2015 Formula 1 season preview

Formula One has had no trouble in producing the headlines over the winter break, with many of them negative.

Among them is the continued ill-health of Jules Bianchi, with details of his recovery scarce.

Then there is the ongoing scenario at Sauber, where the Swiss team have somehow managed to hand contracts to three drivers with only two seats available.

It is greatly ironic that “sauber” is the German word for “clean”. This is a situation that could be called anything but clean.

With pay-drivers Marcus Ericsson and Felipe Nasr announced as their two drivers and having appeared in all three winter tests, there seemed to be no issue.

However, along came Dutch test driver Giedo van der Garde to haunt the Sauber team.

Van der Garde had been offered a contract with the team for a 2015 race seat, for which he would pay several million pounds.

Then, Nasr and Ericsson came into the fray and offered more money than van der Garde and Sauber quickly snapped them up, abandoning the Dutchman and employing the newcomers.

Van der Garde took his case to a Melbourne court ahead of the first race and he won the right to drive for the team in Australia, with Sauber also failing in an appeal against the initial ruling.

To cut the legal jargon short, if Sauber do race with Nasr and Ericsson they will risk contempt of court – which would lead to several larger ramifications.

Of course, this is all rather embarrassing for a team run by Monisha Kaltenborn, who has a masters’ degree in International Business Law.

It is thought that van der Garde will replace Ericsson, if Sauber comply with the ruling, as Nasr’s sponsors are splashed on the entirety of the new car.

So, while the situation at Sauber is unwelcome, messy and off-putting there has also been a serious success story.

The saving of the Marussia team by Steven Fitzpatrick, boss of energy firm Ovo, has captured the attention of F1 purists.

To see a small team pull itself free from the quagmire of administration is the kind of positive story F1 needs.

The Fitzpatrick-led rescue of Marussia has seen the team renamed ‘Manor Marussia’ and they have quickly appointed British driver Will Stevens and Spanish youngster Roberto Merhi to race for them in 2015.

Fans should not expect too much from them, though. Although they have modified their 2014 car to comply with the 2015 regulations, they have had no time to test and develop the car.

That means the first four races will effectively be test sessions before the Spanish GP in May allows the team to fully unleash the 2015-spec car.

Moving on to the title battle for this year, there is only one team in with a chance of winning.

Mercedes have again crafted what looks to be the quickest car on the grid, with the only question surrounding which driver will win the world title.

Last season Lewis Hamilton romped to 11 wins in 19 races and it is in race trim where his team-mate, Nico Rosberg, must seek to improve if he is to turn his superior qualifying pace into victories.

Behind Mercedes the trio of Red Bull, Ferrari and Williams look evenly matched.

Red Bull had an inconsistent pre-season but they still look fast and in Daniel Ricciardo they have arguably the most aggressive racer on the grid.

Williams have looked very good on low-fuel runs and will need to cash in and score podiums to avoid a repeat of 2014 where it took them until round eight in Austria to clinch their first podium despite having the second-quickest car.

But it is Ferrari who appear to have made the biggest stride forward in performance.

The Italians have worked hard on increasing their engine power and newcomer Sebastian Vettel has indicated that the car is good to drive, with team-mate Kimi Raikkonen echoing his observations.

Behind that cluster of three, Force India and Lotus look like top ten regulars with the latter benefitting from a switch from Renault to Mercedes power in 2015.

Lower down the order, Toro Rosso, who are running with 17-year-old Max Verstappen and Formula Renault 3.5 champion Carlos Sainz Jr, will be gunning for points ahead of the troubled Sauber and reincarnated Manor Marussia.

Finally, we have McLaren.

Great hope spread throughout F1 that the team would be back to winning ways after signing a deal with Honda to rekindle their successful partnership of the late 80s and 90s.

Yet, the reunion has been an unhappy one with continued, niggling power-unit problems seriously restricting the running of the car during pre-season testing.

We know that Honda will get themselves sorted, it just remains to be seen if they can do so quickly enough to challenge the front four teams.

Added to the disappointing problems was the head injury to Fernando Alonso after a 134mph crash at Barcelona in the second test.

Alonso lost consciousness, sustaining concussion and amnesia, and later took the mature decision to miss the season-opening Australian GP. Kevin Magnussen, dropped for 2015 in favour of Jenson Button, will ironically deputise for Alonso.

Negative stories aside, we should be treated to another compelling year of racing between the Mercedes drivers and a tight battle behind them between three pretenders to their crown as world champions.

It’s Mercedes vs. Mercedes.

It’s Lewis vs. Nico: The second chapter.

You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89

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Are F1’s ‘small’ teams doomed?

Formula One used to be so accessible.

Privateer teams would spring up almost overnight and become instantly competitive – at times the sport was dominated by young teams such as Tyrrell, McLaren, Williams and Benetton.

McLaren and Williams, of course, remain two of the most successful teams in history but the same cannot be said of newer, smaller teams, particularly in the last ten years.

In the space of six years four teams – Super Aguri, Toyota, HRT and Marussia – have gone completely bust.

Another, Caterham, is in need of a buyer to remain in the sport after entering administration, although they have been told they can run their 2014-spec cars in 2015.

Marussia are hoping to preserve their existence by auctioning off their assets and assuming their maiden name of Manor F1 for the 2015 season, providing they can secure new ownership.

Not even the carrot of a £40m bonus for finishing in ninth place has so far proved tempting for potential investors in the Marussia team.

It means that F1’s three newest teams, HRT, Marussia and Caterham could all be wiped out after just five seasons.

So the inevitable question must be asked: Are F1’s small teams doomed?

The current trend certainly doesn’t look promising.

Ten seasons ago, in 2005, four small teams were taken over, some suffering with various financial ailments.

Those teams were Minardi, Jordan, BAR and Sauber and their current guises are Toro Rosso, Force India, Mercedes and Sauber – but their journeys to those destinations have been largely protracted ones.

Of the four, Toro Rosso has been running longest – a total of ten years.

The former Jordan team has morphed into Midland, Spyker and now Force India, while BAR has changed to Honda, Brawn GP and now reigning champions Mercedes.

Sauber, meanwhile, were bought by BMW before the Germans phased themselves out of the sport, eventually returning to the Sauber name in 2009.

In 2010 further overhauls at Renault, now Lotus, and Virgin Racing, now Marussia, were applied.

So the trend of the smaller teams encountering serious financial problems seems to be strengthening rather than decreasing, and that came to a head this season.

A new era of green V6 hybrid-turbo engines has prompted a tripling in their expense from roughly £5m per unit to £10-£15m.

The cost of running a team in just one season has consequently soared to £75m per season, meaning teams are increasingly turning to pay drivers to help fund their existence.

Pastor Maldonado is the highest-paying driver on the grid, with his Venezuelan oil money boosting the Lotus budget by £30m each season.

However, the spotlight has recently switched to the visions of the self-nominated ‘big teams’ who have been pushing for three-car teams.

Red Bull boss Christian Horner, who himself has experience of building a team from scratch in lower formulae with Arden, was vocal in saying that small teams should not be in F1 if they couldn’t afford it.

It is Red Bull’s close alliance with Ferrari, McLaren, Williams and Mercedes that has forced the microscope upon them.

These teams operate on a significantly higher budget than the likes of Force India and Sauber, who have seemingly been cut adrift in a ‘survival of the richest’ scenario.

The share of prize money is also weighted towards the top teams, with Ferrari given a guaranteed $100m per season just for turning up.

Frenzied calls have been made to divide the $800m in prize money more fairly and, until this happens, no matter how unlikely, it is difficult to see how smaller teams can close the gap on the track and earn more prize money by merit only.

With this in mind, it is unsurprising that automotive titans like Toyota have appeared and then vanished from the sport in quick time.

Armed with a mighty budget and an ambitious strategy, the Japanese manufacturer tried and failed to first establish itself in F1 and then win races.

A tally of 13 podiums was a poor return on an eight-season campaign which splashed hundreds of millions of pounds during its being.

BMW also dipped their toes in the F1 water, but found the going tough despite earning a race win in 2008 courtesy of Robert Kubica in Montreal.

Honda also quit the sport in 2009, despite building a championship-winning car and selling it to Ross Brawn for £1.

Some experts have questioned the existence of new teams in F1 with the stories of Toyota, BMW and Honda in mind.

If their extensive budgets were not enough, how can new and smaller teams expect to survive?

That conundrum has not deterred Gene Haas, who is set to enter his own F1 team in 2016, having deferred his entry from 2015.

Haas can call on a budget drawn from an expansive and hugely successful NASCAR career, with his long-standing interest in F1 finally proving too tempting to resist entering his own team.

There are also rumours that the VW Audi group are researching and assessing the viability of their own entry in 2017, having been buoyed by the £1.8bn worth of television exposure gained by rivals Mercedes this season.

It is likely that both these new projects will be well-funded but, as seen with Toyota, that does not guarantee success.

Small teams in F1 will continue to be discriminated against by Red Bull, Ferrari, Mercedes, Williams and McLaren.

It is a reality that will endure until a compromise can be reached with either the distribution of prize money, or the yearly cost of running an F1 team.

The new green regulations have ironically repelled teams from the sport rather than attract them, so something has to budge.

Will that budging be the extinction of F1’s smaller teams, a fairer sharing of prize money or a reduction of costs?

At the moment the issue of money is poisoning the sport and with it, the smaller teams too.

You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89

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

Sebastian Vettel – A true F1 ‘great’?

Formula One drivers come and go. Some may win races but most won’t. Others shrink into obscurity after a career spent hidden in the midfield. But there are an elite few, those who are recognised as ‘greats’.

Undeniably, after clinching a fourth consecutive title following victory at the Indian GP – his third in succession – Sebastian Vettel now joins a pantheonic group of F1 drivers who are freely regarded as ‘great’.

But sadly this historic achievement, for a significant proportion of F1 fans throughout the world, is being devalued with claims that he has had it all too easy during his short but illustrious career.

True, the 26-year-old has benefitted from an Adrian Newey-inspired Red Bull car for the past four seasons.

Red Bull’s rise from midfield runners to all-conquering world champions has coincided with a change in regulations in 2009 that mixed the ‘normal’ grid up.

The struggling Honda effectively forfeited their 2008 season, concentrating on the 2009 regulations and inventing the ingenious double diffuser.

Despite knowing the potential of their cars, the Japanese giant pulled out of the sport citing high costs and sold their operation to Ross Brawn, who promptly guided the rebranded ‘Brawn GP’ to a world championship double, with Jenson Button taking the drivers’ championship.

Since then, Newey has worked his magic, developing the Red Bull cars into a force so strong they have swept away all before them. It has been a Vettel stampede across the subsequent four championships.

To undermine Vettel’s ability during this period though, is to flirt with grave ignorance.

F1 bosses had long been aware of the German’s potential ever since an astonishing performance in 2004, when driving for Mücke Motorsport in the German branch of Formula BMW.

His team was not the fastest in the championship, but that did not stop the immensely talented Vettel winning 18 out of 20 races. To underline his brilliance he finished second and third in the two races he didn’t manage to win, amassing a staggering 20 podiums.

In fact, that title remains the last drivers’ title that Mücke won, further illustrating just how special Vettel is.

These are not the achievements of a man who has zero ability, or who would later rely on a superior car to win four F1 world championships. Moreover, it was a telling sign of the domination that was to come.

After progressing to Formula Three in 2005, he drove a so-called inferior car to fifth place in the standings, before earning the F1 test driver role with BMW Sauber in 2006.

The following season, Vettel was leading the Formula Renault 3.5 Series – a platform to F1 – when BMW driver Robert Kubica suffered a huge crash at the Canadian GP, sustaining concussion and forcing BMW to promote him to a race seat in the next race.

In another sign of his talent, Vettel qualified seventh and finished eighth, scoring his maiden point in F1 at the first attempt.

Four races later he replaced Scott Speed at Toro Rosso. The Italians, Red Bull’s sister team, were perennial backmarkers but Vettel took an outstanding fourth place finish at the Chinese GP.

This convinced Red Bull enough to place him in a full race seat with Toro Rosso in 2008, where he again surpassed expectations.

Bouncing back from four retirements in the opening four races, he took the slow Toro Rosso to five points finishes before a breakthrough moment set his career on a fast upward curve.

A wet Monza qualifying session was the stage on which Vettel needed no second invitation to demonstrate his capabilities. He surged to pole position – the first of his career and, to date, the only one during Toro Rosso’s short time in F1.

On race day, his achievements rocketed even higher. Despite his lack of experience and a wet start to the Grand Prix, he showed extraordinary skill to guide his Toro Rosso to victory.

It was the type of lights-to-flag win that would become gut-wrenchingly familiar to his opponents over the next five seasons.

He went on to finish eighth in the 2008 championship, ahead of established names such as Rubens Barrichello and Jarno Trulli.

Red Bull came calling after the retirement of David Coulthard, and suddenly Vettel was winning races again.

In a season where Brawn were dominant, Vettel managed to outperform team-mate Mark Webber to take second in the championship behind Button. He took four victories in amongst a total of eight podiums.

His record since then is scary.

He has won 31 times more, taking his career race win tally to 36 – the fourth-highest ever.

With 43 pole positions, he has started over a third of the races in his career from the front.

He has also been on the podium 50 times in his four title-winning seasons, recording 59 in total.

That means that of the 117 races he has started in F1, he has been on the podium in 50.43% of them – a mind-boggling display. Additionally, over 30% of those races have been victories – hardly an example of a driver who relies solely on his car.

These are the kind of statistics that remain unchallenged in modern F1. Nobody even comes close to the achievements that Vettel has carved out.

His meticulous approach to everything F1, including a unique visit to the Pirelli tyre factory, is a trait of a winner, a champion with a fierce desire for success – and success he has grasped.

It is clear that his unpopularity this season largely stems from the ‘multi-21’ incident with Webber in Malaysia. The team had instructed the drivers to respect track position after the first pit stop, but Vettel relentlessly chased the Australian – who had dialled his engine power down – before passing him for victory.

Webber, himself a popular figure in the paddock and with fans around the world, was incensed. Nevertheless Vettel, although sheepish in victory, displayed a ruthless streak compatible only with that of a champion.

He has since been booed on the podium during victory, something which has been on the wane in recent races – particularly in India where it was perhaps non-existent and if not, inaudible.

Unfortunately, the fans have also attacked the sport because of his dominance, claiming it to be boring – whether that would be the case if ‘greats’ Fernando Alonso or Lewis Hamilton were to have been as dominant is extremely unlikely.

His driving style may be win at all costs and some may frown upon that, but out of the cockpit he is as personable and friendly as they come. His cheeky and fun personality is always engaging and makes him a wonderful ambassador for the sport.

It is doubtful too whether the steadfast Alonso or the cocksure Hamilton would show as much humility as Vettel has done in the wake of four consecutive world championship triumphs – if they even get there.

Vettel’s record alone is worthy of the ‘greatness’ tag. Add to that his almost limitless talent and ability – displayed with crushing victories in junior and senior formulae – and you have a driver who should unquestionably be lauded as a true F1 ‘great’, joining names of the calibre of Schumacher, Fangio and Senna.

He really is that good – and the scary part for his opposition is that he is improving all the time. Are title numbers five, six, seven and eight feasible? For Vettel, anything is possible – and with the talent at his disposal, it is entirely probable.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89

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?

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.

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.