Saturday 20 June 2015


Far from tears of joy! Image Courtesy - ESPNF1 
It might be a super-hero movie cliché but there is a lot of merit to this line - 'you always have a choice'. Looking back, if Michael Schumacher felt Rubens Barrichello deserved the win (at the 2002 Austrian Grand Prix), he would not have crossed the finish line ahead of his Brazilian teammate. The two Ferraris might have been stranded few metres before the chequered flag, egging each other to cross the line first. Nothing of that sort happened - in a matter of few seconds, Michael Schumacher benefitted from the team orders. Team orders are fine, but personally I felt, this was one occasion where the Ferrari think tank went a bit overboard.

Having said that, Formula One is a team sport, it is a business with all the commercial jargons packed in and served to us twenty times a year. It is the ultimate prize in motor-racing and it is also an expensive affair. Teams invest a lot and everybody strives to win. Yes, it is all about winning - but at what cost?

I am a Ferrari fan and an ardent admirer of Michael Schumacher. But on the Sunday of 12 May 2002, I didn't enjoy that particular victory a lot. Yes, it was 1-2 Ferrari, but there was more to it. Even in business, some situations are not crystal clear unlike the well-penned points in a contract and yes, Rubens Barrichello deserved the win irrespective of the championship situation. It wasn't the first time such a fate has met a driver. Team orders have been issued by all the big teams and in fact even Michael Schumacher was driver number two, helping Eddie Irvine during the 1999 season. Coulthard was the regular man Friday to Hakkinen on numerous occasions in 1998 and 1999 and not to forget, Damon Hill helped Alain Prost win his fourth world title in 1993. The examples can go on... but i hope you get the gist of what I am trying to say here.

At the 2001 Austrian Grand Prix, Michael Schumacher was behind the race leader Juan Pablo Montoya trailing by 1.6s. The fight was getting intense and on lap 16,  Michael tried to pass into the right-hander at turn two; Montoya did well to block the racing line but went wide and didn't leave any racing line to Michael Schumacher, which forced both cars to go off-track. No damage done, however a line of cars - Barrichello, Verstappen, Coulthard, Raikkonen and Olivier Panis went past them. Schumacher summed up the incident - "The fight had been fair until the incident, then he tried to take me out at the corner, and I had to go on the grass because I couldn't turn in on him. He wasn't looking where he was going, he was looking where I was going'.

Montoya tries hard to stop a quicker Schumacher at the 2001 Austrian Grand Prix

Schumacher upped his pace and was in third position by lap 28. Coulthard in second position and the other Ferrari driver Barrichello, led the race. Schumacher soon joined this duo and 0.9s separated the top three places as Michael Schumacher was first to pit on lap 46 and two corners later ran wide losing few tenths of a second on his out-lap. A lap later, Rubens Barrichello pits and comes ahead of Michael Schumacher. The race was now in the hands of Coulthard and his team of mechanics. Coulthard stayed on track for two more laps before coming in to the pits on lap 50. Eight seconds stationary (it was the era of refuelling!!!) and emerged out of the pits as the race leader. Twenty one laps remaining, the championship contender from McLaren was in the lead with the Ferraris behind him. With Mika Hakkinen's woes continued, it was already established that, it was the Scotsman who would lead the championship battle from McLaren. The win for Coulthard would narrow Schumacher's lead in the title race.

The race order remained this way - Coulthard, Barrichello and Michael Schumacher. With less than three laps to go, Jean Todt called on Barrichello to inform him to give way for Schumacher to have those extra two points. Rubens waited...the cars were at the fading stages of the penultimate lap, the race order remained the same... all eyes were on Jean Todt as he discussed with Ross Brawn and called on Barrichello once again as the cars crossed the finish line for one last lap - "Rubens, it's the last lap, let Michael pass for the championship, let Michael pass for the championship Rubens, please".

Rubens did let Michael pass in the final corner and thereby picking up those additional two points. Yes, it was disappointing for Rubens but one has to remember, Formula One at that point was (and still is) a team sport and Ferrari were not the first ones to employ such tactics to help a driver win the championship. With Coulthard's unexpected victory, the points table was a lot closer. Michael Schumacher led the championships by four points to David Coulthard's 38 points and Rubens Barrichello had only mustered eighteen points. 'If I hadn't been close to Rubens the team would not have asked. Ferrari might have a different philosophy to McLaren, who have also used this strategy in the past. Imagine, how it would be if we got to the end of the season and lost the World Championship by two points'. 

There is a lot of merit to this argument (Eddie Irvine lost to Hakkinen in 1999 by two points) - but what happened next year at the same venue was nowhere close to this.

Strictly, there are no comparisons from these two races. In 2001, Michael Schumacher was dominant in most parts of the race and one might argue, barring for few racing incidents, he did deserve to win the race. Besides, the championship battle was tighter in 2001.  

In 2002, it wasn't the case. First and foremost, Rubens Barrichello did an excellent job of being the fastest driver in the warm-up, took the pole position and led the race for all laps but for the final corner when he had to yield to Michael Schumacher and this time, it was for the victory and no, there was no championship at stake. Yes, team orders has influenced results to benefit a team and a driver, but on that day, Schumacher coming in second place would not have mattered.

Rubens did everything right...which deserved him to win the race... Team orders went bonkers! 
Moments later, both drivers make a mockery of the ceremony protocol, Michael refused to stand on the top step and instead asked Rubens to stand. German national anthem was heard loud and clear across the track, while it was a Brazilian standing on the top step. When it was the time for Italian national anthem, both Ferrari drivers stood on the podium and there were no signs of joy or the excitement in spite of winning the race 1-2. And to end it, the trophy was presented to Michael Schumacher which he quickly passed on to Rubens Barrichello, who happily accepted it.

At the end of the day, it was a bad call by the team. Ferrari was winning virtually every race they took part and media houses had to find something to pinch the Italian team. Crowd booed Michael Schumacher and he admitted in the press conference 'it was not a right choice' and 'he derived no joy from this victory and it was not the way he had envisioned to win in Austria for the first time'. It was a wrong choice though Rubens was aware what his role with Ferrari was when he had signed a fresh contract few days earlier.  

Barrichello takes home the trophy while Schumacher gets 10 points... Image Courtesy: Grand Prix Magazine

Michael Schumacher in his position within the team could have argued against the top management's decision to let him pass, perhaps he didn't push it hard as he still had to focus on driving. FIA summoned the team and drivers were questioned in a disciplinary hearing while many writers wrote the race being one of the sad days in Formula One. No, it was a far cry from being sad. If you want to term a sad day in Formula One, then look at the drivers who died racing. That is sad and cruel - and what happened to Rubens was just bad luck and a glimpse at the competitive and human side of Formula One. 

Tuesday 2 June 2015


1997 French Open was the first Grand Slam tournament Hingis took part ranked as number-one women's tennis player. She was the youngest and only the seventh tennis player to achieve numero uno, since the computer system was introduced in the 1970's.

She was on a winning streak of 31 matches and had not lost a single match in 1997. And then, freak! She got injured: cruciate rupture of the left knee and was advised a break in excess of a month. This happened in the third week of April and with five weeks to go for the French Open, she found herself unable to straighten her left leg. She underwent arthroscopy, and during this frustrating time, her fighting mode comforted her and as soon she felt good, her first words to herself were: "I am Martina Hingis, and I will be back".


Martina Hingis took to horse riding at age eleven. With time, it became her greatest passion, more than tennis at times. Riding was convenient, as there were horse stables close to her former residence at Trübbach. Though riding on horses isn't exactly safe for a tennis player, Hingis was quick to saddle up on those horses, found at ease and off-she went!

Her mother cum coach Melanie always encouraged horse riding as she felt it would be a welcome change for Hingis from the rigours of training and playing tennis. This was Hingis's unique way to relax and round off a training session. Accidents were not new while she was on the horse, but it never was serious. In fact, during the 1997 Australian Open, which she won, in the second week of the tournament, she had a fall from a horse and that never came in the way of winning her maiden Grand Slam singles title.

But few weeks later, it was a different story. While she was riding high and winning every match she took part in, the horse fall came at the most unexpected time. "It was not my own horse and we went for a few jumps towards the end. I was tired and for the first time I felt something like fear". Fear does creep in when you are no longer the 'underdog'. Martina was number one favourite and people expected this sixteen-year old to perform 'miracles' each time she went out on the court. The clay court season was about to begin - Hamburg, Berlin and Rome leading up to the premier clay event at Roland Garros. She was number one now and she must not get injured, those thoughts came to her mind while she was on the horse one day and next moment, she experienced the ill-fate Humpty-Dumpty did in the nursery rhyme (had a great fall).

35 days was all it took for Hingis to be back on the tennis court. Without any practice, she enters the clay courts of Roland Garros and wins her first match. In her second game after the comeback, she was under pressure. The Italian Gloria Pizzichini, after taking the first set was five points away from winning the match. The bounce-back ability of Hingis kicked in, she broke Gloria's game, took the second set and then breezed her way through to the next round, which was a walk in the park against her future doubles partner Anna Kournikova.

"I knew that if I made it to the second round I would become dangerous". Barbara Paulus, the sixteenth seeded Austrian showed some fight - but was not able to sustain the pressure to cause an upset.

This is the business end of any Grand Slam. The last three matches and much tougher opponents. How will Hingis and her body hold up? Was age on her side, which normally helps to heal and recover much quickly? Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, winner of two French Open titles leading up to this match (in total she was won three, the last of which was in 1998) found no rhythm and not once was she in the game. 6-2, 6-2 in favour of Hingis and next up was the third seeded Monica Seles at the semi-finals.

The three-time winner at the Roland Garros was good, but nowhere as frightening as she was before the stabbing incident in 1993. The match went close, really close into the third set. Both players moved around the court in search of that pivotal 'break' in the opponent's serve - it was Hingis, who managed to hold on and win 6-4 in the third set. Her wins for 1997 had now stretched to '37' and looked set to win her second consecutive Grand Slam title.
Iva Majoli, the nineteen-year old Croatian was in her first Grand Slam final. Though she had come through a string of wins against good opponents, the pundits gave her no 'chance' against the world number one. Bulk of the crowd, the experts, hoped she would give a good fight to the child-prodigy Hingis, who was the clear favourite. Few minutes into the game, it was anti-climax. Majoli, the ninth seed was in total control and the 'underdog' tag helped her to play more freely. Hingis was unable to contend Majoli as the Croatian took the first set 6-4. In second set, the top game of Majoli continued and forced Hingis to make errors one-after the other, and soon she delivered the upset by taking the set 6-3  to become the first Croatian to win a Grand Slam.

"I don't know why, but something wasn't going the right way, the way I wanted it on the court. If something didn't work before, I always had another weapon to get out of the pressure, but today, I didn't have anything, and she was just better".

Holding the runner-up platter, Hingis was shocked about her own inability to have answers to this onslaught by Majoli. "I won 37 matches this year and you're the only one who beat me". With no past champions in the finals since a decade, the crowd saw a newly crowned women's champion and against the odds, Majoli was the one who prevailed in the finals of two teenagers.

"I was feeling like an underdog, but that helped. I knew she was confident, but I knew she's not unbeatable. My plan was just to attack her serve, put more pressure on her forehand, just be aggressive. Luckily, today everything worked", the joyous Majoli after she became the lowest-seeded woman to win a Grand Slam in the Open era.

The French Open finals was one such occasion which tested Hingis, the mental aspect of a high pressure match coupled with her physical ailment - a raw occasion of how Hingis would react when things didn't seem to go her way. Mind you, Hingis was the number one player and with it came different expectations. Did these expectations weighed heavily under crunch situations, just like she found herself against Iva Majoli? Hingis took a strategic bathroom break, the break did no good. On the last game of the match, Hingis took an injury timeout and treated herself to a massage and did few extension exercises to her left leg (the one she had surgery five weeks ago), but to no avail.

"Maybe I didn't play my best tennis in this tournament, and my serve will always be a little problem, especially if I'm getting tired. In a Grand Slam, you just don't feel every day in your best shape" - conceded Hingis after her first loss of the year.


Post Roland Garros, all eyes were on Hingis to see if she could live up to the initial promise and hype. In a month's time, she claimed the most sought after trophy in tennis, the 'Wimbledon' defeating Jana Novotna and few months later, she faced Venus Williams at the Flushing Meadows and won it comfortably 6-0 6-4 to cap off a almost perfect Grand Slam year.

The year 1997, more than any other time in her career, she displayed her repertoire, be it the variations in height and length, the chess-like plays, those use of drops and lobs. With each victory, her fame grew and the Swiss teenager became the talk of the tennis town. Praises and superlatives were common and why not; Hingis was in a zone of almost perfection, a state which most tennis players aspire to reach and only few have attained that state of 'nirvana'.

Hailing from a country which is obsessed with patterns, formula etc, Hingis and her tennis always had a surprise element or two. Her opponents, and even spectators had a tough time adjusting to her unpredictable play. Defeats came rare as though it didn't exist in her playbook for most parts of the year. Hingis of 1997 was simply a level better than her opponents. With 75 wins in 80 games, twelve victories in 13 finals, she played one of the best seasons in the history of tennis.

In 1997, very few could refute the fact that, she played as though she was one of the most complete tennis players of all time.