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.


Thursday, 13 September 2012

Sid Watkins

It was with great sadness that we learned late yesterday of the death of Professor Sid Watkins, who did so much to advance and promote the cause of safety in Formula 1 and motorsport generally in his various roles with the FIA.

Often referred to as the most respected member of the F1 community, Watkins was on the scene of many serious accidents at Grands Prix, often administering emergency treatment which saved lives.

In the aftermath of the traumatic events at Imola in 1994, he became deeply involved in the initiatives to improve safety in the sport. He continued this work until comparatively recently. 

His two books, Life At The Limit and Beyond The Limit, gave a vivid and compelling insight into his work.

Many drivers owe their lives to the work undertaken by Sid Watkins over several decades.

May he Rest In Peace.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

2012 Italian Grand Prix Review

There has always been something a bit special and unique about the Italian Grand Prix at Monza. The history, the fans and the circuit itself.  Other ingredients all add to the mystique and the atmosphere. The race is usually blessed with beautiful late summer/early autumn sunshine.  Adding to all this is the tendency for the championship to be finely poised, and for there to be feverish speculation about "who goes where" for the following season.  Announcements are often made at Monza, or at the very least driver moves come to be regarded as a fait accompli.

Of course, one Lewis Hamilton was the subject of much of the speculation over the three days at Monza, but he put this to one side to do what he does best;that is, drive a Grand Prix car very quickly.  For the second weekend running, a McLaren proved capable of keeping the opposition at arm's length, even if the margin of victory was not ultimately that commanding on the clock.  As in qualifying, the gap between McLaren and the rest just somehow felt significant....

Although Hamilton comfortably held sway at the front, the race behind him was brimming with interest, incident and no little controversy, much of this connected at least tangentially with impending driver moves.

The home team achieved results which in the circumstances were probably as good as could be expected, given Fernando Alonso's grid position and Felipe Massa's difficulties with telemetry in the race.  Although Alonso actually extended his points lead, ironically he may feel less comfortable and secure tonight, keenly aware of the gathering challenge from a newly focussed and invigorated McLaren. 

Felipe Massa appeared positive and bullish before the race, and was positive during it, making a combative start, and driving in spirited fashion for much of the race, proving what he is capable of, before deferring to his team leader.  Cynics might mumble about "contracts time" but he will certainly have enhanced his prospects this afternoon. 

Jenson Button's retirement from the race will have come as a bitter blow to a man with undoubted momentum on his side.  Post-race, however, the Englishman was philosophical, pointing to the advances which McLaren have made in their performance in race trim.

Although it is misleading to describe Hamilton's victory as "routine", it has to be said that much of the spotlight after the race was on the startling and impressive ascent to second place of Sergio Perez.  Benefitting from a bold strategy, he executed some audacious but clean overtaking manoeuvres.  What amused me was that the young Mexican seemed a touch bemused after the race, as if he has not himself yet realised just how good he is!  He is now producing displays like this too regularly for it to be dismissed as "luck".  This kid could be something really special...

A miserable day for Red Bull, and the spectre of alternator maladies raised its head once again.  It has the potential to be an Achilles heel, but it is hard to believe that it won't be addressed swiftly in some form or other.  Sebastian Vettel raced vigorously prior to his drive-through penalty.  I thought that the sanction was warranted, but that it was not perhaps as clear-cut or egregious a transgression as some are making out.

The disappointment of the day may have been Lotus.  Their prospects were much talked up beforehand, the absence of Romain Grosjean notwithstanding.  Although Raikkonen ended up in fifth, we might have expected slightly more, and there were positive noises during practice about the car's pace on fullish tanks.  Mutterings may once again be heard about their strategic abilities and flexibility. With McLaren's renewed potency, has the Lotus "window of opportunity" for a victory passed, I wonder?  We shall see....

Mercedes salvaged something tangible from the day, with both cars in the points.  They were resigned to a two-stop strategy, and their straightline speed in the race was not sufficient to compensate for other shortcomings in the car.  Consequently, they did not have enough overall performance to make up for the time lost in pit-stops.  To their credit, the drivers never ceased in their efforts to recover the deficit. 

A quick word for Daniel Ricciardo, who was once again quietly impressive.  In no way over-awed, he seems perfectly comfortable in this lofty company, as evidenced by his driving when dicing with those making up ground following tyre stops.

One sour note was struck after the race, with allegations of abuse being directed towards Lewis Hamilton by some members of the crowd.

So can Hamilton make a late run for the championship?  He and McLaren certainly have some impetus now, although much may depend on how the car copes with some of the slower and bumpier circuits to come.  Vettel's ability, and the Red Bull's liking for some of those circuits, mean he is still very much in the hunt.  Alonso is still probably the marginal favourite, and can be counted on to accumulate points through his racer's nous and savvy, and the reliability of his vehicle.  The arithmetic is frankly too complex and speculative to bother with at this stage!

Above all, today it was glorious to watch Formula 1 cars going flat-out, and racing, at such a fast and historic circuit.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Going Straight

Spin-offs or sequels to celebrated situation comedies have a chequered history, to put it mildly.  However, one which merits some attention and praise is Going Straight, which followed on from the immense Porridge.

The basic premise of Going Straight was the struggle of Norman Stanley Fletcher, played by Ronnie Barker, to re-adjust and reintegrate into society following his release from Slade Prison.  However, to me the series, brief though its tenure was, was so much more than that.  Direct comparisons with its illustrious predecessor were also unfair, for several reasons.

The "situation" was one of the prime factors which made  Porridge such an endearing and effectual situation comedy.  This element is not as pervasive or concentrated in Going Straight, the arena being the big, bad outside world, and not the confines of a prison. This would inevitably mean that the follow-up would seem more disparate by comparison.  It does have pronounced virtues and hallmarks of its own, though.

The tone is markedly less outwardly comedic, and more dark, than Porridge, with much more in the way of poignancy and pathos.  I will admit that Going Straight is not always a comfortable watch, because of the predicament in which Norman Stanley Fletcher finds himself, and the vulnerability which this evokes.  The certainties of incarcertation have been stripped away, and he is at the mercy of the more varied and unpredictable vagaries of wider society.  The priority in prison was short-term bucking of the system, whereas on the outside one perhaps has to accept that the oppressive forces are too diffuse and powerful.

One of the great strengths of the series is its subject matter, which transcends time, and never grows stale.  Temptation, honour, dignity, perseverance, resolve, integrity and resilience are all tested and scrutinised. Despite the 1970s cultural references which abound in Going Straight, the themes raised are still startlingly relevent today.

The subject matter is, of course, expertly collated and deployed by the peerless writing team of Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais.  Their scripts for Going Straight were sharp and fresh, and possessed their uniquely appealing combination of warmth, incisiveness and empathy.

Of course, one of the departures of Going Straight was its wider diversity of major characters.  In this respect, the performance of Patricia Brake as Fletch's daughter Ingrid was particularly impressive, if under-rated. Torn between love and sympathy for her father, concern for the welfare of her wider family, and a sense of right and wrong.

To varying degrees, the six episodes chronicle the never-ending struggles of life, the ongoing battle to balance expediency with morality and integrity. By and large the righteous honest course wins out, if only just.  This ensures that some hope does at least emerge from the somewhat gloomy tenor.

We are left with a keen sense of the underlying decency of most ordinary people, trying constantly to "do the right thing", often when confronted by insurmountable odds.

One of the most intriguing sub-plots is the apparent role reversal involving Fletch and his erstwhile cellmate Lennie Godber, played by Richard Beckinsale. In prison, Fletch was the mentor, but Godber, with the advantage of youth, finds it much easier to adapt to "civilian" life.  The world has moved on, and Fletch feels left behind. In striving to overcome these obstacles, he feels tempted to resort to skullduggery in order to put himself on a more solid footing. The old chestnut about "ends" and "means" rears its head.  This time it is Godber, and other younger characters, who are dispensing the guidance and advice.

During the series, optimism and promise flicker fitfully for Fletch, as he searches for inspiration and direction.  He tries his best, but faces cynicism from others, some of which is born of a lack of understanding.  At least the series ended on a positive note, as he curtails involvement in a criminal enterprise in order to be at Ingrid and Lennie's wedding.

In portraying the changing role and fortunes of Fletcher, Ronnie Barker displayed his real versatility and mastery of characterisation. 

When engineering the "set-piece" scenarios in the series, plausibility was stretched at times, with several coincidences, and old acquaintances of Fletch coming out of the woodwork in a relatively brief timescale.  However, to me this never felt really contrived, and the quality of the writing and acting always tended to win out and prevail.

Of course, further series of Going Straight were precluded by the tragic death of Richard Beckinsale in 1979.  It is intriguing to extrapolate things, and imagine how the story could have panned out. Fletch's efforts and challenges, and brushes with temptation, would doubtless have continued.  Perhaps Godber's own situation might have altered, and the "balance of power" between himself and Fletch shifted once more?

Whatever, the speculation, my view remains that Going Straight is worthy of inclusion in a list of great British sitcoms of its era.  If anything, it gets better with the passing of time...

Eddy Merckx - La Course En Tete

In recent months, I have become increasingly interested in the career and life of the legendary Belgian cyclist Eddy Merckx.  I have been delighted to discover that there is an abundance of material and literature available concerning the great man.  One of the most effective and cohesive documents is the film La Course En Tete, which was released circa 1974, when Merckx was at, or around, the height of his considerable powers.

I found the film to be quite riveting, and there were several reasons for its effectiveness.  Narration in the conventional sense is virtually non-existent, save for the occasional caption or subtitle.  The pictures, sounds and music are allowed to drive the story and convey the points which need to be made.

La Course En Tete is quite an intimate piece, and it seemed almost cinema verite or "fly on the wall" at times.  Some of the footage is quite raw and spontaneous, offering an often unflinching portrayal of the life of Merckx, and the workings of professional cycling in the early 1970s.

We are afforded a close-up view, behind the glossy facade,  capturing some of the anguish, suffering and self-doubt prevalent in this sport, then and now. Another thing which jumped out of the screen to me was the contradiction of the claustrophobic atmosphere created by the intensity of competition and public adulation, working hand-in-hand with the sometimes lonely and empty existence of the professional athlete.  Merckx often seemed to be in the eye of the hurricane himself....

This documentary also epitomised for me the essence of 1970s sport and "popular culture".  Organic, a state of flux, the new commercial and media age co-existing uneasily with older values and practices.  It also offers a great snapshot of Continental Europe in 1973/74, and the passion which cycling, and other sports, evoke in some countries, especially Italy.

The accompanying music, almost Elizabethan in style and tone, is an inspired touch, and serves as a backbone to the entire film.  Much of the footage appears to emphasise the relentless nature of Merckx's riding style and approach, and the music perfectly complements and accentuates this.

Most facets of the life of Merckx are covered in La Course En Tete, including training and preparation, competitions, home life and media and public relations commitments.  Plenty of blood sweat and tears are evident.  The cultural and social impact of Merckx is also touched upon. 

I detected little in the way of airbrushing or sugar-coating.  Some of the less savoury episodes in the cyclist's career are looked at, as are his frailties, insecurities and flaws.

Another theme which emerged was the sacrifice which he was required to make to get to the top, and stay here. Family life was one thing to be affected, and we go behind the glamour to witness the pain, the rigours and the perils of his chosen profession.

In terms of character, Merckx comes across in the film as taciturn and self-contained, ill-at-ease in some settings and company.  This would be consistent with quotes attributed to him, to the effect that he was only truly at home on his bike, as if he was born to it.

I can highly recommend watching this documentary, not just as a portrayal of cycling and one of its greatest exponents, but as an examination of an era.

Monday, 3 September 2012

2012 Belgian Grand Prix Review

After the summer break, it was wonderful to resume the action at a proper circuit and venue.  There are many other great tracks on the calendar, but Spa has that extra special awe-inspiring sense of occasion and grandeur which lifts it comfortably clear of the mundane and the routine.  The setting, the history, the layout of the circuit and the feeling of foreboding induced by the weather all contribute to the tone and aura.

This year's event was no exception.  An almost effortless victory for McLaren's Jenson Button, and some vigorous and stimulating competition for the other points places.  Grand Prix racing for the purist, if such a thing is still possible in 2012.

However, much of what occurred has been overshadowed by the first-corner incident which eliminated Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso, Sergio Perez and Romain Grosjean, and led to the latter incurring a one-race suspension.

The unusual dynamics of the crash, and the trajectory and attitude of the cars involved, were particularly unsettling and sobering.  The design and aesthetic of open-top single-seater racing cars is undeniably part of their appeal, but this also constitutes a potential Achilles heel safety-wise, notwithstanding the advances seen in recent decades.  Alonso in particular was fortunate.

One of the enduring images of the weekend for me was the mildly surreal sight of Lewis Hamilton walking back down the pitlane, on his return from the scene of the accident, clutching an errant piece of bodywork or debris.  A forlorn figure, surrounded by a frenzy of activity amongst the other teams.

I thought on balance that Grosjean was culpable in triggering the accident, by moving across and making contact with Hamilton's McLaren.  Some may see the ban as slightly harsh, and part of the reasoning given was less than convincing, but it may serve as a deterrent and a warning to others. 

And so on to events in the aftermath of the first-corner altercation.  This was one of those displays which Button is capable of producing, when he's in a well-sorted machine.  Smooth, unruffled, metronomic almost. In fairness, the signs were there in qualifying.  Never really threatened today, his post-race demeanour was far removed from the near-morose figure of not that many races ago. Today he seemed calm, measured and good-humoured, but far from complacent. 

There will naturally have been joy at McLaren, tempered by Hamilton's early exit.  Another team quietly ecstatic at today's results would have been Red Bull.  The cards fell for them today, with the disappearance of substantial competition further up on the grid, but both team and drivers grafted hard to ensure that they capitalised on this "fortune".  They were hindered in these endeavours by a lack of grunt on the straights.

Sebastian Vettel, in particular, executed some clean, decisive and precise passing manoeuvres, and afterwards was clearly relieved and quietly satisfied at how the weekend had turned out, from less than promising origins.  The points standings realistically promise a challenge for another title, but he will have to work hard for any further success, taking account of the level of competition, and the constant need to employ strategic measures to circumvent deficiencies in the car.

The prospects of Kimi Raikkonen were much trumpeted in the build-up to the Spa weekend.  In the event he, like everyone else, could not hold a candle to the imperious Button, and was hampered by a lack of straightline speed, and poor early speed on soft tyres.  Thereafter, the Finn tussled manfully for his podium place, and delivered one of the moments of the race, if not the whole season, with his clinical but devastating move on Michael Schumacher at Eau Rouge.  Lotus must be a touch frustrated by their inability to finally ascend the top step of the podium, and the races are running out. 

On the subject of Schumacher, he produced an admirable performance to mark his 300th Grand Prix. Maybe he overheard some of the pre-race conjecture concerning his supposedly impending retirement!  Although handicapped in the latter stages by the lack of a sixth gear, he made a point of sorts, and was non-committal about his future afterwards.

After the race, much sympathy was directed towards Sauber.  They had seemed on the brink of a major breakthrough, by virtue of their grid positions and form in previous rounds, but this was abruptly negated because of the first-corner dramas. Granted, in the final analysis they may have struggled to keep Button in their sights, but podium places seemed a distinct possibility.  Through the disappointment, they must realise that their pace and consistency augurs well for the remainder of the campaign, and Sergio Perez alluded to this when he spoke after the race.

Mention must also be made of the composed and confident fourth-place finish achieved by Nico Hulkenberg in the Force India.  Comprehensively outshining his team-mate, and holding his own for long periods in the illustrious company of Schumacher, Raikkonen, Vettel et al, this display will have enhanced his reputation no end.

And now swiftly on to Monza, which promises to be an absolutely pulsating spectacle....

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Dandelion Wine - Ray Bradbury

I had previously read, and thoroughly enjoyed, two of Ray Bradbury's most renowned novels, Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles, but when I turned to Dandelion Wine, I swiftly realised that this would be something else entirely.

The novel chronicles events during one summer in small-town Illinois during the late 1920s, mostly through the eyes of  12 year-old Doug Spaulding.  The story it seems was based at least partially on the author's own experiences.

From the opening chapters, I found the book to be wonderfully evocative and affecting, with the worldly being interspersed with the ethereal and dreamy.  Rich imagery and metaphor are employed throughout, and Bradbury was expert at setting a scene lyrically and powerfully.

The wine, and the dandelion from which it is derived, serve as metaphors not only for an endless and rich summer, but also for the humble but vital and precious things which life has to offer, and youthful wonder, innocence and above all, imagination.

Some of the early passages and chapters in Dandelion Wine deal with matters of consciousness and awakening, of Doug Spaulding's discovery and realisation of what it means to be alive, and this landmark or milestone colours much of the remainder of the story.

Other themes which run through the novel include ones of "rebirth", liberation, perception and empowerment .  However, as things progress the issues of ageing, death and regret become more and more prevalent.

Inter-generational tensions are also touched on, and are dealt with quite gently, but also with some potency.

The youngsters also become acutely aware of some of the cold realities of adulthood, and many of the more unsavoury aspects of life, and that eventually the cocoon is removed, and that we are not infallible or indestructible.

"The Ravine" also acts as a kind of symbol; as a brooding counter-weight, invoking light and shade, and the vulnerability and fragility which looms on the horizon.  If it was not for the ravine, maybe everything else would not appear so wondrous and invigorating?

The Happiness Machine is another clever and inspired ingredient of the story.  The moral here for me was that there is so much to be relished and enjoyed from the "here and now", the seemingly small things which all combine to form the tapestry of life and nature. Real, organic and raw human feelings,emotions and memories are so much more vivid and satisfying than anything engineered artificially.

This "living for the moment" theme is developed during Dandelion Wine.  Can the innocence and often unique insight of children cut through pre-conceptions and traditions, and alter perspectives?

Later in the book, we see more evidence of  children being confronted with their own mortality, and coming to terms with it in their own way.  We also see how life has a "continuity" and "one-ness" about it, and how one act of kindness or selflessness can induce another, thus spreading joy and simple beauty.

After finishing reading Dandelion Wine, I did not really get any strong sense that it had one over-riding message, but that it was a series of meditations on the phases, emotions and pressures which impact on all of us. Sometimes the old, sometimes the young, but often both.  One generation can learn from, and be inspired by, how the other interprets and addresses these stages of existence.

Above all, Dandelion Wine is an enthralling and at times moving read....