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

The Forgotten Footballers

OK, so we all remember footballing legends’ careers when they’ve finally hung up their boots, but what of the once-famous players still plying their trade in modern football?

Below is a list of ‘forgotten footballers’ that I have compiled. See if you agree with my top 20 countdown.

20. Milan Baros

Still only 31, and fresh from a successful spell at Galatasaray, Baros gets onto the list by virtue of the fact he now plays for Banik Ostrava in his native Czech Republic – who knew that? I certainly didn’t, but Baros is again amongst the goals for what was his first ever club, scoring five times in nine games thus far.

19. Luca Toni

The World Cup-winning Italian striker has been something of a journeyman in his career so far – like many of the players in this countdown – but his stint at Bayern Munich will be remembered as his most successful. Toni left the German giants in 2010 for Roma, and has since played for Juventus and UAE side Al Nasr before returning to current club Fiorentina.

18. Asamoah Gyan

A controversial figure in Sunderland after leaving them on-loan for Al-Ain, Gyan has torn apart the UAE Pro-League for his new club, scoring 58 goals in 43 games so far.

17. Lucio

The big World Cup-winning centre-back made his name in Germany with Bayer Leverkusen and then Bayern Munich, but after moving to Italy he has drifted into relative anonymity after high-profile moves to Inter Milan and subsequently Juventus. The 35-year-old now plays for Sao Paulo.

16. Kevin Kuranyi

Famous for his immaculately-trimmed beard, Kuranyi has not played for Germany in international tournaments since his 2008 retirement. Prolific spells at Stuttgart and Schalke have been followed by an equally-good stint at Lokomotiv Moscow, where he has bagged 32 goals in 83 games – making his move to Russia all the more mysterious.

15. Adrian Mutu

Goalscoring, contractual issues and drug-taking are all chapters in Mutu’s career, but the Romanian striker has struggled to re-build it after testing positive for cocaine in 2010. Now playing for AC Ajaccio in France’s Ligue 1, Mutu’s 11 goals this season steered the Corsican side to safety – but only just.

14. Ricardo Quaresma

Once a player with dazzling pace and skill, Quaresma has failed to live up to the hype surrounding his potential and, after stints at Barcelona, Inter Milan, Chelsea and Porto, now finds himself playing for Al Ahli in Dubai. Quaresma still makes himself available for Portugal, but with Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani preferred to him on the wing, he has drifted into the tail-end of his career without creating much fuss.

13. Deco

Chelsea fans will likely remember the talented Brazilian playmaker, who is now 35 years old. He has previously played for Barcelona after winning the Champions League with Jose Mourinho at Porto in 2004. Deco now plays in his homeland for Fluminense.

12. Mido

Once highly thought of, Mido has gone off the radar – largely due to battles with his weight. After racking up his eleventh career club following a move to Barnsley, Mido has played just one game for the Tykes – all this for a striker who counts Ajax, Roma and Spurs amongst his former employers.

11. Junichi Inamoto

Junichi Inamoto was labelled a Japanese heartthrob after starring for his country during the 2002 World Cup which they co-hosted alongside South Korea. Now, after numerous spells at European clubs, the ex-Arsenal youth midfielder has moved back to Japan where he plays for Kawasaki Frontale in the J-League.

10. Juninho

Famous for his free-kicks, Juninho has had to endure heavy criticism for moving to the Middle East for money. He was one of the first big-name footballers to do so and has barely been mentioned since. His tally of 75 goals from midfield in just under 250 games for Lyon remains impressive, but after joining Al-Gharafa in Qatar he has not played to the same level. He now plays for New York Red Bulls in the MLS.

9. Rivaldo

It didn’t seem so long ago that Rivaldo notched a hat-trick for Barcelona against Manchester United with a spectacular overhead-kick. Even fresher in the memory is his goal against England en route to winning the 2002 World Cup with Brazil. Rivaldo still plays at the age of 41, and has chased big-money moves to Uzbekistan and Angola before settling at current club Sao Caetano in his homeland.

8. Quincy Owusu-Abeyie

Perhaps a striker more known for his name rather than his goalscoring ability, the ex-Arsenal man went on loan to five different clubs in ten years before signing a three-year contract with Panathinaikos in 2011 where he currently averages a goal every 10 games.

7. Rafael Marquez

A Barcelona and Mexico legend, Marquez was a rock at centre-back during the height of his career. A two-year link-up with MLS side New York Red Bulls has now finished, but Mexican side Club Leon tempted him back to his homeland, and he has made 13 appearances for them so far.

6. Michael Johnson

Dubbed “The New Steven Gerrard”, Johnson’s promising career has been blighted by mental health issues, serious knee injuries and drink-driving charges. Recent pictures of Johnson show his weight to have ballooned, and at the moment he is a free agent after being released by Manchester City.

5. Kleberson

Another 2002 World Cup winner, Kleberson moved to Manchester United in 2003 where he was berated for a series of lamentable displays. He mustered just two goals during his two-year stay, and now plays for Philadelphia Union in the MLS.

4. Amr Zaki

Described by then Wigan manager Steve Bruce as being “as strong as an ox”, Zaki has disappeared from the international footballing eye. The Egyptian striker was a goalscorer with strength and pace – in much the same mould as Alan Shearer – but now finds himself a free agent after problems with his commitment, injuries and professionalism. Zaki did sign a deal with Egyptian club ENPPI in 2013 but his contract was terminated by mutual consent after a heated disagreement.

3. Alex Manninger

The Austrian stopper boasts Arsenal and Juventus among his former clubs but he has opted to continue his career with FC Augsburg in the Bundesliga after lengthy and impressive spells in England and Italy.

2. Dani Guiza

Having spearheaded a devilish Spanish attack with David Villa for several seasons, Dani Guiza’s career has been steadily disintegrating. A big-money move to Fenerbahce ended after three years when he scored just 23 goals. A strange move to Malaysian side Darul Takzim, where he netted six times in 10 games, is the latest chapter in his career. He is still owned by La Liga side Getafe where his clinical finishing will inevitably still be in demand.

1. Angelos Charisteas

The final man on the list, and perhaps a footballer with the biggest fall in notoriety ever. Charisteas became a hero in his native Greece when he scored the only goal of the game against Portugal in the 2004 European Championship final. Since then he has played at Ajax, Feyenoord and Schalke without much success. He currently plays in obscure surroundings for Al Nassr in Saudi Arabia’s Professional League.

Is Ferrari’s legendary reputation in Formula One fully merited?

Ferrari. The name synonymous with the scintillating sport of Formula One. For many fans their existence on the grid is reason alone to watch one of the world’s most exciting sports. Having been an integral and prominent constructor from the very first World Championship in 1950, and the only one to have featured in every season since its inception, few people could doubt how important Ferrari is to both the history of the sport and indeed its future.

Yet, when you deeply examine the history of the sport, including drivers’ titles and constructors, some cracks begin to appear in the revered standing of the famous Italian marque.

Starting at the very beginning of Formula One history, Ferrari were immediately a big team and were always challenging for wins and podiums. Alfa Romeo, however, dominated the first two seasons in 1950 and 1951 with Giuseppe Farina and Juan Manuel Fangio respectively. Alfa subsequently pulled out of the sport and a major change of rules for the 1952 season to Formula Two specification was designed to avoid a Ferrari landslide. That failed dramatically.

For the next two seasons Ferrari, who had a successful Formula Two setup prior to the rule change, won the title with the legendary Alberto Ascari. They dominated in ’52 and ’53 with Ascari winning all six races he entered in ’52 and winning a further five in ’53.

Ferrari would not have it all their own way in 1954, however, as the emergence of Mercedes as a powerhouse and Ascari’s switch to Lancia for financial reward saw them beaten to the title. Ascari had endured a frustrating season that year, waiting for Lancia to get their car ready in time, and he would not be able to defend his title, instead watching Fangio race to his second world crown.

The following year was a horrific season for the sport, and one which still resonates to this day. At the Monaco Grand Prix, Ascari crashed his Lancia into the harbour and escaped with minor injuries. Just four days later, in a testing accident at Monza, he died. It is known that Ascari drove in that test without a helmet, although the exact cause of the crash which killed him will never be known.

Ascari’s death came in the same year as the Le Mans 24 Hours tragedy in which 80 people died. It was a dark year for motorsport, and too dark for some. Mercedes withdrew from racing altogether whilst Gianni Lancia, who was close friends with Ascari, was so distraught at his death that he signed his entire team over to Ferrari. This was to be a significant move.

The Lancia’s had been widely tipped as title-winners in 1956 with their innovative design and super-quick performance. Such was Ferrari’s confidence in them they entered Lancia’s cars under their name and ‘Prancing Horse’ logo and won the title with Fangio.

Fangio left them the following season for Maserati where he won his fifth and last title and Ferrari retaliated by signing British driver Mike Hawthorn in 1958. His team-mate, Peter Collins, also British, died in a crash at the infamously dangerous Nürburgring and, after Hawthorn won the title for Ferrari, he quit before tragically dying in a road accident a short time after.

Ferrari’s progress went into remission over the next few seasons as they were overhauled by a number of new and fast British constructors with a more powerful rear engine configuration. They would not win the title again until 1961 when new 1.5 litre engine regulations were introduced. USA driver Phil Hill won the title, but only after more tragedy when German driver, and championship leader, Wolfgang von Trips, died in a crash at the steep-banked Monza.

In 1962, Enzo Ferrari’s staff walked out on him and he was forced to enter old cars into the championship. It was an unmitigated disaster for the team as the British constructors continued to improve and the Italian giants were soundly beaten.

Ferrari owed much to the emerging talent of John Surtees in 1964 when they took both the drivers and constructors titles. Surtees became the first man to win the World Championship on two wheels and four wheels, having previously been a motorcycling World Champion.

The British teams had gathered strength though and Lotus, led by the ambitious Colin Chapman, were chief architects of Ferrari’s downfall with their revolutionary cars which put speed before safety. Other British teams, in the shape of Brabham and Tyrrell, played their part in dominating the next decade of racing and it was only in 1975, eleven years after their last title, that Ferrari next tasted success with the Austrian driver Niki Lauda.

Lauda was to suffer horrific burns in a crash at the Nürburgring during the 1976 season and, despite making an astounding comeback just six weeks later, lost the title to McLaren’s James Hunt in the final GP of the season at Suzuka. Ferrari did win the constructors title though and, in 1977, despite not having the best season, Lauda regained the title for Ferrari in a triumph of consistency over speed.

Lauda then left for Brabham after being replaced by Gilles Villeneuve, a quick young French-Canadian. Villeneuve enjoyed a popular status amongst fans for his driving style and, although he never won a title, was considered to be a Ferrari legend.

Jody Scheckter, a highly-regarded South African driver, was signed to partner him and pipped Villeneuve to the 1979 title in a double-triumph for Ferrari who had comfortably sealed the constructors’ title in the same year.

The subsequent 1980 season was perhaps one of Ferrari’s worst ever. They lost ground in the continuously evolving race for development and came tenth in the constructors’ title having scored just eight points.

Ferrari would not win another drivers title until 2000, after 21 years of being ruled over by the dominant McLaren and Williams teams. They did manage three constructors’ titles in that barren period, but they were not enough for a team of Ferrari’s wealth and ambition.

Their luck started to change in 1999, when they built a seriously competitive car for double world champion Michael Schumacher to drive. But, when he broke his leg in a crash at Silverstone, McLaren driver Mika Hakkinen won the title ahead of Schumacher’s team-mate Eddie Irvine.

Schumacher would have his day though, going on to win five consecutive drivers and six constructors crowns with the dominant Italian team as years of frustration in their pursuit of glory were washed away triumphantly – almost as easily as they brushed aside the competition.

French manufacturer Renault then halted the Italian charge, winning back-to-back titles with Fernando Alonso before Kimi Raikkonen stole the title at the last GP of the 2007 season in Brazil from McLaren to give Ferrari their sixth ‘double title’ of a distinctly red-liveried decade.

Since then, Ferrari have only won a solitary constructors title in 2008 (although it was their seventh of the decade) and have hampered themselves with a succession of complex and ambitious, yet fruitless, car designs as they continue their passionate quest for success in Formula One.

So, having looked at the highs and lows of Ferrari’s participation in Formula One, it has to be said that not only do they deserve their reputation in the sport as a result of their colourful and captivating history, but also on the basis of their achievements within the sport.

Although they have been massively inconsistent, with periods of domination often followed by unprofitable and hapless spells of drought, they were always searching for wins and success – winning was their vocabulary, their language. Their fifteen drivers titles and sixteen constructors titles may not statistically carry a better win percentage than other famous teams like Williams and McLaren, who have not been involved in the sport since its inauguration, but the sheer scale of contribution to the sport that Ferrari has been responsible for is, perhaps, immeasurable.

Ferrari’s intrinsic value to F1 is incalculable and there is a magnetic love for them across the world which illustrates just how significant and resounding their impact has been throughout the 62 seasons that Formula One has spanned. Historically they are priceless and their success is unrivalled. They are Formula One royalty – the very embodiment of the sport – and their legendary reputation is unquestionably deserved.

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.