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Vettel cruises to easy Australian GP win

Sebastian Vettel cruised to an easy victory in Melbourne (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Red Bull‘s Sebastian Vettel won the opening race of the 2011 Formula 1 season in Melbourne, his eleventh career victory and his third in succession. The reigning world champion will enjoy few more straightforward victories, converting pole position into a comfortable lead over Lewis Hamilton which he maintained through the pit stops to win at a canter by 22 seconds. The McLaren driver had a largely uneventful and lonely drive to second, while Renault‘s Vitaly Petrov became the first Russian driver to achieve a podium finish in third.

Ferrari‘s Fernando Alonso recovered from a poor start to finish fourth ahead of a frustrated Mark Webber at his home grand prix. Hamilton’s teammate Jenson Button was sixth, paying for a poor start which left him bottled up behind Felipe Massa for several laps, resulting in an excursion down an escape road which led to a drive-through penalty. The Sauber pair of rookie Mexican Sergio Pérez and Kamui Kobayashi were initially seventh and eighth, but were subsequently disqualified when their rear wings were deemed to be in breach of the rules by the scrutineers.

This was the first time since 1970 that an F1 grid had featured five previous world champions. But while Vettel, Hamilton, Alonso and Button all finished in the top six, seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher’s race lasted just 19 laps. He suffered a puncture after being caught up in a first-lap incident, and was later retired by his Mercedes team as a precaution due to the damage to his car.

Here are a few thoughts on the opening race of the season, and what we can expect in the coming months.

Red Bull dominant, but McLaren already closing the gap

There is no mistaking the raw speed and aero balance of the 2011 Red Bull. In qualifying, Vettel was nearly eight-tenths of a second faster than next man Hamilton in a car which looked incredibly stable both under braking and in the corners. The old F1 maxim of  ‘if it looks good, it’s probably fast’ certainly holds true with this Adrian Newey design – his latest creation looks gorgeous and simply blew the opposition away. Vettel controlled the gap at the front of the race as he pleased and even Hamilton, wringing the absolute maximum from his McLaren, had no answer to him.

Hamilton’s effort in splitting the Red Bulls in qualifying was a stellar one, and was ample reward for his team which has essentially rebuilt their car from scratch after a torrid time in pre-season testing. It is testament to McLaren’s resources and focus that they appear to have turned what initially looked to be a dog of a car into the second-best on the grid. Button looked less able to find its absolute limits, but the way he climbed all over the back of Massa’s Ferrari for lap after lap was a sure sign of both his and the car’s potential. It would not be a surprise to see McLaren continue to close the gap in subsequent races.

We will get a better idea of the real pace of all the cars at Sepang, which will provide a sterner test of everyone’s mechanical and aerodynamic capabilities.

The tyre effect

Not only does the switch of tyre supplier from Bridgestone to Pirelli present a new technical challenge to the teams, but the requirement for this season’s tyres to wear more quickly introduces new dimensions of skill and randomness into proceedings. With soft tyres degrading after just a handful of laps, this should benefit drivers and cars who are kinder on their rubber, potentially saving a pit stop. It should also lead to more errors under braking, hopefully increasing overtaking manoeuvres.

Last year many races were run with every team running virtually identical pit-stop strategies, frequently one-stopping. Already in Melbourne we saw greater differentiation on this front, with teams opting for anywhere between one and three stops, which shakes up the running order. In addition, with the top ten having to start the race on the tyres they run in final qualifying, this is forcing the leaders into making their first stop much earlier than in previous seasons. As a result, they are unable to build a big enough gap to avoid rejoining in the midfield traffic, which adds a new and more random element to proceedings.

Overall, the impact of the new tyre regulations looks positive, with fears that the tyres would degrade too quickly seemingly unfounded. Definitely a positive.

Jury still out on KERS and DRS

After a one-year absence, the Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS) is back in F1. The advantage of the system, which stores up energy generated under braking to provide an additional power boost when desired, is offset by the weight of the batteries used to store that energy and additional rear tyre wear. Red Bull chose to run without it in the race. It will be interesting to see if they continue to do so on circuits with longer straights and higher top speeds, or whether other top teams also choose to sacrifice it.

As for the moveable rear wing or DRS (Drag Reduction System), it was not overly successful in promoting overtaking in Melbourne – the deployment zone was on the relatively short start-finish straight – and despite its repeated use Button could not pass Massa. There is no doubt that it confers a significant speed bonus. However, it probably requires the longer straights found on other circuits to be used to its full advantage in order to allow a following driver to make a pass stick and still brake earlier from a higher speed with initially lower downforce. It will certainly promote more overtaking, but it will be more evident on some circuits than others. Don’t expect it to make much of a difference on street circuits such as Monaco.

The final result is never the final result

One of the most infuriating aspects of F1 is the number of times you switch off at the end of a race, only to discover a couple of hours later that someone has been disqualified or demoted on a technicality. Pérez, on his debut, and Kobayashi had both driven superbly to finish at the bottom of the top eight, only to be disqualified on a minor technicality. While the decision was correct, it does nothing for the credibility of the sport with casual fans when a result is changed after the event.

Sauber are appealing against the double disqualification, so by the time we get to Malaysia in two weeks’ time the race result may have changed again. Only in F1.

How did the new drivers do?

Pérez, the runner-up in last year’s feeder GP2 series, was the most eye-catching of the four rookie drivers in Australia. Although he was slower than teammate Kobayashi throughout practice and qualifying, he was assured and mistake-free throughout, and was fast and lively in the race itself, coming in ahead of Kobayashi and recording a fastest lap four-tenths faster than his Japanese teammate.

GP2 champion Pastor Maldonado‘s race lasted just nine laps before a transmission problem, but he was within three-hundredths of his vastly experienced Williams leader Rubens Barrichello in the first qualifying session. Force India‘s Scottish rookie Paul Di Resta, the DTM German touring car champion, was promoted to tenth after a solid if unspectacular weekend, earning him a point on his debut after he had qualified ahead of teammate Adrian Sutil. Jérôme d’Ambrosio, who won one race in GP2 last year, had a largely anonymous weekend, being the 22nd and last qualifier (a second behind fellow Virgin driver Timo Glock) and ending up as the last classified finisher in 14th.

The return of an old friend

I couldn’t finish without mentioning Renault‘s new livery, which is a tribute to the black-and-gold colours sported by the John Player Special-sponsored Lotus cars of the 1970s and 1980s. It is gorgeous, and immediately brings to mind memories of Mario Andretti, Nigel Mansell and a young Ayrton Senna. It’s lovely to see its return.

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The week in numbers: w/e 1/8/10

19 – Total number of medals won by the Great Britain team (six gold, seven silver, six bronze) at the European Athletics Championships in Barcelona, one better than the previous championship best of 18 at Split in 1990.

Mo Farah

1Mo Farah‘s victory in the 10,000 metres was Britain’s first-ever gold medal in the event. It was also Farah’s first major championship title.

17.81 – Distance (in metres) jumped by Phillips Idowu to win the gold medal in the triple jump. It was a lifetime best by the British athlete.

6,823 – Total points accumulated by Jessica Ennis in winning the heptathlon, setting a new European Championships record. Ennis beat Olympic champion Nataliya Dobrynska of Ukraine into second place by just 45 points.

726 – As of Sunday, days remaining until the start of the 2012 London Olympics – July 27th was the ‘two years to go’ milestone.

James Anderson

11/71James Anderson‘s combined return in the first Test match as England defeated Pakistan by 354 runs at Trent Bridge. He took 5/54 in the first innings and followed it up with 6/17 in the second, as the visitors were dismissed for just 80.

20 – After Sunday’s Hungarian GP, the points separating Mark Webber (161 points), the Formula 1 championship leader, from Fernando Alonso in fifth (141) – less than the 25 on offer for a race win.

45 – Points difference after the first period in the AFL local derby between the Fremantle Dockers and the West Coast Eagles – 7.6 (48) vs 0.3 (3). The match finished 160-85 in favour of Fremantle.

0 – Total transfer fees paid for central defender Sol Campbell during his professional career – all his moves have come on a free transfer. He signed for Newcastle on Wednesday, having previously played for Tottenham, Arsenal, Portsmouth and Notts County before a second stint at Arsenal last season.

My sporting month: August 2010

You know summer’s nearly over when the newspapers start to publish their new season previews and the invites to join various fantasy football leagues flood into your inbox. Of course, the start of the new Premier League season is a big event, but there’s more to the month of August than football.

With that in mind, here are the top five non-football sporting events I will be watching over the coming month:

1. AFL round 18: West Coast Eagles v Fremantle Dockers (1st)

It has been (yet again) a tough season to be a West Coast fan, with the Eagles languishing at the foot of the ladder while the Dockers are seemingly playoff-bound, but there is always the opportunity for local bragging rights over the neighbours to look forward to. West Coast will be looking to avenge a heavy 111-73 defeat in May, which would represent an all-too-rare bright spot in an otherwise dismal year.

2. England v Pakistan – 2nd, 3rd & 4th Tests (starting 6th, 18th, 26th)

Pakistan bowler Mohammed Aamer

Following on from the first Test which started on Thursday, England‘s final matches before heading down under for their defence of the Ashes will provide a good benchmark as to our likely squad and prospects against a Pakistan side who are as capable of brilliant cricket as they are of total implosion. Never a dull moment.

3. Vuelta a España (starts 28, ends 19th September)

Alejandro Valverde (image courtesy of khoogheem)

The last of this year’s three Grand Tours, the Vuelta often feels like the slightly shabby cousin of the family when compared to the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France, particularly because of its timing so late in the season, when many riders are looking forward to either the World Championships or a well-earned break. However, the Vuelta remains an intriguing race, with some incredibly tough climbs and generally more open competition than you see at the other Grand Tours. Defending champion Alejandro Valverde is otherwise occupied serving a doping ban, and with many top riders likely to opt out after a brutal Tour, we should get an interesting look at riders who might otherwise be swamped by the established heads of state. Watch out for Tejay van Garderen, the 21-year old HTC-Columbia rider, who impressed with his third place at the Critérium du Dauphiné in June. With Lance Armstrong retiring, American cycling will be looking for a new young hero – van Garderen and 20-year old Taylor Phinney are strong candidates to fill Lance’s considerable shoes.

4. Belgian Grand Prix (29th)

After a four-week summer break following this afternoon’s Hungarian GP, the Formula 1 circus will return to action at one of the drivers’ and fans’ favourite venues, the historic Spa-Francorchamps circuit in Belgium. With championship leader Lewis Hamilton, Jenson Button, Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber currently separated by just 21 points (and with Ferrari‘s Fernando Alonso lurking in close attendance), we are facing the prospect of a genuine four-way (potentially even five-way) battle for the drivers’ title. With just six races remaining after Belgium, major points in this race could be vital by season’s end.

5. US Open tennis (starts 30th, ends 12th September)

The final Grand Slam tournament of the year will hopefully see the oft-injured Juan Martin del Potro defend his men’s singles title, while Kim Clijsters will be dreaming of a repeat of her fairytale comeback win in 2009.

The week in numbers: w/e 25/7/10

Muttiah Muralitharan

800Sri Lanka spinner Muttiah Muralitharan claimed his 800th victim by taking the final wicket on the final day of his 133rd and final Test before retiring from the long form of the game.

150 – British athlete Jodie Williams‘s gold medal in the 100 metres at the World Junior Championships in Canada last Wednesday was her 150th consecutive race victory. Her streak ended at 151 when she was beaten into second place in the final of the 200 metres.

100,000 – In dollars, the fine handed out to Ferrari for issuing team orders at yesterday’s German Grand Prix. The punishment could be increased by the World Motor Sport Council in the next few weeks.

Anthony Charteau

39 – In seconds, Alberto Contador‘s winning margin at the Tour de France – the exact amount of time he gained after taking advantage of Andy Schleck‘s slipped chain on stage 15.

11 – French riders have won the King of the Mountains competition in 11 of the past 17 years – Anthony Charteau added to the tally this year – but none have claimed the overall race win since 1985.

6 – Stages won by French riders at this year’s Tour, the most since 1997.

Eduardo (image © Arsenal.com)

23.5%Eduardo da Silva completed his transfer from Arsenal to Shakhtar Donetsk, having never fully recovered from a broken leg sustained against Birmingham City in 2008. He had scored with 23.5% of his shots in the Premier League before his injury, but converted just 6.3% after.

88Australia‘s first innings score against Pakistan at Headingley was their lowest Test match total in 26 years (76, versus West Indies at Perth in 1984), and their seventh-lowest ever.

61 – Former world snooker champion Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins died after a long battle against throat cancer on Saturday, aged 61.

Some statistics courtesy of @optajim and @OptaJoe.)

The week in numbers: w/e 30/5/10

27,000,000 Reduction in the London 2012 Olympic Games budget (in pounds) announced as a result of Government cuts. The original ring-fenced budget was a whopping £9.325bn.

0 – Number of games lost by Dinara Safina in her first round victory over Britain’s Anne Keothavong at the French Open.

14 – Number of years since Kimiko Date Krumm last beat a top-ten player until she defeated Safina in the second round. (The 39-year old had retired from the sport between 1997 and 2007.)

117 – FIFA world ranking of the Cape Verde Islands, with whom Portugal (ranked third) drew 0-0 in a pre-World Cup friendly.

7 – Number of pole positions recorded by Red Bull drivers in the seven races so far in the 2010 F1 season.

94 – Balls required by Tamim Iqbal to hit the fastest ever Test century by a Bangladeshi batsman, as Bangladesh followed on on day four of the first Test against England at Lord’s.

2,618 – Height in metres at the summit of the Passo di Gavia, the highest point reached in this year’s Giro d’Italia. It is almost twice the height of Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest mountain at 1,344 metres.

2England‘s football team benefitted from two own goals in their 2-1 friendly win over Japan, the first time this has ever happened to them.

1-2-3Dario Franchitti won his second Indianapolis 500, holding off Dan Wheldon and Alex Lloyd and ensuring a British 1-2-3 finish at the biggest event on the American motor racing calendar. (Incidentally, if you have the chance, look up the replay of Mike Conway‘s crash on the final lap and I defy anyone to tell me with a straight face that motor sport – despite its many safety advances in recent years and races which can often be soporific – isn’t seriously dangerous.)

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