Skiing is back on our TV screens!

Did you grow up glued to the TV on a Sunday teatime?

If you weren’t, what else could you have been doing? Ski Sunday was on!

Yes, it’s that time of year where Ski Sunday makes a welcome return to our TV screens.

A quick burst of that famous music and I’m transported back to my childhood. Memories of watching legends of the sport across the 1990s and 2000s such as Hermann Maier, Alberto Tomba and of course Michael Walchhofer flood back to me.

After going through a period where the likes of Bode Miller and Didier Cuche swept aside the competition in the late 2000s, skiing has been taken over by another Austrian – Marcel Hirscher.

Currently top of the overall FIS World Cup standings, the Austrian has proved to be almost unbeatable in the Slalom discipline and his placing of second behind the USA’s Ted Ligety in the Giant Slalom confirms his status as the number one skier in the world right now.

This week’s Parallel Slalom in Moscow perfectly evidenced his lofty position within the sport.

The Parallel Slalom is held on a 56 metre-high ramp in the middle of Moscow (there is also one in Munich earlier in the season), providing a left-right course of 175 metres which racers navigate in around 20 seconds. It is to skiing what Twenty20 is to cricket – and it’s every bit as exciting.

Racers ski head-to-head over two runs in a knockout system, but there was no stopping Hirscher as he blew the competition away, crushing the likes of Ivica Kostelic and Andre Myhrer on his way to an emphatic win.

With the World Championships beginning next week in the revered host resort of Schladming, Austria, Hirscher will be hot favourite to scoop gold in the slalom in front of his vociferous home support.

In the women’s competition, Slovenia’s Tina Maze is the dominant force. In the overall standings, she has more than double the points of her nearest rival, Germany’s Maria Hoefl-Riesch, and leads the Super G and Giant Slalom competitions while also occupying podium positions in the Downhill and Slalom events.

Thanks to Ski Sunday’s excellent coverage we get to see all the great drama of this fantastic sport.

From wincing at the horrific crashes on the icy slopes of some of Europe’s most feared courses, to watching racers launch themselves off infamous jumps like the Hundschopf (Dog’s Head) at Wengen, Switzerland.

Great Britain’s most famous skier, Graham Bell, now retired, takes hand-held cameras down the terrifying courses, giving viewers an amazing insight into the speed and danger of a world-class Downhill course.

His entertaining co-presenter Ed Leigh adds great value to one of the BBC’s most famous shows, and the cast was recently enriched further when Olympic skeleton-bob gold medallist Amy Williams joined the show.

Ski Sunday gives this addictive, breathtaking sport the coverage it deserves, and I will continue to be glued to my TV for as long as it endures on our screens.

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The Age of Pay Drivers in Formula 1

Timo Glock’s departure from Marussia yesterday confirmed that “pay drivers” have taken control of over a third of the Formula 1 grid in 2013.

Currently there are three seats available for 2013, at Force India, Caterham and now Marussia, and they are all expected to be filled by drivers with vast financial backing.

A total of 8 pay drivers will therefore race amongst a field of 22, with Mexican youngster Sergio Perez the most high-profile.

The newly-signed McLaren driver, hastily appointed as successor to Lewis Hamilton after his move to rivals Mercedes, has backing from Carlos Slim – the richest man in the world.

Arguably, Perez has fully earned his seat at McLaren after a string of impressive drives in 2012 which included two podiums. Had he not ran wide in pursuit of Fernando Alonso in Malaysia, he may well have notched a maiden victory in just his second season in the sport.

His ability to look after the sensitive Pirelli tyres more carefully than any other driver on the grid (while still lapping as quickly as the leaders) is a highly-coveted trait that McLaren deemed irresistible – a point highlighted by the speed with which they swooped for the 22-year-old.

While his talent is obvious to see, his alarming drop in form once he signed with the Woking-based team led some to accuse McLaren of being too hasty in the signing of Hamilton’s replacement.

Another high-profile driver, Pastor Maldonado, has huge backing from Venezuela – his homeland – but has proved to be as reckless as he is quick.

A maiden victory in Spain last season gave him no shortage of confidence, yet it is this confidence (at times unshakable) that continues to undermine his ability.

Maldonado has a history of deliberately colliding with other drivers – notably with Hamilton at Spa in 2011, and with Perez at Monaco in 2012 – and his aggressive driving style also led to a crash in Valencia last season which led to Hamilton’s dramatic retirement from the race.

Perez and Maldonado graduated from GP2, Maldonado impressively so after winning the title, but they have yet to follow Hamilton’s lead and take their driving onto the next level – and this is causing an increasing number of problems in the sport.

Pay drivers are replacing more experienced drivers in the smaller teams towards the back of the grid – and the sport is seeing more accidents as a result.

Take Romain Grosjean for example. The Franco-Swiss driver was involved in seven first-lap incidents in 2012 having won the GP2 title in 2011, and, although he was not signed by Lotus for his cash, he has failed to translate his speed into error-free racing.

It seems also that long-term contracts are no longer honoured as the sport becomes increasingly costly for smaller teams.

Glock’s departure is a case in point. The German’s multi-year contract with Marussia was mutually terminated as the Russian-owned team look for more money to sustain their existence.

Similarly, in early 2012, Italian veteran Jarno Trulli was ousted from his seat at Caterham, despite having driven in the first test at Jerez, and replaced by Russian driver Vitaly Petrov.

Heikki Kovalainen, his team-mate and a highly-valued driver, was thought to be safe after three superb seasons with the minnows, yet Caterham disagreed and a lack of funding has seen his F1 career dissolve with heartless rapidity.

Kovalainen had enjoyed a distinguished career, competing in two seasons for McLaren in 2008 and 2009 (winning one Grand Prix), but his unwillingness to secure financial backing – instead arguing that his talent should be enough to keep his drive – ultimately led to his exit.

At Sauber, a similar story befell the exciting Kamui Kobayashi.

Kobayashi, noted for his daring overtaking manoeuvres, was an extremely popular figure in Formula 1, but again a lack of funding led to his seat being filled by Mexican 22-year-old Esteban Gutierrez, a driver who also enjoys backing from Carlos Slim.

Even a podium in the Japanese Grand Prix, his home race, and a subsequent fundraising campaign by the Japanese public (still recovering from the devastating effects of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami) which raised €8 million to try and keep him in the sport, was not enough.

It is only a matter of time before pay drivers infiltrate the very top teams such as Red Bull, Ferrari and McLaren.

Perez is the first man with significant financial backing to take a seat in one of the top three teams, and with expensive new regulations coming into the sport in 2014, he won’t be the last.

Genuine proven talents are being dismissed from the sport as the costs needed to remain on the grid continue to escalate. Sadly, pay drivers are being fast-tracked to the midfield and tailend teams and their inexperience will continue to hinder a sport which once nurtured the brightest talents from the slower teams to the front (think Fernando Alonso and Mark Webber, both Minardi graduates).

Until the cost of Formula 1 is seriously addressed, the age of pay drivers, no matter how able, will endure ever longer.

Think of pay drivers as a toxin and Formula 1 as your body. Would you honestly allow these toxins to circulate around your body, poisoning you until your death? Thought not. So why should Formula 1 be any different?

A Game of Two Halves?

Throughout the aftermath of today’s lunchtime kick-off at Old Trafford between arch-rivals Manchester United and Liverpool, social media websites have been awash with outpourings of grief from Liverpool supporters.

Some felt their team had matched United and deserved a point, but in truth that is perhaps symptomatic of a rose-tinted perspective which unfortunately taints a minority of Liverpool supporter’s views.

In the first 54 minutes of a match which was undoubtedly controlled by United for expansive periods, goals from Robin van Persie and Nemanja Vidic had given the hosts a deserved 2-0 lead.

It was only after Daniel Sturridge’s simple tap-in from another David de Gea blunder that Liverpool managed to establish themselves in the game.

What followed was captivating, as The Reds poured forward in a mode of attack which had been inexplicably absent for the first hour of the match.

Liverpool tested United’s often wobbly defence throughout the final 30 minutes, and such was their threat United had to throw on Phil Jones and Chris Smalling as resistance, thanks in small part to what looked like a recurrence of Nemanja Vidic’s troublesome knee problems.

Sturridge was Liverpool’s game-changer, offering pace and a willingness to run directly at United’s defence as Brendan Rogers’ side searched for a once unlikely-looking point.

Yet, as some have suggested after his move from Chelsea, Sturridge lacked a clinical edge.

This was conveyed in the 86th minute when a loose ball presented him with a brilliant chance, only to sky his effort harmlessly over.

That sort of error would not have been made by the league’s in-form striker, van Persie.

The Dutchman’s first chance of the match was soon nestling in the back of the net following an incisive team move, and United went on to create several chances in the opening 45 minutes, notably when Tom Cleverley narrowly missed the target after connecting with a sweet volley that had Pepe Reina beaten.

Liverpool, though, were guilty of some poor defensive mistakes before Cleverley’s effort.

Both Reina and Joe Allen handed possession to United in the final third with careless passes but, on both occasions, the excellent partnership of Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel helped the Merseysiders escape with well-timed tackles.

The calm figure of Michael Carrick was dictating play in midfield, twice picking out Danny Welbeck’s intelligent runs into the left channel with looping cross-field passes, but United could not add to their tally before half-time.

The totemic van Persie, the difference between these old foes – just as he had been at Anfield earlier in the season – supplied what proved to be United’s winner when the unmarked Patrice Evra and Vidic combined at the back post to extend their team’s lead to 2-0.

That, in the end, was the crucial division between the sides.

So, was it a game of two halves? Perhaps not.

At times, United passed the ball with a superiority which highlighted the seven point chasm between them and the chasing pack in the Premier League table.

That said, Liverpool controlled the final 30 minutes – but they failed to emulate United’s monopoly of the opening half.

Perhaps, had United not resumed their dominance of the match after half-time, the ‘game of two halves’ cliche would have applied.

Yet, in a match where one team only starts to play their football after an hour, the cliche in question can rarely apply, and to use it here would have been forgetful of the complete prepotency that United exhibited during the first 54 minutes.

2013 F1 Seat Showdown: The Contenders

With testing for the new Formula One season due to begin in less than a month, there are still two seats available on the 2013 grid.

Only 11 teams and 22 drivers are expected to make the first test on February 5th at Jerez due to HRT’s apparent demise in the close season.

So far, only 20 drivers have been confirmed for next season and this has left an intense battle for the final two seats, with places at Force India and Caterham still available.

Let’s look at the contenders for each drive.

Force India

1. Jules Bianchi

The promising Frenchman is a member of Ferrari’s Driver Academy and drove for the British-based team in nine Practice 1 sessions during the 2012 F1 season.

Nico Hulkenberg’s move to Sauber has given him a chance to partner Paul di Resta and the 23-year-old is widely tipped to fill the vacancy created by Hulkenberg’s switch.

There is also a persistent rumour that Force India are looking to secure Ferrari engines for 2014 when major new regulations come into play, and Bianchi’s signature for 2013 could be a sweetener to such a partnership.

2. Jaime Alguersuari

The talented Spaniard drove in 46 Grand Prix for Toro Rosso between 2009 and 2011, becoming the youngest-ever driver in Formula One history at just 19.

His controversial departure from the team led to a testing role with F1 tyre supplier Pirelli in 2012, and it was thought his valuable knowledge of the newly-constructed 2013 tyres could have led to a seat with a big team next season.

However, such prospects failed to materialise and Alguersuari is now one of many drivers linked with Force India.

Despite decent financial backing, the 22-year-old is expected to miss out on the seat and has been in talks with teams in the popular German Touring Car Championship (DTM) about a 2013 drive.

3. Bruno Senna

The nephew of the late great Ayrton, Bruno stopped racing for 10 years after his death. This stunted his improvement as a driver, but his talent still endures. Coupled with hefty financial backing from Brazil, Senna is in with a good chance of taking the seat at Force India.

But the Brazilian will have to improve on his race performances for Williams in 2012, where a lack of practice time (Valtteri Bottas drove his car in several Practice 1 sessions) cost him in race trim.

Is also a candidate for the vacant seat at Caterham, where his vast sponsorship may prove irresistible.

Caterham

1. Vitaly Petrov

Having saved the team’s season in the final Grand Prix of 2012 in Brazil with a lucrative 11th place (securing them a cash windfall for 10th in the constructors’ championship), Petrov might have expected a quick offer of a drive from Caterham for 2013.

Instead, Caterham employed Marussia’s Charles Pic and the Russian is now fighting to save his F1 career. Significant backing from Russia and the added possibility of huge media and corporate attention in the run up to the inaugural Russian Grand Prix in 2014 makes Petrov an attractive prospect for the F1 minnows.

2. Giedo van der Garde

The Dutchman impressed during his six Practice 1 drives for the team in 2012, and despite an average GP2 season in which he finished 6th overall, van der Garde is a serious contender for a 2013 seat.

Like so many other drivers, he carries good financial backing. His age, 27, is a potential obstacle to a deal while his inexperience, allied with that of Pic’s, also hampers his chances of securing a 2013 spot, with Caterham unlikely to pick two drivers with only an aggregate of one season’s experience between them.

3. Heikki Kovalainen

The experienced Finn is unwilling to provide the millions that Caterham want to keep his seat for 2013. Having had three outstanding seasons with the team he has been discounted. Should the team wish to call on his knowledge again, he would provide the perfect balance for Pic’s unpolished talent, but he looks set to suffer the same fate as fellow veteran Rubens Barrichello.

My picks for remaining 2013 seats:

Force India: Jules Bianchi

Caterham: Vitaly Petrov