Thursday 27 June 2013

Have I seen Federer one last time at Wimbledon? Deja-vu from 2002

My mind went to the memories of 2001 last year when I saw Andy Murray defeating Roger Federer to claim the gold medal at the 2012 Olympics at the Wimbledon. I was in my class 12 then in 2001 as I watched a young Swiss playing his heart out against a champion, a legend when it came to playing on the grass courts of Wimbledon.

Roger Federer met Pete Sampras for the first time at Wimbledon in 2001. The nineteen-year old from Switzerland had nothing to lose. His compatriot, Martina Hingis the top seed at that year’s Wimbledon was knocked out in the first round – so my hopes all rested on the American to defend his title yet again. He looked set to win his 8th Wimbledon title.

Call it arrogance or simply blind faith at that time; I thought there was nobody who could beat Sampras at Wimbledon. It is true, the likes of Marat Safin had won against Sampras against all odds at 2000 US Open, but common on, we are talking about Wimbledon and with such thoughts occupied in my mind, parallely the game went on nervously, it affected me and to many who were present live watching the match. Finally, the nerves got the better of the person, who had expectations from almost everyone.

Tense is an understatement and all I could hope at that time was, the best shall prevail and the best to me was Sampras. No doubts about it. The few images I had of Federer were that of a Sportstar photographs with him next to Hingis and the one holding the Hopman Cup. I was a huge fan of Martina Hingis and I followed their exploits early that year when they ended up on the winning side at the Hopman Cup (2001) in Australia. Long hair, small eyes and a head band to go with, was all I had known of Federer before the match against Sampras.

My worst fears came true as I saw the return from Sampras hitting the net and the next moment Federer down on his knees. He had caught the big fish on the market and he didn’t quite know how to celebrate it. He was the talk of the town and though he didn’t went on to win the championship; the quality of his strokes and play was showcased in a grand way to the tennis audience across the globe. An era was about to come to an end, the domination, the long streak which Sampras enjoyed came to an abrupt halt.

The defeat of 2001, what do I make of it? All I said then was I need a good 18th birthday present next time around when Sampras played Wimbledon in 2002. I was like that back then, and that's how I viewed sports. Sampras battled on for the rest of the season and had lost US Open finals towards the end of the year to another rookie Lleyton Hewitt. He was clearly not winning the titles, but consistently he was making it to the title clashes. Sampras was good, but nowhere near his peak form.

Next year Wimbledon, same hopes and this time Sampras played not as a defending champion anymore. The only time previously he played without defending the Wimbledon title was in 1997 and prior to that was in 1992. This was 2002 and he had lost just three matches in those last 10 years, he played at Wimbledon. He was two months shy of being 31, so there were no issues with ageing. I still had hopes on him to turn it around and win the oldest Grand Slam tournament for the 8th time.

Then the news came as a shock. Pete Sampras knocked out of Wimbledon at the second round by George Bastl. Who the hell is this Bastl? A lucky loser from the qualifying tournament which enabled him to play in the main draw; and coincidentally he was a Swiss too.

I felt and I am sure a lot others felt too, then and there at that moment Sampras time was up. No regrets. Sometimes things do not go as we wish and so be it; he lost yet another five setter match, in consecutive years at Wimbledon and both the winners hailing from the same country. Why make a big deal and instead I chose to relish his 13 victories thus far.

All I hoped was a good farewell and that he got at the US Open, when he won his 14th Grand Slam title in front of his home ground against his countrymen and a rival for many years, Andre Agassi.

I knew, he played his last match and the scene of his wife Bridgette Wilson, wearing a beige coloured outfit exchanging smiles and pleasantries with an emotionally drained Pete Sampras is still etched in my memory. In a span of few months, both my favourites at that time had faded away. First the Swiss Miss, Martina Hingis and now Pete Sampras. 
Image Courtesy: CBS.com
No matter how easy or difficult it is, or was – you just move on. Never in my life had I thought Federer would be the man I would choose to support once Sampras retired, even when he defeated Sampras in the 2001 encounter. Times change and as a sports lover, you gotta pick up someone or fancy someone to win, or else there is no fun. And so, it was Federer, the instinctive choice to support next.

To me, Federer was an ideal replacement for Sampras. Serve and volley at Wimbledon was all there to be seen. Federer won his first title the following year in 2003. Since then and more so from Wimbledon 2004, he has marched on reaching to new heights which yielded him 17 Grand Slam titles, a career Grand Slam, Olympic doubles gold medal and a silver medal. Amongst those conquests, he fought many fierce rivals of the likes of Nadal, Djokovic and since couple of years Andy Murray.

His record streak of reaching 36 quarterfinal appearances is now done and dusted. The last time he went out this early was in 2002 Wimbledon championships. I was talking and thinking about his first win in 2003 while I was cooking tonight and then few moments later I got to know of him crashing out of this year’s Wimbledon. No Maria Sharapova too in the current tournament, my other favourite and now Federer’s exit has made an unknown Ukrainian Sergiy Stakhovsky enter the limelight at this year’s Wimbledon. 

First it was Nadal’s exit, but he was never consistent barring at the French Open and now Federer’s exit is big news for the Fedex fans and to the media; his defeat is even bigger news for Staskovsky and his contingent of supporters.

Now my whole scribbling of memories of the past 10 years begs the question. Have I seen the last match of Roger Federer in Wimbledon? He will be 32 come this August 8th and looks fit to carry on. It isn’t about how fit he is, it is more than that to remain in the peak form when it comes to playing tennis.

For now, I won’t say anything more and I shall wait for this year’s Flushing Meadows before asking the inevitable question which I asked about Sampras to myself eleven years ago at this time of the year.

There is nothing wrong in retiring; it takes a lot more than poor form or injury to give up the sport you love. Legacy is the last thing an athlete should worry and in this case, I am confident Federer knows when it is time to call it quits. 

Friday 21 June 2013

Lost Track: Circuits of the Yore XIV - Charade Circuit, French Grand Prix

Image Courtesy - www.allf1.info

A doctorate in law, childhood friend and racing mate of the only posthumous World Champion in F1, winner of the prestigious 24 hours of Le Mans, lap record holder at the traditional hilly race Targa Florio at Sicily, stints with restaurant and luxury properties, talent spotter who introduced the likes of Gerhard Berger, Juan Pablo Montoya to Formula One.

There are more roles he is associated with, but none more famous than being the mentor for the reigning three-time World Champion Sebastian Vettel. He is Helmut Marko, the consultant for Red Bull Racing. What is lesser known is the fact that; he had long hair, drove in F1, and had the looks that could have made him the poster boy of F1. Being at the receiving end of a freak incident while racing, it stalled his career at F1.

When Felipe Massa was hit on the helmet by rubble in 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix, he missed few races. He came back post recovery and still races with Ferrari. However, 41 years ago a similar incident occurred when a stone hit the visor of Marko’s helmet damaging his left eye. The incident signalled the end of his race and his short lived F1 career (nine races). Today, the helmets have bullet proof polycarbonate visors to protect the eyes; a development that took place after the accident involving Helmut Marko.
In this edition of Lost Track, I look back on a circuit located in France whose F1 hosting rights ended in the same year as that of Marko’s driving career.

In the 1950’s Nurburgring in Germany was a popular race track with its elevation changes, long straights and twisty and tight corners. The French motorsport authorities wanted to have their own version of ‘Nurburgring’ and this resulted in a race track built near the Puy (volcanic hill) de Dome mountain, located around two extinct volcanoes; the Puy de Charade and the Puy de Grave Noire. The circuit also passed through the hamlet of Charade and hence the explanation for the one of the names of the circuit.

The legendary French driver Louis Rosier assisted in the project, which was headed by Jean Auchtataire. With very less space to incorporate pit garages and grand stands, neighbouring village roads were included as a part of the 8 km circuit map. The first "Trophées d'Auvergne" was held in 1958, by which Louis Rosier had passed away.

With each year and competitions being held at Charade, there was a growing popularity to include this track in the F1 calendar. France had other circuits which hosted the Grand Prix; the hype around the mountain track was too tempting for Charade to be excluded from F1 and drivers such as Stirling Moss did comment - “I don't know a more wonderful track than Charade”. Not sure if it came from the heart or the comment was made to appease the local authorities. Nevertheless, the word did spread and events such as F2 and F3 races began to take place more regularly and not to forget even the motorcycle championships.

It was the year 1965 when Charade hosted the first French Formula 1 Grand Prix. Jim Clark on his Cooper-Climax won the race comfortably ahead of Jackie Stewart while the future World Champion Denny Hulme scored his first points.

The French Grand Prix was then hosted at three locations for three years running at Reims, Le Mans and Rounen-Les-Essarts before coming back to Charade in 1969. Long before the circuit hosted its second F1 race this mountain track also featured in the 1966 movie Grand Prix as being one of the circuits where the movie was shot.

Jackie Stewart was beginning to assert his class in 1969. He went on win his maiden World Championship title in the very same year with Matra-Ford. Among his six victories that season, one was at Charade where he won by a margin of 57 seconds to his team mate and home boy Jean-Pierre Beltoise who came second.
There was another circuit which was built in Albi, France which was supposed to have hosted the 1970 edition. 

The deal did not materialise and the race returned to Charade for the third time. This was the season, where the geographical location started playing its part on the race strategy. Located in the mountains, it is not uncommon for drivers to encounter rocks, stones on the track. As a result, there were punctures, occasional ones hitting the drivers as they accelerate and brake at various points along the race. Jochen Rindt was in superb form and even with an occasional hit and his uneasiness over the circuit, he won the race. He went on to win two more races before losing his life through an accident at Monza later that season.

The 1970 race was also the last race to be held on public roads without the use of Armco lined barriers. These days the metal barrier fitted at the sides of racing tracks is a must as it helps to absorb the impact of a car at high speed and prevent it from crashing into spectators.

In 1971, France had another race track located at the mountains. Circuit Paul Ricard, located close to Marseille hosted the 1971 French Grand Prix.  The race returned to Charade the following year. The reigning champion Jackie Stewart was under pressure to stay in the championships led by the Brazilian Emerson Fittipaldi. The race was not about Stewart’s comeback victory. The race reached its climax on lap eight. With Fittipaldi, not adhering to the two white safety lines cut the corner; resulting in one of the stones thrown from his car which unfortunately hit Helmut Marko’s visor. This incident ended his race and subsequently his racing career. 

The sharp stones falling from the mountains also posed a problem to other drivers which resulted in ten deflated tyre and a call for unscheduled stops.

The circuit located in the French region of Auvergne, not far from the Michelin headquarters had to be contend with other races but F1. The French Grand Prix moved to other tracks; and with emergence of Circuit Paul Ricard, there was less hope for Charade circuit which is also known by its other names such as Circuit Louis Rosier and Circuit Clermont-Ferrand to host an F1 race. In 1980, after a horrendous accident and killing of three marshals, there were protests and voices raised regarding the safety of the circuit.

The 8 km now shortened to half its original length in 1988 currently hosts Formula Three and other low profile races. Due to an agreement made with the local neighbours in 2002, only seven days in a year has been permitted for racing.

It has been five years since France last hosted a Grand Prix. With Magney Cours currently under renovation and modifications as suggested by FIA, it remains to be seen if France will ever get a Grand Prix. Mind you, there are four drivers in the current line-up and Renault being the winning constructor’s engine for three straight years in addition to being home of FIA; it is indeed surprising to not have an annual French Grand Prix.  

Monday 17 June 2013

Lost Track: Circuits of the Yore XIII - Donington Park, European Grand Prix

Image Courtesy: Allf1.com

Twenty years ago on an Easter Sunday, I had no idea about the whole business of F1. I barely remember watching it on TV, just little glimpses that appeared once in a while on the sports magazines, and I never looked much into it. Few years from that Easter Sunday, I was a changed man or say boy when it came to F1. It has never been the same since then.

Four years ago, while in London for a short work assignment, I wanted to visit Leicestershire, Silverstone and what not. I ended up not visiting any of these places. Someday in the future for sure, for now I am happy talking about the solitary race that took place at Donington Park.

In this edition of Lost Track: Circuits of the Yore, I write about England’s permanent park circuit which hosted a single F1 race; though not as the British Grand Prix.

Thanks to one of the archived videos, I was able to watch the designated European Grand Prix of 1993. European Grand Prix, over the years have had different interpretations and avatars so to speak. What started as an honorary title to the existing races, the name became a full-fledged race from 1977. The association was short-lived and the whole business of European Grand Prix was volatile. European GP did take place few times in the mid 1980’s and cancelled after two seasons. The idea was revived in the decade of 90’s before the race occupied a consistent slot for close to 20 years.
F1 was popular in Japan at the start of the final decade of 20th century. A track was being built called Nippon Autopolis, an ambitious project of Japanese businessman Tomonori Tsurumaki  to host an F1 event. Autopolis sponsored the Benetton team for two seasons (90 and 91) and also lobbied heavily to have a race scheduled in his purpose built circuit. Similar in characteristics to that of Mexican GP at that time, the Autopolis looked good to host Asian GP in 1993, before bankruptcy forced the project to be aborted.

On the other hand Tom Wheatcroft, who was responsible for the up gradation and managed the Donington Park since 1970’s, took this as an opportunity after repeated failures to host a GP previously. An agreement was set in motion and Donington Park was to be designated as the European GP for 1993.

Back to that Easter weekend of 1993. Senna on his McLaren was not as sharp as the Williams during qualifying. The Williams duo of Prost and Hill took the front row, while Michael Schumacher and Aryton Senna took the second row respectively.

The weather on the race day can be summarised by these words of Murray Walker, the famed F1 commentator “Look from the commentary box, I saw the worst weather that I have ever seen at any race anywhere in the world”. Mind you, he has watched a lot of F1 races.

Race started and by the end of lap one, and by the time tyres got warmed;  Senna on a wet track was leading the race and was a good four second ahead of the pack by the time lap three started. He was no stranger to this circuit, as he had driven and won it in 1983 as a part of British F3 championships. That was a good 10 years ago and the conditions were not this bad.

The race started with majority of drivers opting for wet weather tyres as the track was slippery. With rain clouds staying away on the track site, the conditions suited for the dry slicks to come on to the cars by lap 15. By the end of lap 20, all the drivers had pitted in for dry tyres and fate has it, light shower graced the circuit three laps later. Alain Prost quick to pit for wet tyres. Other drivers opted to race with dry tyres, prolonging the decision to change for the more gripped tyres.

By the time Senna came on to wet weather tyres, he had a good lead. The track started to dry out and teams went for pits for the slicks. Senna had a slight problem which promoted Prost to the lead till the time of the next showers. The Williams duo pitted while Senna stayed out on dry tyres. McLaren was spot on with this move as the track started to dry few laps later and the two Williams returned to pits for dry tyres. Amidst all this confusion, Senna had built up a lead in such manner that he had lapped every car but the second placed Damon Hill come lap 60.

By the time, the chequered flag was waved; Senna had a lead of 83 seconds over Hill. He made just four pit stops while Prost had to make seven. Not surprisingly, the fastest lap of the race was Senna’s which came in bizarre circumstances on lap 57, which included a drive to the pits but aborted the pit stop. This was also Senna’s final fastest lap of his F1 career.

Ten years after that incredible race of 1993 - on the thirtieth anniversary of his fatal crash, a bronze statue of Roger Williamson was unveiled at the Donington Park circuit in his native Leicestershire. Then-owner Tom Wheatcroft had provided financial backing to Williamson, and described the day Williamson died as the saddest day of his life.

The one-off event was a success if you consider what was on display that Easter Sunday with race being held in wet/dry conditions. The European Grand Prix would move to Jerez, Spain the following year and since then Donington Park have made many failed attempts to host the race. The financial meltdown in 2008 was the final deciding factor, as the organisers could not gather the money which was required to host the race.

But Donington’ 93 belongs to Senna. For all his doubters and critics, this race was the proof of his superior driving skills and greatness in the way he handled the ever-changing conditions.

In 2010, in Top gear episode, there was a special focus that featured Senna and his legacy. The team at Top Gear presented the statistics of Schumacher, Fangio and Senna. They asked the current crop of drivers to share their number one driver. Alonso, Barrichello, Massa, Trulli, Webber, Coulthard, Hakkinen, Hamilton and Michael Schumacher himself, all put Aryton Senna as the number one driver in F1. I am sure there are more drivers who would agree to this.

Former F1 driver Martin Brundle sums it up nicely.  “If you ever wanted to know Aryton Senna in 40 seconds, just watch the opening lap of this race”. And that to me is the highlight of the 76-lap solo F1 race at Donington Park. 

Thursday 13 June 2013

Lost Track: Circuits of the Yore XII - Dutch Grand Prix - II

Driving on the Zandvoort track

With ghosts of 1970 Dutch GP haunting the organisers and fresh in driver’s memory, the race in 1971 went ahead smoothly. Though there were no casualties, the track was slippery and the conditions tested the wet weather driving skills of Jacky Ickx and Pedro Rodriguez, who prevailed when compared to the rest of the field to finish one and two. Interestingly, Rodriguez was the last podium finisher for a Mexican until recently when Sergio Perez, in 2012 came second in the Malaysian GP. 

The race in 1972 was cancelled because of safety reasons as the Zandvoort track had not been upgraded with the much improved racing standards at other circuits. The track underwent severe modifications and safety upgrades. The hard work paid as the race was reinstated in 1973.

Welcomed back to the F1 circus, Zandvoort circuit with its new avatar saw a lot of crowd. The excitement was seen and the race was a carnival. With race safely underway, the organisers who, until then had done a great job, saw their worst nightmare come true. Roger Williamson on lap 8, crashed out courtesy of a tyre failure. Within no time, his car was in fumes, inverted with the driver stuck inside it. The petrol tank ignited while lying on the track and caught fire.

David Purley stopped his car and came to Williamson’s rescue. The race continued but with yellow flags as they believed it was Purley’s car which had suffered this fate. He tried stopping other drivers, but they all thought it was his car that had gone off track.

Purley calls out the on-field fire marshals for help; they hesitate initially, he snatches the fire extinguisher and tries to quench the flames, but in vain. He hears his friend’s screams from the car and tries unsuccessfully to overturn the car to safety. The track side assistants were poorly trained, ill-equipped (without fire retardant suits) and bad communication didn’t help the situation as the fire rescue truck came around eight minutes later. Purley was left disappointed, helpless as he saw his friend consumed by the fire and die of suffocation. 

He was awarded the George Medal for his bravery, but he knew the medal meant nothing when compared to the way the whole situation was handled. 

Jackie Stewart won the race, his 26th and thereby took his tally of wins one more than Jim Clark’s total Grand Prix victories (which was a record then). He retired at the end of 1973 season after winning his 3rd Driver's World Championships.

Nikki Lauda by this time in 1974 had emerged as one of the stars in F1. Ferrari made it 1-2 with Lauda and the Swiss driver Clay Regazzoni claiming the top two places. 

James Hunt was steadily making his way up in his F1 career and in the 1975 Dutch Grand Prix, he won the race by 1 second over Nikki Lauda. The Austrian driving ace Lauda was quicker than the rest all weekend, had the pole position and fastest lap. James Hunt gave his constructor Hesketh Racing their first and only race win in F1.

With Lauda’s life threatening accident in West Germany during the German GP, Ferrari dropped out of the next race in Austria keeping in mind of Lauda’s condition. Call it a miracle, the Ferrari ace driver recovered well and ended up missing just the two GP’s. Ferrari returned to racing without Lauda to Zandvoort where Hunt again won the race, this time in a McLaren. The rest of the 1976 season is well documented in the forthcoming Ron Howard’s movie ‘Rush’.

The 1977 edition was won by Nikki Lauda aided by the accidents and retirements of Mario Andretti and James Hunt. Mario Andretti had a successful 1978 season. In Zandvoort, it was no different. He won the race after starting the race from pole. Incidentally this win also happened to be his final GP victory. Its been 25 years since an American driver has won a F1 race since that Andretti’s victory; and it will remain this way unless there is an influx of American race drivers in F1.

Alan Jones won the 1979 race and the 1980 edition saw the future 3-time World Champion Nelson Piquet battle it out with Alan Jones for the top spot. After an impressive debut season for the McLaren, Alain Prost was racing with his home team Renault in the 1981 season. He won his second of his 51 victories at Zandvoort.

1982 is one of the landmark years in the history of F1. Boycott of constructors, tussle with the F1 heads (FISA-FOCA war) and death of few drivers on track including that of Gilles Villeneuve.  For three races after Villeneuve’s death, Ferrari had just one of its cars running during the races. Patrick Tambay, an experienced French driver was called in to replace Gilles Villeneuve. Didier Pironi won the race, which also happened to be his last win in F1. 

Ferrari dominated the next year’s Dutch GP with Rene Arnoux winning last of his seven GP victories here and Patrick Tambay coming in second. In 1984, McLaren-TAG was close to unbeatable barring for few races (four); Alain Prost and Nikki Lauda won the remaining 12 races. Alain Prost won the race with his team mate coming in second.

Nikki Lauda after winning his third World Championships, raced one last time with McLaren in 1985. Alain Prost was fresh and had all the hunger while it was clear Lauda was well past his previous best. The season belonged to Prost hands down; however the race in Zandvoort will be remembered for the Austrian racing legend’s victory, his 25th win and most notably his last GP win.

After the 1985 season, it was curtains for Zandvoort as it turned to be the last time they hosted the Grand Prix. Outdated track and facilities which needed up gradation and housing facilities in the proximity protested against the sound levels were some of the infrastructural reasons given for the closure.

A lot of history, fatal accidents, deaths on track and yet Dutch Grand Prix hosted the F1 family no less than 30 years since the start of F1 World Championships.

I can only say I was privileged to have had an opportunity to burn some rubber on this track. Zandvoort is no Spa, Silverstone or Monza; nevertheless it has its own stories to share and the racing cars at different levels do make a visit even today to this dune town close to North Sea.