Red Bull Ranting


Earlier today, the excellent F1 journalist Will Buxton posted his thoughts on exactly why Red Bull should be allowed to leave F1 without too much more fuss if that’s what the company really wants. The post is here, and it doesn’t need any further embellishment from anyone else.

But this is the internet, and the complete lack of space limitations or editorial control mean that we all get to chip in if we want. I posted the link to Will’s post elsewhere, and it was met with the valid question:

don’t you worry that F1 (a sport I love) is in real danger of becoming formula Mercedes and that already there are signs that season like last could become a two horse farce?

The short answer is: at the moment, Mercedes are crushingly dominant, but these things never last long. My longer, more ranty answer, with slight modifications, went like this:

That’s what you get for building a better car. It’s no more of a farce than it was from 2000-2004, and at least this time the two leading cars are allowed to race each other.

Last season was one of the best I can remember in terms of racing. The worry for this year is possibly that, as Brundle said on Sunday, it looks like the aero developments might have made it slightly trickier for cars to follow closely.

But mainly Melbourne was a combination of daft factors. Valtteri won’t always have a bad back, Felipe won’t always screw up his out lap, Kimi won’t always have a wheel bolt shear, Honda will get the engine working if it kills them, and if Manor can keep the lights on there is a *chance* they could be competitive.

There is always an argument for equalisation in motorsport. BTCC does it with ballast and randomly-drawn reverse grids, and it produces close racing and lots of bodywork damage. IndyCar does it with a spec chassis and the various manufacturers stick on limited aero kits (which are BONKERS this year). Sportscars have banks of Balance of Performance regulations to try and keep competitors as closely matched as possible.

F1 has always argued that it’s for pure innovation and racing as far as possible and resisted all of that lot. It’s a nonsense argument in that, as Horner rightly says, if someone develops something completely unforeseen it tends to get banned pretty quickly (F-duct, double diffuser, wacky engine maps that use more petrol when you’re off the throttle than on it). But I’m not sure reverse grids are the way to go either.

What I DO know is that if anyone is going to make suggestions for the future of F1, it shouldn’t be Horner, who never fails to come across as simply a mouthpiece for whichever of Mateschitz and Ecclestone he’s been talking to that day. As Will Buxton says, they whinged so hard about the tyres in 2013 that they got them changed and won every race in the second half of the season. That’s just Montezemolo-style spoilt brattism of the highest order.

The difference with previous changes in technical regulations is that Red Bull (blown floor), and McLaren before them (F-Duct), were doing something that was technically legal but considered outside the spirit of the rules. Personally I’m generally all in favour of that sort of thing – it gave Jenson a world championship – but equally if those in charge want to specifically change the rules to stop it I’m happy with that as well. In the case of Mercedes this year, and the Pirelli thing a couple of years ago, they have done exactly what was intended by the requirements, and then a competitor who hasn’t done such a good job is complaining about it.

My solution would be the same as it has been for a few years now. The FIA should completely get out of regulating car design beyond things that are directly safety-related, and should impose a fossil fuel limit and a cost cap on all teams. An old F1 engineer, Frank Dernie, said on James Allen’s podcast that if you let a team spend £300m and restrict development to wheelnuts, you will get a £300m wheelnut. By the end of 2016 they will have had three years with these engines, so use the next six months to draft some technical regs that just say “don’t kill anyone, injure as few as possible”, then ban them from spending more than £70m [plucked from the air, but balances current extremes] in any year. We’ll see some weird designs, maybe some covered wheels, maybe some diesel cars, maybe some solar panels for the desert races, and it’ll be innovative and competitive and fun.

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Consistency and ‘form’

Around this time of year, football fans across the country start looking for indicators of what’s going to happen over the next two months.

The prophets of doom will point out that their strikers haven’t scored a goal on an east-west aligned pitch since the Renaissance. The eternal optimists will counter that their manager has never failed to be promoted when the year is divisible by 5.

Then you have the form. Norwich are on a roll. They’ve got momentum. They’ve peaked at the right time. Brentford are doomed, their inexorable downward spiral to the West London Leagues precipitated by the intervention of an owner who wants one of his senior managers to look at facts from time to time.

Which of the seven teams at the top of the Championship actually IS in unstoppable form at the moment? Maybe we could look at the points gained over the last six games.

Norwich have 15 – but before the Wigan game it was 18. So their form must be heading downwards. Watford? 13, but it’s been 15 several times in recent weeks. Middlesbrough and Brentford both have 10 from their last six, but the Bees’ line on the graph has ticked upwards while Boro’s took a dive into the Trent.

Then we get down to the dead men walking. Derby only have eight points from their last six, as do Bournemouth (up from only a point per game before their visit to the Royal Oak Fulham Sunday XI this week). Finally, languishing in the deep recesses of form we find Ipswich, with only seven points from six games.

But hang on. The league is as tight as David Coulthard’s jeans. Four of those seven teams have the same number of points, and the other three are within five points of them. Two of the three teams with the worst six-game form sit in first and second positions.

Is there any way of making sense of this? Can the desperate fan look forward to a productive spring? What about consistency?

If we look at how the six-game form has fluctuated over the season, a smoother picture appears. Bournemouth and Norwich are the only teams to have won six in a row – but they’ve also been down as low as three and five points respectively. Out of an available “swing” of 18 points, theirs are 15 and 13.

Watford have shown an 11-point swing, Ipswich can fluctuate by up to 9 points, and Brentford manage a perfectly respectable swing of eight points, from seven to 15.

That just leaves us with the two most consistent teams in the league. Boro and Derby’s six-game points total hasn’t varied by more than seven points over the course of the season. Neither team has managed six wins on the bounce, but neither has hit the depths of despair to the same extent as their competitors.

That’s that sorted then. Just one thing left – who gets the trophy? (The proper League Championship trophy, by the way.) Well, only one team’s six-game form has NEVER dipped below nine points. Hope the champagne doesn’t mess Aitor’s hair up.

Update: you can never check your data entry enough, it turns out. Also, I should stop doing numbers-based posts.

Sadly for lovers of a happy ending, it turns out that Middlesbrough actually lost at Sheffield Wednesday last week, rather than winning as my spreadsheet thought. That changes the numbers slightly. Boro are actually at the bottom of their worst six-game run of the season, with only seven points.

The consistency argument suffers as well. Derby and Brentford have never been as low as seven, and Boro’s consistency record AND current form matches that of Ipswich – so something will have to give next week.

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Dog-whistle democracy

I said earlier that this piece by Owen Jones was a repetition of the old “vote xx, get Tory” argument, employed by Labour for many years. It’s a depressing argument for those of us who would actually quite like to vote for the party nearest to our views, rather than whichever of the big two comes “closest”.

Owen pointed out, emphatically, that the piece is specifically clear that it is not using that argument. This is technically true. There are two paragraphs of detail on exactly how voting Green would get Tory, followed by a line and a half saying “but Labour shouldn’t say that”.

If this were a right-wing commentator, explaining exactly how immigrants could be taking your jobs and drinking your beer, followed by a line and a half saying “my party does not support this view”, we would call it “dog-whistle” politics. Even as direct advice to Labour, the piece reads “you SHOULDN’T do this, but if you DID here are the facts…”. As a piece for public consumption, it plants the idea before attempting to head off the allegation.

I should say, for the benefit of the more binary among us, that I’ve got nothing at all against Owen Jones. As media politics commentators go (or at least those that get on the mainstream channels with any regularity), his is one of the very few voices that gets me anywhere near a nod of agreement. It’s just this particular argument seems to be recycling old failures.

I think “vote Green, get Tory” probably is one of Labour’s stronger arguments, so tactically for a Labour supporter the piece is perfectly sensible. For someone like me, who now couldn’t stomach any of the three current largest parties for various reasons, it simply won’t be enough to say “vote for us – we’re the least worst and you might have more of a chance of voting for your favourites in future”. As I said in the tweet – we tried that last time, and look where that ended up.

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Being Quizzical

This blog was never supposed to be for me to write down random thoughts that occurred to me. That’s what Twitter is for, apart from anything else. But some thoughts are longer than 30 or so words, and I still feel the need to write them down. So I’ll pretend it’s a serious TV review.

The problem is, I think I might be TOO quizzical. Some family members have been telling me this for years, but today’s unlikely catalyst for self-analysis< is Sir Christopher Meyer, whose series “Networks Of Power” was recently rerun on Sky Atlantic.

We’ve got to the stage of Christmas where I feel that trying to work is more pointless than not, so I embark on a general tidying-up, and one of the things to tidy is the 20% of the Sky+ Planner that isn’t really there for Mrs Q and me to watch with a cup of tea and too many Mint Cremes. Meyer’s series falls into this category, partly because it’s politics, but also partly because we both started watching one last night and very rapidly reached our collective tolerance point for gratuitous references to “beautiful women”.

I tried again this morning, probably due to a sense of duty that this is the kind of thing I should watch if I want to know what’s going on in the world, as opposed to any real hope that it would be genuinely revelatory. But Meyer’s first meetings were in a cliched black Mercedes with a cliched ex-KGB bloke, and then with a socialite journalist in a flat which managed to be minimalist yet convey opulence, who tutted about ranks of military vehicles “spoiling the view”. Fortunately for Sir Chris, she arranged a meeting with “a young woman – beautiful of course”, who was apparently his next step on the road to meeting the people who matter.

At this point, the quizzical bit kicked in. Firstly, was this all bollocks? Secondly, how had the rest of the world reacted to it the first time it was shown? Because what I was seeing was a sub-Palin rehashing of stereotypes, laced with plenty of excuses for leering (albeit mainly in voiceover – presumably less likely to get a slap that way).

I flicked through the episode guide to see what the others promised. My fear that Meyer was leading us – or being led – up the garden path was not in any way allayed by the presence of Louise Mensch in the London episode. Here, in the one place I know anything about, our host talks to a (then) Member of Parliament who is renowned for, to put it kindly, inconsistency and a lack of empathy. How can I have any confidence that he’s presenting a balanced picture of the other places?

At the time the series was released, Decca Aitkenhead of the Guardian interviewed Meyer. Unsurprisingly, his producer (unnamed and unable to stand up for themselves) is blamed for the “beautiful women” thread – more pleasingly, the interviewer captures my concerns perfectly with the sentence “There is a curiously fictional quality about Meyer’s charisma”. That’s exactly it – there isn’t any real sense that the man or his subjects are anything other than parts of a story that someone wished to construct.

It’s unfair, of course, to condemn a six-hour series on the basis of the 30 minutes that I managed. But that’s the problem – once the quizzical chip takes over, I can’t “enjoy” the rest of the show, because I’m constantly working out which bits are embellished or “editorially framed” (like Top Gear putting the scenery shots in in the wrong order in their “races”).

I don’t know if that’s a fault or not. It makes some things quicker to watch but less edifying than they might have been. Sometimes it might be nicer to disconnect it, but I don’t think “Networks of Power” warrants much further investigation.

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Grant of authority

I took a bit of a gamble today, on my first visit to Huddersfield for a football match.

I’d read horror stories of waits of an hour or more to get out of the car parks, and I never normally pay to park for football if I can help it. You can usually get somewhere within twenty minutes’ walk of the ground which allows a reasonably easy exit, and today’s gamble was that nobody else would be daft enough to park 200 feet above the stadium if they didn’t have to. Sure enough, there was plenty of space at twenty past two, and I was out of town by half past five. Detailed planning can pay dividends.

So, too, can hard work. I don’t speak from personal experience – I’m the laziest person I know, by some distance – but it’s evident in the efforts of Grant Leadbitter and Adam Clayton. Boro’s favoured 4-2-3-1 formation has its critics, and it can leave wide open spaces around opposition defenders, but when the two holding players work hard and work together they protect the back four to great effect. Clayton was particularly noticeable today (perhaps predictably, given the venue), time and again popping up to dispossess a Terrier and feed the ball to Tomlin or one of the wingers.

Ah yes, the wingers. They started on the “wrong” wings; Adomah left and Reach right. I can see the point of this, but it can tend against the tricky “get to the byline” width that can cause chaos in defences. The right side dominated in the first fifteen minutes, then the personnel swapped over to their “normal” sides – and the right side still dominated. I can only think this says more about the Huddersfield full backs than the Boro wide men.

This meant Adomah had the potential to be devastating. His pace and control are undoubted, but his crossing, at least today, was ineffective. One cross stood out, only just too high for Kike at the far post, but all too often the first defender proved an insurmountable obstacle.

Elsewhere, Konstantopolous provided a bit of relief from the recently-acquired Flap Anxiety (one inadvertent spill notwithstanding), and Ayala stood out for his unflustered interventions and distribution. Huddersfield huffed and puffed, and Butterfield looked to be keen to prove a point, but less able than Clayton to actually do it. Vaughan dived in and was rightly booked, Dimi rolled around a bit too much and was lucky not to join him. All in all, a pretty even, mostly non-descript game. Except nobody told Grant.

If you get a free kick in a central position, 25-30 yards out, it’s tricky to get it on target, because of the wall and the lack of angle. Except nobody told Grant. Whether he surreptitiously inserted a boomerang into the ball before thumping it with the outside of his boot, we may never know. But from behind the far goal, it was in as soon as he hit it. People were celebrating a full minute before it hit the net. Roberto Carlos might even have nodded his approval.

What always happens in these situations, of course, is that Jon Stead scores. The esteemed, self-styled rabble rouser Anthony Vickers refers to Football’s Inevitability Drive – in fact, I notice he has done so in the opening line of today’s post – and Stead is its MS-DOS boot record and its uninterruptible power supply. He always scores against us (and very rarely against anyone else), and he always costs us points.

Except nobody told Grant. Referee Kevin Wright, who had an excellent game, controlling it with calm authority, said he saw a pull on Reach, and nobody really seemed to dispute the assertion. Leadbitter, who also hadn’t been told that late penalties at 1-1 mean EYE-POPPING PRESSURE, picked the ball up, waited for the keeper to stop pretending to be a cross between Derren Brown and Bruce Grobbelaar, and rolled the ball into the empty bit of the net.

He can be a bit of a liability, old Grant. He seems to think his day hasn’t been validated unless it’s punctuated by a yellow card. But on days like today, when he’s the difference between a half-decent game sunk by predictability, and glorious last-minute victory, he’s SO worth it.

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The Silverstone premium

Last week I read an excellent piece on dailysportscar.com, which you should probably read before continuing with this. It’s here: DailySportsCar

If you’re far too busy to be clicking secondary blog links, allow me to summarise the main points here:

– the FIA (world motorsport’s governing body) runs two different high-profile World Championships, one for “single seaters” – Formula One – and one for sports cars of various types over longer distances – the World Endurance Championship;

– at Silverstone (“The [self-proclaimed] Home Of British Motorsport”), the WEC is vastly cheaper to get in to (like, a quarter of the price);

– when you get in, the WEC seems to want you there, while F1 would rather you weren’t;

– fans want to be as involved as possible, not (necessarily) sipping champagne at £stupid000 per Paddock Club ticket.

I don’t disagree with any of that. I’ve not been to a WEC event, but I’ve been to plenty of F1, BTCC, British GT and so on, and all the other series are far more welcoming and open than the deliberately closed shop that is F1. I just think the author, Richard Leach, is being a little too lenient on the circuit itself.

I need to add what I can legitimately call “The John Hindhaugh Disclaimer” here. I love F1. I watch every session, fascinated by the drivers, the technology, the circuits…but knowing it could be so much better.

The first time I went to an F1 race, I was a kid and it was on corporate hospitality, a decade and a half before such things were banned under the Bribery Act. In my memory, I actually saw Mansell giving Senna his famous lift back to the pits, but I’m pretty sure there were no Jumbotron screens and we were in the pit straight grandstand, so I’ve probably superimposed the image from the 876 times I’ve seen it on TV since.

When I’ve been paying the bill, I’ve been to eight races: Silverstone four times, Spa (Belgium) three times and Monza (Italy) once. And it’s the European experiences that make me less than impressed with the Northamptonshire version.

This year, as Richard said, Silverstone were trumpeting their “Centre Access”. For the first time in living memory, said the breathless blurb, fans with General Admission tickets would be able to stand on the bit of grass inside the circuit as well as the bit outside. GASP as you see the right-hand side of an F1 car. SWOON as you step aside for a Finnish man in mirrored shades and checked shorts before he hits you with his rucksack. GIVE THANKS as you part with an extra £60-odd for the privilege for the weekend.

In Belgium, the footpaths criss-cross the circuit. If you want, you can stand in the trees on the inside at the point where the track crosses L’Eau Rouge; the viewing bank at the Pouhon “Double Gauche” is entirely inside the circuit; the walk from La Source to L’Arrete d’Autobus (sorry, I’ll stop now) involves filing past the support race paddocks and last year watching Ted Kravitz filming his notebook.

Spa

Spa

In Italy, the track winds around the General Admission, rather than the other way round. The paddock exits into GA areas at both ends, so Ross Brawn strolls through the crowds with his briefcase, Lewis Hamilton signs autographs without a ten foot fence in the way, and Kimi Raikkonen still barges through in mirrored shades and checked shorts. The impression is much more of a park that happens to have a racetrack in it, than a military airfield behaving like, erm, a military airfield. This is probably why The Supreme High Ringmaster has started making noises about abandoning the place.

Parco di Monza

Parco di Monza

Then there’s the pit walks. Again, Silverstone trumpets its accessibility. LOOK! We’re letting you in to the pit lane on Thursday! Form an orderly queue, don’t loiter, move along please, everyone must have equal time to study the nose on the Caterham and admire the whine of the Red Bull driver – sorry, transmission. This is the first time EVER that such access has been allowed.

Unlike in Belgium. Or Italy. Where it’s been a well-known part of the weekend for years. And where you can stand outside Ferrari all afternoon if you want, until Fernando comes out and signs something for you. We decided on a less populated area…

20120906_172007

Quick! The safety car!

The point is, F1 manages perfectly well to be a little less aloof and untouchable outside the UK. And, comparatively, it also manages to be a lot less expensive.

Mrs Q and I are lucky enough to live within 20 miles of Silverstone’s front gate. We can go to a Grand Prix weekend and spend the nights in our own bed. If we want to drive our car there and park, the whole weekend (cheapest admission, fuel and parking) will cost us £425. Four hundred and twenty five pounds. £350 for the ticket, £60 for the parking, and a bit of diesel.

If we lived a similar distance from the Circuit Spa Francorchamps, the same thing would cost £258, even if we booked now, a few weeks before the event. If we’d got the early bird discount, even less expensive.

And if we had an apartment in Milan, we could do the whole Monza weekend for £197. Well under half the cost of Silverstone’s offering, with much less notice.

Let’s say for a minute we wanted to stay on site, to soak up the atmosphere, stock up on calories and be pestered by a slightly deranged Irish former team owner (Silverstone) or musically anaesthetised by a dozen completely deranged Dutch techno fans (Spa). And let’s say we were driving to the European races, not from a theoretical home 20 miles away, but from our actual home in Milton Keynes.

Silverstone including camping: £512. Spa including camping, driving there and back and a return Channel crossing: £508. Monza, ditto: £539. OK, that’s cheating a little bit, because you’d need an extra night either way to get to Monza and be comfortable, but you get the idea. In price terms, it’s no different to go to Belgium or flaming Italy than it is to go to somewhere on our doorstep.

OK, F1 as a sport doesn’t help itself. But Silverstone is complicit in making it appear even more inaccessible and expensive than it needs to be.

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A developing obsession

I had warned myself and my nearest and dearest beforehand. I know everyone says this, but I was genuinely watching mainly for the scenery. France is a land of breathtaking variety, only enhanced in the summer by vast sunflower fields and acres of lurid Lycra.

I also knew what I’m like, though. If I get interested in something, I get REALLY interested in it. I never find a Formula 1 race particularly boring, even if it’s not exciting as a single spectacle, because I watch every session all season, competitive or otherwise, so I have an idea about what’s going on, and the nuance and dynamic behind it. If I switched on at 12.55, and off as the champagne started flying, I wouldn’t understand any of that, and would probably find it boring.

As it is with F1, so it is with Test cricket. I can’t dip in and out, because no matter how Boycottesque the innings, I might miss THE controversial moment of the summer. Or the sparkling interview with a legend of the game. Or the painfully contrived innuendo which finally displaces 1991’s “leg over” comment as the cause of the longest giggling fit in radio.

You can see why this completism might be a problem. Test cricket, if it’s reasonably competitive, takes up maybe 60 days a year. F1 consumes at least half of another 60. And here I was, approaching my mid-thirties, sitting down to see if I could drum up a passing interest in something that lasts three weeks at a time.

At the time, I only knew what anyone who listens to the sports news on Radio 5 knew. Lance Armstrong won everything. Before that, Miguel Indurain won everything. (Don’t forget that as far as the sports news on Radio 5 went, the Tour de France was “everything”.) Sometimes everyone got caught taking drugs, and pretended to stop.

So that first Tour was only ever going to be a learning experience. I vaguely remember some fuss near the start about riding over some cobbles, and one of the favourites for the race fell off and broke something. They wouldn’t repeat THAT mistake, I probably thought.

And then The Thing happened. Two of the other leading contenders were riding up a hill when one’s chain fell off. (It turned out he was the brother of the chap who fell off on the cobbles.) What happened next will shock and horrify you. The other leading contender, chain still attached – wait for it – TRIED TO WIN.

This single incident was probably responsible for hooking me in to cycling for life. Why was there such a reaction? What kind of unwritten code made someone try their hardest to beat everyone else for three weeks, until it looked like they might have a chance to do so? Why, if this was not the correct thing to do, did Michael Schumacher never pull up at the side of the circuit and wait until Fernando Alonso’s engine was fixed? And just how bloody good was the little stroppy bloke who kept winning the sprint stages?

I haven’t stopped learning since. And I never will. I feel like I have known cycling for about four minutes, not four years – and yet this weekend, I felt like a diehard. Last year, in Tours and in Saint-Amand-Montrond, where I achieved a short but burning ambition to see Cavendish win in the flesh, I was an outsider in a land of pompiers and gendarmes, organisers in smart blazers and old ladies wilting in the heat, and the previously unknown hazard of projectile packets of Haribo.

A successful sprint

A successful sprint

Earlier this year, I was a novice, in awe of the Belgians thronging the Arenberg trench, shouting good-natured abuse at each other just because of which side of the road they were standing, wondering whether I would get in trouble for parking on the hard shoulder to scramble down a bank at the start of the Orchies secteur, wandering into the Roubaix velodrome with half an hour or so to spare until Niki Terpstra charged in alone and elbowing my way as near to the front as possible.

Trouée de bière

Trouée de bière

Vantage point

Vantage point

And then suddenly I was a veteran. On Saturday in Harrogate, standing for hours opposite the podium in an ever-decreasing personal space, almost nobody else seemed to recognise the red-haired middle-aged man fetching the coffees for his Eurosport commentary partner. Almost all the “why do they do that?” “who is he?” “why do they keep saying Shut Up Legs?” questions from the crowd were ones that I knew the answer to (not that I chipped in and answered them, of course. There’s only one thing worse than not knowing the answer, and that’s having a smart arse tell you it).

"Do we have to keep bringing William?"

“Do we have to keep bringing William?”

I couldn’t be in York, Sheffield or Last Of The Summer Wine on Sunday, for no other reason than the fact that F1 still takes precedence, but by 10:15 on Monday I was in the centre of Cambridge, and five hours later in east London, surrounded only by a smattering of internal auditors and maintenance workers from the adjacent Excel conference centre. While everyone else speculated about the time the riders would arrive and looked nervously at the approaching rain cloud, I compared the time schedule in the road book with the Eurosport feed on my phone, noticed a helicopter high in the sky to the north, and got my camera ready.

And I knew that a short walk to London City Airport, followed by a nice cup of tea and a cake, would yield not only an opportunity to dry out, but also a pleasing array of cyclists in varying sizes of headphones wandering through on their way to one of four flights chartered to whisk them beyond the Eurotunnel chaos to a place that calls itself “Paris Plage” like Luton Airport claims to be in London.

Gorilla beatz

Gorilla beatz

As they came through, in their teams as in the race, I watched a wiry chap moving between them with an autograph book, and it hit me. Out of all the eighty-seven million reported spectators for “Le Tour De Yorkshire et un peu de Derbyshire avec Les Departements du Maison” ™, only three were in the airport. Him, me, and the long-suffering (but secretly moderately interested) Mrs Q. Cycling, it seemed, had achieved the same level of interest/completism/obsessiveness in my psyche as the other sports I’ve known for so long.

I should say several things in mitigation. I wouldn’t have gone to the airport if I’d been watching in The Mall, but I didn’t fancy a third enormous crowd and I guessed that the Beckton Badlands would be relatively quiet. I needed to marvel at the genius of an organisation that could route its race DELIBERATELY to have the roads closed from the finish to the airport, so everyone could get back quickly. If I’m going to spend time following a sport obsessively, my taste for croissants and artisan markets means I’m better off in Chateauroux than Chesterfield. I have yet, after four Tour stages, a Tour of Britain and a Paris-Roubaix, to pay a single penny for entry to a cycling event. And best of all, my wife, who I’d do more or less anything to make happy, actually appears to enjoy coming along (or at least doesn’t fall asleep, as she spent most of the late 90s doing in various football grounds).

In short, cycling has the potential to be the most civilised, exciting, pleasurable obsession I’ve yet found. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to book a hotel in Compiègne for next April.

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Getting a good start

Two quick graphs for people wondering what a difference a change of manager can make to a football team – in this case, Middlesbrough. Obviously.

These assume that everyone starts from the same point – namely, the ten-game points total that their predecessor left them. This means that everyone starts from a notional “100%”, whether the team had gained 0 points or 30 in the previous ten games. It’s a relative comparison of what difference the managers apparently made, in their first twelve games.

It’s worth noting that some of these took over mid-season, and some in the summer. I haven’t taken any account of that – my hypothesis would be that you would give *more* allowance to someone taking over mid-season.

The only reason there are two charts is to allow the scale of the managers who aren’t Terry Venables to expand a bit. Clicking on them will give you a bigger version.

Comparative starts

Comparative starts without Venables

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And the markets….

Every financial report on the BBC ends with the phrase “And the markets…”, followed by a parade of numbers that mean almost nothing to 99% of the listenership. Yet they are delivered, even on Simon Mayo’s Drivetime, with a gravitas that suggests that nothing could be more important to our continued existence.

Obviously the people involved in “the markets”, the drivers of our economy, are without exception talented and clever individuals, but what is the mechanism that governs the system? What is the defining strategy? What are the checks and balances? If the system fails catastrophically, what lessons are learnt?

Of course, everyone who’s thought about it for five minutes, rather than swallowing the panicked mainstream media “what will the markets think?” bullshit, knows something close to the real answers to these questions. This isn’t really a post about markets. It’s about how satire and satirists can expose the truth all they like, but nothing fucking changes.

Here’s eight minutes or so of that. They did donkeys’ years of it. Nothing changed, but at least they tried.

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The parochial paradox

This week, I spent an interesting hour on a boat tour around Portsmouth Harbour. We were there to see the Mary Rose museum, and the harbour tour was the only other thing we didn’t do when we last went to the Historic Dockyard a couple of years back.

(Incidentally, if you’re REALLY into your maritime history, you can easily make a full day of the £26 admission charge. We were in the Mary Rose bit for over two worthwhile hours, and there’s two full ships and a naval history museum as well. But if, like me, you’d baulk a bit at the 84th cannonball, use your Clubcard vouchers.)

I was a bit apprehensive about the tour. The rest of the dockyard is “look at how we did things 100/200/500 years ago.” This bit is more “look at how we do things now”. And while I’m fascinated by large-scale engineering in general, I’m not sure that we should attach guns to quite so much of it these days. There’s a lot of talk about how the £42 billion earmarked to build HS2 could be better spent on [insert favourite public service here] – but that’s only about 15 months’ worth of spending on “military defence”, which as far as I can work out has not seen active service in defence of Britain itself for 31 years.

My lack of enthusiasm for “defence” – which I think is now more “post-imperial showboating” – might well spring from a belief that patriotism is – how can I put this? – a bit laughable. Pledging personal allegiance to an arbitrary bit of land, by accident of birth, confuses me. Looked at rationally, most places have their positives and negatives. I’m astonishingly lucky to live in a rich, well-fed democracy, but I wouldn’t place Britain on any pedestal beyond that. If money is to be spent on ‘reaching out’ to less fortunate places, I’d rather it be done as a co-ordinated supranational humanitarian effort, instead of kitting out “our boys” with the latest instrument of death to come out of BAE Systems.

The more I travel, the more I realise that patriotism is a bit, well, parochial. I feel no more affinity with Dorset than I do with the Dordogne, or with Gloucester than Göteborg. Especially when returning from those places means you have to interact with the execrable UK Border Agency.

“We’ve been quite parochial in the past and we have gone for English managers, we’ve almost had a little Englander syndrome.”

Middlesbrough chairman Steve Gibson, talking to the Evening Gazette

So is parochialism ever a good thing? Here comes the paradox – I happen to feel that being parochial is what makes sport. That’s not to say I’ll join in with “we hate Geordies” – I don’t, as a rule; they seem like quite a friendly bunch, the ones in my family particularly – but if sport doesn’t have a representative element, it gets dangerously close to becoming just another business.

Middlesbrough have been quite good, by that measure, over the last couple of decades. The club’s Academy has produced a raft of players capable of holding their own throughout professional football. The list of current pros “spotted” in the club’s catchment area includes Stewart Downing, Lee Cattermole, David Wheater, James Morrison, Tony McMahon, Ross Turnbull and Joe Bennett, as well as 2013 Boro players Jason Steele, Richie Smallwood and Ben Gibson. In May 2006, outgoing manager Steve McClaren made a point of fielding an all-English team of academy products in a Premier League game (although this was partly PR exercise, partly to ensure his first team players were as fresh as possible to appreciate how much better Sevilla were a few days later).

Behind the scenes, the club has become more and more “local” over recent years. By the end of the 2012/13 season, the majority of the coaching staff were local-born ex-players, plus honorary Teessider Craig Hignett and Boro-fan-but-not-ex-player Mark Venus.

Writing in Boro fanzine Fly Me To The Moon in September 2011, Chris Bartley said:

If we look at the set up now, it is clear that the past Is shaping and nourishing everything we do. [Mowbray], [Mark] Proctor and [Steve] Pears have a day to day involvement with the first team squad…
I think we learnt a lot of lessons in the ten years following our move to the Riverside…I won’t be a Pinocchio nose and say I objected to the purchases of Ravanelli, Emerson and Boksic. But little by little the soul of the club was being eroded…
Middlesbrough Football Club circa 2011 still has foreign players but I’m sure with [Mowbray] in charge, they appreciate the value of putting on a Middlesbrough Football Club shirt.

This is exactly how I felt about the project. After Gordon Strachan’s insistence on pugilistic, usually elderly, preferably Scottish players, it was a refreshing change, a chance to improve on the abortive experiment with Gareth Southgate’s promising principles.

Even at the height of the club’s success, from 2004 to 2006, I was struggling to identify with the team. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink was one of my favourite players before he arrived. Mark Viduka is among the top five players I’ve ever seen live. George Boateng was an accurate pass away from being one of the best midfielders in the country. But none of them were at Boro for the love of it. As Chris Bartley says, this didn’t dim the enjoyment of the league and cup successes; but it left a nagging doubt as to whether I was supporting Middlesbrough rather than a franchise called something like Riverside Raiders.

Now the wheel has turned again. The alarm bells started to ring when Mowbray was dismissed, apparently at least in part due to concerns that his continued presence was keeping down home attendances.

With Financial Fair Play, gate money is king and the club really can’t afford thousands of supporters to stay away, no matter how sincere their intentions.

Anthony Vickers, Evening Gazette

But Mowbray’s removal was more than PR-driven symbolism – Proctor and Pears have followed in short order, with Hignett and Colin Cooper already departed to Hartlepool, leaving the localism almost completely demolished.

In the last four or five weeks, it has become clear that chairman Gibson was being influenced by former Chelsea and Manchester United chief executive Peter Kenyon, who in turn has a long-term relationship with “agent to the ridiculously overpaid stars” Jorge Mendes. These two have previously been “advisers” to a Jersey-based fund called Quality Sports Investments. Although Kenyon was subsequently reported to have left QSI’s parent company Creative Artists Agency, he has obviously retained close links with Mendes. The Daily Mail suggested last year that Kenyon could profit from selling a player to his old club, and the Wikipedia entry for QSI deteriorates into the kind of impenetrable company structure that is characteristic of groups that don’t want the outside world to know who they are or what they’re up to.

Kenyon has been involved with some of the more depressing aspects of modern football – some detailed in Daniel Taylor’s article on Manchester United, others as a result of his being Roman Abramovich’s representative on earth for a few years. It doesn’t seem outlandish to worry that his involvement at Boro isn’t wholly out of altruistic friendship with Steve Gibson, let alone an adolescent admiration for Dickie Rooks.

Nobody, including Gibson, Kenyon, Mendes or Jose Mourinho, knows how Aitor Karanka will get on as a manager in English football’s second division. The sports economists will tell you that, unless he is a genuine Clough-grade genius (or a bona fide Strachan-grade bonehead), the club’s league position will continue to reflect its wage expenditure. The UEFAphiles will say that employing Mourinho’s ex-assistant, someone who has worked at Real Madrid, cannot be anything but good. But in reality, nobody knows, or can know. “It remains to be seen” is the best and worst anyone can say.

What is undeniable is that Karanka is a client of Mendes’ Gestifute organisation. This is being sold to fans as a fantastic opportunity to access un-dreamed-of talent from across the continent. It could just as easily, though, be seen as using Middlesbrough as a proving ground for a rent-an-Iberian-teenager operation. While third party ownership of players is not allowed in England, both Spain and Portugal are happy with the practice. Perhaps an enterprising sports management company could showcase its latest talent “on loan” at an English second division club, attracting the big transfer fees (and associated percentages) from top-flight clubs across the continent after the loan spell ends.

“What’s the matter with that?”, ask the pragmatists. The thinking goes that anything’s fair as long as it brings results. Gibson and Middlesbrough use Kenyon, Mendes and Gestifute to their own ends, with the loanees firing the club to the Premier League, bringing back the all-important crowds and broadcast income.

Well, that’s the optimistic way of looking at it. The pessimistic one might be that, having tightened the rules since Carlos Tevez and Alejandro Faurlin tested them over the last few years, the English authorities might want to clamp down – and indeed, the FA site suggests that any players where Gestifute, or any other third party, hold an economic interest, would not be eligible to play in England.

Perhaps Kenyon and Mendes would simply channel their client players, rather than their “owned” ones, through Hurworth. Perhaps Boro could have an entirely legitimate procession of loan players trundling through the doors, a season at a time, moving the club further up the league at little to no cost. Perhaps they could – but would that, along with Kenyon’s baggage, be a Boro that a conflicted idealist, unpatriotic in life but parochial in sport, could identify with?

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