Sunday, 9 December 2012

In The Name Of Glory - Tom Rubython

Continuing my post-season reading efforts, I have recently completed another book which formed part of my Kindle "backlog".  This was In The Name Of Glory by Tom Rubython, a study of the momentous 1976 Formula 1 season, and more specifically the championship contest between James Hunt and Niki Lauda.

The author does have his detractors amongst racing enthusiasts, and it has to be said that the subtitle of this book (1976 - The Greatest Ever Sporting Duel) hardly inspired confidence.  However, I was prepared to give this one a chance........

The most noticeable thing at first glance was the brevity of this publication, certainly in comparison to the two other Rubython ones which I have previously read, The Life Of Senna and Shunt, the latter of which I blogged about here:-

Shunt - The Story of James Hunt

A couple of contentious assertions early on in the book rather set the tone for me, particularly the one concerning Lauda's supposed attitude to losing the championship in such circumstances.  What is said runs totally against the grain of the majority of perceived wisdom on the subject.  Also, it is stretching things to imply that the 1976 season was uniquely dramatic, exciting or eventful.

The book contains a few factual errors.  Lauda's debut in Austria in 1971 is not mentioned, and he did not win the 1974 Belgian Grand Prix. There was no Canadian Grand Prix in 1975, and Haiti is not in South America.  These things tend to grate after a while....

The thing which most perturbed me, though, was the tendency for hyperbole and exaggeration.  Personality clashes, or personality traits, of certain individuals are laboured excessively, presumably to heighten the sense of abundant frisson.Motor racing, like life in general, tends to be a subtle and complex endeavour, and therefore best seen in a million shades of grey.  However, here the author seems at pains to interpret things in extremes. Where the 1976 season is concerned, this is unnecessary, as the reality was in itself sufficiently remarkable...

To suggest at one point that Luca di Montezemolo was solely responsible for Ferrari's mid-1970s revival is also a novel interpretation of events.  I dare say that Messrs Lauda and Forghieri would have something to say about that.  This is an example of the author's "all or nothing" approach to some topics.

There is an appraisal also of the feverish politics which supposedly gripped the Ferrari camp around that time, especially when di Montezemolo became less involved in the Formula 1 effort.  Again, there may be a little embellishment, but one can gain a good idea of the backdrop to Lauda's campaign, and these passages should be of some value to those not previously familiar with the stories.

There is much prurient, if entertaining, focus on James Hunt's lifestyle.  Where the book did score some bonus points for me was in its efforts to detail Lauda's upbringing, and his early racing activities, including the way in which he raised finance, and incurred the wrath of some family members along the way.

Unsurprisingly, much of the Hunt-orientated material will be very familiar to those who have read Rubython's Hunt biography.

For all my reservations about the book, the raw facts of the story are enough to make this an entertaining read, if one takes some of the author's flights of fancy with a pinch of salt.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

The Limit - Michael Cannell

With the end of the 2012 Formula 1 season, I have thrown my energies into further exploration of motorsport history.  As part of this process, I recently read a book which had been nestling on my Kindle for a little while.  I refer to The Limit, by Michael Cannell.

Ostensibly, this book, sub-titled Life and Death in Formula One's Most Dangerous Era, takes a look at the lives and careers of Phil Hill and Wolfgang von Trips, culminating in the tragic conclusion to the 1961 season.  However, in a wider sense it serves as a chronicle of a whole epoch in the sport, and it also throws a light on the changing of the times in the aftermath of the Second World War.

There is a wealth of biographical detail about both Hill and von Trips, and some attempt along the way to gauge how aspects of their respective backgrounds may have impacted on the course of their racing careers. The chapters covering Hill's upbringing in particular I found enlightening, and some of my preconceived notions about him were dispelled.

There are some evocative and sobering passages dealing with Hill's attempts at the Carrera Panamericana, and an intriguing account of how he gradually attracted the attention of Ferrari.

The parts documenting the formative years of Wolfgang von Trips are valuable because there seems to be a dearth of in-depth material available about him, in the English language at least.  Again, the story does not conform to some of the blithe assumptions which I previously harboured.  Some effort is made to explain how he ascended to World championship contender status, from his links with Mercedes and Porsche, the ambivalent attitude of his family towards his racing activities, to some of the accidents which hampered his progress along the way.

We are also given shorter, but still affecting, portaits of some of the other characters in this drama, such as Alfonso de Portago, Luigi Musso and Peter Collins. One is left with the feeling that a uniquely diverse, complex and substantial band of men inhabited the Ferrari team, and motorsport generally, during those years.

The turbulent and tragic 1958 Grand Prix season is covered in depth, particularly the internal and political strife engulfing the Ferrari driving strength.  It appears that the scheming, intriguing and general volatility assumed some kind of peak around the middle of that year.  The portions revolving around the deaths of Luigi  Musso and Peter Collins, and their aftermath, are interesting to say the least.

Many of the anecdotes, including those concerning Enzo Ferrari, will be familiar to many, but it is good to have so many condensed into this tome, and for many the book will serve as a form of "refresher" pertaining to the goings-on of that era.

Perhaps understandably, the 1959 and 1960 seasons are largely glossed over, so that attention can be rightly devoted to the momentous 1961 championship struggle.  The impression given here is that there was more tension and gamesmanship between Hill and von Trips than is often assumed. Their relationship that year was a curious one, and it is a moot point whether any mild animosity which may have developed was precipitated by the actions of the Ferrari team itself.  The events surrounding the fateful Monza race are dealt with sensitively and without sensationalism.

One of the most striking aspects of this book for me is its depiction of the personality of Phil Hill.  He had always been a somewhat enigmatic figure to me, different in many ways from the archetypal Grand Prix driver of virtually any era, but The Limit paints a very complex picture, even when compared to that which I had always assumed to be the case. Belying his image with some as a "Ferrari man" through and through, Cannell implies that the Californian felt under-valued and under-appreciated in the team.

There is some well-pitched analysis of the differences in the relative psychological make-up of Hill and von Trips, and how this affected their attitudes to racing and its perils, their motivations to compete and their outlook on life in general.  Some racing books can indulge in this sort of thing to excess, but I think here the author got things just about right.

I found Cannell's writing style to be expressive and rich, but also accessible and enjoyable.  The atmosphere and ambience of the time, both on and off the racetrack, is powerfully and effectively conveyed. The book contains the odd, relatively harmless, historical inaccuracy, but this should not detract from the book's entertainment value. The one other mild irritant is a tendency for the socio-political importance of  motor racing, particularly in parts of Continental Europe, to be over-estimated.

I approached this book with an open mind, not knowing quite what to expect.  I was pleasantly surprised by its content and style, and by its ability to hold the interest and attention.  The fact that I got through it within a few short hours is testimony to this.  I came away feeling that I had genuinely learned things, which is one of the criteria with which I judge a book's merits.  Dedicated historians may not feel that it adds that much, but for anyone seeking a grasp of the flavour of the sport and the times, The Limit is well worth checking out.

In addition, I came away with a greatly enhanced respect and reverence for Phil Hill, Wolfgang von Trips and all those who participated in top-level motorsport during that time....

Monday, 3 December 2012

Grand Prix - the movie

When it comes to motion pictures about the sport of motor racing, the record of success would have to be described as mixed at best.  Indeed, I have seen and heard a few observers venture the opinion that some of the worst creations ever committed to celluloid have been motorsport-related.  However, a few efforts shine like a beacon amongst the general mediocrity, and remain vaguely definitive.  One of these is the 1966 movie Grand Prix, directed by John Frankenheimer.

It was an opportune time to be conceiving a film about Grand Prix racing.  In 1966, the new 3-litre engine formula was instituted, and a new breed of more meaty and muscular machines entered the arena.  These cars looked and sounded more dramatic and imposing than their 1.5 litre predecessors.  The elegant European aesthetic of the mid-1960s was also a strong ingredient in the movie's appeal.

As well as taking advantage of circumstance, the producers carried off a master-stroke by enlisting the co-operation of the Formula 1 circus, or at least most of it.  By filming at the actual venues during the race meetings, they imbued the picture with an authenticity with most other examples of this sub-genre have manifestly lacked.

As for the plot, well if not totally implausible, then it errs decisively towards the "Hollywood".  Not that most of the events depicted have not occurred in real life, but not condensed into just a few months, and revolving around a few select people! To some extent, any misgivings concerning about the story-line are ameliorated by the movie's excellence in other departments....

One of the areas in which Grand Prix excels is in its cinematography, the race action sequences being highly accomplished and advanced for their time.  Indeed, these portions of the film even stand up to 21st century scrutiny. In a wider sense, the film is visually luxurious and sumptuous, trouble seemingly being taken to focus on landmarks and the opulent.

Of the actors involved, I find James Garner's performance as Pete Aron to be the most convincing and impressive.  Garner capably constructs Aron as something of an outsider, a strong and silent type.  Hardened and quite cynical, but at the same time a humane and sensible figure.  Garner's overall plausibility and impact in the role may be related to his apparent affinity for racing.

The other performance which I find both credible and accomplished is that of Jessica Walter as Pat Stoddard.  She comes across as what might have been the public's perception of the typical racing driver's wife of the time, but the character is believable, and as an added bonus Ms Walter is very easy on the eye!

Yves Montand is assured as Jean-Pierre Sarti, evoking the gravitas but increasing weariness of a Fangio-esque elder statesman. It has to be said that some of the other actors did not work quite as well in their roles, whatever those with rose-tinted glasses may say.  The poor acting in places is an irritant and a blemish, even if it is unlikely to perturb unduly the people who will view the picture.  Some of the acting by the racing drivers is cringe-inducing, but they can be excused!

Having said that the elegance and stylishness of 1960s Europe is an enticing backdrop to Grand Prix, it also sometimes strikes me that 1960s motor racing was quite conservative, "square" even, when compared to other arenas of cultural endeavour of the time.  The "dolce vita" ambience therefore could be viewed as a touch dated, whatever its seductiveness.

The film does convey the sense of community and togetherness which, by all accounts, prevailed in those days in the racing scene, and which is so often cited as one of the main ways in which the sport has altered in the ensuing decades.  At the same time, the increasing professionalism and commercial pressures are not totally overlooked.  It was not always about camararderie and chivalry...

As is obligatory in racing films, there is much philosophising about the dangers and risks, although in fairness this is not done to excessive lengths or in a sensationalistic way.  The dialogue on this subject, and related matters,  is comparatively mature and understated, rarely descending into mawkishness.  For example, the scene outside the pub after the British Grand Prix, involving Sarti and Louise Frederickson, is very well judged.

One criticism which I would level against the script is that there is occasional superfluous "fluff", mostly in the downtime when the cars are not on track.  Although it can be contended that these passages would appeal to the "general" audience, discarding them would also have made the film shorter in length.  Perhaps they should have made an "alternative" edited version, cutting out the more frivolous parts, for the benefit of petrolheads?

The movie's makers deviated from the real 1966 calendar by having the Italian Grand Prix at Monza as the final race of the season, and also by staging the race on the old banked circuit. For dramatic effect, these decisions were perfectly understandable. The Monza sequences are beautifully constructed, with the circuit  presented as the inspiring "cathedral" of motorsport.  Tension is created, and many of the strands and sub-plots coalesce.

Granted, the four-man championship showdown may stretch credulity for some observers, but the nature of the race itself was not too dissimilar to many Grands Prix which took place at Monza during that period! The final scene of the entire movie is one of its most masterly and evocative, with James Garner strolling down the pit straight at Monza, in front of deserted grandstands.  Spine-tingling stuff....

Despite the reservations, Grand Prix remains a great looking and sounding film, and to a large degree effectively captures the organic and analog F1 of the mid-1960s.  It remains amongst the most credible mainstream movies made about auto-racing, and the much-hyped and anticipated efforts of more recent times have almost without exception failed to hold a candle to it. It is still a benchmark of sorts. The conditions under which Frankenheimer's work was made will in all probability never be replicated, and this  militates against something matching it.  Technology and finances are no substitute for realism, passion, ingenuity, and that intangible "magic"....

Sunday, 25 November 2012

2012 Brazilian Grand Prix Review

A wonderful season of Formula 1 competition deserved a gripping, tense and eventful finale, and that is what we saw at Interlagos today.  It was an "old fashioned" championship decider too, with a "race within a race" determining the destination of the title honours, whilst others contested the Grand Prix win itself.

Despite the effects of the first-lap incident, it would be stretching things to say that Sebastian Vettel made a spectacular comeback;he did not lose that much time, and was helped by the general mayhem and attrition ahead of him and around him in those early stages. Sensibly, once he established himself back in the points-scoring positions, he did not attempt any unnecessary heroics.  This would have been foolhardy in the tricky conditions.  Good sense and measured and prudent overtaking moves did the job of ensuring that he kept within the requisite points margin to Fernando Alonso.

Of the race itself, McLaren continued their late-season surge, and it was heartening to see a lively battle between their two drivers, which Jenson Button confessed to having enjoyed. His victory may be overlooked in the maelstrom of hype surrounding Vettel and Alonso, but at least his rollercoaster season ended on a high note. He had the opportunity to show off his renowned guile and finesse in changeable conditions, but also gave, and asked, no quarter when matters became wheel-to-wheel.  Yes, he was helped by the Hamilton/Hulkenberg contretemps, but it must also be borne in mind that Jenson lost out greatly during the earlier pace-car period, when he and Hulkenberg looked well set.

Lewis Hamilton again raced with the clarity of vision and panache of someone who has had a burden removed from his shoulders.  He can leave McLaren with his head held high, and look to the challenges awaiting him at Mercedes.

Although he made a couple of important errors when under pressure, Nico Hulkenberg once again made a huge impression, exhibiting that unfussy but highly effective driving style.  After earlier relinquishing the lead to Hamilton with a half-spin, he then lost control at Turn 1, and took the Englishman out of the race.  Hulkenberg had earlier complained of gear-change difficulties, and I wonder whether these problems contributed to the incidents?  Whatever the case, he could hardly complain when subjected to a drive-through penalty.

I thought that Alonso did everything that he realistically could.  The McLarens were just that little bit out of reach, and Hulkenberg's intervention was not completely unexpected. The Spaniard was ably and admirably supported by Felipe Massa, who delivered the kind of performance which makes him so valued in the current Ferrari set-up.

Mention should also be made of a couple of other drivers.  Kamui Kobayashi raced purposefully and tenaciously all afternoon, in the knowledge that he was possibly fighting for his Formula 1 future.  It was good to see him show such spirit, and I earnestly hope that we have not seen the last of him in a Grand Prix car.  The latter sentiments would apply to Heikki Kovalainen.

The final race in the F1 career of the great Michael Schumacher passed with comparatively little fanfare, because of the title showdown, but after an unpromising beginning to the race, it was nice to see the seven-times champion achieve a creditable points finish.  After Michael had seemingly let Vettel through in the closing stages, it was significant that they exchanged gestures of mutual affection and respect immediately after the race.  Symbolic of a torch being fully passed at last?

So what of the merits of Sebastian Vettel's third consecutive championship?  It is fair to say that Red Bull only attained any form of all-round superiority towards the end of the season, and even then the margin involved was not sizeable. At some races during 2012, the German had to show real nous and resolve to salvage points from unpromising situations, and at times the car's deficit in straightline speed was a handicap. Due to these factors, and also simply because he won more races than anybody else, Vettel is a worthy champion.

In fairness, Fernando Alonso would also have been a deserving world champion this year, performing wonders to remain in contention, and extracting every ounce of performance from the car, whilst the Ferrari team laboured constantly to boost the strength of the package, and to give him the tools to compete on something like an equal footing with Red Bull and McLaren.

Of 2012 in general, I think that it will be remembered as a superbly competitive and entertaining season of Formula 1 racing.  2013 will have a real task to surpass it.....

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Jackson Browne/Saturate Before Using - Jackson Browne - album review

Some artists' debut albums are tentative, uncertain or patchy efforts, betraying only partially developed talents, albeit with strong hints of promise for the future.  Others display a genuine self-confidence, intelligence and sense of purpose.  One album which on balance belongs in the latter category is Jackson Browne's self-titled 1972 debut effort, unofficially dubbed "Saturate Before Using" on account of its sleeve design.

For me, there are a few reasons why this record is so cohesive, unified and impressive.  Although this was his first album as such, Browne had undergone a solid and varied grounding on the music scene, when one considers his relatively tender years.  His songs had already received plaudits, and even been covered, by some luminaries, and he had forged links and friendships with several of these figures.

In some ways, the topics explored in the songs on this album are as diverse as almost any subsequent Browne record.  The LP tends to be labelled in some quarters as exemplifying post-hippie angst, but I find this label to be overly simplistic.

Although lyrically "Saturate Before Using" is more varied than it is often given credit for, sonically and atmosphere-wise some common threads run through much of it. The words "haunting" and "mellow" may spring to mind for many, but in all honesty neither really suffices in describing the feeling I get when I listen to these songs.  They conjure up a kind of eeriness, like staring over a barren landscape as the sun sets and the temperature drops...

For all the enigmatic nature of much of the album, it also contains some of Browne's best-known numbers, including "Jamaica Say You Will", "Doctor My Eyes" and "Rock Me On The Water", all of which have been covered by other artists.  "Jamaica Say You Will" in particular is an absolute gem, a song of utter simplicity and charm, but combining this with real emotional pull.

Jackson Browne's singing still has an innocent and even tentative quality about it on this record, and it is true that his vocal confidence and phrasing improved as the 1970s progressed.  However, here the restrained delivery is in keeping with the tone of the compositions, the arrangements and the overall mood.

Jackson's qualities as a "storyteller" are very much in evidence here too, on tracks such as "Something Fine", "From Silver Lake" and "Looking Into You".  Other compositions do peer into darker corners of the human condition, giving us a real taste of the evocative and intelligent lyrics which were to become a hallmark of his career.

The instrumental backing is, for the most part, markedly less ostentatious than on the artist's other works, and it is worth noting that David Lindley had not yet entered the picture at this point.  The textures offered by   his contributions only began to take effect on 1973's For Everyman.  For all this, there is still some very pleasing piano and acoustic guitar work throughout.

On this album, Jackson Browne did not just announce himself as a promising talent for the future; he was unveiled as an important and eloquent voice in rock music.  In some respects it can be justifiably described as very much "of its time", but it still holds up very credibly today.

Monday, 19 November 2012

2012 United States Grand Prix

An eventful and dramatic inaugural race in Austin, and one which will have pleased the neutrals, ensuring that the world drivers' championship will be decided at the finale in Interlagos.

First of all, I must say that I am quite impressed by the Circuit of The Americas as a venue.  The track layout is interesting, having attracted widespread praise and approval from the drivers, and appears to promote close racing and overtaking.  A bumper crowd was on hand to witness this race too.  As far as American Formula 1 venues go, we have had several false dawns, but Austin just may have found the solution which the sport has been craving. Only time will tell on this.

Lewis Hamilton very much went racing today, prepared to take the fight to the mighty Red Bulls, having split them in qualifying.  McLaren's formidable pace was confirmed by the performance of Jenson Button, once he had extricated himself from the seething midfield pack.

Hamilton's victory will also have pleased Fernando Alonso, as it made the Spaniard's task in Brazil seem slightly less daunting.  Alonso's cause was also aided by a rare mechanical failure for Mark Webber, and also it must be said by Ferrari's decision to "strategically" incur a grid penalty for Felipe Massa's car.  Notwithstanding these factors, it still reflects wonderfully on Alonso that he is still in there pitching for the title. Given the performance deficit in comparison to Red Bull, one can hardly blame Ferrari for exploring every available avenue, or begrudge them the occasional slice of good fortune.  One senses that Alonso's priority in Austin was simply to keep the struggle going for next weekend.

So, what of the prospects for Interlagos?  It goes without saying that Vettel is the strong favourite, but it will only take one mistake or unforeseen incident for Alonso to snatch an unlikely world championship.

Monday, 12 November 2012

The Guns of Navarone

There are certain films, particularly war movies, which were staple viewing for people of my generation, who grew up in the 70s and 80s.  It is always intriguing to gauge how much my attitude towards these films has altered with the passage of time, and with the shifting sands of my own outlook and attitudes.  One such movie is The Guns Of Navarone.  I recently watched it, for the first time in quite a while.

Firstly, I had forgotten just how lengthy the film is!  Much scope is allowed for the preliminaries and preparation, the tortuous build-up and the operation itself.  I have not read Alistair MacLean's novel, on which the movie is based, but the running time may reflect a desire on the part of the film-makers to do full justice to the book.  It also permits some concentration on the "human" aspects of the story.

I have always had a penchant for the kind of war movies which look at the more "niche" areas of conflict, and the less publicised theatres of war, and those which concentrate on special or clandestine operations, rather than the grandiose ones featuring mighty clashes of arms.  A healthy dose of political intrigue, and room for plot twists and improvisation, are also very appealing.  The Guns of Navarone combines elements of this, and also those of the "blockbuster", with its all-star cast and the sheer opulence of some of the visuals. This duality works well.

There are cliches aplenty throughout, although in fairness this picture probably invented quite a few of them!  I found a few bits of the story a touch implausible, mainly the intricate ways in which the commando unit continue to evade capture by the Germans, but this is likely just the pedant in me making itself felt. These relatively mild reservations are counter-balanced by the cold reality which occasionally afflicts the raiding party.

Of the acting performances, Gregory Peck brings authority, gravitas and depth to his role.  By contrast, I found David Niven a touch overwrought and unconvincing here.  The real revelation for me is Anthony Quinn, both brooding and humane.

Even when subjected to my more exacting latter-day criteria, The Guns of Navarone still stands up reasonably well.

Friday, 9 November 2012

The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum - Heinrich Boll

My interest in German history, and particularly the turbulent period of the late 60s and 70s, led me to this celebrated novel, first published in 1974.

The book tells the tale of a young woman who becomes entangled with a political radical/outlaw, and her subsequent treatment at the hands of the police and the press, culminating in her killing a newspaper reporter. It very much taps into 1970s paranoia and unease about terrorism and political radicalism, and the attendant media and public hysteria surrounding the subjects.

I also sensed that Boll was delivering a commentary on the dark side, or the flip-side if you will, of Germany's post-war "economic miracle", with much mention of tax evasion, corruption, avarice and so forth.

This novel is notably short in length, with no superfluous padding. The translation from German to English leads to the (very) occasional minor anomaly, but this did not impair my enjoyment in any way.  To add to the mystique, the story is told from a "first person plural" point of view.

I have watched the film adaptation on a few occasions.  The novel handsomely gives substance and background to things which the movie could only imply.

The central thrust for me is an expose of the excesses of state and media, and the collusion between these two institutions, which are meant to be representative of a "free" society.  In their frantic attempts to service this relationship, an innocent person is ground between the two. .

As the story progresses, we become ever more acutely aware of a trail of distress, ruin and mistrust among all those connected to Katharina Blum and the case, much of it stemming from the desire of media and state to appeal to people's base instincts and prejudices.  Those in positions of power and influence are seen to take advantage of the weaknesses in human nature.

Much is made of the hypocrisy of the newspapers in invoking "freedom of the press" in justifying their methods.

The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum seems both ahead of its time, and prescient, and the issues which it tackles have never been more relevant than they are today.....

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Revolver - The Beatles - album review

Of all the albums recorded by The Beatles, perhaps none more epitomised the Swinging Sixties than Revolver, released in 1966.  Embodying some of the sunny optimism of the time, but also exuding a sophistication and a keener affinity with counter-cultural concerns.

This record was made when The Beatles were still a touring band, before their retreat into a more reclusive and studio-bound existence. Although some of the tracks on Revolver are very much studio creations, others very much inhabit guitar-band territory, with added "attitude" and occasionally tinged with a nascent psychedelia.  One can discern the influence of 1966-era Beatles guitar-orientated material in the New Wave groups of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and even in later indie bands.

Having said that Revolver exudes the vibrancy of its era, it is also worth noting that the scope of its lyrical concerns was very broad, encompassing more social commentary than before, and containing many references to emergent underground culture. The Beatles were by no means unique in exploring virgin subject matter, but the sheer variety of the topics on Revolver is remarkable. Death, taxes, loneliness, consciousness, war and mind-altering substances - they are all there.

It is often said that the complementary strengths and approaches of Lennon and McCartney were some of the ingredients which made the Beatles special.  However on Revolver such simplistic pigeon-holing is not really applicable, as both men are in creative and restless form.  It cannot be smugly declared that one songwriter's contributions are edgy and subversive, whilst the other's are more conservative.  The fact that both rise to the occasion, and push themselves, helps give the album additional depth and sweep.

The record's closing track, "Tomorrow Never Knows" doesn't so much close the book on one era, as open a door and peer into an exciting but unpredictable future.  I would argue that the song has been excessively acclaimed in purely musical terms, but symbolically, and as a statement of intent, its effect was startling, probably more so on their peers and the "in crowd" than on Joe Public.

The continued blossoming of George Harrison added another dimension.  His often contradictory concerns were being projected with greater clarity, as exemplified by "Taxman" and "Love You To", and this greatly augmented the group's eclecticism and mystique.  This was the stage at which George truly advanced from being a mere guitar player to something much more integral.

Many of the songs on Revolver are pervaded by a peculiar, almost sleepy and indolent, ambience, which sets it apart from the warm crispness of Rubber Soul and the flawless perfectionism of "Sgt Pepper". Production techniques may have played a part, but there could have been other contributory factors.

There were sign-posts for the future, with unconventional instrumentation and studio experimentation, but The Beatles never lost sight of the fundamental importance of good songwriting and craftsmanship, and these sensibilities are on full display on tracks such as "Got To Get You Into My Life", "For No One" and "Here, There and Everywhere".

Listening to the record, I am also reminded of the apparent effortlessness with which this album was turned out. On other Beatles albums, for all their undoubted quality and charm, one can sense how hard they were trying.  On Revolver, very little feels "forced" or calculating.  It was as if creativity and ideas were flowing naturally from the musicians, with no need for gimmicks or pretension.

Revolver represents a peak of sorts.  Other artists would have sensed that they had nothing further to say, but time would amply demonstrate that The Beatles were in many respects only just beginning....

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Stasiland - Anna Funder

In recent times I have developed something of a fascination with the history and politics of the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany), although there is surprisingly, and frustratingly, little material readily available in English (unless I have not been searching hard enough...)

One of the most affecting documents which I have come across is the book Stasiland, by Anna Funder. In this book, Funder speaks to a number of people, both ordinary citizens and servants of the state machinery, about life in the DDR, focussing mainly on the activities of the Stasi, the notorious state security service, and other elements of the apparatus.

Stasiland is very gritty, and Funder manages to convey the grime and gloom of the DDR era, as well as the lingering legacy of those days.  It possibly helps that she is/was something of an outsider, and therefore able to see the wood from the trees, peering through the complacency, nostalgia and illusions, and being less inured to the drip-drip of indoctrination, and what became perceived "norms". Perhaps this all enabled her to recognise more acutely some of the absurdities and anomalies of the DDR system, in comparison to those who became jaded and resigned to its existence.

The whole book feels like a prolonged glimpse back into a dark tunnel from which all concerned have emerged with varying degrees of pain and regret.

Some of the case studies examined here are extremely moving, poignant and humbling.  In cataloguing events, and coaxing recollections from the protagonists, the author captures some of the darkness, desperation, paranoia, claustrophobia, fear and courage. The one which hit me hardest was the story of the woman who attempted to escape to the West when she was around sixteen years of age.

As well as powerfully relating the stories of various individuals, Stasiland also serves as an abbreviated and condensed history of East Germany. At various stages, aspects of the DDR saga are told, helping to place these stories in some kind of context. The passages on the momentous events of 1989/90 I found particularly enlightening.

Overall, one detects a profound relief that the old regime has disappeared, but also a kind of ennui and emptiness, as if nothing has really taken its place,  a state of flux. Freedom, but also sterility and confusion. It  must be borne in mind that this book was published in 2003, so things may have moved on slightly since then.

The book paints a more complex, nuanced picture of the DDR than is often portrayed in the mainstream media, and it delves beneath the lazy cliches and stereotypes.

There are stories of courage and principle, of how some people even out-witted the system, and played on the fears, insecurities and paranoia of some of those within it. Perhaps the machinery was not quite as monolithic as has often been assumed, and there were kinks which could be exploited. By the same token, not everyone had the savoir-faire, leverage or contacts to confront the system.

The book also carries with it the mixed feelings which were harboured by some at that time about the disappearance of the Wall.  The certainties and "security" instilled by the socialist system were recognised and even missed in many quarters. It would be interesting to know to what extent this ambivalence persists to this day.

Stasiland does not just strive to discredit and demonize the old structures, but gives ample scope for the expounding of misgivings about the Western ways. These sentiments are not just from the mouths of philosophers, but from those of genuine, sensible citizens.  This side of the story is dealt with very maturely and sensibly. One quotation which really sticks in my mind was an observation about the number of types of ketchup available in the West!

Reading this book, I found myself jumping between sadness, anger and awe. Much of it is scarcely a joyful read, but in places it is quite inspiring, seeing how ordinary people seek to maintain and protect their dignity and their families and friends in the face of a callous foe.  It also serves as a valuable snapshot of a fascinating stage in history.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

2012 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

We should have known better than to write off this season's championship chase. Just as some observers were starting to revert to the old "boring and predictable F1" meme, a race occurs which provides a thrilling "race within a race" between Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso, as well as several other sub-plots.

It seemed prior to the race that Alonso had been let off the hook by the penalty incurred by Vettel, but we had not fully bargained for the events which unfolded. No doubt some of the conspiracy theorists in the general sporting media will be sharpening their pencils, metaphorically speaking...

McLaren appeared a little bemused this weekend about their overall competitiveness, but even so the retirement of Lewis Hamilton from the race will have come as a shattering disappointment.  Hamilton's comments following the race would indicate that he is looking forward to his future with Mercedes rather than dwelling on current frustrations, and his despair will have been tempered by these thoughts.

The cards initially appeared to be falling for Vettel, but his enforced change of front wing made his task more formidable. His display, although admittedly aided by the dramas afflicting others, will hopefully have dispelled some of the wilder aspersions being voiced about his credentials.

All of this almost served to overshadow Kimi Raikkonen's much-deserved returned to the Formula 1 winners' circle. Ironically, this victory came after a series of races during which the Lotus team looked to be becalmed and subdued, and in some respects going backwards.  The Finn looked as inscrutable and impassive as ever on the podium, but today's events will have given him immense satisfaction, even though his championship chances for 2012 are now mathematically over.

Two races to go, and the championship race is still very much on the boil.  Logic would indicate that Vettel should still be favoured, having the better all-round technical package, and the law of averages should preclude him suffering the same misfortunes as he did in Abu Dhabi.  However, F1 rarely conforms to these assumptions....

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Nico Hulkenberg to Sauber

 Nico Hulkenberg is to join the Sauber team for 2013, the long-expected announcement having duly been made.

The German's career is without doubt on an upward curve, and the move to Sauber would appear consistent with this momentum, but the switch also gives rise to a few questions.

Is this what could be described as a sideways move?  And if so, would he have been better off remaining at Force India?  Does the move to Sauber indicate a growing closeness to Ferrari, with the long-term hope of securing a race seat at Maranello?

Although Sauber have undoubtedly displayed more dynamism and flair than Force India during the 2012 season, a glance at the Constructors' standings lends weight to the notion that this is a sideways move.  Force India have been consistent if admittedly largely unspectacular.  On the other hand, Hulkenberg may fear losing career impetus if Force India do not progress from their current place in the order of things.  If the move to the Swiss team can be viewed as a gamble, then he possibly feels that it is one worth taking. In addition, Sauber have a sound reputation for stability and permanence.

It would seem that Hulkenberg has gradually begun to attract the notice of the leading teams, and his name was tentatively linked with the second seat at McLaren before Sergio Perez got the nod there.  When the future of Felipe Massa at Ferrari was in jeopardy, the young German was mentioned as a possible candidate to replace him. Time will tell whether the decision to join Sauber is part of a strategy to strengthen these links with Ferrari.

In amongst the bright young things of Formula 1, it has taken some time for Hulkenberg's potential to be more widely recognised, but it seems that many in the sport, and its followers, are beginning to wake up to it. It is up to him to capitalise on this opportunity, and to the Sauber team to equip him with a competitive car, to ensure that the aforementioned upward curve maintains its current direction.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

2012 Indian Grand Prix

Well, Red Bull have sustained their relentless progress, and only the intervention of KERS gremlins for Mark Webber prevented a second consecutive 1-2 finish for the team.

As is usual, Fernando Alonso did all in his power to forestall the progress of the Milton Keynes based equipe.  The Spaniard was putting on a brave face after the race in New Delhi, but the pronouncements from  both himself and the Ferrari team are sounding rather hollow now, even if the optimism is laudable. The mechanical malady which afflicted Webber was a chink of light for Alonso, and reward for his dogged pursuit of the Red Bulls, but the resulting limiting of the points deficit may prove to be largely irrelevant.

The fact remains that Sebastian Vettel was not threatened all afternoon, and Red Bull are not committing the errors or mis-steps which their opponents might be relying on.  They are displaying an irresistible unity and impetus, appearing to enjoy a small, but significant, advantage in several areas which, when added together, account for their current supremacy.  This factor is the one which may be most frustrating for the rest, particularly Ferrari and McLaren, and which makes it tricky for them to decide which areas to address in the limited time now available between the closing races of the year.  There must be the temptation to take risks, but this carries the danger of heading up blind alleys.

It would seem that Ferrari enjoy an advantage in terms of straightline speed, but that they have a deficiency in grip in comparison to Red Bull. Surveying the remaining Grands Prix, it is difficult to conclude whether this confers any sort of advantage on the Italian cars, and in any event they may sacrifice some of this by striving for extra grip and balance.  All in all, it must be said that Red Bull hold all the aces.

The auguries for the race pace of McLaren seemed promising, and before the race I had hoped that Lewis Hamilton, with the title beyond him and his future decided, might feel less bound by strategic strait-jackets, and try something different.  In the event, their pace was so lacklustre as to make all this, and good grid positions, academic, and there is a danger of their season petering out quite lamely, which would be very deflating.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

To The Ends Of The Earth - David Yallop

I recently finished reading David Yallop's best-selling work, In God's Name, and blogged about it.

I then moved on swiftly to another one of Yallop's books, one which might not have garnered quite as much recognition and acclaim internationally, but nevertheless is another mammoth achievement of investigation and analysis.  I am speaking of To The Ends Of The Earth, subtitled "The Hunt for The Jackal".

The author seemingly set out with the intention of exploring the issue of terrorism, and in particular that which stemmed from the Middle East conflict. The focal point for these enquiries was "Carlos The Jackal", real name Ilich Ramirez Sanchez.  As Yallop's journey progressed, this turned into a sprawling epic.  The content grows and expands to encompass geopolitics of the late twentieth century, and the shadowy world of espionage.

In keeping with the approach adopted for In God's Name, Yallop pursues an exhaustive search for truth, not afraid to deviate from, and expose, widely accepted viewpoints. Out of the pages one can strongly detect a diligence and a determination to highlight deceit and disinformation, and to arrive at the unalloyed, ungarnished facts.

Throughout, the author is regularly contemptuous of key figures and organisations on all sides of the debate, where he considers that lies and/or injustice have been perpetrated , being very even-handed in this respect. At times there is almost a weariness and despair in his words, but at the same time a conscientiousness and passion which is difficult to ignore.

Those who Yallop deems culpable of deceit or inhumanity are taken to task, no matter what their status or reputation. If they have a case to answer, no deference is displayed, and rightly so.

In some quarters there was, and still is, a tendency to "romanticize" the terrorists and urban guerrillas of that era.  Yallop is quick to puncture such notions and illusions, pointing out unerringly the brutality, unscrupulousness and moral bankruptcy of those involved.  Hypocrisy of those on all sides is decried, as is rank ineptitude.

Some authors, even those in the "investigative" sphere, are often guilty of skirting around subjects, not getting to the heart of the matter, or treating some matters as taboo or off-limits. This is emphatically not the case with David Yallop.

At first, the excursions away from the "Carlos" story itself, and into the labyrinthine world of Middle East politics, threaten to make things feel disparate and disjointed.  However, later the author manages to marry these strands, and slowly but surely things begin to make sense in an overall context.

This book was first published before Carlos was detained by France, so it will be "out of date" in that respect. However, many of the areas touched on very much resonate in 2012, from official deception and manipulation to intractable world problems. So, it is still very much worth trying to get hold of a copy.

There are numerous other books out there about Carlos, and related subjects, but To The Ends of The Earth differs in its sheer sweep and scope, and the quantity of original and thorough research clearly undertaken. Reading the book from cover to cover has prompted me to ponder with renewed clarity a range of topics, and this in itself must be a litmus test of sorts.

A compelling and ambitious work, and the revelations and findings contained within are hard to overlook. Comprehensive, persistent and determined, but also persuasive.

As a postscript, an accompanying BBC television documentary was made around the time of the book's original publication, circa 1993/94.  I did not record the programme when it was originally broadcast, and would be very interested in obtaining a copy.  Any pointers would be much appreciated!

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Stewart on Vettel

Last week, Sir Jackie Stewart suggested that Sebastian Vettel could not yet be regarded as one of the greats of Formula 1.  The Scotsman, a three-times world champion and often seen as a pivotal figure in the history of the sport, referred to Vettel's possession of a dominant, or at least highly competitive, car during much of his tenure in Grand Prix racing as supporting this contention.  I appreciate that I am a bit late to this story, but here are my thoughts....

My own view is that Vettel is well on his way to becoming a great, purely because of the weight of statistics. Multiple world titles, allied to a plethora of victories and pole positions, do not lie, whatever our perception of technological or financial advantages.  If the German notches up, say, 50 or more Grand Prix wins, even in a superior car, it would be churlish in the extreme for anyone to see this as anything else but "greatness".

I would however draw a distinction between greatness and "legendary" status.  The latter is invariably achieved via a more circuitous route.  To get there a driver, as well as making a firm imprint on the record books, must also accomplish something exceptional or extraordinary, thereby transcending his own sport, and reaching into the consciousness of the wider public, in the manner of a Fangio, a Senna or even a Lauda.     Legendary status can be reached in a number of ways, such as overcoming technical deficiencies, or overcoming adversity.

Vettel is not a legend yet, but he has time on his side.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

In God's Name - David Yallop

My bookshelves have been groaning under the weight of tomes which have received from me only the most cursory of  attention, and I am in the process of revisiting many of these works.  Once such has been In God's Name,  by David Yallop.

This book is ostensibly an investigation into the death of Pope John Paul I, but by necessity its tentacles spread into many aspects of Italian, and indeed world, history and politics.  My renewed interest in this work was in part prompted by my continuing fascination with aspects of the Italian political scene from the late Sixties through to the early Eighties.

Yallop's writing style is unlikely to be to everyone's taste, being quite earnest and emotive in places, but few can doubt that he outlines his findings with genuine passion,conviction and fearlessness.  The research which he undertook in this case was clearly thorough, persistent and wide-ranging.

Whether or not the author succeeds in fully persuading the reader of the merits of his arguments and conclusions will be a matter for personal judgement, but this book constitutes a powerful and thought-provoking probe.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Felipe Massa Stays With Ferrari

News emerged this afternoon that Felipe Massa has signed a contract with Ferrari for 2013.  This announcement had been expected, due to a combination of other developments in the driver market, and a general improvement in Massa's performances of late.

I am pleased at this decision for several reasons, not least because Massa always comes across as a decent fellow, and he has toiled admirably and without complaint to improve his displays as this season has progressed. Despite intense speculation linking several other drivers with a place alongside Fernando Alonso next season, the interest in those potential replacements from Ferrari themselves seemed lukewarm at best, if it indeed truly existed in the first place.

The list of credible candidates to occupy the number two seat at Maranello was hardly overwhelming, in all honesty, after interest in Sergio Perez cooled and he opted for McLaren.  Of those linked, who could be guaranteed to perform the allotted task with the same expertise as Massa? Better to retain that stability and continuity, rather than take a risk.

Of course, the fact that Massa's contract is for 2013 only will strengthen the talk of Sebastian Vettel joining the team for the following season, although that particular story may still have some distance to travel, who knows?

The Day Of The Jackal - Frederick Forsyth

Some time ago now, I wrote an article on the superb 1973 film The Day Of The Jackal, based on the novel by Frederick Forsyth:

The Day Of The Jackal (film)

Well, I have just finished re-reading the novel itself, and thought that I would share some additional thoughts on it.

For the uninitiated, most of the plot deals with a fictional account of an attempt by a hired assassin to kill President Charles de Gaulle.

If you have already seen the movie, you will note some differences in the locations, characters and sequences of events.  The film's makers clearly decided to condense and streamline the "script" in order to cram the story into a manageable running time. However, these amendments are not to the extent of being confusing, or undermining the feeling of harmony between novel and motion picture.

Naturally, there is much more scope in the novel to flesh out and examine the political and diplomatic background to the events, and I found this aspect of the book fascinating, the author striving to strike a balance between appearing comprehensive and the need not to weigh things down with superfluous detail. Some of the characters, both those involved in the plot, and those in French government and law enforcement, are not portrayed in very sympathetic terms.  Many come across as much more reactionary and blinkered than is visible in the film, where we only see them fleetingly.

Some may sneer and view The Day Of The Jackal as in some way shallow and lightweight.  Granted, it is difficult to describe it as high-brow literature in the conventional sense, but that is to miss the point.  Judge it on its own merits, and on what it is seeking to achieve, and it is compulsive and engrossing, as well as representing a prime slab of "escapism".  Especially gripping is the way in which the subterfuge and suspense are built up, and how the Jackal's preparations and the frantic police inquiries unfold in parallel, even if the Jackal is usually that one step ahead of his pursuers.

One of the most immersive things about this novel is its cosmopolitan nature, the drama played out in numerous European locations, and we are given a flavour of what must have been the prevailing atmosphere and lifestyle circa the early 1960s, almost "dolce vita" in character, it seems., when the world still felt "analogue". In amongst this we also see ruthless, cold-blooded behaviour and plotting; a curious but powerful cocktail.

Another thing which occurred to me whilst re-reading The Day Of The Jackal was the level of internal squabbling in the corridors of power.  The general tenor of the novel supports the notion that the author's research was thorough and accurate, and that the tensions depicted therefore have a ring of authenticity.  One would earnestly hope that this kind of thing is not as pervasive in today's world, and that the pressure of events, and simple expediency have helped to dissolve some of the obstacles and bureaucracy, and instill a more streamlined and nimble ethos.  One is also reminded that even in the early 1960s, people were being required to forsake some freedoms and liberties on the pretext of combating crime and terrorism.

To me, the story seems plausible, and not inflated or sensationalised. The latter are not needed, as the central premise is gripping enough.  These, together with the way in which the tension, suspense and desperation of the protagonists are outlined and related, are the essential ingredients of the book's appeal and success.  The minutiae of the detective work undertaken will also enthrall those, like me, who relish that kind of thing!

On reflection, it might be preferable to read the book before watching the movie, as the latter will then make more sense, as one will be equipped with a fuller and deeper understanding of the underlying political issues which triggered the crisis.

Either way, The Day Of The Jackal is one exciting and pulsating read....

Sunday, 14 October 2012

2012 Korean Grand Prix Review

In the aftermath of this morning's race at Yeongam, it felt to me like a pall of cold reality was hanging over many Formula 1 followers.  Not only did we see a relatively mundane contest, but the realisation has started to dawn that Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull have assumed a momentum which, although not irreversible, will definitely take some arresting.

As some had anticipated, Vettel asserted control right from the start of the race, and that was that.  Although Fernando Alonso sporadically threatened to place himself between the two Red Bulls, in the end Vettel and Webber were reasonably comfortable.  The Red Bulls were visually very stable and efficient, and the writing is very much on the wall  for their competitors.  There was an air of serenity about Vettel, and other Red Bull people, afterwards.  The glum expressions on the faces of some rival teams displayed the flip-side of this.

It has to be admitted that McLaren endured a miserable Grand Prix, but it should be pointed out that after practice and qualifying the team appeared cautiously bullish, if not exactly ecstatic, about their prospective race pace.  In the event, this pace was not permitted to reveal itself, as Jenson Button was eliminated at the start, and Lewis Hamilton was afflicted by mechanical maladies. This all had a detrimental effect on Hamilton's and McLaren's position in the points standings.  The titles may be out of reach, but there are still potential race wins to be fought for in the closing four events, assuming reliability of course!.

Ferrari was another team which emitted vaguely positive vibes about its performance in race trim, and they at least partly delivered on this, even if they ultimately could not quite live with the redoubtable Red Bulls.  Fernando Alonso, as is usual, extracted the maximum possible from the machinery at his disposal, but must now realise that he is playing catch-up, having been protecting his points lead in previous races.  Felipe Massa once again showed his mettle, and today's display probably secured his 2013 berth with the team, that is assuming that the decision to retain his services had not already been made.

Kimi Raikkonen is third in the championship standings, but the upgrades to the car unsurprisingly did not represent any kind of quantum leap. The changes seem merely to have allowed Lotus to hold station, and prevent the "big three" from disappearing further over the horizon. One positive aspect for the team was the relatively inconspicuous outing enjoyed by Romain Grosjean. He largely kept away from trouble, and after the race seemed happier than of late.  He will be even more buoyant if, as seems increasingly probable, he is kept on for next season.

Nico Hulkenberg attained another solid result in his quiet, unobtrusive but proficient style.  Possibilities of seats at the very top teams seem to be blocked for the time being, and maybe Hulkenberg is just too "unglamorous" and unassuming for his own good in this respect.  However, the indications are that he will find himself in a Sauber for next season, and this should constitute a useful stepping stone.

So, with three consecutive victories, Vettel must now be considered favourite to clinch another title.  This season's fluctuations have taught us not to take anything for granted, but the recent surge by Red Bull has the stamp of permanence and authority about it.  One can also discern a creeping, if not irrevocable, demolarization amongst the other participants.

We know that Fernando Alonso is capable of great things, and of at least partially compensating for a technical performance shortfall, but even he and his team may prove incapable of turning the tide on this occasion.  We shall soon discover whether Ferrari have anything else up their sleeves, or any more aces to play.  Otherwise, they will be relying on mistakes or misfortune befalling Red Bull.

The Indian Grand Prix should provide us with some of the answers....

Sunday, 7 October 2012

2012 Japanese Grand Prix Review

Not in itself the most pulsating exciting or entertaining race at Suzuka today, if we are being honest, but one which generated numerous talking points, and which tightened the drivers' championship points race considerably.

Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel were presented with an "open goal" by the lap 1 exit of Fernando Alonso and the comparatively lowly grid position of the two McLarens.  Further aided by a buffer comprising some non-title-contenders, Vettel did not squander his opportunity.

What will have felt ominous for the rest of the field was the degree of comfort enjoyed by Vettel in achieving his victory, on such a technical and challenging circuit, which tests many qualities in a car.  The first back-to-back wins for any driver in 2012.  There were even whispers that the Red Bull's straightline speed, hitherto a shortcoming, had been improved.

The body language and facial expressions of Red Bull personnel, including the winner, after the race were very significant. They can sense that matters may be shifting gradually but inexorably in their direction, and there was less of the equivocation exhibited at previous races.  There must now be an increasing sense of foreboding amongst Red Bull's rivals concerning the remaining meetings.

The Ferrari frustration must have been compounded by the sight of Felipe Massa securing a fine second place. At the same time, the performance of the Brazilian and his car can be seen to bode well for the Italian team for the balance of the season.

Alonso was quite stoical and positive afterwards, looking forward to Korea rather than dwelling on his disappointment at Suzuka.  The shrewd Spaniard must have known all along that one or more of the chasing pack would eventually encroach.  Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali indicated that he was conscious of the need for the team to improve the car.  They cannot just rely on a combination of Alonso's adroit driving and consistency, and good fortune.  If any complacency was there at Ferrari, it should have rapidly evaporated and turned into a state of mild alarm.

As for Massa, it seems that Suzuka, added to several other creditworthy recent performances, may have helped to secure his place with Ferrari for 2013.

McLaren were hampered this weekend by various factors, and will be concerned, but not surprised at Red Bull's restoration to pre-eminence. After the race Martin Whitmarsh was being realistic about the team's position vis-a-vis Red Bull. Whilst not exactly exuding optimism, he did say that they will keep fighting, trying and working. There is a sense that McLaren did all that they could in the circumstances.

There may be insinuations that McLaren have become "lost" again, but I don't subscribe to these notions.  It is more a case of Red Bull leaping ahead again.  McLaren cannot have regressed in the space of a few weeks. This situation is symptomatic of the fickleness and volatility of fortunes in modern Formula 1, where things are decidedly fluid.  Even some of the protagonists sometimes come across as bemused by the constant shifts in initiative and impetus.

It was an afternoon of mixed fortunes for the Sauber drivers.  Kamui Kobayashi appeared inspired in front of his home crowd, on a familiar circuit, and motivated and galvanised by rumours about the composition of the Sauber line-up in 2013, including whether he would be playing any part in it.  It was lovely and refreshing to see the emotional scenes on the podium and in the grandstands.

The departure of Sergio Perez from proceedings caused some consternation, but for me it was no big deal, just one of those things.  We did see during the race a few glimpses of the fluent and audacious talent which has persuaded McLaren to sign the Mexican for next season.

Of course, the other major topic of discussion was the continuing ordeal of Romain Grosjean, who collided with Mark Webber on the first lap.  This particular move was not as egregious as some of the other incidents in which he has been involved, but at the same time it will hardly have endeared him to his peers or the wider F1 community.

Grosjean's demeanour post-race spoke volumes.  He looked haunted, helpless and worried.  Despite his indiscretions, it is difficult not to feel some sympathy for a young man who is increasingly beleaguered. It is hard to say what can be done.  In previous eras, there was sometimes an unofficial group of "elder statesmen" drivers who might have had a cautionary word of advice in his ear, but that situation does not seem to exist any more.  Perhaps it is ultimately up to the team itself to address the problem?

Turning to the race itself, I would concur with the sentiments of those who, while desiring a more exciting race, revelled in the spectacle and challenge provided by the Suzuka circuit.  There is nothing else quite like it  in F1, Spa-Francorchamps apart.

It is ever more looking like a straight contest for the drivers' championship between Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel. Kimi Raikkonen's momentum has stalled, and he looks less capable of winning Grands Prix than a few races ago.  The shift induced by events at Suzuka make it possible that the title will be decided at the final race.  On the other hand, Vettel may just dominate the remainder of the season....

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Michael Schumacher Retires....Again

The announcement this morning from Michael Schumacher that he was retiring from Formula 1 was not entirely surprising, given recent developments in the driver's market for 2013, and the disappointments which he has endured this season. However, there were some intriguing and revealing morsels of information contained in the announcement itself.

Schumacher appears to have begun to doubt his motivation in recent times, and it was somewhat surprising to hear such a frank and honest assessment of his innermost thoughts and the reasons leading up to the move to quit.  It is admirable, and also characteristic, of Schumacher to decide that if he cannot give a project 100% then he will not continue with it.

It was also significant that the German used the word "relief" to describe the emotions which he feels in making this momentous decision.  Hinting perhaps that the last three seasons, or at least the latter portions of that period, have been a chore, an ordeal and a time of frustration, even if rewarding from some perspectives on a human level?

Another revealing detail is Schumacher's assertion that the signing by Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton for 2013 aided his decision to "re-retire".  We can therefore assume that there was no genuine appetite for pursuing possible opportunities or options with other teams. Is this all consistent with the notion that the 2010 comeback was entirely "a Mercedes thing"?

So was it a mistake for Schumacher to return to F1?  We can all pontificate and speculate, but none of the parties directly involved is likely to admit as such outright in the immediate future.

Concern has been expressed as to whether the less than sparkling results achieved during Michael's second F1 career will in some way tarnish his legacy.  My own feeling is that the travails and setbacks experienced during his time with Mercedes will be placed in their right and proper perspective, and that he will be mainly remembered for his years of near hegemony with Ferrari, and his earlier feats with Benetton.

We now await news of what Schumacher intends to do with his time in the future.  Some role within the Mercedes structure or, after a period of reflection, some racing activity in other, less exalted categories?

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Abbey Road - The Beatles - album review

By the time that recording sessions commenced for the Abbey Road album in 1969, the writing was on the wall as far as any future for the Beatles as a continuing entity was concerned.  It is therefore common for the work released later that year to be lauded as a fitting and poignant parting shot (Let It Be was released later, but most of it was recorded in the early months of 1969).  So, from the perspective of over four decades later, were the plaudits truly warranted, or just a case of respectful wishful thinking?

A "bittersweet" but defiant quality runs through Abbey Road, although whether this has been accrued with the passing of time is open to debate.  I am in no real position to adjudicate, as the album was released shortly before I was born!

Certain aspects make this LP stand out from other albums released by the Fab Four.  The production and sound quality are markedly more lavish and "polished" than their other works.  They were now gaining access to more advanced recording technology.  Whether this makes the album sound "better" is a matter of taste, and the sheen possessed by these recordings could give rise to an accusation that the sound is a touch clinical. In fairness to the Beatles, they did not hide behind their newly acquired gizmos and equipment, and instead relied primarily on their trademark melodic inventiveness and imagination and songwriting prowess.

The album also witnessed the true flowering of George Harrison as a songwriter, and his two songs, "Something" and "Here Comes The Sun", have been the most enduring of the tracks on the listing. The clarity and sincerity of Harrison's writing here contrasts with the contributions of both Lennon and McCartney which, whilst substantial and important to the album's overall appeal, are beginning to diverge and possibly presage their respective solo careers to come.

Notwithstanding the reverence expressed for Abbey Road, there is some undoubted filler, although this being the Beatles it is interesting and entertaining filler!  It is a moot point whether the group members were holding some stronger material back for impending solo projects.  We know from the Anthology 3 album that some impressive songs were floating around circa 1969.

Even much of the fabled "medley" on side 2 of the vinyl album could justly described as "filler", but the group, and in particular McCartney and George Martin, expertly pull together this mixture of minor gems, vignettes and fragments, and fuse it into something vibrant, moving and enthralling.  A case of the whole being greater than the sum of the individual parts...

Partly because of the efficacy of the "medley", and also because of the diversity and quality of the other material, Abbey Road works better as an "album" in the truest sense than most of the Beatles' other work. Not quite as enigmatic and disparate as "The White Album", but much warmer and compact.  The musical ingenuity conquers all, together with the group's uncanny knack of knowing what to do, when and how, rarely if ever sounding self-indulgent or pretentious.

Abbey Road represents a brave, unapologetic and proud farewell, if it can be accurately described as a "farewell".  Bittersweet in tone, but captivating and, and one of those albums which demands to be listened to      from start to finish, in order for the full effect to be absorbed.  For this listener at least, there is never the temptation to skip tracks...

Throughout the record, there are hints and indications of what direction the Beatles would have travelled in musically, had they remained together during the 1970s.  Multi-tracked vocals and guitars, increasing use of synthesizers, more elaborate and ambitious arrangements, and of course the blossoming input of George Harrison.

On a sonic level, Ringo Starr's drumming is a revelation, sounding confident, idiosyncratic and "three dimensional".  Another hallmark of the album is the "trebly" and chiming guitar sound.  Both of these elements were doubtless accentuated by the better recording technology at the band's disposal, but as common threads they help to hold the record together.

I try not to categorise or rank Beatles albums in particular, because of the leap in musical sophistication and philosophical outlook which they made in such a short time during the 1960s, but Abbey Road is without doubt one of their most enjoyable and cohesive creations.

Friday, 28 September 2012

Sergio Perez to McLaren

Dovetailing with the announcement that Lewis Hamilton would be joining Mercedes, came the news that Mexico's Sergio Perez would be replacing the Englishman in the McLaren team.

Some have argued that Perez is largely untested and unproven, and there are still a few rough edges to be smoothed out.  However, there is persuasive evidence indicating that he is not just a raw youngster being promoted over his head.  There have been glimpses, particularly during the 2012 season, of real nous and maturity, things which separate the potentially great from the merely good.  These things do not go un-noticed by team managers, however much we may like to denigrate their judgement at times!

It does seem that Perez brings with him some lavish financial backing, and though it is hard to believe that this   was anything like a decisive factor, it doesn't exactly hurt either, with the current economic climate ensuring that uncertainty and instability are never too far away, even for an organisation such as McLaren.

The effect on the driver politics at McLaren is also fascinating to speculate upon.  It can be argued that the departure of Hamilton, and the signing of Perez, leaves the driving strength at Woking temporarily weakened.      It is possible, but not certain, that Perez will take a little time to find his feet, and during that time it may feel like a void has been left by the loss of the outright speed and talent of Hamilton.  However, once Perez has acclimatised to life in a front-running team, the driving line-up should be well-balanced, the youthful exuberance and elan of the Mexican complementing the solidity, experience and methodical approach of Jenson Button. In this respect, does Jenson represent some kind of "insurance policy" for McLaren?

So how is Perez likely to fare at McLaren?   The odds are that he will flourish given time, but at the same time there are numerous examples of promising drivers who looked like world-beaters in middling teams, but whose careers soon assumed a plateau upon being promoted to a car running at the front.  Young drivers in teams such as Sauber are allowed the occasional aberration or off-day, but this is less likely to be tolerated or indulged in a top team. Part of Perez's task will be to bridge that gap.

Much has been made of the cooling of Ferrari's interest in signing Perez to their race team, if indeed there was genuine interest in the first place.  Granted, the Ferrari management was reputed to have cast doubt on Perez's suitability on the grounds of experience, but what effect will today's developments have on the careers of both Felipe Massa and, for the sake of argument, Sebastian Vettel?   Only time will tell....

Lewis Hamilton to Mercedes

So, after protracted and sometimes tiresome speculation, it has been announced that Lewis Hamilton will depart McLaren, after signing a three year contract with Mercedes.  This has triggered in earnest the annual game of musical chairs in Formula 1.

So, what factors lie behind Hamilton's decision to opt for the Three-Pointed-Star, apart from his longstanding links with the carmaker?

It is tempting to be cynical and attribute it solely to financial incentive, but to me that is a major over-simplification. Mercedes offers resources, potential and facilities.  Despite indications that he will nominally have equal status with Nico Rosberg, there is little doubt that everyone, including many in the team itself, will regard Lewis as the number one driver from the outset.

One thing which has perhaps been overlooked is the likely impact of the move on Hamilton himself.  A fresh start, a change of scenery and the dawning of new pastures may reinvigorate and re-motivate the driver, freed from the tensions of his latter days at McLaren.

Hamilton may feel that this is a "gamble" worth taking at this stage of his career, if indeed it can be viewed as a gamble. If the Mercedes team can be lifted above its current relative mediocrity and inspired to genuine success, there would be enormous kudos to be reaped, as well as a great feeling of personal and professional satisfaction.

In assessing Hamilton's reasons and motives, many observers are overlooking the fact that he is already a World Champion, with multiple victories under his belt. In addition, he is still young enough to re-establish himself with other teams should his stay at Mercedes go awry or prove less than fruitful.  The age issue may also have persuaded him that it is worth "sacrificing" one or two relatively lean or fallow years for the prospect of long-term success.  The looming regulation changes may also have played on his mind, although the "reshuffling" properties of those changes are probably over-estimated.

The arrival of Hamilton will needless to say have major repercussions for the Mercedes team itself.  The jury is still very much out on the outfit in its post-2009 guise, the win in China this year notwithstanding.  There are still inconsistencies and weaknesses to be resolved and addressed.

I think it is less a case of Hamilton inspiring a revival or breakthrough through his own actions or pro-active measures, than his arrival heightening the commercial and political ante generally, and forcing the organisation to get its act together, and make necessary changes. The era of drivers carrying teams through their own personality or charisma may well have passed with Michael Schumacher's exit from Ferrari.

Whatever the theories concerning Hamilton's move, it has certainly added considerable spice to the driver market, and the prospects for the 2013 season!

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Schumacher Handed Grid Penalty

There is a postscript to my earlier blog post about today's Singapore Grand Prix:

Singapore Grand Prix

After initially suspecting that a mechanical problem had led to his crash with the Toro Rosso of Jean-Eric Vergne, Michael Schumacher has now acknowledged, when questioned by the race stewards, that he was at fault.  He has therefore been given a ten-position grid penalty for the upcoming Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka.

2012 Singapore Grand Prix

All in all, quite an unsatisfying race at the Marina Bay circuit.  Lewis Hamilton had been leading handily if not comfortably, and in the aftermath of his retirement there was a slight air of unreality about proceedings, with "entertainment" and "excitement" provided by several incidents. The resultant safety car periods led to the race feeling disjointed, and contrary to expectation they did not lead to the race at the front becoming any more genuinely exciting.

The form in Singapore largely accorded with the predictions of the pundits and experts.  McLaren maintaining their "post-break" ascendancy, and Red Bull's car and chassis proving more suited to this track than on some preceding circuits. Other outfits which had been prominent in 2012 found Marina Bay less suited to their machinery, and struggled accordingly.

The gearbox maladies which ended Hamilton's involvement will have come as a major frustration to a driver and team who had mustered real impetus in recent races.  Not quite a case of "one step forward, two steps back", but an irritation considering how authoritatively, confidently and decisively the Englishman had performed all weekend. Hamilton's philosophical demeanour after the race was symptomatic of a driver who knew that he himself could have done no more, and who once again had proved a few points.

Sebastian Vettel's fleet practice pace had argued persuasively for him to be considered a potential victor, and Adrian Newey exuded quiet confidence.  Sure enough, during the race Vettel showed signs of threatening Hamilton's lead, but even so his victory was mildly anti-climactic, a case of "what might have been" for neutrals.

Once again, Fernando Alonso displayed that uncanny knack of installing himself there or thereabouts, evading trouble and ably exploiting the machinery at his disposal and any good fortune which came his way. He concentrated on doing his job, whilst watching others encounter drama and disappointment, and the erosion of his championship points lead was less than he might have feared at one stage of the race.

One of the major incidents of the race was Michael Schumacher's collision with Jean-Eric Vergne.  The seven-times champion hinted at a mechanical failure, and looking at the replays, this would seem plausible.  My over-riding emotion was one of relief that nobody was injured, as well as admiration for the dignified and restrained reaction of the young Frenchman.

Unhappily, but also quite predictably, the Sauber team struggled in Singapore.  Much of their potency during this season has stemmed from their straightline speed, and this was negated on a more "technical" circuit such as this. The car also exhibited an aversion to the bumps, and the team appeared at sea on set-up during practice and qualifying.  The remaining races may be more profitable, if offering mixed prospects.

Force India enjoyed a more fruitful meeting, with Paul di Resta delivering a very timely fourth place, a reminder of his qualities.

For once, Pastor Maldonado's detractors were neutralised when the Venezuelan driver was eliminated by hydraulics problems when well-placed in the order.  I still think that his superb achievement in putting the Williams on the front row was not sufficiently heralded, with most people more intent on pondering the potential for fireworks at the first corner in the race itself.  Needless to say, said fireworks failed to materialise.

Looking at the points table, it is now tempting to envisage matters distilling to a straight contest between Vettel and Alonso.  Hamilton probably possesses the quickest car, but the arithmetic is unlikely to work in his favour.  Raikkonen, although currently third, looks less likely to win Grands Prix than he did a few races ago, and does not really have much momentum. Alonso may be content to sit back and watch McLaren and Red Bull share the wins, but take points off each other....

Friday, 21 September 2012

A Day At The Races - Queen - album review

I find that train journeys are often a good time for reflection and re-evaluation.  The feelings of solitude and tranquility and the different surroundings all contribute to this. On one such recent journey I found myself listening to Queens' 1976 album A Day At The Races.  

The record is oft maligned as an exercise in water-treading, or at least a pale re-hash of the ground covered by A Night At The Opera. However, my view is that it has many and varied virtues.  So, I thought that I would indulge in a little revisionism!

The first observation I would make is that A Day At The Races is the most quintessentially "Queenesque" of all their albums, containing in distilled and condensed form all of the elements which informed their 1970s output in particular.     Compact, lithe, comprising ten songs of roughly equal length, discarding the vignettes, oddities and curiosities seen on earlier records.  Straight-ahead, well-crafted melodic rock music.

Another trait of A Night At The Opera absent from its "sequel" is the excessive perfectionism and "patchwork production".  This was the first album which the group in essence produced themselves.  In places the mix is somewhat "muddy", with Freddie Mercury's voice almost buried, and not captured with too much clarity.

The genre excursions on this album are more fully rounded and realised than on previous works, and not just perfunctory nods.

Belying its reputation with some people, there are some genuinely memorable songs on A Day At The Races, which have withstood the test of time. The sequencing of the tracks was well executed, instilling a sense of balance and contrast. A clever touch was to book-end the album with an affecting "staircase" motif, adding to the feeling of cohesion and continuity.

After the meteoric success enjoyed by A Night At The Opera, many might have felt that Queen were under pressure to improve on it, or subject to the temptation to change direction radically.  However, what they seem to have done is just gone ahead and recorded an album to the best of their ability.  So this can be regarded as a pause for breath, or consolidation, but entertaining and skillful consolidation all the same.  Some of the self-consciousness and excess of the previous LP disappeared as part of this process.

In the songwriting stakes, Mercury and Brian May were still dominant, with the breakthrough of Roger Taylor and John Deacon still just around the corner. It is arguable that a greater "democratization" of the songwriting duties diluted some of Queen's later records.

The album opens with "Tie Your Mother Down", one of the band's most enduring rockers. When performed live, the song could be frantic and breathless, but the studio rendition has a certain grandeur about it. When Brian May addresses such subject matter, there is an endearing coyness about his approach.  This, however, is a good, energetic beginning, if not truly representative of the record as a whole.

"You Take My Breath Away" is one of the most chillingly ethereal and beautiful of all Freddie Mercury's creations.  It is tempting to view this as a "sequel" to "Love of My Life".  To my ears, many of these piano ballads have aged better than most of Queen's output.

A typically introspective, enigmatic and reflective May song, "Long Away" is sonically at variance, because of the different guitar sounds employed.  The melody is, in truth, quite bland, but there are other things which hold the interest.  Possibly the weakest track on the album, though.

It is the likes of "Millionaire Waltz" which tend to give fuel to Queen's detractors, who accuse them of being too pompous and overblown.  This intricate and ambitious song has a distinct Gilbert and Sullivan flavour, and it is more convincing and likeable than some other similar excursions. In saying that, it will hardly have endeared Queen to 1976's nascent punk scene!

"You and I" is a typically straightforward melodic John Deacon love song, although here imbued with the traditional Queen trademarks of multitracked vocals and guitars.  There is something intangibly attractive about this song, which may be traceable to its deceptive melody and warm production.

The big single from the album was "Somebody To Love".  This original studio recording does lack a certain guile and suppleness in comparison to the later spectacular live versions, which afforded much scope for improvisation and ad-libbing. The production is a touch leaden, perhaps weighed down by the "gospel choir", and Freddie's voice is a little submerged.  There are many highlights and hooks to be relished, however.

A protest song of sorts, "White Man" follows. I have never been able to fully reconcile in my mind whether this track is clumsy or subtle.  It was rare in those days for Queen to engage in socio-political commentary; this not becoming a more regular feature of their music until the 1980s. Brian May always seemed to have it in him, as has been displayed in recent times, but back then he was more reticent.  Light and shade are used to good effect here, and the lyrics are quite strident at times.

Another pleasing if ultimately lightweight effort, "Good Old Fashioned Loverboy" works well in the context of leavening things. An inventive and punchy arrangement lifts it above the mediocre.

An intriguing song, Roger Taylor's "Drowse" seems to allude to the composer's upbringing, and his attempts to rebel and transcend his sleepy and conservative environs.  The arrangement, dominated by Brian May's slide guitar, perfectly befits the soporific backdrop to the story. Taylor's vocal is delivered in a more deadpan style than most of his other performances.

The closer, "Teo Torriatte", seems to have been conceived as some form of tribute to Japan and its people, after Queen developed a real affinity with the country on their early tours there. Quite a mood piece, featuring some pleasing vocals from Freddie in the verses and haunting keyboard work by May.

So to conclude A Day At The Races is a solid effort, with some strong songs, and common strands holding things together, so that there is a real sense of having listened to an album.  Listen, and enjoy!

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Eddy Merckx: The Cannibal - Daniel Friebe

The Belgian cyclist Eddy Merckx has held some degree of fascination for me in recent times.  During my childhood, I recall constant references to him in the media, but at that stage cycling and the Tour de France seemed somehow remote and exotic. More recently though the wonders of the internet have enabled me to learn more about his achievements and personality.

Recently I watched, and blogged on, an excellent documentary film about the man:

Eddy Merckx - La Course En Tete

Hungry for more, I read Daniel Friebe's superb biography of Merckx:

The central thrust which I discerned was an examination of the seismic effect which Merckx had on the world of cycling when he first fully emerged in the mid-to-late 1960s, and how this impacted on his competitors. The status quo was destabilised, and much coverage is devoted to how his rivals and colleagues reacted to this new phenomenon, both on and off the bike.

It seems that for much of his career Merckx was regarded with a mixture of respect, awe and fear by all concerned. Suitably mesmerised, it took many too long to fully appreciate and understand what they were dealing with, and what the Belgian represented.  Merckx and his associates eschewed some age-old cycling conventions, and others were compelled to re-evaluate and re-calibrate their own philosophy of racing. 

The psychological effect of Merckx's methods was almost more important than the real physical and material ones. Once seeds of doubt and defeatism were planted in some minds, they proved very problematic to dispel.  Again, the author goes to great lengths to document this aspect of the Merckx story, through contemporary quotes and interviews conducted in the 21st century.  Not all of those interviewed had mellowed too much in their opinions!

Some of the most revealing parts of the book detail the "growing pains" which the sport was undergoing in the Merckx era, many of them precipitated by his success and prominence.  There are many enlightening tales of commercial pressures, back-room politics and expediency.

Inevitably, the subject of doping, a touchy one in cycling even in the 60s and 70s, is afforded much analysis.  Friebe to his credit approaches this subject with some realism and pragmatism, detailing the pressures on the riders, and the misgivings held by the peloton concerning the testing and disciplinary procedures then in place.

The author also delves into the Merckx character and psyche, and we see a multi-faceted personality, which tended to colour his often complex and contradictory relationships with his rivals. Some of these elements are traced back to his upbringing , his formative years and his apprenticeship in the sport.  To what extent was the die cast at a very early stage?

There is some great insight into what maketh the man, from parental influence, childhood environment and his unusual (for a pro-cyclist of the time) background.  These factors may have contributed to making him unique.

It is often tempting to contrast the Merckx on his bike with the private man, and label them as direct opposites.  Of course, life is seldom as straightforward as that, and the book concentrates on these nuances in some depth.  Like all of us, Merckx had his insecurities and foibles, and it seems that a kind of nervous tension was part of what drove him, and that he channelled this into facing new challenges. We also learn of the demands which were placed on others - team colleagues and personnel.

We see how some in the sport, including some spectators, developed an antipathy towards Merckx, because of his hegemony, but also because of how his modus operandi was perceived. Paradoxically, many riders also regarded him as indispensible because of his role as a benchmark and a beacon of reliable excellence.  Many riders were lulled to their demise by trying to play Merckx at his own game. Some eventually arrived at a strategy which helped maintain their own equilibrium and longevity, and to secure the occasional victory.  Those who paid heed invariably prospered.

Some of the most intriguing chapters in the book address Merckx's decline, and the latter years of his career, and how he managed this.  The aforementioned psychological hold which Merckx had on some of  his competitors may have helped him to sustain and prolong his time at the very top table.  Not everyone was quick to detect chinks in the armour, and capitalise.

In order to effectively and comprehensively convey the most momentous and pivotal episodes in the Merckx career, Friebe occasionally glosses over some less eventful races or periods of time.  However, this book handsomely fulfills its remit of exploring the Merckx legend, and its accompanying enigma, in a mature and gripping fashion.  Thoroughly recommended reading.