Thursday 26 September 2013

Lost Track: Circuits of the Yore XVI - Pedralbes, Spanish Grand Prix

Track Photo Courtesy - allf1.info

Last month I visited Barcelona. It was my first time in Spain and I loved it. It was a short stay of three days in one of the beautiful and happening cities of the world and this abrupt stop was memorable nevertheless. I recall the crowded street of La Rambla, the Mediterranean Sea side, the monumental Sagrada Familia, the colossal ‘Camp Nou’ – abode of FC Barcelona, Poble Espanyol and the Olympic Stadium which also was the venue for Montjuïc race track. There were many other memoirs too like the colourful water fountain in its glory at night, Arc de Triomf, random Tapas joints, introduction to Gazpachos and an unforgettable dinner at the roof top restaurant of Vila Olimpica.

Amongst all this, I also went around the streets in a relatively busy locality called ‘Pedralbes’. Famous for its monastery - ‘White stones’ as translated in Catalan also was the first place in Spain which drew the likes of Fangio, Ascari and the rest of the 50’s Formula 1 drivers. It was a street circuit, a quick one where cars could reach up to a speed in excess of 300 km/h. The roads were wide, slightly grand and featured city’s broom corners. 
With the driver’s championships hanging in balance, the final event of the 1951 season was to culminate at Pedralbes, which was making its F1 debut. Which driver would it be? Alfa-Romeo having won the previous year looked good with their driver Juan Manuel Fangio, who led the championship at the start of this race. Ferrari on the other hand had hopes on their star driver Alberto Ascari to overcome the two point deficit and win the driver’s title. The job was half done with Ascari taking the pole and Fangio coming in second.

Crowd gathered in good number to watch this thriller unfold. Both drivers were pumped up to win their maiden F1 driver’s title. And so, the race started. Engine wise both Alfa-Romeo and Ferrari were evenly matched for speed. But it was the tyre choice that was going to be decisive. Ferrari opted for 16 inch rear tyres while Alfa Romeo went for 18 inch. This difference of 2 inches turned out to be a big disadvantage for Ferrari. They soon found their cars struggling with grip issues and tyres losing their thread rapidly. Ascari suffered the most and his championship hopes now solely rested on Fangio’s retirement and him taking 2 points or more. 

Fangio went on to win first of his five world titles. Ascari could manage only fourth. After having two successful seasons in F1, Alfa-Romeo announced of their F1 withdrawal from the 1952 season onwards owing to finances and the lack of it. In 1952 and 1953, the Spanish Grand Prix was replaced by Dutch Grand Prix. Pedralbes was back for the 1954 season in place of Zandvoort track of Netherlands.

Like it was in 1951 Pedralbes again hosted the ninth and the last race of the season. This time there was no such pre-race drama. Fangio was already a world champion coming into this round and he now driving for Mercedes could race without any title pressure. Barring for the two races he drove for Maserati, Fangio won four races with Mercedes.

Ascari was a double-world champion by this time and repeated his feat of 1951 by taking the pole position at this 6.3 km circuit. He was racing for Lancia and they had brought in their 90 degree V8 engine as a part of their chassis for this race. The pace was there to be seen - fastest practice lap, pole position and the fastest lap of the race. By the end of nine laps both the Lancia driven cars were out of the race. Luigi Villoresi retired on lap 2 struck by brake problems and seven laps later his mate Ascari would end his race and season due to clutch problems. The fastest car didn’t last the distance.

Mike Hawthorn who went on win his solitary World Championship in 1958 won this race for Ferrari. This win was made easy by leakage issues which Fangio had to deal with as he lost oil towards the end of the race. The duel of Hawthorn and Fangio didn’t reach the climax as a result of this unfortunate incident. Fangio lost his second position and finished in third. This third position is quite a significant one. Out of his 52 entries in F1, he won a Bradmanesque 24 times, came second 10 times, retired 10 times, DNQ (Did Not Qualify) once, finished outside the top three 6 times and this result in Spain was his sole 3rd place of his F1 career.

The year 1955 is considered to be a black year for motorsports. The LeMans Disaster of 1955 was catastrophic and the sport became a lot stricter than it was as a result of this tragedy. Pedralbes was one of the casualties to suffer aftermath of what happened in LeMans. Stringent rules meant Pedralbes was out of the calendar. It never did any significant attempts to win back its place in F1. However, Spain did host and continues to host F1 races albeit it had to wait for another 13 years. 
Now all that remains of Pedralbes is the street and long stretch roads which once, rather twice had some of the fastest road cars on them with drivers accelerating, changing gears and braking at will. Looking at the roads, it was tough for me to visualise the events that took place nearly 60 years ago. There is a tramway on the middle of these roads, a freeway very close by to the road and few corners from the original Pedralbes circuit are still retained. The memories though remain and unfortunately I couldn’t get hold of any elderly gentleman or lady who had witnessed this event. 

Friday 20 September 2013

Evolution with bursts of Revolution - An Indian Sports Story

Revolution and Evolution is a rhyming pair and a complementing couple too. For anything to materialise in life, I believe they must co-exist. A human life follows the pattern of evolution, however without the frequent spurts of revolution now and then, the process of humanisation would have been predictable, certain, very slow and a touch boring.

These ‘bursts of revolution’ change the course of evolution and to a large extent accelerate the process. Failure to adapt to the new conditions can be a master stroke and thereby retaining one’s individuality or be a lack of vision in not staying with the times. I am all ok with the fact of retaining one’s tradition, values, culture which makes globalisation interesting; in fact very intriguing. At the same time, closing the door(s) of improvement in the name of tradition is baffling.

Take India for example and I am amassed at the growth it has had in the past two decades. It is not a stranger anymore on the world map and there are many reasons to it which have been well covered by a lot of writers, opinion makers, creative artists and a lot others around the globe. Not all endorse and understand (a bit) my country in a way I see it, that’s fair enough. I too do not have the same words to feed into their ears. What exists, in spite of these sociological differences is that, there is a mutual admiration society.

And to go further, I take the example of sports - While growing up; I did not know what it meant to be ‘Behind the Scene’ of a sporting event. The events were shown live on television or transmitted via radio commentary or presented graphically and written poetically on the print media. Olympic Sports and its values was zilch to me as there was no uniformity of sports education growing up. I knew about sports because my parents played right until their youth before they were married and continued supplementing with information. What I knew was that, only a fanatic or a close relative/friend of a sports person was involved in the sports industry. Like many of my age that time, I too and previous generations to us played sports with basic rules applying the human ethics and general physical awareness. Sports were just another activity which did not involve studies. So, we all liked it, didn’t we? That was a long time ago or is it?

Now, we are fighting for the Sports Bill, a huge document which is making rounds from a long time in India. It is the Government of India’s initiative with a purpose to streamline the Indian Olympic Association. Its implementation so far has been limited or to say less penetrative. While the Government is spending a lot of money on Olympic Sports, the National Olympic Committee of India is many miles away from Nirvana. I believe unless Sports is of national priority and a long term government policy, it is very difficult to implement a set of rules and regulations. Indian Olympic Association (IOA) in my view was established so that it can lobby on behalf of Indian Olympic movement and create a platform where more athletes could concentrate on their activities than dwell on petty politics; instead; let them spread the value of Sports and act as the voice of the ideals that were drawn up by few good men of the yore who drafted the Olympic Charter.

I believe IOA has failed on this aspect and looked for excuses for their repeated failures and still continue to do so. It took Commonwealth Games to bring the ghosts of IOA from the closet. What if India never hosted CWG in 2010? Few businesses would have made less money or more money depending on which side of the spectrum they are; Indian government would have spent the same money elsewhere and the IOA would have continued to be a member of IOC. A lot of the working stuff who did their bit in the Organising Committee and volunteers would have worked in different industries and there would have been less support to the few activists who appeared to have rebelled for a long time with a cause but achieved little to no results.

India is a land of people living under innumerable cultures and of different beliefs. There is a struggle for basic amenities, presence of turbulent neighbours’ since Independence and these are some of the factors that put sports in the lesser priority category. Is housing more important or a play ground? Basic infrastructure or Sporting Infrastructure? Food or dietary supplements? Clothing for Protection or for performance? Education to create a better self or to excel in Sports?

In an ideal world, these problems must never be an alibi for sports organisations that are entrusted to look after this and create a systematic sports culture. Sports for a lot were and are a means to escape studies. It was outlawed as it interfered with many of the growing kid’s education and the practice is still on. Parents, Schools and families seldom give importance to sports. It remains an extra-curricular exercise and not co-curricular subject. It is a candy and not nutrition. Back then, very few Robin Hoods existed in our society and now we have a slow raise in fan following. Again, when we talk of numbers it is easy to justify but when we consider the percentage, the graphics would do the talking.

With all these and many other factors, sports continue to shine with its gloss increasing with time. Field Hockey and then Cricket, probably the only two team sports that were consistently part of and competed at the International level. Individuals came and left, but the effect did not trickle down to others in case of individual sports baring Tennis and to an extent Badminton. Shooting, Boxing, Football and Wrestling has potential. Hockey, after having won eight gold medals by the time LA Games (1984) were about to begin, faded and devolved with time. Failure to adapt and an organisation led by the thoughts that, hockey was in success auto-pilot mode failed to have contingencies in place. To put it bluntly, it crashed. Thirty – three years hence, we are still in the process of restoration and even the small intervals of revolutions failed to take off once it was on the run way. The answer to this delay will be a thesis subject, and of my interest the day I shall take up my doctoral studies. Hockey is not in a transition state at the core, it is merely lacking direction, guidance and management to take it forward. Where is our Messiah hiding?

I would not like to talk much about cricket as it has outgrown everyone’s expectations in the world. I believe India has one of the best infrastructures in the world to play cricket at the moment and the people who are running the game will just have to sort their power struggles. For now, the sport is safe and unless a meteor strikes heavily, the influence and popularity will not fade that easily.

I had to wait 12 years of my life to see an Indian athlete wearing an Olympic medal; Leander Paes at the 1996 Atlanta Games. Individual sports are a luxury and till today, it requires a special effort to go through the hurdles of representing the country. How many athletes would be happy to just participate and not bother under what flag? That is a debatable point, as it is not a ban on competing. It however has repercussions, as the funding from the International Olympic Committee and the International Federations get curtailed and Indian Government can only spare a few hundred millions of rupees for sports. Very few private enterprises with deep pockets are into individual sports. For the size of India, it is not enough. We can be content with whatever we are given, but cannot expect to be world challengers or beaters if this continues.

If Sports Ministry gets involved in running the affairs of Indian Olympic Association, the ban will continue unless the interference is aligned with the Olympic Charter. IOC requires non-governmental intervention while running the National Olympic Committee. Bulk of the money is provided by the Sports Ministry to the athletes and their welfare which comes as minimum requirements and for some in the form of Government jobs. So naturally, the political honchos expect IOA to behave while IOA use the governmental interference clause to live on the edge of being banned. That tight rope was cut last December and the struggle is on to be reinstated back to the Olympic family. The ban on IOA remains and was not changed at the recently concluded IOC General Body meeting.

The only solution for IOA is to mend their ways and for certain egotist individuals to come out of their incumbency. An instance like this is when the democracy of India fails to remove the cynicism of a sports enthusiast. There is hatred, there is anger, a lot of malice, dirty politics, power struggles, incapable of letting it go and other adjectives that matches the aforementioned frequency. The efforts of certain athletes and sports rights activists are of limited use. Are they fighting in what appears a lost battle already? Or are they doing their little bit and need more of the same from others?

Yes and No - the very fact that Indian Sports is under constant discussion makes it interesting for the future; how long are we prepared to fight to make IOA a proper governed body? Do we have the courage, patience and optimism to see it happening? I believe so and this I rely on evolution and the current on-going battle (from the year 2010) to force IOA to mend its way is the revolution that is complementing the evolutionary process of Indian Sports.

For now I let go of my little frustration. I see and hear a lot of kids in India playing different sports, have more playing facilities and resources than I did. They are well informed too on international sports. Things can be much, much better than what it is. Let me be a pragmatist and step back a little and see what’s happening. I see there has been an improvement at the grassroots level, which keeps me in a good mental health and optimistic about Indian Sports and for its future. 

Wednesday 18 September 2013

Celebrating Twenty Years of Tennis in my Life

Raaghu was and will always remain the first person with whom I played tennis. This present year would be the time when we would have celebrated our 20th year anniversary of playing tennis. The game of tennis was a short lived affair and if my memory serves right, we played for about 3-4 years. I continued with other friends for another four years into the early years of this millennium. I loved cricket and equally I enjoyed playing tennis, and Raaghu was equally excited about playing with me. He was my cousin alright; my tennis mate was apt at that time.

We watched a lot of cricket and tennis together but when it came to playing, he preferred tennis and I don’t know why. He resisted coming to play cricket with us and was always game to play one of our versions of Grand Slam tournaments. Soon this bug caught on with a lot of my friends and we had to draw the ties, have a proper line umpire and what not.

There were two courts bang opposite to our respective homes; both the court lines drawn manually by me and Raaghu. There were no different grades of hard courts, clay was nowhere to be seen and grass? Well, let’s just say it was meant for the cows to graze or to be adorned in the rectangular empty plots. After having drawn the boundaries with accuracy, the space inside those brick red lines became our playing world. We played Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and US Open – all on the same surface; the tarred roads of Bangalore and in our locality in particular.

This craze like I mentioned before caught on and attracted my peers like ants to sugar blocks. It was an amazing piece of entertainment and more importantly, an arena in which we felt we could play tennis with zero investment. Mind you, traffic was alien to us at that time and so except for few stares by pedestrians and fan gathering, the game went on regularly uninterrupted. Flood lights in the form of bright street lights were a boon and we played tennis under lights, just like Australian or the US Open.

There were three setters, five setters and doubles tournament – the frenzy went on for months and a few years. It was not a regular past time; it was seasonal which peaked with that of the professional tennis season, namely the Grand Slams. I felt for Mary Joe Fernandez losing the French Open to Steffi Graf in 1993 and immediately in the next tournament I can still recall the teary eyes of Jana Novotna (Navrathna, as I used to call her) on that Saturday evening of the Wimbledon finals. It is still etched in my memory. One of the reasons being, we started playing tennis during that time. 

When Sergei Brugera won a five set thriller against Jim Courier in the French Open finals, we also started to stretch our play and started playing five setters. The triumph of Jensen brothers in the men’s doubles and with growing popularity of our local tennis doubles game made its debut. We imitated many of the tennis players and the serve of Pete Sampras became my style, or atleast I tried hard to replicate. He won his first Wimbledon in that year and in the process went on to become my favourite player. It was Jim Courier again who lost the finals in consecutive tournaments.

I have won a Grand Slam; won many of the doubles matches and at the same time have lost too. Raaghu had his share of victories too. And that my dear friends, is how we consumed tennis outside of television - without racquets, without tennis overalls and most importantly without tennis courts. The only common equipment between the elite players and us were the use of tennis balls, and most of it was locally made.

Wilson was the biggest brand we aspired to have, and believe me twenty years ago if I were to be presented with a set of Wilson tennis balls, I would have kept it safely without letting air whistle through the vacuumed container and touch those precious tennis balls. However, there was no shortage of seriousness and we played till the last drop of sweat fell onto the ground. Yeah, there was no prize money, so what?

That was when I was nine years of age and I was hooked onto tennis just like I was crazy about playing cricket. The hero of Indian tennis back then was Leander Paes and Ramesh Krishnan. Krishnan retired few years later while Paes has continued and recently won his 14th Grand Slam title in doubles.

I don’t quite know what me remember this phase of our childhood. Maybe it was a conversation I had in the morning which made me realise how deeply I love sports and the short work I did with tennis. I have not played a tennis match in a long time. It’s high time I played a game of tennis on a proper court, holding a racquet with a hope of winning a game, a set and probably a match.