The week in numbers: w/e 18/3/12

Tendulkar finally completed his century of centuries after waiting for more than a year

100Sachin Tendulkar finally ended a run of 33 innings – over the space of 370 days – without a hundred to become the first batsman ever to hit 100 international centuries, scoring 114 in a one-day international against Bangladesh in Dhaka. However, Bangladesh won the match by five wickets.

3Wales completed their Six Nations campaign with a third Grand Slam in eight years after their 16-9 victory over France.

5 – Italy’s 13-6 victory over Scotland left them bottom of the Six Nations table having lost all five games.

16 – Big Buck’s tied Sir Ken’s record of 16 consecutive jumps victories by winning the World Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival for a record fourth time.

23 – World number one Victoria Azarenka recorded her 23rd consecutive victory of 2012 as she defeated Maria Sharapova 6-2 6-3 to win the Indian Wells tournament.

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My sporting month: March 2012

The football season will be gearing up for its home stretch in March, as the Premier League season enters its final third and we have the quarter-finals of both the FA Cup and the Champions League to look forward to. Similarly the Six Nations reaches its climax this month with a potential Grand Slam showdown to look forward to. And the England cricket team embark on the final leg of their winter tours.

But for many other sports their year is only just beginning, or at least getting into their stride. As winter turns to spring, here are five of the key sporting events I’ll be watching this month.

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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.

My sporting month: March 2011

March is an extremely busy month in the sporting calendar, with a host of different major events across multiple sports. In addition to the five events listed below, I will also be taking time to catch as much as I can of the FA Cup quarter-finals (which includes the mouth-watering possibility of a showdown between Manchester United and Arsenal at Old Trafford), the European Indoor Athletics Championships in Paris, cycling’s World Track Championships (which this year takes place in Apeldoorn in the Netherlands), the University Boat Race and the final two rounds of Six Nations matches, which offers the possibility of an England Grand Slam.

None of the above makes my personal list of highlights for March, though. Here are the five that did.

1. UEFA Champions League, Barcelona vs Arsenal (8th)

Arsenal came from behind to win 2-1 in the first leg at the Emirates, leaving this last-16 tie delicately poised for next week’s return match at Camp Nou. History suggests that teams which lose the away leg 2-1 are still the more likely to progress, and Arsenal know Barcelona will rightly consider themselves favourites to overturn the deficit at home.

The English side will not be able to sit back and hope for a goalless draw, which would guarantee their passage to the quarter-finals – in six previous European meetings between these two teams, neither has yet to keep a clean sheet. Arsenal will certainly look to snatch a crucial away goal on the break to cancel out David Villa‘s goal at the Emirates, but their own goal is likely to come under siege from the likes of Lionel Messi, XaviPedro and Villa himself.

If the second leg is anywhere near as good as the first, it will be a classic and a wonderful game for the neutrals. Miss it at your peril.

Mark Cavendish will be looking to win Milan-San Remo for the second time (image courtesy of TDWSport.com)

2. Milan-San Remo (19th)

One of cycling’s big one-day Classics, Milan San-Remo always attracts a large number of the sport’s big names. It is the longest professional one-day race at 298km, and although it is sometimes referred to as ‘the sprinters’ classic’, it features a lumpy route ending in the Poggio climb just a few kilometres from the finish. The last of a series of shortish but tough climbs, it drains the legs of energy to set up a taxing finish.

British superstar sprinter Mark Cavendish won here in 2009, and he will be back again looking to claim a second win after injury compromised his defence last year. Look out for also for last year’s winner Óscar Freire, world time trial champion Fabian Cancellara and Heinrich Haussler, who was edged out by Cavendish in 2009 but already has two stage wins at last month’s Tour of Qatar under his belt.

3. Cricket World Cup knockout phase (starts 23rd)

The quadrennial World Cup tournament takes an awfully long time to get going, with the group phase taking over a month to whittle down the original 14 entrants to eight. But once we reach the serious business of the knockout stages – the quarter-finals start on the 23rd – the drama will come thick and fast as we build towards the final on April 2nd.

Defending champions Australia have already made an ominously strong start to the tournament, winning their opening games over New Zealand and Zimbabwe with some ease as they seek an incredible fourth straight win (and fifth overall). And England, after a shaky start against the Netherlands, will have taken great encouragement from Sunday’s thrilling tied match against co-hosts India. Can Andrew Strauss‘s men safely negotiate their group and give themselves a chance of adding the 50-over world title to last year’s Twenty20 win?

4. Australian Football League kickoff (starts 24th)

After 2010 saw only the third Grand Final replay in history – Collingwood finally beat St Kilda at the second attempt – the 2011 Aussie Rules season kicks off on Thursday 24th. This year the league has expanded to 17 clubs with the introduction of the new Gold Coast team.

Collingwood kick off the defence of their title at Port Adelaide on Saturday 26th, but I will be focussed on the final game of round one the following day as the West Coast Eagles travel to North Melbourne to take on the Kangaroos. After a dismal 2010 in which they finished bottom of the ladder just four years after winning their third Grand Final, the only was is up for the Eagles.

2010 champion Sebastian Vettel (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

5. Australian Grand Prix (27th)

With the opening Bahrain GP cancelled due to safety concerns, the 2011 Formula 1 season now kicks off at the end of the month with the Australian race around Albert Park in Melbourne. Red Bull and their 23-year old driver Sebastian Vettel – the youngest drivers’ champion in the sport’s history – remain the combination to beat, although the German can continue to expect stiff competition from team-mate Mark Webber, not to mention the massed forces of both McLaren and Ferrari.

With Bahrain now removed from the calendar, the season now comprises 19 races, ending at Interlagos in Brazil at the end of November. If 2011 is even half as close as last year, which gave us the tightest title race in years with the four Red Bull and McLaren drivers all in contention until the final couple of races, it should be an exciting year.

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