F1’s loss is Mark Webber’s gain

When drivers retire from Formula One, their powers are usually on the wane. This driver, though, timed his escape from an increasingly shackling sport to perfection.

For Mark Webber, F1 had long lost its purity and its ability to enable drivers to push to the limit of their car’s capabilities before his decision to switch to endurance racing with Porsche for 2014.

He had become increasingly frustrated after Pirelli moved to F1 to manufacture the sport’s tyres in 2011. Under a brief from F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone to encourage overtaking and more pit stops, Pirelli built tyres which degraded quickly – much to the abhorrence of the Australian.

Such a change forced drivers to nurse the cars lap-by-lap on race day, and Webber was among the fiercest critics of the new approach.

So much so that he once claimed qualifying to be the highlight of a race weekend – the only time when he could extract maximum pace from his car without fear of his tyres ‘falling off the cliff’.

The introduction of Pirelli, coupled with Red Bull’s mastery of the exhaust-blown diffuser in the same season made for a very disgruntled Aussie.

It seemed the tide would not turn, especially when his young team-mate Sebastian Vettel would later perfect the counter-intuitive use of the exhaust-blowing to romp to his second world title that year.

The German’s success, coming a year after Webber’s flirtation with his own world championship triumph, was particularly galling but he never relented in his persistent chase of Vettel, despite being ultimately powerless in seeing his greatest rival record his third and fourth titles in the following two campaigns.

When Webber moved to the Austrian-owned team in 2007, he had already notched his maiden podium for Williams in 2005 and scored two points for perennial backmarkers Minardi in his debut Grand Prix in Melbourne in 2002.

From the outset of his F1 career it was clear that Webber’s greatest strength was qualifying and he had already made the front row for Jaguar and Williams before taking his maiden pole position for Red Bull in 2009 at the German GP.

In an outstanding show of pace, Webber negated a drive-through penalty – given to him for a first-lap brush with Rubens Barrichello – to claim his maiden F1 win. The euphoric celebration over his in-car radio underlined just how much it meant to him.

The subsequent season was a mixture of highs and lows, and was also the beginning of his intense rivalry with Vettel.

By mid-season Webber had delivered commanding wins in Barcelona and Monte Carlo, but then came the British GP at Silverstone.

Red Bull had manufactured a new-spec front wing and fixed it to Webber’s car but, after Vettel damaged his old-spec wing in qualifying, the team took the decision to switch it to Vettel’s car instead.

The difference between having and not having the wing was only 0.1 seconds per lap, but it was the principle of the move that upset Webber the most. He was incensed by what he saw as the team’s favouritism towards Vettel.

Vettel duly took pole but Webber passed him at the start of the race and took a crushing win, delivering his infamous “not bad for a number two driver” message over the radio on the cooldown lap.

Another win in Hungary set Webber’s title charge up nicely and with three races left he was ideally placed.

But, in a wet inaugural Korean GP, disaster struck when he spun on a sodden piece of astro-turf, clattered the inside wall and was then hit by Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes.

With Vettel also retiring, Fernando Alonso took a vital win and with it the championship lead from Webber.

With five drivers going into the last race in Abu Dhabi with a chance of claiming the title, Red Bull firmly nailed their colours to the mast by deploying Webber, who had got ahead of Alonso, as a decoy.

The genius of the idea brought them into the pits at the same time, with Ferrari covering Webber’s move as Alonso’s main challenger. The pair rejoined in heavy traffic and, with overtaking seemingly impossible, Vettel took the win and the title.

Webber had been used, and he was livid.

So began his misery. The next season saw him win just one race in a campaign dominated by his team-mate, while reliability issues in 2012 thwarted his title challenge, although he registered impressive wins at Monaco and Silverstone for the second time in his career.

This season has been equally frustrating, Webber enduring further difficulties with the Pirellis and yet more reliability gremlins, but he managed to claim three pole positions before the end of the season to prove his pace over one lap still existed.

The outpouring of love and fondness for Webber from his colleagues, notably Alonso – the pair began their F1 careers together at Minardi – was a reminder of his popularity, which is reflected in his outspoken view on the sport.

Some of the most famous quotes in F1 are attributed to the Australian, and they are partly a reason for his status as a fan’s favourite.

On his disgruntlement at the burgeoning use of “Mickey Mouse” street tracks like Valencia, Webber took the chance to say the Spanish circuit was akin to “a Tesco car park”.

Valencia, of course, would provide excitement of an unwanted kind in 2010 when he somersaulted into the air after colliding with Heikki Kovalainen on the back straight.

That he landed safely and escaped unhurt was a minor miracle but he bounced back to win the next race at Silverstone, despite the front-wing controversy.

Other famous quotes include his description of Romain Grosjean as a “first-lap nutcase” after the Lotus driver shunted into him at the start of the 2012 Japanese GP, and earlier this year in an interview on Top Gear, Webber was asked by Jeremy Clarkson if he had ever been tempted to punch arch-rival Vettel.

His reply was typically memorable: “My Dad always said you shouldn’t hit boys, mate.”

Of course, the relationship between the two had been tempestuous ever since the Malaysian GP.

A pre-race agreement, coded ‘multi-21’, was designed to protect whichever Red Bull driver held the lead after the first pit-stop.

That honour fell to Webber and, safe in the knowledge that Vettel wouldn’t challenge him, he dialled his engine down to preserve his car in the heat and humidity of Sepang.

Vettel began to close in on him though, and defied desperate team orders over the radio to pass the Australian for what would prove to be the first of his thirteen victories this season.

Webber was enraged, but had further cause for irritation when Vettel said he would do the same again during a press conference at the next race in China.

Their rivalry truly ignited in 2010 when Vettel veered across Webber’s path in the Turkish GP, while the pair had earlier been involved in a collision in 2007 when Vettel smashed into Webber at Fuji, depriving them both of podium positions in horribly wet conditions.

The incident provoked more memorable remarks from the New South Wales- born veteran who, in reference to Vettel’s inexperience, stated that, “It’s kids isn’t it…you do a good job and then they fuck it all up.”

Webber will be remembered not only for his straight-talking ways, but his infamous lack of luck and recent poor getaways off the line.

Despite those setbacks, Webber has a glittering set of statistics to look back on his time in the sport ahead of his new career with Porsche in the World Endurance Championship.

He triumphed with nine victories, claimed 42 podiums – the last coming in his final race in Brazil – and secured 13 pole positions in his 215-race career, amassing 1047.5 points and setting 19 fastest laps.

Webber is not the type to fuss about such things, but at the time of his exit from F1 he was placed in the top twenty drivers of all time. “Not bad for a number two driver.”

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89
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2013 Vuelta a Espana preview – Nibali bids for rare Giro/Vuelta double

Vincenzo Nibali will be riding for an historic double when the Vuelta a Espana starts at Vilanova de Arousa tomorrow.

The Italian, 28, won his home Grand Tour, the Giro d-Italia, in convincing style earlier this season and is the bookmaker’s favourite to take his second career Vuelta win after his 2010 success.

A win in the General Classification would propel the Astana rider into cycling folklore as he would become only the fourth man in history to have won the Giro and the Vuelta in the same season.

Standing in his way though, is a terrifying parcours. Over half the stages (eleven) in the 2013 Vuelta will be summit finishes, while 13 of the 21 stages are classified as mountainous.

The Vuelta may be the youngest Grand Tour, but it is without doubt the most brutal because of the fierce heat experienced in late August, with temperatures rising to 40C on occasions.

If the riders thought the 2013 Giro was tough enough with sharp gradients peaking at close to 20% on some stages, the 2013 Vuelta’s queen stage is even more demanding.

Step forward the Alto de l’Angliru, a fearsome climb on the penultimate stage that kicks up to around 23% in the closing kilometres.

L’Angliru’s reputation proceeds itself. Some have called it ‘barbaric’, others have simply had their races wrecked by it.

If you are sitting here now and wondering what it is like to ride up it, search for a clip on YouTube of the stage ascending to its summit in the 2011 Vuelta. The severity of the steepness is mindblowing.

In the build-up to the Vuelta, Nibali has suggested that l’Angliru could be the defining climb of the race. It would, however, be surprising if this comes into fruition.

With 12 other mountainous stages sandwiching a time-trial on stage 11, fans can expect the race leader, whoever that may be, to arrive at the foot of l’Angliru with a healthy lead – as seen in the Tour de France this year which featured a notably hilly parcours.

Big time gaps are expected then, but for the GC contenders winning the final Grand Tour of 2013 will be a monumental battle.

With so many mountains to navigate, attacks will be frequent as the riders fight for any advantage they can.

Nibali’s greatest rival for the win seems to be Spain’s Alejandro Valverde, who so agonisingly missed out on Tour de France contention after the combination of a puncture, crosswinds and an attack by Team Belkin off the front put paid to his chances.

He eased off for the remainder of the race as a result and is expected to be fresh ahead of an assault on his home Grand Tour.

His compatriot Joaquim Rodriguez, by contrast, started poorly in the Tour but rode himself into good form and an eventual podium place was no less than he deserved.

If he has recovered from the Tour and built upon that form he will be a significant threat to Nibali and Valverde. Currently rated as the world’s best rider, his combative style is backed up by a dazzling burst of acceleration on the toughest climbs.

Another Spaniard, Sami Sanchez, will be making a first appearance in his home race since 2009, when he finished second.

The popular rider, whose Euskaltel-Euskadi team recently announced failure in their bid to save the team from folding, has finished on the Vuelta podium twice, with his other podium finish coming after claiming third in 2007.

The 2008 Olympic road race gold medallist will be looking to give his team the perfect send-off with an emotional win in their home race after he skipped the Tour to concentrate on elevating his level to coincide with a tilt at the Vuelta.

Other GC contenders of note include Team Sky’s Colombian duo of Sergio Henao and Rigoberto Uran.

Henao has been handed the team leadership role, but if he cracks along the way Uran, who finished a tremendous second to Nibali in the Giro, will assume control.

As far as British interest in the Vuelta goes, there is not much to get excited over – there are just two Brits in the race.

Andrew Fenn, who rides for Mark Cavendish’s Omega Pharma – Quick Step team, is an exciting all-round cyclist, or rouleur, and at 23 will be riding his maiden Grand Tour.

The other is Sky’s Luke Rowe, who will also be participating in his first Grand Tour.

Rowe, who won a stage of the Tour of Britain last year, is regarded as a sprinter who can also aim for one-day classic races, and could later convert himself into a GC contender.

With many of the riders in this race looking to use the Vuelta as a springboard onto the subsequent World Championships, it is possible that a good proportion of them might drop out.

Yet, with the parcours in Tuscany also deemed hilly, a few of the GC contenders for the Vuelta may abandon to focus on the rainbow jersey if they have lost too much time.

Mountains, though, are what this year’s Vuelta is all about. The route could obliterate the peloton early on stages which traverse the Pyrenees and the infamously mountainous north of Spain. The climb up the l’Angliru is just the crowning glory on what promises to be a spectacular race.

All the signs point to a Nibali win when the riders roll into Madrid on the final stage three weeks from now, and with his Astana team looking immensely strong with quality riders such as Janez Brajkovic, Jakob Fuglsang and Tanel Kangert to work for him, it will take a rider possessing extraordinary form to beat him.

Can Manchester United be regarded as a ‘big club’ any more?

It may not seem obvious at first glance, but the roots of decline at Old Trafford have been growing for several seasons now. That they have been simultaneously camouflaged by a series of poor performances from many of their title rivals has helped them immeasurably.

But on May 8 this year, United’s manager – their great pillar of stability and trophy-winning continuity – Sir Alex Ferguson retired. David Moyes was swiftly announced as his successor, and it hasn’t taken long for the vultures to circle ominously above this once fearsome club.

Ferguson’s absence has exposed United’s decaying inner core – quite the opposite to innumerable suggestions that he had left the club in rude health following a record-breaking twentieth league title.

Moyes has acceded to a creaking throne which is in need of some refurbishment. One such issue within the club is the unfortunate loss of three promising young players who are now flourishing at their new clubs.

Serbian winger Zoran Tosic left the club almost as quickly as he came. Bought for £7m in 2009 he made just two appearances for United. His slight frame was deemed too diminutive for the physical pressures of the Premier League and he was sold to CSKA Moscow for £8m – where he has since scored at a rate of one goal every five games.

Even more surprising was the club’s inability to tie down Paul Pogba to a long-term contract. The young Frenchman, who United had so controversially ‘poached’ from Le Havre as a 16-year-old was starved of opportunities at United and when Juventus registered their interest he never looked back.

The pain United must have felt last season when Pogba enjoyed a breakthrough year for club and country would have been considerable as the Frenchman had long been identified as the type of player to replace Owen Hargreaves in the long-term.

More startling though, is their refusal to exercise a buying option on Tosic’s compatriot Adem Ljajic. The young Serbian also performed superbly last season in Serie A, scoring 11 goals in 28 games for Fiorentina, who showed no such disregard for Ljajic’s potential.

Ljajic has been heavily linked with a big-money move to AC Milan this summer and it is not hard to see why – unless you’re United, that is.

Infact, United’s impotence in the transfer market has long been a problem. They can only count Dimitar Berbatov and Robin van Persie as true world-class signings since the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo in 2009.

It is an affliction that has spread to Moyes’ reign as manager – a point exemplified by United’s failure to sign midfielders Thiago Alcantara, Kevin Strootman and now, in all likelihood, Cesc Fabregas.

United have also been scuppered in a bid to sign Leighton Baines from Everton for £12m. Also, at the time of writing, the Twittersphere had been chirping with rumours of an impending bid for Baines’ clubmate Marouane Fellaini.

Quite how Fellaini will feel about being a fourth-choice transfer target remains to be seen but Moyes’ desire to make a high-profile midfielder his marquee signing is clear.

Could it be that United’s international appeal amongst the top-name footballers is on the wane? That type of appeal appears to be in direct opposition to the surge in popularity of the club as a brand and business, with profits steadily eating into the steep pile of debt created by the Glazer family’s takeover of the club in 2005.

Part of the problem in attracting the best players in world football has been United’s form in European competition. In the 2011/12 season, United were ignominiously dumped out of the Champions League in the group stages, and then comprehensively outclassed by Athletic Bilbao in the Europa League.

All this embarrassment followed a Champions League final loss to Barcelona in 2011, their second such defeat to the Spaniards in the space of three seasons.

Their playing style has also changed, in line with a change in world football. Gone is the swashbuckling, all out counter-attacking of the early 2000s. A more measured, precise passing game with an emphasis on spreading play out to the wings has since taken hold.

Critics had called it more conservative, but in the current climate United would have been torn apart had they not adapted their game – something Ferguson famously addressed with his fondness for a fluid 4-5-1 in defence, which morphed into a 4-3-3 in attack.

It had also seemed that United were without a playmaker until the signing of Shinji Kagawa last season, but even then he was used sparingly in a debut season blighted by injuries. He should be the answer to Moyes’ search for a central midfielder, and his preferred position – in a more advanced midfield role – will provide Moyes with flexibility in that area of the pitch.

Added to the concern of a lack of signings this summer is Wayne Rooney’s apparent desire to leave Old Trafford. Chelsea, led by the returning Jose Mourinho, have failed in two bids for the England striker, and it seems that a fee of around £35m will be enough for United to consider selling.

Moyes, for the moment, remains committed to the idea of keeping Rooney at the club, despite his admission that van Persie was ahead in the pecking order at the moment.

If Rooney was to leave, his departure would give a chance to three exciting understudies – Danny Welbeck, Javier Hernandez and Angelo Henriquez.

The trio are destined to become the heart of United’s forward line in the future, and will be given their opportunities by a manager who, like Ferguson, is keen on blooding young talent.

United’s poor pre-season form – they have only registered two wins in six games against limited opposition – will also concern Moyes. That said, he has given a number of chances to exciting talents Jesse Lingard, Adnan Januzaj and Wilfried Zaha, who look ready to make the step up into regular first action.

Lingard has been arguably the most impressive, scoring four times in four games during the club’s pre-season tour of Asia.

So, while United have recently struggled to compete with clubs like PSG and Monaco in the transfer market, it seems that there is no need to buy big when the conveyor belt of talent is bringing along players of Lingard’s and Januzaj’s quality.

In that respect, Moyes has the chance to emulate Ferguson and manage a team full of exciting young players, building the club into a feared standing once again.

For the moment though, United are not as feared in playing terms as they used to be. And while they are still a big club they are not as big as they once were, and it may take time to reassemble the towering presence in world football that they constructed for themselves throughout the 2000s.

The Transfer Silly Season

When it comes to football transfers, few leagues are as captivating as the Barclays Premier League.

With the hugely entertaining Confederations Cup now several weeks past, the players involved have returned to their clubs and others have jetted off to their new ones.

It was widely thought before the 2012/13 season ended that most business would be done after the Confederations Cup finished – and those premonitions have been emphatically proven in England.

In recent weeks there have been a flood of deals concluded, thwarted and hijacked. Some clubs are beginning to feel the pressure too – notably Arsenal.

Having only signed Yaya Sanogo on a free transfer from Auxerre in this transfer window, manager Arsene Wenger has been keen to dispel the accusations that the North Londoners are featherweights in the transfer market.

The money is clearly there for Wenger to spend – the club have turned in successive years of profits – and he has confirmed this by bidding £35m for unsettled Liverpool striker Luis Suarez.

This first approach was robustly swatted away by Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers, but it did not deter Wenger, who sanctioned an improved £40m + £1 bid for the Uruguayan this week.

That triggered a release clause in Suarez’s contract which permits him to talk to the Gunners, but Liverpool want a figure in excess of £50m with Rodgers, somewhat justifiably, believing that Suarez is worth as much, if not more, than his compatriot Edinson Cavani, who was snapped up by PSG for a cool £55m.

Yet if Suarez moved to Arsenal, it would go against all the clues he has given as to where his future lies. He has publicly admitted his fondness for Real Madrid, but they have not made an offer yet.

That could be because Madrid are busy trying to lure Gareth Bale away from Spurs. A figure in excess of £85m is rumoured to be the price tagged on Bale’s services, but Spurs chairman Daniel Levy is reluctant to sell – for two reasons.

Bale has quickly become the face of the club – he features on almost every promotional banner and marketing strategy the club unveils, and secondly his value to the team is colossal.

21 goals and 9 assists in 33 games last season proves why he is coveted so fervently by Madrid, who have spent heavily as usual this summer.

Midfielders Isco (€24m) and Asier Illarramendi (€32.2m) have both signed deals at the Bernabeu, and a further outlay of €98.5m on Bale would be more than the €93.9m they paid for Cristiano Ronaldo in 2009.

Bale is the closest player on the planet, in terms of free-kick technique and running with the ball, to Ronaldo and it would be interesting to see how they would both fit into the same team.

Spurs fans will be hoping Bale doesn’t move but Spanish newspaper Marca, renowned for its close ties to Los Blancos, ran with a story on its cover this week with Bale rumoured to have agreed a six-year deal with his pursuers.

Marca have previous, which is why Spurs fans should be worried. They correctly broke the enormous Ronaldo and Kaka transfers and would not publish such a story without specific knowledge of the deal. There is no smoke without fire, and Spurs are likely to lose the Welshman unless they pull off something miraculous.

Bale has also been linked to Manchester United who, like Arsenal, have had a very quiet summer.

United have failed with deals for Thiago Alcantara and Cesc Fabregas – the latter the subject of two rebuffed bids of £25m and £30m – and have also seen fellow target Kevin Strootman opt to join Roma instead.

A £12m move for Leighton Baines has also proved fruitless and United fans have reason to worry with unknown Uruguayan right-back Guillermo Varela and Wilfried Zaha the only new signings so far this summer.

With United clearly on the hunt for a central midfielder, any approach for another midfielder could also be futile with the subject of that hypothetical bid being their third-choice behind Thiago and Fabregas.

United would do well to blood some youngsters though. Nick Powell looks mightily impressive at 19-years-old and is tipped to become an England regular in the future, while Tom Cleverley established himself in the first team last season with a string of composed performances.

But it hasn’t all been about incoming players at Old Trafford, as Wayne Rooney will testify.

The 28-year-old has been linked with Chelsea ever since returning manager Jose Mourinho made a bid of £30m for the England striker. That deal, United said, included the pick of Juan Mata or David Luiz, but that is likely a mischievous attempt to publicly unsettle Chelsea’s two most influential players.

Chelsea have bought well this season, adding German striker Andre Schürrle and Dutch midfielder Marco van Ginkel to their squad in deals totalling £27m. Highly-rated Belgian loanees Romelu Lukaku and Kevin de Bruyne have returned to Stamford Bridge and their presence will be similar to new signings.

Manchester City meanwhile, favourites alongside United and Chelsea for the title, have bought swiftly and impressively, signing midfield duo Fernandinho and Jesus Navas and strikers Alvaro Negredo and Stevan Jovetic for a combined £90m.

In signing four high-quality players, new manager Manuel Pellegrini has avoided what his predecessor Roberto Mancini did last season and bought well to improve the team.

While City have been very proactive in the transfer market, they have been outgunned by Sunderland, who have signed nine players so far as boss Paulo di Canio looks to refresh the team and exert his influence on the squad.

Southampton too, have bought with power, signing centre-back Dejan Lovren for £8.5m and Victor Wanyama for £12m. Some critics have pointed to what seem to be inflated fees for the duo but the signings are a signal of intent from manager Mauro Pochettino, who has been impressive since taking over from Nigel Adkins last season.

There will be more outrageous rumours, ballooned fees and surprising sales before the transfer window shuts in five weeks, but with the total amount spent by Premier League clubs currently bubbling at just under £300m, England’s biggest clubs will be keen to continue to splash the cash to show they can compete with Europe’s superpowers in the transfer market.  

If they don’t the danger of this great league becoming full of selling clubs, much like the scenario now seen in countries such as Holland, will loom ever larger – and that, for a league which boasts of being the best in the world, could be lethal.

A Great British Sporting Weekend

Everything went perfectly – almost.

This was a Great British sporting weekend to rival any other in history.

It began on the other side of the planet as the British and Irish Lions took on Australia in Sydney. They knew that with the series locked at 1-1, a win would hand them their first series triumph in 16 years, and their first in Australia since 1989.

With ten Welsh players in the starting XV, the Lions were dubbed the “Llions” in some areas of the media, while coach Warren Gatland had come under heavy criticism for his decision to drop Brian O’Driscoll from not only the starting line-up, but the match-day squad too.

Within two minutes of the whistle the critics had been hushed as a rampant Lions scrum punished a knock-on from Will Genia at the kick-off with an Alex Corbisiero try.

The Lions were making mincemeat of a dismal Australian scrum, forcing the Wallabies to concede penalty after penalty in their own half to gift the tourists a 19-3 lead – Leigh Halfpenny clinically dispatching five kicks at goal.

But a late first-half twist saw the Aussies haul themselves back into the game with a converted James O’Connor score. Suddenly, the Lions were wobbling rather than bouncing into the break.

More nervous energy was to be expended amongst the 30,000 Lions fans inside the ANZ Stadium when Christian Leali’ifano kicked two penalties to make it 19-16.

The Lions’ response was tremendous with Jonny Sexton, George North and Jonathan Davies all cutting through the Australian defence to score tries in a mesmeric ten-minute spell.

At 41-16, the Lions had crushed the Australian’s spirit and the series was theirs.

A couple of hours after that momentous win, British attention switched to the Eifel mountains in Germany, where Lewis Hamilton wrapped up pole position for the German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring.

He did so with a stunning lap, beating home darling Sebastian Vettel by 0.103 seconds on the final lap of qualifying.

British sport fans could have been forgiven for thinking that the day was not going to get better than this but 778 miles away from Hamilton in the Pyrenean mountains, Chris Froome had other ideas.

Froome, favourite for the Tour de France, had targeted the eighth stage in his quest to pull on the famous yellow jersey worn by the leader of the race.

After showing composure to gradually reel in a dangerous attack from Nairo Quintana, Froome’s Team Sky ripped up the road en route to the summit finish atop Ax 3 Domaines.

Froome then attacked with 6km remaining – to devastating effect.

So fierce was his acceleration on a climb peaking at a gradient of around 10%, he had shattered the race – leaving his rivals gasping for air.

He continued to power to the finish, cresting the summit with 1km to go and speeding over the false flat to claim his second career Tour de France stage win.

Froome claimed not only the yellow jersey and a stage win, but several minutes on his rivals. Alejandro Valverde was the least damaged of them all, but even he came home over a minute behind.

Alberto Contador and Quintana finished another 30 seconds later, while the explosive talent of Joaquim Rodriguez had been tamed, with the little Spaniard finishing over two minutes down on Froome.

All this had happened on Saturday, but the best was reserved for Sunday as Andy Murray faced world number one Novak Djokovic in the men’s singles final at Wimbledon.

Murray was aiming to win his second career Grand Slam, and in the process end a 77-year wait for the first British male winner at Wimbledon since Fred Perry in 1936.

In 40 degree heat, it was a battle of stamina as much as physicality.

Outrageously long rallies – some stretching to 30 shots – were becoming normal and a first set which took just over one hour was eventually won by the Scot 6-4.

In typical fashion, Djokovic mounted a quick recovery. Breaking Murray in the fourth game of the second set, he raced into a 4-1 lead.

Murray was stumbling at this point but swiftly picked up his game and broke the Serbian back, winning three games in a row to level at 4-4.

With the duo holding their next service games it was Djokovic who blinked first as Murray broke him for a 6-5 lead with his second break point. Nerveless, he served out the set to love for a 2-0 lead.

Djokovic was clearly out of sorts, perhaps hindered by his exhausting semi-final win over Juan Martin Del Potro, and he dropped his serve at the start of the third as Britain dared to believe this was Murray’s year.

He seemingly did too, as a sudden crash in his level of performance combined with Djokovic’s best tennis of the match resulted in two breaks of serve for the Serbian.

His 4-2 lead would diminish immediately though, as Murray stirringly chased down a flurry of drop shots to break Djokovic twice more and earn himself a 5-4 lead and a chance to serve for the championship.

The crowd, whose shrieks of support reverberated around Centre Court, were ecstacized as Murray fought crippling nerves to surge into a 40-0 lead.

Yet three championship points disappeared as quickly as they materialised, with Djokovic thriving on the pressure steeped on Murray’s every shot to win five straight points and a break-back opportunity.

Somehow summoning the strength to save the game, Murray twice more offered break points to Djokovic, and saved each of them with courageous defensive work.

On winning his fourth championship point Murray would not be denied and when Djokovic dumped a forehand into the net, a nerve-shredded Wimbledon exploded with relief as much as celebration.

The only disappointment to arise from this now fabled weekend was Hamilton’s performance in Germany. Swamped by both Red Bulls off the start, the Mercedes driver never recovered and could only finish fifth behind Vettel – who took the first home win of his young career.

Britain’s competitors were not finished yet – Graeme McDowell carded a superb 67 to win by four shots in the French Open. But by that time it was conceivable that golf, along with many other sports, had paled into relative insignificance as the nation basked in the rays of Murray’s success.

And so this Great British Sporting Weekend finished with a nation united and sun-drunk. We hadn’t felt this good since the Olympian summer of 2012.

Now, where did Andrew Strauss leave that little urn?

Sky’s Tour bid rests with Froome – Tour de France 2013 preview

A peloton of 198 riders will amass for 21 leg-crushing stages of the 100th Tour de France on Saturday – a journey over three weeks that will lead the greatest annual sporting event in the world over a distance of 2,115 miles.

To celebrate the centenary of cycling’s most iconic race, the organisers have compiled a route that takes in the legendary mountainous climbs of Alpe d’Huez (twice on stage 18), and Mont Ventoux – with the Tour culminating in a sunset finish on the Champs –Elysees in Paris.

For the first time in the race’s history the island of Corsica will feature when it hosts the opening three stages or ‘grand depart’ of the race.

The Pyrenees will also be navigated in the first week before the infamous Mont Ventoux ends the second with the Alps looming large in the third.

It is a truly brutal Tour and with the addition of three time-trials (one team and two individual) the 100th edition of this race is one of the most eagerly anticipated.

Once again, Great Britain has a pre-race favourite in Team Sky’s Chris Froome.

With 2012 winner Sir Bradley Wiggins unable to defend the famed yellow jersey because of a knee injury, cycling has been starved of what would have been a momentous rivalry.

Wiggins had planned to defend his crown after the recent snow-hindered Giro d’Italia – but Froome had long been placed as Sky’s team leader for the Tour, and the friction between the two riders has been uncomfortably evident ever since.

The source of the pair’s inclement relationship is widely reckoned to be the 2012 race when Froome, the stronger climber of the two, demonstrated his strength by attempting to leave Wiggins on a couple of crucial stages – only to back down and support him to victory in a further display of loyalty to the team.

For 2013, Wiggins was earmarked to be Froome’s right-hand man, but his subsequent withdrawal has saved Sky from a glut of unwanted media attention.

The duo’s Sky team-mate, Australian rider Richie Porte, will instead support Froome in the high mountains and will be the team’s back-up plan should Froome suffer injury or huge time losses.

Froome’s form has been exemplary in the run up to the race, with the Kenya-born Brit winning four out of five stage races this season – including the Criterium du Dauphine and the Criterium International, both of which are good indicators of a rider’s Tour de France form.

In doing so, Froome has emulated Wiggins’ performances of 2012 – and he will hope to provide the same end result.

But he will face strong competition from Spain’s Alberto Contador, twice a winner of this event, and his Team Saxo Bank –Tinkoff Bank squad.

Contador has seasoned Tour riders such as Nicholas Roche, Michael Rogers and Roman Kreuziger at his disposal but Sky, who will rely on Kanstantsin Siutsou and David Lopez alongside Porte in aid of Froome, will be confident of holding off the diminutive Spaniard.

Other contenders for the General Classification victory include the aggressive Spanish duo of Joaquim Rodriguez and Alejandro Valverde, along with promising Colombian rider Nairo Quintana – who will vie with BMC’s Tejay van Garderen for the best young rider’s white jersey, or ‘maillot blanc’.

Cadel Evans, who enjoyed a fine podium finish in the Giro, will also be in contention – as will the dangerous trio of Jurgen van den Broeck, Robert Gesink and Ryder Hesjedal.

Meanwhile, Britain’s Mark Cavendish, who last week won the British National Road Race Championships, has the chance to write his own piece of history during his quest for the green sprinter’s jersey.

He is currently fourth on the all-time list of Tour stage wins with 23, just 11 behind the great Eddy Merckx. A healthy six stage wins for the ‘Manx Missile’ would propel him above French legends Bernard Hinault and Andre Leducq into second on that list.

However, Cavendish could be the first rider to wear the ‘maillot jaune’ as the Corsican first stage seems custom-made for his explosive sprinting abilities.

Last year’s winner of the green jersey Peter Sagan will be Cavendish’s main threat, as the Slovakian is a stronger climber than the Briton and may look to escape on the hillier parcours later in the Tour to claim vital intermediate sprint points and maybe a couple of stage victories – just as he did last year.

One of the Tour’s most interesting sub-plots is the King of the Mountains classification, which is always unpredictable as the best climbers tend to stay in the peloton to conserve energy rather than chase the points on offer for cresting the summit of each categorised climb.

As a result, France’s popular Team Europcar member Tommy Voeckler – not renowned for his climbing – got himself into several breakaways last season to mop up the points on offer and claim the polka dot jersey.

Cycling fans will also be glued to the fortunes of current world champion Philippe Gilbert, French cult hero Voeckler, Andy Schleck – making his Grand Tour comeback after a fractured pelvis – and German sprinters Andre Greipel and Marcel Kittel, who will provide a stern test for the likes of Cavendish, Sagan and Matt Goss in bunch sprint finishes.

But the hundreds of millions of eyes watching this inspiring event will likely be watching Froome and his battle with Contador.

While it is not the Froome vs. Wiggins clash the cycling community had so relished, it promises to be a fascinating match-up – and one which is worthy of the centennial staging of this colossal race.

Who are the best and worst football commentators?

Football commentators. The people armchair viewers love to hate.

There are plenty of atrocious and infuriating callers of the beautiful game out there, and also a handful of brilliant ones, but who makes my top 10 best and worst?

And before anyone pipes up about Andy Townsend, I’ve included co-commentators in the list too!

Let’s start with the good first:

10. Mike Ingham, BBC 5Live

Ingham is an entertaining commentator for those of you who are avid 5live listeners. Hardly ever culpable of making a mistake, he blends an enthusiastic commentary style with a thorough knowledge of the game. More importantly, he puts his 5live colleagues to shame.

9. Simon Brotherton, BBC

Brotherton is without doubt one of the BBC’s most underrated commentators. Experienced and articulate, he calls some of the biggest games on the Premier League calendar for Match of the Day with great success. Like Ingham, he hardly makes a mistake and is definitely worthy of a place on this countdown.

8. Clive Tyldesley, ITV

I’ve been known to call Tyldesley ‘Alive Clive’ due to his excitable style (he often sounds like a Dalek too), but generally he is a very capable commentator. His greatest work for ITV is probably the 1999 Champions League final, but can be prone to some occasional errors too. He gets bonus points for sitting next to Andy Townsend for two hours.

7. Rob Hawthorne, Sky Sports

Hawthorne is part of Sky’s respected commentary line-up, and has often called some high-profile matches. Not least the memorable Manchester derby where United’s Michael Owen snatched a 96th-minute winner in a 4-3 win. Looking back at Hawthorne’s commentary for that match on YouTube, it’s safe to say he did a fantastic job.

6. Jon Champion, ESPN

Perhaps the most respected commentator in the media, Champion is vastly experienced having worked for the BBC, ITV and most recently ESPN. His commentary of Owen’s wondergoal against Argentina at the 1998 World Cup will forever live in the memory of England fans.

5. Peter Drury, ITV & Fox Soccer

Often unfairly dubbed ‘Peter Dreary’, Drury is a well-spoken and entertaining commentator. He has a remarkable knowledge of the game and thrives in the big moments during the biggest games. Arguably his most thrilling work was during last season’s Manchester City 3-2 QPR match for Fox Soccer, where Sergio Aguero scored a late title-clinching winner for City.

4. Steve Wilson, BBC

Wilson has often been overlooked for the biggest games on Match of the Day in favour of the much-maligned Guy Mowbray, but his commentary style is perhaps the clearest of them all. He has the ability to keep up with play using quick, engaging and efficient language, and rarely makes mistakes.

3. Martin Tyler, Sky Sports

Head honcho of Sky’s commentary team, Tyler’s career has spanned across numerous eras of football. Usually understated and reserving his enthusiasm for the biggest Premier League and European games, Tyler’s most famous piece of commentary came in Manchester United’s 3-2 win over Aston Villa in 2009, where 17-year-old Federico “Machedaaaaaa!” scored a last-gasp winner.

2. John Motson, BBC

“Motty” is the godfather of commentary. Having retired from calling the action at international tournaments, Motson typically covers games in London for Match of the Day. He is nudged down from the top spot due to what many critics have correctly said about his increasingly frail and error-laden commentary – but that should not detract from the 67-year-old’s marvellous career.

1. Jonathan Pearce, BBC

Pearce beats his famed BBC colleague to top spot by virtue of some memorable and flawless commentary. Without doubt the BBC’s finest live commentator, some of the most enjoyable work in his career came in 2001 during England’s 5-1 ‘Müllering’ of Germany in Munich, where he worked for Capital Gold Sport. The line “England have gone naff in Germany!” was just one of many gems that night.

And now, the bad (and in Mark Lawrenson’s case, the ugly):

10. Guy Mowbray, BBC

It is baffling to many armchair and pub viewers alike why Guy Mowbray continues to be awarded the biggest gigs in football commentary. He cannot bring himself to make a definitive judgement on many controversial incidents and he is usually off the pace with his languid and dull style. He should be afforded some respite from his many critics for his famous “Agueroooooooo” line in the climax to the 2011-12 Premier League season.

9. Chris Waddle, ESPN

Waddle is not shy of making criticisms of current players, but when you are responsible for one of the most painful moments in English football history, you can hardly hide. Alongside Champion at ESPN, he has a tendency to state the obvious and offers tired, useless analysis of live matches.

8. Alan Green, BBC 5Live

Green is another opinionated commentator who has drawn criticism from far and wide. His style is actually listenable and articulate, but he lets himself down by hovering over his criticisms of players for too long – often to the detriment of his output.

7. Robbie Savage, BBC 5Live

Savage has cultivated a punditry career seemingly out of thin air. He certainly uses up a lot of air too, with his frenzied commentary style for 5Live, and offers little or no original analysis. He has also become the voice of 5Live’s 606, which is the perfect place for his dim comments to be hidden amongst others.

6. Craig Burley, ESPN

One of the more enjoyable co-commentators on the list, Burley gets onto the bad side due to his unprofessional nature. He is often guilty of bullying Champion during live matches and, given Champion’s well-respected and insightful commentary, his obvious misplaced dislike for his colleague makes him appear in a bad light.

5. Steve Bower, BBC

Currently being groomed by the BBC for a commentary place in football’s biggest arenas, Bower is unworthy of such a privilege. He rarely gets enthused by big moments in matches and has a distinctly monotone style which feels out of place on Match of the Day.

4. Martin Keown, BBC

Making the grade for the BBC’s Euro 2012 coverage, Keown should count himself lucky that the Beeb ignore the hundreds of tweets about his commentary every time he picks up a co-commentators mic. Littering his calls with errors, mispronunciation and recycled clichés, Keown’s commentary is every bit as cringeworthy as his punditry.

3. Andy Townsend, ITV

There are few plastic Irishmen in this world, and if they are all like Andy Townsend, I hope none of them get a commentary job in their lives. Constantly stating the obvious, Townsend’s only redeeming feature is that he is not afraid to say if a player is offside, rather than the usual “it’s marginal” sitting-on-the-fence attitude.

2. Mark Lawrenson, BBC

“Lawro”, or rather, ‘LOL-o’ is prone to making awful puns and jokes during live commentary for the BBC. A fond wearer of revolting shirts and a model of the balding mullet, a tirade of abuse was directed his way during the Euro 2012 final for what the Twittersphere correctly perceived to be an abhorrent lesson in commentary. That he was partnered with Mowbray for the same match caused many viewers to switch over to ITV or Flog It on BBC2.

1. Mark Bright, BBC

I have no doubt that ‘Brighty’ is a nice enough bloke, but his commentary is useless. He deflates rather than inspires, confuses rather than enlightens and, more importantly, bores rather than delights. It is perhaps testament to the dearth of co-commentating depth-in-strength possessed by the BBC that Bright continues to journey to World Cups and European Championships. Bright is the strongest reason to ditch ex-player co-commentators, but if we didn’t have them, over half of this list would be null and void and I would not be blogging. So thanks Mark, it appears you do have a use after all.