell and Lewis all with their best football in front of them it so much looked like the eighties were coming back for Hawthorn fans you nearly expected the team to run out with permed mullets.

Now just 18 months later the media, plus more worryingly the coach are seeing the 'positives' in close losses, giving them credit for gutsy efforts the same way I talk about my nephews under 12's football team. So what happened?

Firstly, although I may have brushed over it before, the loss of Croad was bigger than any of us could reasonably have foreseen, the big weakness in that Hawthorn team was lack of depth in the tall defenders, and not just depth but quality. Losing Croad robbed us of both, with no-one there to take his place and the other injuries we sustained in 2009 last years letdown was understandable, though not acceptable. Now though the concerns in defense have been somewhat solved with the fantastic late round pick Stratton giving us a quality defender who uses the ball well while neutralizing an opposition key forward. With the ever dependable Gilham alongside him the Hawks now have 2 tall defenders who might not be dominant in the Lake/Scarlett mold but are genuine AFL standard players in a key position for any premiership contender. To go alongside these two, we have the underrated Clinton Young and his amazing foot skills and the ever dependable Guerra filling the rebounding role admirably.

Secondly, the midfield is back to its 2008 best, in many ways even better. In 2008 Rioli was a rookie who gave us moments of inspiration but could not run 4 quarters through the midfield, now he is a genuine blue chip talent with the ability to dominate games in full, rather than have moments of impact. Hodge is a true superstar, in many observers opinion, including my own, he is the best player in the competition. Ablett and Judd are great at stoppages and providing burst on the edges, but Hodge not only matches them on the edges with his precise and penetrating disposal by foot providing the same impact as the bursting runs of Judd/Ablett, it may not look as spectacular but is just as effective. Where Hodge surpasses them both however is with his work inside. Mitchell continues to be the Greg Williams of his era and the recent reminder to Sewell that he is a hard working blue collar midfielder seems to have got him back to his roots and is producing his best football again. Hodge and Rioli remain the key, my friend Matty recently said how happy he is that for the first time since Darren Jarman his favourite player to watch is a Hawk, and many people agree with the sentiment. Hodge and Rioli give the Hawks a potentially dominating tandem in the midfield, both players who can dominate stoppages or open play. All this without mentioning the silk of Burgoyne, the toughness of Lewis or the pleasant surprise that is the ruckwork of Wade Skipper to finally have someone to help Renouf. Tell me again why people praise close losses for this team, that should be a midfield that backs itself to not just compete but potentially dominate any midfield in the competition, then when they get it into the forward 50 we have what should be the Hawks trump card.

The one-two punch of Roughhead/Franklin.

Buddy is a player of freakish ability who is playing well if not back to his dominant 2008 form. However Buddy has won games for the Hawks this year and terrifies opposition match committees like no other current day footballer. Also, he has the trouble of having to beat his opponent and the umpires every week, the most frustrating thing for him and the fans is the way he is crucified by the Umpires, is it racism that he gets so hard done by, whilst the blond haired blue eyed Riewoldt gets decisions Buddy can only dream of. Roughie is the issue, every time he gets the ball 30 metres out, you basically chalk down the behind before he even staggers in nervously to poke the ball wide. Yes he gives a contest and he is probably a better overhead mark than Franklin, but it appears that he is just missing, I dunno, something. That's the frustration with Roughhead, its so hard to put into words what the issue is, but is clear to anyone that he is not playing to anywhere near his potential. Saying that though, the fact remains he is an asset and alongside Franklin provides the Hawks the two pronged attack that is the envy of the competition.

Which is what makes the last 4 weeks so frustrating. I will admit going into this stretch of games I would have been content with a 2 and 2 record, so I should be happy with 2-1-1 but after beating the Bulldogs, and getting so close against Geelong, 4-0 feels like it should be recorded history, come finals time, close enough is never good enough, add to that the frustration that other results went our way and that closing the deal in those games means we had a realistic shot at a top 4 berth then the acceptance of the losses frustrates fans even more.

Many of this team were around for the infamous 'line in the sand game', a game which we lost. Now it is time for another line in the sand to be drawn, yet this line needs to be drawn not in a center square brawl, but instead on the scoreboard, the process is important, but from now on, for these Hawks, the result is all that matters.