Sunday, 26 May 2013

2013 Monaco Grand Prix

An unsatisfactory race on several counts.  Too many crashes, which made the race scrappy and fragmented. It goes without saying that the "the tyre situation" once again reared its head, and the effects were felt particularly acutely in the early stages.  At least there was no shortage of talking points!

Nico Rosberg looked to have the legs of everyone else for the bulk of the weekend.  On paper, it looked like the impediments which have afflicted Mercedes' race form in recent times would be less pronounced in the principality, and so it proved, even allowing for some reservations expressed by the drivers.

The one mystery in the race was the mediocre showing of Fernando Alonso, who if anything seemed to go backwards as things progressed. I for one had expected his nous and solidity to show through here, but it was not to be, and it has to go down as a missed opportunity.

Whilst some of the established runners were encountering misfortune, others were performing above themselves.  A superb drive by Adrian Sutil, his most convincing since he returned to Formula 1, a reminder of his capabilities, and another building block in his bid for recognition.  Drives tend to be noticed more at Monaco than at most other venues. Jean-Eric Vergne's eighth-place finish was also a fine achievement. 

McLaren were unexpectedly visible and prominent in the race, even allowing for their mildly encouraging practice. Sergio Perez caused a few ructions with his tactics, but at least showed some fire.  The sixth place notched up by Jenson Button is very welcome, but is unlikely to fool too many people at McLaren. 

A mundane, uneventful and smooth weekend for Romain Grosjean!.  It was like 2012 all over again.  His raw talent is not in the slightest doubt, but a nice anonymous but productive weekend in Montreal would not go amiss. With luck this latest penalty might concentrate his mind. When we also consider Raikkonen's problems late in the race, one hopes that Monaco does not signal some kind of downturn in fortunes for Lotus. 

Reading form from here on in is tricky.  It seems reasonable to assume that Red Bull are not going to crumble or weaken appreciably.  The growing strength and confidence of Mercedes, if it can be sustained, is the new factor in the equation. In fact Sebastian Vettel, with a nice little points cushion, will possibly secretly welcome this trend, as it is likely to deprive Ferrari and Lotus of points in their efforts to close the gap. 

Saturday, 25 May 2013

2013 Champions League Final

A lively and entertaining encounter was expected at Wembley, and we were not to be disappointed.

I have long been an admirer of the German game, finding the mixture of physical intensity, attention to detail and technical proficiency to be a potent and captivating one.  Happily, these virtues were on display in the showpiece tonight. There is even a temptation to aver that the game there is returning to the glory days of the 1970s, in its general prowess if not necessarily in stylistic and tactical terms.

I dare say that a great many notebooks dealing with tonight's game will have been replete with references to how frustrating Arjen Robben can be.  However, for all his occasional profligacy and over-elaboration, the Dutchman delivered when it really mattered tonight, providing an admirable assist and then the late winner. His demeanour after the winning goal, and following the final whistle, indicated that he felt a sense of real vindication and fulfillment.

The early stages of the game I thought threw up a minor contrast of styles, with Dortmund's brisk style initially thwarting Bayern's plans to settle and dictate a pattern. Munich's more deliberate approach did not bear fruit early on, but it was always likely that their big-game pedigree and nous would impose themselves.   It was pleasing to witness this vigorous mode of football, proof that "pragmatic" does not have to mean ugly, predictable or negative. Evidence of the ebb and flow of proceedings was how busy the goalkeepers were. The two custodians certainly earned their keep in this game!

Although Bayern struggled for genuine penetration during spells of the first period, they did look dangerous when they managed to engineer the odd opening.  At the same time, Dortmund's work-rate and organisation were impressive, although one gained the impression that as time progressed, the Bavarians sensed a weakness or vulnerability on the left hand side of the Borussia back line.

The early minutes of the second half featured some scrappy passages of play, perhaps inevitably, lacking the fluency and relentless pace of the first forty five. It might have seemed that there was an air of inevitability about Mandzukic's opener on the hour mark, and that the initiative was passing inexorably towards Bayern, but the penalty swiftly dispelled such notions. The equaliser duly injected the game with renewed zip and urgency. Needless to say, new belief was in Dortmund hearts.

In the end, though, Bayern Munich were able to fashion that moment of inspiration, and score the winner.  Did they just possess a marginally greater will, in addition to their experience?

A satisfying and intriguing final, all in all, which held the attention throughout.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Honda returns to F1

One of the least surprising announcements of the Formula 1 year has been made, confirming that Honda will return to the sport as McLaren's engine partner from 2015.  The rumours of recent weeks were indeed just too strong to be dismissed as idle speculation.

This news is significant from a few different perspectives.  First of all, it is encouraging news for F1, suggesting that the new turbo formula, with its supplementary technical innovations, may attract (and help to retain) manufacturers .Honda is one of those companies which seems to have racing in its DNA, and which does not stay away for very long, seeing the benefits as going deeper than purely shifting more units in the afterglow of a Grand Prix victory.  Now that Honda has taken the plunge, will the interest of other car-makers be stimulated?  Much may depend on how people view the economic outlook going forward.

Another interesting sub-text to all this is that the announcement has been made at a time when McLaren, by common consent, is in the competitive doldrums.  The news will undoubtedly come as a major fillip for the team, but it will also in its own way serve as a reminder of the level of performance needed to justify Honda's faith (and investment). People might say that this new arrangement is far removed in several respects from the mighty McLaren-Honda steamroller of the late 1980s and early 1990s, but enough of the culture and ethos of both organisations will have been passed down to echo past glories, and help to assuage any misgivings.

The news also arrives at a juncture when the "honeymoon" period engendered by the exciting and competitive racing of recent times is coming to an end, and it is once again becoming fashionable to decry and malign Formula 1.  This boost may just concentrate a few minds.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

2013 Spanish Grand Prix

Well, the misgivings of the Mercedes drivers, and the suspicions of this correspondent, were borne out in no uncertain terms in Barcelona, as Rosberg and Hamilton's qualifying pre-eminence gave way to frustration and  mediocrity in the race itself. They were by no means alone in having to contend with the vagaries of tyre wear and performance, but detractors may point out that Mercedes seem, for a team aspiring to consistent success, to be disproportionately affected by such things.

The championship challenge posed by Ferrari is looking more solid and genuine by the race, and their confidence will be bolstered by the knowledge that this particular venue is seen as a reliable barometer of general form and performance.  In overall terms, they looked as consistent as anybody else out there.  It was nice to see Felipe Massa on the podium again.

Doubtless the debate about tyre degradation will rage with renewed vigour after Spain.  I share some of the disquiet about the way it is affecting the racing, but if it is deemed that matters need to be addressed then this is for the powers-that-be.  In the meantime, the competitors have to manage the situation as it presents itself, and adapt to the circumstances in which they find themselves.  The winner is still the chap who crosses the line before anybody else.  Of more concern is the recent batch of tyre failures....

Sebastian Vettel began to tread water, metaphorically speaking, around half-distance, unable to match the Ferraris and Kimi Raikkonen.  Frustrating for the champion, but at least some points added to his account.  I did expect Red Bull to go a little better here, I must admit.

Even by his own standards, Raikkonen was in feisty form today, combining that slick pace with the odd firm and audacious manoeuvre.  It seems odd to describe the Finn as "metronomically consistent", but that is how it looks at present. The trick once again for Lotus will be sustaining this level of intensity for the full duration of what is a gruelling season.

To discuss McLaren's current woes is almost painful, and it is perhaps a measure of their plight that getting two cars to the finish just inside the top ten was regarded as an achievement of sorts.  Whilst not exactly being resigned to their predicament, there are signs that the team recognises that it will be hard work from here on in, with any major short-term improvements unlikely.  All that can be asked is that the drivers, and everybody else, give hundred percent, and remain positive.

For all the talk of tyres and stereotyped racing, the next round, at Monaco, may well shake things up a little.

The Scramble For Africa - Thomas Pakenham

A couple of years ago now, I read, and enjoyed immensely, Thomas Pakenham's account of The Boer War.  It has taken a little time, but I have finally got around to reading another of his books, The Scramble For Africa.

The opening chapters are largely devoted to the efforts of some of the pioneering explorers who made discoveries in the interior of the continent.  Pakenham vividly describes the hugely complicated web of dilemmas and hardships which these (and later) expeditions had to navigate.

One of the threads which underpins the story is the extent to which domestic political considerations in the Powers (mainly Britain, France and Germany) constantly impinged on colonial adventures, and vice versa.  For British readers, this book can also serve as a kind of edited guide to the political arena of the late 19th and early 20th century.

Whilst giving due prominence to the famous statesmen who directed efforts, the author also delves beneath the surface of affairs, introducing us to the lesser-known civil servants, diplomats, missionaries, explorers, soldiers and businessmen who all played a crucial role, often harbouring conflicting agendas. The need to improvise often dictated what occurred on the ground, and primitive communications meant that matters were occasionally beyond the effective control of the men in the corridors of power in the capitals of Europe.

Pakenham deftly keeps things bubbling along, and this is greatly helped by the decision to relate the "Scramble" in more or less chronological order, rather than dividing the project into distinct sections according to region/country/power etc.  In this way, we can appreciate how developments in one area had to be cross-referenced and offset against anxieties in another, and weighed in the context of overall strategic pressures. Also, the shape of the imperial map of Africa gradually emerges in the mind's eye of the reader, as the reshuffling and horse trading unfold.

It is telling also how Britain, although probably the most powerful of the worldwide empires, was correspondingly aware of its vulnerability, with eyes constantly fixed on the routes to India, via Egypt and the Cape.  The book ably documents how other parties played on these concerns, both in the field and at the conference table.

I detected a certain gentle sarcasm running through some observations on events, which is perhaps the author's way of making subtle but effective commentary on attitudes and practices which are unthinkable and perplexing to modern sensibilities.

Towards the end of the book the tone turns much bleaker, as we learn about the horrors of the Boer War, the sickening reality of the Congo Free State and the arbitrary and callous methods employed to subdue various rebellions and uprisings. The Scramble For Africa therefore concludes on a rather downbeat and sobering note, and perhaps this is not inappropriate.  For all the noble sentiments expounded at the outset of the "Scramble", the often brutal reality is dispiriting, leaving a nasty taste.

The final chapters put the Scramble into its historical context, detailing how it unraveled almost as quickly as it had begun, and speculating on how the events impacted on the difficulties and challenges facing modern Africa.  Remembering that this book was originally published in the early 1990s, the comments about the state of play in Zimbabwe in particular make for interesting reading.

This was a riveting read, which chronicles an era in all its shades.

A link to my earlier article about the same author's The Boer War:   The Boer War

Thursday, 2 May 2013

The Devil's Alternative - Frederick Forsyth

Works of fiction which deal with the Cold War invariably induce a note of caution. In my experience, they have a habit of over-reaching themselves.  However, Frederick Forsyth's track record largely dispelled any such apprehensions before I read his 1979 novel The Devil's Alternative.

The first thing to make clear is that the plot is appreciably more elaborate and wide-ranging than Forsyth's other early novels, or at least it seemed that way to me. It will therefore demand greater powers of concentration and analysis, but persevere and you will be rewarded!

In a nutshell, the story revolves around a power struggle in the Kremlin, an impending food crisis in the Soviet Union, and the demands of a group of Ukrainian dissidents.  All of these factors gradually become more inter-connected, and this provides the novel with its impetus and unpredictability.  I won't give too much away, but suffice to say that an impasse develops, the solution to which involves the employment of some novel and "expedient" methods by several parties....

As this novel addresses weighty, even apocalyptic, matters, it is important that this was leavened with some characters and sub-plots grounded in more localized and personal fare.  This the author manages in his patented style, by giving over much of the early chapters in particular to a focus on individual characters and their imperatives and aspirations, rather than concentrating unduly on the rarefied air of international politics. This serves to draw in and entice the reader.

Another of the author's characteristic methods is liberally applied here too.  Outwardly mundane, everyday details such as travel arrangements and logistics, as well as personal idiosyncrasies and nuances of locations, are much in evidence, helping to give the reader an impression that he or she is looking over the shoulder of the various protagonists. This element is important here in maintaining vitality, and a balance between the "micro" and the "macro" of the picture.

Much of the dynamism and freshness of The Devil's Alternative is derived from the way in which some subjects untypical of the average novel of this particular genre (Ukrainian dissidents,Soviet grain production etc) are integrated relatively seamlessly into the overall.  Depth is added by this, and by an accompanying and authoritative attention to detail.

The multi-pronged nature of the plot also makes it genuinely unclear, for much of the way at least, exactly which way events may ultimately be heading.  As the various routes converge, the pace quickens, and Forsyth accentuates this by making the switching between "scenes" more swift and edgy, building the tension and anxiety.

I found myself being grimly drawn ever further into the tale, as the climax approached, with twists in the numerous sub-plots assuming varying degrees of relevance.  The sense of unease seemed all the greater because many of the themes explored still evoke a very contemporary ring, particularly the ecological angle, the spectre of terrorism, and the excesses of those in positions of power....

Another excellent thriller novel.