Wednesday 24 July 2013

Lost Track: Circuits of the Yore XV - Zeltweg Circuit, Austrian Grand Prix

Image Courtesy: www.allf1.info

Yesterday’s breaking news in F1 – “Austria given a slot at the next year’s Grand Prix calendar”. That’s great news considering the fact that Red Bull now owns the circuit and has made his intentions clear to bring the race back to his homeland. However, there are few hurdles which need to be cleared before it gets to host the race. A1-Ring, as it was known previously has a new name ‘Red Bull Ring’, a name that was christened in 2011 when Dietrich Mateschitz purchased this ailing track.

Which circuit will make way to accommodate this race in Austria? This is something which will be decided later if and only there is a final clearance from the local authorities in Styria, Austria. Also located in proximity to Red Bull Ring is Zeltweg air field that hosted a race in the 1960’s. In this edition of Lost Track: Circuits of the Yore, I will look back at the solitary race that took place in 1964 which happened to be the first ‘Austrian Grand Prix’ in F1.

One can reach the Red Bull Ring by travelling a small distance of under 20 km from this airfield. The two tracks are separated by the airport. Fliegerhorst Hinterstoisser previously known as Zeltweg air base is a military airfield of Austria and country’s main airfield too. This was not the first time someone had built a race track around a military airfield; Silverstone was the first and the most notable one.

The inspiration to build a race track around an airfield was straight out of Silverstone’s success of hosting F1 and other Motorsport races.  After having hosted two non-championship events in 1961 and 1963, a F1 race finally came their way.

The 3.2 km circuit incorporating the run-away and the concrete road and consisting of just four curves in its layout had a reputation of being narrow, extremely bumpy which saw many of the cars suffering from suspension failures in the practice.

Graham Hill who has leading the world championship at that time of the year (1964) took the pole position.  Not so far behind was Jim Clark in his Lotus and John Surtees in his Ferrari. Incidentally, these two were chasing Hill for the championship with four races to go.

With barely five laps into the race Graham Hill, the pole-sitter had a wheel spin and retired from the race. Soon in the next four laps, John Surtees retired owing to a suspension failure. Jim Clark, who struggled with his gear selection problems made a late comeback into the race and Jack Brabham who had qualified in 6th position pitted early due to a fuel feed problem and faded away into the back of the track.

This meant – Dan Gurney was leading the race with Lorenzo Bandini in the 2nd Ferrari was second with Clark in third position. On lap 40, Jim Clark retired from the race owing to ‘half shaft’ problem and very soon his Lotus Climax team mate Mike Spence retired in the very next lap to a similar problem Jim Clark had experienced with his car. Bruce McLaren entered the list of retirements with an engine failure on lap 43 and four laps later the race leader Dan Gurney retired after his car slowed down owing to front suspension problems.

This gave the lead to Bandini, an Italian driver driving for a compatriot team Ferrari and he looked set to win it for the first time in what was his 18th Grand Prix start.

On lap 59, the 1961 World Champion Phil Hill lost control of his Cooper Climax went out of the race not before crashing the car onto the straw bales. The car caught fire but he came out the accident scene unscathed. It was ironic; the race leader Bandini three years later went out of a race at Monaco in similar fashion; however it turned out to be his last race.

On the very same lap, the entire Austrian crowd who had come to witness the debut of Austrian GP saw their local boy Jochen Rindt, who had become the first Austrian to drive in a F1 race retire courtesy of a steering problem.

With no further drama and barring few retirements towards the end of the race, Lorenzo Bandini completed 105 laps of the race to win his first ever Grand Prix. Incidentally, this happened to be also his only Grand Prix victory of his career. And so was for the Zeltweg airbase, which received complaints for being narrow, bumpy and having poor viewing conditions for the audience. FIA removed the circuit from its calendar and would wait until a modified or a custom track was built.

Jochen Rindt went to become a popular driver in the following years and this being one of the reasons there was a need to construct a purpose-built track. Österreichring later came to be known as A1-Ring was the answer and it hosted Austrian GP in two spells (1970-1987 and 1997-2003).

Jochen Rindt did inspire a lot as he also went on to become his country’s first World Champion in 1970. Since then there have been few drivers from Austria in F1, none more popular than the triple world champion Nikki Lauda.

Since the past four years, Austrian anthem has been heard on the pit lane and quite regularly too. It is not played for a driver winning the race, but for the team Red Bull Racing. It is only apt that such a popular team in the recent past and at the moment gets to have a home track.

The only question remains unanswered is – Will the emotional needs of a team boss be over ruled by the pragmatic facts to hold a race in Austria?  

Monday 8 July 2013

From the Scots and of the Brits - Murray's win at the Wimbledon 2013

I recall the last evening and wonder - Was this the greatest evening in the history of British tennis in the Open era? Andy Murray sheds off the monkey after 77 years to become the first British singles male player to win at Wimbledon. Fred Perry, a champion in Table Tennis and Tennis had many accolades as an athlete. He has remained the benchmark in British tennis for a long time and with Andy Murray winning yesterday, the best of the present has finally shook hands with the best of the past.

Andy Murray tasted his first real success at the 2012 London Olympics, when he won the gold medal against the odds vs. Federer. Though it was in Wimbledon, it was not quite the Wimbledon. Nevertheless, he united the kingdom of British Islands last year and gave a reason to celebrate. With that victory, he also gave them a real hope. 

A hope, which agonisingly and falsely haunted many fans who turned up each year in anticipation of watching their fellow Brit win the Wimbledon Championships. Though it must be noted, Virginia Wade is technically the last British player and the only British woman till date to win Wimbledon singles title (1977, the centenary year of Wimbledon championships).

Murray went on to win the US Open after the gold medal in 2012, thereby becoming the first singles male player from Isles of British to win a Grand Slam tournament since, you guessed it right, Fred Perry. Alright, now that he had arrived on the circuit, the expectations had only begun to swell and it reached new heights at this year’s finals. Personally, I prefer Djokovic style of playing tennis to Murray’s - I quite don’t know why it is this way, but it has been this way since a long time. I chose Sampras over Agassi, Federer over Nadal and now Djokovic over Murray.

However, credit must be given where it is due and yesterday, it was the Murray show. He is now the first British male to win any title in the open era, an era of shorts and with just 26 years of age, expect him to fight it out for more titles to come.

The men’s singles finals of 2013 Wimbledon also happened to be the first match this year where I sat to watch from start to finish. The finals started minutes after Sebastian Vettel had won his home Grand Prix for the first time - I wondered if history were to be made in tennis too.

Growing up, I always felt United Kingdom as a whole and the individual countries that make up the Great Britain were skewed in nature - especially and atleast to me in matters related to sports. Be it football, rugby or even cricket, you talk about England, Scotland and Wales (In cricket, England and Wales are combined). However, the Olympic traditions in this part of the world are maintained and continue to operate under one banner – Great Britain. Davis Cup tennis is included in this list too.

It is the sport that dictates where your feelings are and what outfits, paints and tattoos one has to flaunt.

Till date, I have not been able to get beyond the definitions of the island of Britain and the countries which give the definition of the same. David Cameroon, was seen cheering for Andy Murray and alongside him – Bradley Cooper, Gerard Butler, Mick Jagger, Sir Chris Hoy and the entire crowd, irrespective of which country they were from, all cheered for Britain’s sake and not necessarily as Scots. 
 David Cameron, PM of United Kingdom and First Minister Alex Salmond raising the Scottish flag
Image Courtesy: Sun
This is the uniqueness of type of Sport you play and Murray was indeed lucky that tennis is not divided by one’s country like other sports in United Kingdom.

He is by far the greatest Scottish tennis player ever. He now needs to win a career Grand Slam, which will put him on level with Fred Perry as the greatest British male tennis player ever. Tennis was not an Olympic sport at the time Perry was at his peak in tennis.

After years and many decades, the British tennis fans have finally got their true tennis hero. I always wondered why they haunted Tim Henman, who at his best was a semi-finals material. He was in semi-finals on four occasions at Wimbledon between 1998 and 2002 and that achievement alone deserved the status of having a hill named after him. Such was the state of British tennis.

The tennis in Britain has gone to a new level in the past year. Andy Murray, the Olympic gold medal winner, US Open champion and now Wimbledon has only raised the bar for fellow British men who wish to pursue tennis.

Who among the crowd yesterday had witnessed Fred Perry’s achievements too in 1936? It looks highly unlikely as 77 years is a huge gap. Since then, there have been a lot of changes in Britain, yet the name of Fred Perry remained constant in the annals of their tennis history. Make no mistake; it will continue to do so, however now, there is a new addition in Murray, which people will not forget either. Both their names will be taken in the same breath, till the time a new player reaches their level.

Will Murray be awarded with the knighthood? I don’t see any reason why he won’t have his chance at it soon, considering the merits that are taken into account for awarding the prefixed title of Sir to one’s name.
My love with tennis began watching my cousins adoring the plays of Sabatini, Graf and Seles. Though it must be said on a serious note, it was Wimbledon in 1993 watching Sampras take the title. He followed up with six more, before bidding a good bye to the sport in 2002.

Roger Federer, who by no means is finished (atleast by his admission), won his first Wimbledon in 2003. I am not sure, if he plays in the next year’s Wimbledon, but he can only improve his record at Wimbledon and at the worst will still remain in level with seven victories next only to Sampras and William Renshaw (in the 19th century).

Now, in 2013 Andy Murray wins his first Wimbledon. Will he too move to the next level and join the elite company which is jointly held by Federer, Renshaw and Sampras? Or will he be just known as the next best player in Britain after Fred Perry? We just have to wait. To me, it doesn’t matter.

Like i said before, I don’t see myself rooting for Murray like I did for Sampras and Federer. 

Thursday 4 July 2013

The Miracle of Bern and a Happy Family Coincidence

My dad celebrated his completion of 59 years of his life today. He always joked, when someone asked him about his birth date, he would say – “On my birthday, the entire USA and the Americans around the world from USA celebrate”. Few smarties would pick it up right way, while others wonder why a South Indian’s birthday would be celebrated so far away in North America.

Around four years ago, our class friends were on a visit to the Swiss Olympic Committee. I was told by a football enthusiast at the Committee about the stories surrounding the FIFA World Cup. I pressed for more and he started narrating about the most famous tournament Switzerland had ever hosted; the 1954 FIFA World Cup.

History enthusiasts like me do not like just the trivia. I like the story with it. Facts do not excite me as much as a tale related to it. It is even better if it is narrated. I didn’t know about that World Cup except that West Germany was victorious. Held in Switzerland to mark 50 years of FIFA’s existence, the 1954 World Cup was the first appearance of West Germany after World War II as they were not allowed to take part in the 1950 World Cup.

Hungary were clear favourites to win the 1954 World Cup. Having been undefeated for 32 games running, they looked set to lift the prestigious Jules Rimet Trophy (a new trophy has been commissioned since 1974). They were the reigning Olympic champions and had also won the Central European International Cup. Such was their domination that, very few doubted about their inability to triumph at the World Cup.

The previous edition’s finalists Uruguay (winners) and Brazil were knocked out in semi-finals and quarter-finals respectively. Having beaten West Germany convincingly 8-3 in the group stages, the pundits had no doubt Hungary would repeat the feat.

Little do people know, in sports there lies a romance which has its periodic affairs with uncertainty. It is true that results more often than not are predictable, however one can never rule out a possibility of a surprise. The whole process of arriving at an unexpected outcome is what that makes people to hold on and repeatedly look forward to watching sports events.

At the end of the finals, the score line read this way. West Germany 2 and Hungary 1 – an upset of huge proportions and there are no words just to describe what had just occurred in Bern. The German national anthem was played for the first time in international sporting events since 1945. The whole event was a turnaround for the German football and quite aptly it is labelled as ‘The Miracle of Bern’.

To mark this special day, FIFA had few t-shirts for sale on its merchandise shop. While at FIFA headquarters, I collected a stuffed toy of the 2010 FIFA World Cup and a t-shirt which had the inscription of this event. 54 in bold; I knew this coincidence and was more than happy to pick up this shirt. 
T-shirt to mark the occasion of the 1954  FIFA World Cup finals at Bern
Couple of weeks later, we had a visit to the Wankdorf Stadium, Bern for a lecture. I wore this shirt on purpose and visited the stadium, now renovated, thinking back on all the events that took place exactly in 1954 on the fourth of July. I bet my father didn’t know this fact until the time I showed him this shirt. In his usual way, he had one good look at the shirt and went on with his daily chores. 
Clicked  in 2009 at  the renovated Wankdorf Stadium, Bern  

Wednesday 3 July 2013

A New City, a fresh Sport and a Modern Mr. President? - My Picks for the next key IOC decisions

September 10th and the place is Buenos Aires, Argentina – A landmark decision(s) would take place on many levels in the ‘World of Sports’, and in particular in the diverse world of Olympics. Once every two years, this mega event alternates between the moderate summer climates to the bearable winter ambiance across the globe.

Three key decisions will be made during the 125th IOC (International Olympic Committee) Session which starts on 4th of September and culminates with the election of new IOC President. We will get there later.
First of the key decisions will involve three candidate cities namely - Tokyo, Istanbul and Madrid presenting their cases, one last time in front of all the board members of the Olympic Committee in their bid to win the rights to host the 2020 Summer Olympic Games.

Who will it be? Honestly, I am no Nostradamus. However, I do have an inclination towards Istanbul in spite of the recent activities that are taking place in the country positioned in both the continents of Asia and Europe.

I have personally transited through Istanbul and never visited the city or Turkey in general. The question is not about how beautiful the country is; it is about its ability to host the event. If, they are being shortlisted after intense bidding in the past 3-4 years, it is only because the organising committee feels confident of making it happen and IOC delegation committee feels they have a chance. Besides, hosting games in Istanbul will open up the market to new communities and spread the message of Olympics to a wider audience.

On the other hand, the candidate city of Istanbul faces tough competition from the clinical and disciplined committee representing Tokyo and from Madrid, which is recovering from the financial crisis and have to revamp their economy such that there is no repeat of Athens, post the 2004 Olympics.

I believe Istanbul is currently placed in a similar situation in a bid to win the election, reminiscent of Tokyo bidding successfully to win the 1964 Summer Olympics hosting rights.  Tokyo, post World War II and the damage they had sustained wanted to be recognised as a developed economy. And hard work was the only way out, combined with a purpose to become one of the leading economies in terms of innovation and market, and also turn around the catastrophe of the 1940’s. Tokyo was the first Asian city and Japan, the first Asian country to host Olympics of any sort; they went on to host Winter Olympics in 1972 at Sapporo and at Nagano in 1998. Interestingly, Tokyo was supposed to host the 1940 edition of the Summer Games.

Their success stories inspired South Korea to host the 1988 Seoul Olympics to an extent and the National Olympic Committee of South Korea are currently busy in their preparations to host the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. And to add to the South East Asia’s list - Beijing successfully hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics. I believe 12 years and 2 years (if Winter Olympics is also considered) is a short time to host the same event in the same region, when the aim should be to reach out to new unexplored cities, sporting wise and in the context of Olympics. 

Out of Comfort Zone must be the way to move forward in order to have more impact and spread the ideals of Olympic movement effectively to regions, previously unknown.

Madrid, irrespective of the current crisis, if awarded, will become the 2nd country from Europe to host the Olympics after London 2012 within a span of eight years.

FIFA have opened up their horizon by previously awarding South Africa in 2010, Brazil in 2014 (they had previously hosted in 1950), Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022. Will Olympic Games follow a similar pattern? The anxious committees will know as do the rest of the world on 7th of September this year.

Immediately, after the host nation issue has been settled, the members will vote for an additional sport for the 2020 Summer Olympics among Wrestling, Squash and the combination of Baseball and Softball. Whilst, baseball and Wrestling were previously part of the Olympic calendar and in case of Wrestling it still is till 2016, Squash is among the under-dogs so to speak. After having initially voted out early this year by a panel based on review post the 2012 London Olympics, Wrestling has made a strong comeback to remain in contention. Rugby 7’s and Golf will be new additions for the 2016 edition, as announced in the 2009 Olympic Congress held at Copenhagen.

Coming from India my heart feels for Wrestling, as it is a medal prospect for the Indian wrestlers. I am inclined to give Squash an opportunity as it is a great spectator sport. Wrestling federation, FILA is confident of making it while the other two are not the clear favourites at the moment. Wrestling’s inclusion will indeed put a question mark on the review conducted by the IOC post the London Olympics, when it was suggested to drop wrestling from the Olympic calendar in the first place. Personally, I would like to see the popularity of squash increase and would look forward to its inclusion.

And now, to the finale, the election of the President of IOC - Jacques Rogge, ex- Olympian and the current President took over the reins from Juan Antonio Samaranch in 2001. I would have personally liked if he continued one more term and he would have, if there would have been any provisions for that. Rogge’s greatest achievement personally would be to bring in transparency in the system and streamline the processes within the IOC. He will be leaving the post in a much healthier state. A soft-spoken, I had an opportunity to briefly chat with him, which lasted about less than a minute. He was kind enough to ask about me, instead of avoiding me and smile for a picture. 

With Jacques Rogge at the Olympic Museum, Lausanne in 2009
There are six candidates in the frame to take up his role - Dennis Oswald (Switzerland), Thomas Bach (Germany), Sergey Bubka (Ukraine), Richard Carrión (Puerto Rico), Ser Miang Ng (Singapore) and Ching-Kuo Wu (Taiwan). Honestly, it doesn’t matter to me as a person, which country the next IOC President would represent. I look forward to an inspiring leader, vocal yet willing to take the back seat and allow the recruited members to run the show. The elected person should carry forward the work and legacy, ensure sports reach out to new geographical locations and aim to better the standards that prevail currently at the IOC.

Change is a difficult destination and the process of change is often seen as an uncomfortable journey. However, it must not be an excuse for not embracing the unexplored avenues and for lack of transparency.

My mind goes back to 2001 at the 112th IOC session held at Moscow, when Jacques Rogge was elected as the IOC President after 21-years of Samaranch’s stay as the President. Since then, 12 years is the maximum, a president can remain at the helm.

Istanbul, one of the candidate cities in the lost to bid the 2008 Summer Olympics, was actively part of that 2001 IOC Session. Since then, they have unsuccessfully bid for the 2012 edition and prior to that for the 2000 and 2004 Summer Olympics.

This is third successive time Madrid will be in the final round having previously lost to London (2012) and Rio (2016). Will Madrid be third time lucky?

Tokyo remains the only city that has previously hosted the Games. Will the past and strong hosting experience help Tokyo? Or will it be Istanbul, who will have to answer a lot of questions in the coming days from the members looking at the current scenario.

Hilton Hotel in Buenos Aires will be busy come September and by the time day ten of the month would conclude and end a week long IOC Session, there will be a new face addressing the sports world as the current IOC President, a proud International Federation reading out a ‘thank you’ speech and a successful city, which will spend the next seven years preparing for the event come 2020.