Vettel vs. Webber – A volcanic F1 rivalry

Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber have long been intense rivals at world champions Red Bull, but now it seems Formula One’s most high-profile rivalry has erupted again after a spell of dormancy.

As with most volcanic activity there is heat, poisonous smoke, and a history of violent eruptions – a perfect metaphor for the Vettel/Webber rivalry.

The compelling Malaysian Grand Prix was the latest explosion where Vettel, who was mindful of the 25-point advantage he would gain over title rival Fernando Alonso following the Spaniard’s early retirement, overtook Webber in a gripping wheel-to-wheel contest with just over ten laps remaining.

Webber had twice been assured by the team that the win was his. This resulted after a team meeting on race day which stipulated that the driver in front after the final pit stop would pull rank over the other. Vettel seemingly ignored that discussion.

Instead he showed a hunger which threatened to destroy the team’s 1-2 position in the race to pass Webber for the victory and incur the wrath of the Australian and, on the surface at least, his team.

The fight between them has intensified in recent seasons, as reigning world champion Vettel has romped to three consecutive drivers’ titles with Red Bull claiming successive constructors’ crowns in the same period.

It is, without question, the German’s team – and how Webber detests that fact.

Red Bull veteran Webber and Vettel first clashed when the then 20-year-old German, driving for sister team Toro Rosso in his debut season in F1, smashed into the Australian under safety car conditions in the 2007 Japanese Grand Prix at Fuji.

Webber had been second at the time with Red Bull (a small team back then) primed for a hugely valuable podium.

Vettel was third in his slower Toro Rosso in monsoon-like conditions, and was caught out by leader Lewis Hamilton’s erratic driving behind the safety car, embarrassingly clouting Webber from behind and ending both their races.

It prompted Webber to say in a post-race interview to ITV that, “It’s kids isn’t it, kids with not enough experience. You do a good job and then they fuck it all up.”

The straight-talking Webber later criticised Hamilton, also in his debut season, for his “shit” driving behind the safety car.

Webber was hurt by the incident, and three years later those old wounds were to be opened again – in even more dramatic fashion.

Now team-mates at Red Bull, Webber and Vettel were pushing hard for a win in the 2010 Turkish GP under increasing pressure from the McLaren duo of Hamilton and Jenson Button.

With Vettel getting a tow on the long back straight he swept to the left of Webber, drew alongside and then veered across him before the braking phase into the following hairpin, causing a high-speed crash which punctured his tyre and forced Webber to stop for a new front wing.

The gleeful McLarens took a straightforward 1-2 while Webber took third with Vettel retiring from the race with irreparable damage. Team boss Christian Horner and chief designer Adrian Newey were in utter despair after that inter-team crash, but another incident was shortly in the offing.

In trying to reassure Webber that Vettel was not their favoured driver, Red Bull gave the Australian an updated front wing for the British GP later in the season.

Only one model of the front wing was built but, when Vettel damaged his old-spec wing, Red Bull took the decision to take it off Webber’s car and give it to Vettel.

It was a call that served to infuriate the Australian, but he would have the last laugh as he romped to a superb victory before relaying the infamous “not bad for a number two driver” message to his team on the cool-down lap.

The spotlight was firmly on the duo’s battle and in the season-ending race in Abu Dhabi the conspiracy theorists were again out in force.

Webber entered the race behind leader Alonso in the standings, with Vettel in fourth and also within reach of the title, but he had qualified poorly and showed a lack of race pace.

Red Bull decided to use the slow Webber as a decoy to fool Alonso’s Ferrari team into covering his every move – and after a tactical pit stop they resumed in traffic on a track with notorious overtaking difficulties.

Vettel sailed off into the distance and took the title from Alonso – and Webber.

Few could have argued that Red Bull had nailed Vettel’s colours to its mast that season, and the old war resurfaced in the 2011 British GP when Webber, eagerly chasing the German down, was told to “maintain the gap” to Vettel in second.

Webber ignored those veiled orders, in much the same way as Vettel did today, and continued to race his colleague to the final lap.

By now the Australian seemed determined to race for himself, utterly disgusted by Red Bull’s favouritism towards Vettel beneath their public affirmations of neutrality.

Vettel went on to take the title with four races remaining, and later took his third drivers’ crown at Brazil in 2012 – but with little help from Webber.

Vettel collided with Bruno Senna on the first lap and worked his way up to take sixth – a position good enough to deny Alonso the title – but later said that Webber did little to help him.

It has been alleged that the incident in Malaysia today was revenge for that perceived lack of help, but the fact remains that Webber has backed off at the team’s behest to conserve Vettel’s superior racing positions on numerous occasions over the past few seasons.

With Webber’s past obedience to such orders in mind, Vettel’s overtake will sicken Webber further.

Will the Australian enter into a similar situation with no trust of his team-mate and look for retaliation? Will their rivalry spiral into another catastrophic crash? And can Red Bull regain control and authority over their drivers?

All these questions remain unanswered, but for now the focus will be on Formula One’s most captivating rivalry and the tremors that will continue to rumble from Mt. Red Bull in the coming weeks.

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Will England miss out on World Cup 2014 qualification?

Nestling beneath the predictable hyper-positive build-up to England’s forthcoming fixtures against San Marino and Montenegro is an important caveat which continues to be overlooked.

The prospect of England not qualifying for the World Cup in Brazil next summer would have been largely unthinkable when they thumped Moldova 5-0 in their first qualifying match last September.

Since then, Roy Hodgson’s men have only recorded one more win in three games – a 5-0 drubbing of lowly San Marino – which was sandwiched in between disappointing 1-1 draws against Ukraine and Poland.

Despite being two points off leaders Montenegro in Group H, England know that defeat to the Montenegrins on Tuesday would put them five points adrift of automatic qualification (assuming they beat San Marino tomorrow), and provided Montenegro also sweep aside minnows Moldova.

A five point gap, with four games remaining, could be insurmountable as the Three Lions would still face a tricky fixture away to Ukraine and a crucial match at home to Montenegro, who have already proven they can frustrate England – they recorded two creditable draws against them in qualification for Euro 2012.

If England were to miss out on automatic qualification, they could face a play-off against the likes of Spain or France in a worst-case scenario.

Dangerous teams such as Portugal, Sweden and Croatia are also play-off prospects after average starts to their respective qualifying campaigns.

This means that victory for England in Podgorica on Tuesday is absolutely essential, yet it doesn’t seem clear cut at all.

England’s defenders have deserted them. John Terry has retired from international football, the recalled Rio Ferdinand’s intricate pre-match preparations were deemed sufficient for him to withdraw from the squad, while Gary Cahill, Michael Dawson, Phil Jagielka and Phil Jones are all injured.

This means that England’s centre-back partnership will most likely hinge upon Joleon Lescott and Chris Smalling, despite neither player being regular choices for Manchester City or United respectively.

Lack of match-practice and a relative level of inexperience when compared to other players means that Montenegro’s in-form strike partnership of Stevan Jovetic and Mirko Vucinic – both prolific scorers for Fiorentina and Juventus in Serie A – will be licking their lips on Tuesday.

It’s a hazardous situation for England, but one which they can overcome.

A draw would not be the worst result for them, but it could potentially allow Poland to move level on points with them when they inevitably thrash San Marino the same day.

Defeat would move a play-off position ever closer, and the probability of coming through a two-legged tie against difficult opposition is no better than evens.

So, amongst all the world-beating headlines that will stick to the England team throughout the next few days, the gory sub-plot of failing to qualify for the World Cup remains an all too realistic shadow – and one which will intensify over Hodgson’s head should the unthinkable materialise.

Alonso the Alchemist: 2013 F1 season preview

Formula One cars are ugly – that is, before they are painted in their respective liveries.

Their skeletal shell is one of carbon fibre – a substance resembling a black synthetic cloth.

Had Fernando Alonso, in his carbon fibre Ferrari, actually pulled off his amazing assault on the 2012 F1 drivers’ championship, he would literally have turned his beastly car into gold – becoming an alchemist in the process.

So slow had the Spaniard’s scarlet machine been in pre-season testing, few had given him hope of getting into the points on a regular basis.

That Alonso led the drivers’ championship for much of the season, until the Red Bull of Sebastian Vettel finally overhauled him, shows what a fierce competitor the man from Oviedo is.

This season, testing has flowed rather more smoothly for the Italian marque, and the hope is that they have finally given Alonso a car capable of exploiting his exceptional talent from the first Grand Prix in Australia this Sunday.

In theory, if Alonso had the ability to push a faster car all the way to the final race last season, he should be able to win it in a car which is vastly better than one year ago.

Formula One is never that simple though.

The ‘Prancing Horse’ will have to hurdle the imposing obstacle of Red Bull, who have fatally gored their opponents for the last three years to establish themselves as the dominant team in F1.

Their ‘lead’ driver, Sebastian Vettel, will be hunting for a fourth consecutive drivers’ title, and in Mark Webber he has a team-mate who is capable of winning any race on his day – despite the in-house nepotism built around his young colleague.

In McLaren, Alonso will also have cause for concern. The British team have elected to start afresh for 2013, rather than evolve a car that finished 2012 as the fastest on the grid.

Their thinking behind this move is that the new car will open up a new path of development which the old car lacked – and should their calculations materialise they will get stronger as the season wears on.

Despite losing Lewis Hamilton to Mercedes, McLaren have a powerful line-up, with Jenson Button and newcomer Sergio Perez both likely to excel in an era where looking after the delicate Pirelli tyres is key.

Then there is Lotus, a team who arguably conceive the most inventive cars on the grid. Having been pioneers of the tricky passive DRS system, the team based in Enstone is rumoured to have mastered it – a potentially crucial advantage in the race for the title.

Their driver line-up, of Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean, remains unchanged for 2013 and their target of third in the constructors’ will depend on Grosjean’s ability to rid himself of the costly first-lap crashes that blighted his comeback season last year.

Mercedes too, seem to have made a step forward. Their car finished ‘fastest’ in pre-season testing – however the headline lap-times are to be taken with a pinch of salt as fuel quantities, setups and a number of other variants are religiously hidden by the teams (there is little way of knowing which car definitively looks quickest at this stage).

The addition of Hamilton also helps the German giants in their quest to bridge the gap to the ‘top four’, while his team-mate Nico Rosberg faces what is widely reckoned to be a career-defining season.

Aside from the top five teams, the midfield battle is microscopically close. Williams appear to have evolved their race-winning 2012 car into what is debatably the sexiest on the grid.

The sometimes maladroit Bruno Senna has been replaced by Finnish driver Valtteri Bottas – who outpaced 2013 team-mate Pastor Maldonado in several FP1 sessions last season – and the team certainly look ready to score consistent points.

Sauber and Force India are joined by Toro Rosso in the midfield race, with the latter looking likely to make a notable step up in performance from 2012, where they languished within the clutches of backmarkers Caterham and Marussia.

Sauber will hope that the exciting all-new partnership of Nico Hulkenberg and Esteban Gutierrez can bring instant dividends to a team that finished on the podium four times in 2012, while Force India need to improve on a season which was hallmarked in underachievement.

Scottish driver Paul di Resta is joined by Adrian Sutil, who returns to the sport following a one-year lay-off as a result of a GBH conviction, and their instant aim for 2013 is to score a podium finish.

Caterham and Marussia, meanwhile, have each brought in two new drivers as they try to stay afloat in Formula One’s money-guzzling environment.

Marussia were most visible in pre-season testing for their employment of ‘pay-drivers’ rather than their pace, as Timo Glock and Luiz Razia both lost contracts due to a lack of sponsorship – Razia rather more unfortunately so because of a last-minute U-turn from his financial backers.

They are replaced by British rookie Max Chilton and Ferrari academy prospect Jules Bianchi, whose rich reputation very nearly landed him a drive at Force India.

Caterham, like Nico Rosberg, face a defining season in the sport. Consistently finishing fastest of F1’s newest teams they have threatened, and failed, to catch the midfield and earn their first world championship point. If they are to show signs of progression their driver line-up of Charles Pic and rookie Giedo van der Garde must score that elusive point to keep their sponsors interested.

With testing indicating very little about what shape the grid will take in Melbourne, a unanimous verdict would be to say that the pack of 22 cars looks closer than it has ever been in recent seasons.

In that type of situation, the most consistent team and driver will usually come out on top to win the respective championships – an observation which favours F1’s resident alchemist Alonso.

Cüneyt Cakir, the stage is yours

It is said that good referees are invisible for the duration of a football match.

Yesterday night, Turkish official Cüneyt Cakir was anything but.

Maybe that was down to the 36-year-old’s garish turquoise shirt? Unfortunately for him, it wasn’t.

Mr Cakir created a frenzy of disbelief inside Old Trafford when, with Manchester United 2-1 up on aggregate against Real Madrid in the Champions League last 16, he sent Luis Nani off for serious foul play.

United were incensed because the decision allowed Madrid back into the game, before they cruelly killed the hosts off with two goals in three minutes from Luka Modric and ex-United star Cristiano Ronaldo.

To the letter of the law, Cakir was probably correct to show a straight red. Nani’s right boot made contact with Madrid right-back Alvaro Arbeloa’s rib cage in an aerial duel and after a brief break in play to allow both players to gather themselves, Cakir brandished red.

FIFA’s law 12 on fouls and misconduct provides that “A player is guilty of serious foul play if he uses excessive force or brutality against an opponent when challenging for the ball.”

So, Nani was justifiably sent off? Perhaps not.

It is widely held throughout the global footballing community that part of the art of refereeing is the official’s ability to apply the laws of the game with judgement of the footballing situation in question.

With the ball coming over Nani’s shoulder, the Portuguese winger’s eyes were fixated on the ball, with Arbeloa making a late entrance onto the scene. There was no intent to commit “excessive force or brutality” on Nani’s part.

Does there have to be? Once more, perhaps not. Taking everything into consideration, most referees would have realised that it was a 50/50 challenge, there was no malice involved, and that it had not been a high-tempered match up to that point.

This makes Cakir’s decision all the more robotic – and he has previous history.

Cakir, an insurer with a love of table tennis, became an elite referee in the 2007/08 season, and has since officiated several matches in the European Championships, Champions League, Europa League and Club World Cup.

What is immediately recognisable when glancing through his record is that, in the 134 games he has refereed since the 28th of March 2007, he has failed to give a card in just four of those games.

The plot thickens further when Cakir’s habits are examined more closely, and how predictable his style of officiating is.

Cakir would have first come to the attention of English fans when he officiated Chelsea’s 4-1 win over Spartak Moscow in the 2010/11 Champions League. It was a straightforward match to referee, with only four bookings dished out.

His next European match came three months later – a Europa League tie between Villarreal and Napoli which finished 2-1 to the hosts. It was marred by nine bookings, six of those coming in the second half.

Exactly three weeks later he sent off Manchester City’s Mario Balotelli in the same competition,  booking eight other players as City went out 2-1 on aggregate to Dynamo Kiev, despite winning 1-0 on the night.

Such a high volume of bookings means that Cakir’s style of refereeing is to adhere as closely to FIFA’s rulebook as possible.

Perhaps he enjoys the limelight when he flashes cards about. For certain, it is an inorganic approach to refereeing, and the statistics reinforce that point.

Last season, Cakir took charge of 34 games in the domestic Turkish Superlig and both elite European competitions.

He managed to show 172 yellow cards in that time, complete with nine red cards for good measure.

Across the 34 games, that is an average of 5.32 cards per game – an unusually high figure.

Those who have followed Cakir’s eye-catching refereeing since that time will have noticed his style of observing the match and the players in it during the first half, before unleashing a flurry of cards in the second period.

Last season he showed 61.3% of all his cards in the second half, and there were some high-profile matches during that time.

The infamous 2-2 draw between Barcelona and Chelsea at Camp Nou was famous for John Terry’s needless sending-off – a decision which Cakir got right – and the fractious nature of the match, with an additional eight players booked.

In Cakir’s homeland, the notorious Istanbul derby between Fenerbahce and Galatasaray is almost always an ill-tempered affair. So it proved in 2012 too, when Cakir sent off two players and booked 12 others.

His form continues into the current 2012/13 season when, after officiating just 25 games, he has already sent off eight players in all competitions, and has brandished 110 yellow cards.

That is an average of 4.72 cards per game – again, an unusually high figure.

When his performances are compared to that of England’s most card-happy referee, Martin Atkinson, Cakir’s super-strict manner is exposed again.

Atkinson has taken charge of 27 matches in all competitions this season, amassing a total of 107 cards, just one of which has been red. His average of 3.96 cards per game is a staggering 0.76 cards beneath the level of his Turkish colleague.

Cakir’s performances also seem to be more negatively prolific as the profile of the match amplifies. In his first major international tournament – Euro 2012 – he only officiated three games.

Yet, he still managed to brandish 18 yellows and one red, 13 of those coming in the second half and nine coming in the derby between Portugal and Spain. Ireland’s Keith Andrews was the man dismissed in a 2-0 loss against Italy.

In a World Cup Qualifying match between England and Ukraine, under three months later, Cakir showed 10 cards, sending off Steven Gerrard in the 1-1 draw at Wembley with (yes, you guessed it) all 10 of the bookings coming in the second half.

Cakir has also sent off Sergio Busquets for Barcelona in the Champions League this season, and Gary Cahill for Chelsea in the Club World Cup final. He now has Nani to add to that list of big, game-changing decisions.

With atmospheres no more hostile than those in his homeland, you would think Cakir has the necessary mental qualities in a referee to officiate in the biggest of occasions. All the matters discussed in this blog seem to suggest otherwise, but still FIFA and UEFA continue to give him high-profile games.

Perhaps that’s because he is a limpet to the rulebook. With that in mind, does he do a good or a bad job?

Does the fact that he gives a high amount of cards mean that he sees fouls no other referee does and should therefore be given credit for doing so?

One thing that seems certain is that Cakir will officiate at his first World Cup in Brazil next summer, and because of his latest attention-grabbing decision the weight of one billion eyes will be upon him.

If he continues to make similarly mechanical decisions in Brazil, he should probably turn his hand to officiating table tennis matches instead.