Rest well, Justin

Rest well, Justin

I really wish I didn’t have to write this, but I felt that I had to just to show my appreciation. Earlier today, it was confirmed that Leyton Orient manager Justin Edinburgh had passed away, aged just 49 years old, and I am heartbroken by the news. At Orient, we’ve never particularly had it easy. There’s been play-off defeats when it was in our hands, an owner abandoning ship leaving us all but done for, winless runs that almost seem part of the fabric of the club. You name it, Orient’s suffered from it. But when Justin was in charge, it all seemed…different. It was if the stars were aligning. We had a true leader, a visionary, someone who actually had a clue what the problems were and how they could not only be rectified, but built upon and lay foundation to future success.

He got the club as soon as he walked into the building, he embraced the Orient way & he would always show his utmost appreciation to those in the stands who would stay to support the team whatever the situation, whether it be a London derby at home or away at Barrow on a Tuesday night. Justin took charge of a club on the verge of into the National League relegation places, kept faith in the foundation of the club when implementing his plans and led Orient to being league champions a mere 17 months after taking charge.

When the news broke earlier today, a fan base was in mourning. One of the most incredible people to be associated with our wonderful club was taken away from us, just 20 days after leading Orient out at Wembley for the FA Trophy final. He was our manager, our friend, our champion. He leaves behind a legacy that will never be beaten, and memories that will never be forgotten. Every single tribute that you read over the coming days will be completely deserved, because Justin earned the respect of the entire footballing world, both with his playing career and managerial. He deserves every honorary accolade going, whether it be a statue or a stand named after him. He was the captain of our sinking ship and he rescued us not only to safety, but got us to our destination in super quick time.

Whatever happens over the next few years at the club, I’m going to make it my mission to sing my loudest at every song, celebrate with pride and admiration at every single moment in which Orient succeeds, and above all else simply love my club as much as Justin helped me to love the club. This will be my response to Justin’s legacy, it should be all our response’s to Justin’s legacy, because it’s the least the man deserves.

My heartfelt condolences to Justin’s family and friends at this undoubtedly heartbreaking time. Your Orient family will be with you every step of the way from here on.

God bless you Justin, and thank you. Thank you so very much for making so many memories which we’ll cherish forever, and allowing us all to fall in love with our club again.

Baku to the future – An unsettling precedent

Baku to the future – An unsettling precedent

UEFA giving Azerbaijan the rights to host a major European final was always going to cause controversy, even if the original decision to award Baku with the privilege occurred 18 months ago. The Europa League Final between two London clubs in Arsenal and Chelsea will take place in Baku, a thriving city located next to the Caspian Sea some 6,000 miles away from where the two finalists originate and 200 miles away from the border with Iran. There is debate about whether transcontinental states such as Azerbaijan should be allowed to host European final events given the distance it is from mainland Europe, while there is even whether the country is in Europe (My take? Not a chance they’re a European country).

Yet these concerns did not stop UEFA’s pursuit towards greater inclusivity with all member nations, part of their #EqualGame pledge where no fan or country is discriminated against (More on this later). For the men in suits who organise these events, guaranteed with the best seats in the house and private jets to escort them to and from the country, this isn’t an issue. But for the fans who travel to every game? This has turned into a nightmare.

UEFA were aware that logistically, it would be a challenge for both sets of supporters to travel out to Baku, with an incredibly limited number of direct flights available from London (which sold out during the semi-final 2nd legs) meaning that fans had to stop off at cities such as Kiev, Moscow, Istanbul and Tbilisi to ensure that they reach Baku in time for the final, costing them north of £1000 for the privilege before even considering the cost of accommodation and match tickets. There has been a number of stories of fans who booked hotels months in advance at a reasonable price in the hope that their team reaches the final, only to find their reservation had been cancelled at the last minute and their room advertised again at astronomical prices as hotel owners looked for an easy windfall, leaving the stranded fans desperately searching for Azerbaijan’s equivalent of Travelodge to ensure they have a roof over their heads.

And then there was the match tickets. With an allocation of a measly 6,000 each for both sets of fans, which both clubs returned around half of due to lack of demand by their own faithful supporters, it confirmed that the travelling supporters would barely fill in 10% of the 70,000-seater stadium. For a European final. In the eyes of the world, one of UEFA’s flagship competition finales will be a laughing stock as they craved the pound note and not the fan’s approval. A damning indictment which only proved where UEFA’s priorities really lie.

But you think all of the above is bad enough? Well then, settle down and let me explain to you the absolute shambles that is Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s issue within all of this. To give a very brief explanation into the background of his dilemma (because while I may have a degree in International Relations, I’m by no means an expert at post-Soviet Union conflict), you need to go back a bit in history. Armenia and Azerbaijan aren’t exactly best friends due to a hotly-disputed region at Azerbaijan’s western border, a region that has historically been associated with Armenia but was claimed by Azerbaijan after the Soviet Union split. To cut a long story short, they were in conflict, agreed a ceasefire but tensions still remain high in recent years in which the two countries have no diplomatic relations and an estimated 3,000 people have lost their lives as a result.

So to bring it back to the football, this conflict isn’t exactly recent news for UEFA when making their decision over who would host the final. For Mkhitaryan, Armenia’s national team captain, there was always going to be a red flag over whether he would participate in the final should Arsenal have reached it, especially as he decided against travelling to Arsenal’s group stage match in Baku against Qarabag over fears to his and his team-mates’ safety. When Mkhitaryan rightly announced he would not be travelling to the final for the very same reason, it drew widespread condemnation directly solely at UEFA’s door. Why allow a country that openly discriminates against a set of people to host a final? Why would UEFA risk an individual, or even an entire teams, safety in their desire to push openness? Why are you allowing a country to host Euro 2020 games in these circumstances?

Over the last few weeks, many fans around Europe have opened their eyes and realised the type of organisation that UEFA is: a deceptive organisation who are more concerned with personal finances and sponsor approval than they are with ensuring fans of the game continue to love the game. Will they change? Not a chance. In fact, I’m predicting that in the next few years, we’ll see the Champions League final played in the United Arab Emirates or Qatar as they continue to leach every single penny out of the occasion and the fans’ pockets.

UEFA, you’ve got some explaining to do if you want us to understand your justifications, and this is by no means a quick fix.

Orient: Exceeding all expectations

Orient: Exceeding all expectations

Being a Leyton Orient fan tends to bring pessimism at every given opportunity, it’s just in our nature from past experience. I’ve been an Orient fan since 2002, and witnessed them snatch defeat from the jaws of victory more times than I care to mention. Even when they’ve been at their lowest ebb in the National League for the last two years, you wouldn’t have been alone to think “What if we can’t get out?” in what is a notoriously difficult league to gain promotion of, given the one automatic promotion place on offer. Just look at Wrexham, 87 years in the Football League until 2008 and they’ve been stuck in non-league ever since.

Everyone reading this will know everything about where the club was in June 2017, with 9 players in the squad and no bank account, but it was December of that year where it all sunk into reality of the situation Orient were in – an away game vs Solihull Moors, which also happened to be Justin Edinburgh’s first game in charge. It was a terrible situation in more ways than you can imagine: a squad with no confidence, hovering around the relegation zone to the National League South and supporters facing the stark reality that it may take an awfully long time before the club returns to the Football League.

But fast forward to today and those concerns from 16 months ago are a distant memory, and it couldn’t be any different if Orient tried. Going into the final game of the season against Braintree, Orient only need a draw to mathematically confirm their return as a League club, and could even get away with a defeat provided Salford don’t overturn a 5 goal deficit in goal difference. It has been a herculean effort to change the club’s fortunes so quickly after it’s rapid and almost fatal demise, and what makes it even more satisfactory is it has been a team effort from bottom to top. From the playing perspective, every player in the squad has played a crucial part in steering us towards a Football League return. Macauley Bonne has led the way in terms of goalscoring. Craig Clay has dictated the midfield like Steven Gerrard. Jobi McAnuff marshalled the team exceptionally and ensured that they don’t drop their standards or give up too easily. Dean Brill commanded his area superbly and has 22 clean sheets to his name, and who could forget Josh Coulson and his magnificent forehead? He has been a rock in defence at times & he’s even scoring plenty as well (He’s got 8 this season!).

I could go on and on about the players because to a man, they have been superb when called upon. As a squad, I can’t remember watching a team as together and prepared to put their bodies on the line for the club as this one. They’ve made the fans enjoy watching football at Orient again, and that’s even without their immediate successes. A team that seemingly refuses to give up and fights to the bitter end, as we saw in the latter games against Eastleigh, Halifax and Sutton. In all honesty, I wouldn’t think of it to be fair to single out a player who has stood out this season because they all have in their own unique way, and all deserve immense credit. They deserve the title, they deserve the Wembley day out in the FA Trophy final, and they deserve the greatest of appreciation from every single Leyton Orient fan for bringing pride back to the club after it was all but guttered out.

Away from the playing squad, Justin Edinburgh and his coaching staff probably won’t have to buy another pint in East London ever again after what they’ve done to transform the club. Justin knew when he was appointed head coach what was expected of the club, but he also knew what to expect from the league having gained promotion from it with Newport County. It wasn’t going to be full flowing football, it certainly wasn’t going to be pretty and there was going to be occasions where luck wasn’t in our favour, but there wasn’t many occasions where you could say the team was ill-prepared or set out wrong tactically. Going into this season, Justin trusted his players hence why the summer recruitment was very limited. But he extracted every ounce of effort from the players and is potentially leading us to the Double. Leyton Orient don’t do trophies, but to win the double in your first full season in charge? That man deserves a stand named after him!

To be a Leyton Orient fan, you need the patience of a saint because the glory days are practically non-existent. We’ve probably had the toughest job of any football fan in the country over the last 5 years given how far we’ve fallen. From Brentford to Barrow and from Wolverhampton to Woking, it has been a massive culture shock for many fans, but our support has been magnificent. Record season ticket sales, attendances above 5,000 or even 6,000 in multiple home games and a sensational away following whatever or wherever the fixture, rivalling League Two and even some League One clubs with our attendances. Whatever obstacle has been put in front of the club, the supporters have stood firm with their backing of the team and have been magnificent when called upon. Every single one of us deserves to bask in this glory, because boy have we had to put up with a lot to get here.

Tomorrow’s match against Braintree will be a phenomenal occasion, an occasion that we’ll be speaking about for decades and telling the grandkids about. So as much as Orient has given you stress over the years, you can FINALLY enjoy the moment knowing that the team will do the job.

Who knows? If Alabi scores, we might actually be on the pitch!

Esteban Ocon: A victim of circumstance

Esteban Ocon: A victim of circumstance

It’s been the silliest of silly seasons, hasn’t it? 5 teams have confirmed their driver line-ups for the 2019 season, and we already know that 5 teams will be making at least one change to their current line-up (6 if Daniil Kvyat returns to Toro Rosso as rumoured). We’re seeing young drivers earning promotions to the top teams after impressing, drivers like Daniel Ricciardo moving to a new project at Renault, and a prolonged farewell tour in Kimi Raikkonen’s case. Not to forget that Fernando Alonso also called it quits in the middle of all this. But despite there being a much higher than normal number of changes, there remains one outlier.

When Force India was saved from administration by a consortium led by Lawrence Stroll, talk began of his son and current Williams driver Lance switching teams and replacing one of Force India’s current drivers. Now that it’s looking more of a when rather than if he gets a seat, the future of Esteban Ocon looks to be very precarious as Sergio Perez is more than likely the driver who will be retained. It’s a desperately unlucky situation for Ocon at the moment, given that the younger drivers expected to be his competition in the future in Pierre Gasly and Charles Leclerc have earned promotions to better teams, whereas Ocon is staring at the exit door of F1.

It would be impossible to suggest that Ocon doesn’t deserve a seat in Formula One next season. Since coming into F1 after a successful junior career (winning both the European F3 and GP3 titles in his only season in the championships), he has produced some exemplary performances that has lived up to the hype as a potential future world champion, and has proven to be more than a match for his much more experienced team-mate in Perez. He also showed his promise this year at Spa when despite Force India having to re-enter as a new constructor under a new name and ownership, Ocon managed a stunning 3rd place in qualifying by mastering the changing weather conditions when he needed to most. But Ocon’s options of a 2019 seat are closing and with Williams looking like the only option for him, there is a very realistic possibility of a 2019 grid without Esteban Ocon on it, and that would be a sad state of affairs for Formula One.

We’re in the era of F1 where junior drivers have a greater chance of earning a spot on the grid if they are linked with a manufacturer’s junior team or “academy”, which is the case for Ocon with his Mercedes backing and a number of other drivers such as Leclerc, Gasly and Lando Norris. But even that has it’s own problems as it restricts the number of options these drivers have in terms of potential teams. For example, you’re never going to see a Mercedes-backed George Russell gain a seat at Sauber because of Ferrari’s influence in the team, likewise the Ferrari-backed Antonio Giovinazzi is very unlikely to earn a seat at a team linked to Renault or Mercedes. Unfortunately these links only creates a logjam for any driver seeking a drive and often drivers will have to find a seat in another series for the time being, which is what Ocon will most likely have to do.

This isn’t the first time a talented driver with prominent backing is left with no option but to leave F1, as has been the case with Pascal Wehrlein, but the sheer dependence on up-and-coming drivers needing backing to enter F1 means it will not be the last occurrence either., and it may even become the norm. If Ocon is to leave F1 in 2019, it’ll most likely be a short sabbatical before he returns in 2020, and so it should be because he’s too good a talent to leave out of the sport. With the issues surrounding Force India this season and the driver market filling out as it has done, Esteban Ocon has become a victim of circumstance and even his Mercedes backing is struggling to resolve his future. I like Ocon as a person and as a driver, and it isn’t unreasonable to consider him as a future world champion. But it would be a damn shame if F1 politics interferes with his career for too long.

The Southgate Revolution: Are England actually World Cup contenders?

The Southgate Revolution: Are England actually World Cup contenders?

As an England fan, it was understandable to not be fully committed to being in World Cup fever going into the 2018 World Cup. Before the recent edition in Russia even started, the public was not afraid to show their pessimism with England’s hopes of a successful tournament, with the dismal efforts of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and the hopeless exit in Euro 2016 to Iceland firmly on everyone’s minds. Even after that there was reason to be concerned, with the fiasco surrounding Sam Allardyce’s stint as England boss and international retirements from a number of key players such as Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney suggesting it was set to be another struggle in 2018.

But Gareth Southgate has somehow managed to turn around all of this negativity into something the public can get behind. Sure, they had an easy group compared to 2014 with Belgium the only true obstacle on paper, but even then this has been an excuse in the past. Remember 2010? England had an alarmingly simple group with only the USA as a potential threat, a group considered so straightforward that one newspaper had the headline “England, Algeria, Slovenia, Yanks” (Look at the initials) on their front page. But England still had to rely on a last group game win over Slovenia to qualify for the knockouts, and even then it wasn’t as plain sailing as we’d all like.

Coming into this World Cup however, all of this history has been left as history. Southgate has managed to drill into his players that whatever happened in the past is indeed in the past and there is no pressure whatsoever on them to rectify past failures, which is remarkable given half of England’s squad in Russia was involved in the humiliation against Iceland two years ago. There is also a refreshing openness within the group where they are not afraid to share their own strengths and weaknesses to benefit the team. Former England players such as Rio Ferdinand have admitted that this arguably held back England in past tournaments given they didn’t want to give their club rivals any insights, but this club mentality that Southgate has installed has created an environment based on trust and above all else, a team that gets along.

Southgate also actually has a plan on the pitch, which can’t be said about recent major tournaments. A set formation is in place and certain players are trusted to play in those positions, such as Kyle Walker at an unfamiliar right centre-back position. Any rational football fan will tell you that if the players know their role in the side, they will play to their strengths, and given the constant formation and position changes in the past, it’s no wonder why England haven’t performed on the world stage in a generation. But now England have this and they are reaping the benefits in Russia, and there is genuine reasoning to be confident.

So, how well can England do in this World Cup? The public are going ecstatic at England’s perfect start to this tournament, with beer spillages at an all-time high and “It’s Coming Home” becoming the nation’s adopted motto for this summer. For me, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to be excited about this current England side. We’re playing entertaining football and bringing genuine fear into opposition defences, a breath of fresh air to previous incarnations of tournament squads. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We’ve beaten Tunisia and Panama, teams that we should be beating comfortably. A last-minute winner vs Tunisia can be excusable given it’s the first game of this new brand of football that actually means something, so any win is good enough. But Panama was always expected to be a walkover. I’m so convinced of Panama’s lack of quality that I’d be willing to put money on Leyton Orient beating them. They were THAT bad!

The true test for England, the test that will give an accurate reflection on how well England are performing, will be against Belgium. Two teams filled with quality both vying for the ultimate prize. If England put in a good performance, even if it’s not a winning performance, then there is definitely reason to be optimistic going into the knockout stages in Russia, and it would certainly convince me that England are one of the contenders, a mere dream two years ago in France for the Euros. This team can beat any team in the world on their day, that I have absolutely no doubt. But tournament football is so much different compared to friendlies. It’s about not only performing on the day, but about managing expectation, carrying the hopes and dreams of your nation to hopefully bring glory back home with you. Can England bring honour back with them from Russia? I think they already have done…

VAR: Why all hope isn’t lost just yet

VAR: Why all hope isn’t lost just yet

The introduction of video technology in football was always going to be a contentious issue. As football in this country begins to reform, from the eye-watering prices for broadcasting rights to the possible winter break from the 2019/20 season, there was always going to be the call for video technology to be used in the sport to assist the referees, especially as it looks to be on equal terms of other major sports such as Cricket and Rugby Union.

The reaction to the trial period of VAR so far in English football has been quite the contrast to what it was initially brought in to do, although that is not all the fault of the technology itself. Before it’s introduction, there was a very high level of discontent at referees for their inability to act on certain decisions, with fans demanding that they be given extra assistance to ensure that the outcome of matches are not affected by the inadequacy of the referee in charge. However, since VAR first began to be used in-game in English football, it has resulted in fans being angry at the use of VAR in practically every contentious issue, some even reversing their previous concerns and wanting referee’s to have sole power on decisions, wanting the “human error” element to have a factor.

VAR, or an equivalent video technology, will be a very important element to the sport in the future, that I am sure of. But there has to be subsequent improvements away from the actual technology for it to be effective and for it to be respected amongst football fans. Referees have to be given adequate training for them to use VAR appropriately, as often they see VAR as their way out of personal embarrassment and scorning criticism. Taking examples from cricket and rugby, video technology is only used when it is near impossible for the umpires/referees to make an accurate and correct decision on the field of play, and football should seek to replicate that. At the moment, referees use VAR far too often than to what it was meant to be used for, they fail to acknowledge certain aspects of play that could influence decisions such as diving, and do we need to talk about the Juan Mata offside decision at Huddersfield again?

There also needs to be the decision of taking the responsibility of VAR’s use away from referees. Football authorities should follow in cricket’s example and give one responsible individual the power to appeal certain decisions. In cricket this is the job of the captain, whereas the managers should be given this power in football. By doing this, the human error element will still remain as the referee may have failed to acknowledge a key decision, but the technology can still be applied to the situation. For this to work effectively, referees will need to be trained accordingly still as it will reduce the pressure on the officials to get every decision 100% correct, while it will continue to follow in other sport’s example and only use the technology in the very exceptional circumstances.

It is very easy, and at the moment justifiable, to be a critic of video technology in football as it has often been portrayed as just as error-strewn as the referees before it was introduced. While VAR was always going to face teething problems during it’s initial trial period as it naturally would, the consistent issues it has faced would only suggest that it is far from being adequate enough from being an effective part of the game immediately. However I still believe it can be a key part of the game in the future, and if it were to follow other sport’s examples of the application of their technologies, then there is no reason why VAR cannot be used in the future.

The Alexis Sanchez saga: Amateur from Arsenal…again.

The Alexis Sanchez saga: Amateur from Arsenal…again.

As I write this blog, it has practically been confirmed that Alexis Sanchez will be leaving Arsenal to join Manchester United with Henrikh Mkhitaryan moving in the other direction in a straight swap deal. This is after 6 months of supposedly intense contract negotiations by Arsenal in a desperate attempt to keep Sanchez from walking away from a free in the summer of 2018, which they frankly should have sorted out at least 12 months prior. Arsenal pulled out of a transfer at the last minute in August to move Sanchez on to Manchester City for £60 million, yet seem very keen all of a sudden to move Sanchez on all of a sudden in the January window in a straight swap that every man and his dog will tell you Arsenal are getting the worse end of.

It would be very understandable to point the finger of blame at Arsene Wenger, so often the figure of discontent in recent seasons regardless of the issue in question. But this Sanchez contract saga, indeed that of Mesut Ozil also, goes much further than simply the manager as any manager in the world in Wenger’s position would be doing all in their power to keep their marquee players at the club, even if the wage demands may be astronomical compared to their team-mates. They’d do it because they are the X-Factor players, the ones that take you from on the fringes of glory to reserving your seat on the open-top bus and give fans a reason to attend the games.

Yet Arsenal face losing a world class player for a pittance, when they could have got a decent fee in the summer. Arsenal’s board, as well as chief executive Ivan Gazidis, once again proved that their footballing prowess remains miniscule compared to their commercial and business interests, cashing out on Sanchez when they should have pushed a sale in August, trying to regurgitate as much of an investment as possible. The board’s sheer negligence of providing a stable football foundation shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, given they tossed aside fan criticism of their role in the club, telling them to “Read the Daily Telegraph” if they wanted to see majority shareholder Stan Kroenke’s vision of the club, despite him being present at the AGM where the criticism was given.

It’s often a delicate case for the board room to intervene in the first team matters, especially at Arsenal where Arsene Wenger is obviously still held in very high regard. However given the substantial fee Arsenal could’ve got for Sanchez, it begs 2 questions. Firstly, why would you refuse to sanction a transfer for one of your players if you know you are going to lose a significant amount of money on it, especially if the player has made it abundantly clear that he has no intention of renewing his contract. Secondly, if the manager of your club supported your decision to keep the player and actively used him throughout the season, why all of a sudden would you be willing to undermine the manager and begin touting said player’s services in the January window? The board should’ve taken the lead and sold Sanchez in the summer even if it meant undermining the manager, because it made financial sense.

Throughout the entire January window when Sanchez’s move has made the headlines, it has looked a sense of desperation from Arsenal. They know they made a mistake in not selling Sanchez in the summer, when the transfer fee would’ve been much larger and they could’ve sought out their ideal replacement, rather than one that happened to be available at the time. Although that should not be seen as a criticism for Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who I personally believe is a very good footballer who has yet to flourish in the Premier League.

Despite this poor handling of the Sanchez contract situation, the transfer deal to move him to Manchester United remains a good one for all parties concerned. For Sanchez, he gets his move to the team that he believes can match his ambitions of winning major honours. For Mkhitaryan, he can start anew at a new team in the Premier League and rediscover his form that earned him plaudits at Borussia Dortmund. Manchester United get themselves a world-class player that moves them a step closer to competing again with the world’s elite, even if it is costing them an eye-watering £500,000 a week in Sanchez’s wages. Even Arsenal can find positives in this deal, closing the book on what was a horrific mismanagement of a player’s contract & managing to add a more than capable player in the deal at the same time.

I wish Alexis Sanchez well in the future. He produced some wonderful memories that will be talked about for many years to come at Arsenal, with his sensational goal in the FA Cup final in 2015 being a personal favourite of mine. As for Arsenal, the handling of this saga would not have won themselves any fans, even if they got a replacement in the deal. While the club proclaim themselves to be an ambitious club with an abundance of financial resources (SoccerEx listed Arsenal 2nd in the world in 2017 for financial value, only behind Man City), elite clubs simply do not allow their star players to run their contracts down, as their net worth would be astronomical in today’s market. This will be a lesson for the club, and I’m sure the club know it as well. But if they are as ambitious as they say they are, with new staff signings such as head of scouting Sven Mislintat & head of football relations Raul Sanllehi, they have to show it.

A year in review: The 2017 F1 season

A year in review: The 2017 F1 season

The 2017 Formula One season ended with a somewhat passive finale at Abu Dhabi, with Valtteri Bottas taking his 3rd victory of the season in a race that had the end-of-term vibes to it, given both championships were sealed long before the race in the twilight had come around. The race had the Mercedes pairing of Bottas and Lewis Hamilton running away with it at the front, with Ferrari and Red Bull lagging far behind. A microcosm of the hybrid era you may think, although this season was far from the norm we grew accustomed to.

Mercedes were given an actual challenge for the championships by the Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel, and were made well aware of the threat of the Scuderia from the off, with Vettel beating Hamilton by 10 seconds in Australia. Unlike in previous seasons where a non-Mercedes victory was seen as a one-off or even from a mistake by Mercedes themselves, the challenge by Vettel and Ferrari was a bona fide threat that had troubled the Silver Arrows throughout the season. Tussles in Russia, Spain, Azerbaijan, and Belgium showed that Ferrari were more than a match to break the dominance that Mercedes had prided themselves over for the last 3 seasons. It was always going to be a difficult task for the Ferrari to overhaul the Silver Arrows however. With near bulletproof reliability from Mercedes, as well as the underperformance of Kimi Raikkonen, who despite his one-off shows of prowess such as taking pole at Monaco proved he is very much past his prime, Mercedes always seemingly had the edge.

Ultimately however, it was mistakes and errors by Ferrari themselves that cost them their fair chance at glory. A rash error of judgement from Vettel in Azerbaijan cost him a guaranteed podium finish at the very least. A chaotic start at the Singapore Grand Prix, a race they should’ve run away with given their technical advantage over Mercedes at the track, resulted in a double retirement for Ferrari for the first time since Mexico 2015, the first double retirement on lap 1 in Ferrari’s history, and the constructor’s championship gone in a flash. In Malaysia, a turbo failure meant Vettel had to battle from the back to finish 4th, while a spark plug failure at Japan meant the title was gone and Hamilton would win once more. A calamitous Asian leg for Vettel, and his wait for Title No.5 would continue…

Looking further down the field, there was a number of breakthroughs for drivers. Carlos Sainz had a season of tremendous success, consistently scoring decent points finishes for the team and single-handedly secured Toro Rosso 7th place in the championship over Haas, with a 4th place finish at Singapore being his main highlight of the season. His reputation improved drastically over the season, becoming a fan’s favourite and being tipped as a front-runner for the Ferrari seat when Kimi Raikkonen leaves the team. His efforts did not go unnoticed in the paddock, with Renault coming in to secure his services for the final 4 Grand Prix at the expense of Jolyon Palmer, and even managed to achieve a 7th place finish at his first Grand Prix for Renault in the USA. Make no mistake, Carlos Sainz is a phenomenal talent who will go a long way when given the right opportunity.

Another driver whom had a fantastic season was Esteban Ocon in the Force India. Considering it was his first full season in Formula One after his cameo at Manor in 2017, Ocon showed why he’s been touted as one of the future stars of the sport, and why Mercedes prefer him to Pascal Wehrlein in their Young Driver programme. In scoring points in 18 Grand Prix out of 20, with only an uncompetitive car in Monaco and a collision with Romain Grosjean in Brazil diminishing this record, Ocon proved more than a match for his team-mate Sergio Perez in the Force India. While he was involved in some notable in-race incidents with Perez, this did not damage his reputation as one of the most promising talents in the sport, and showed that he can perform from the get-go as long as the car is competitive. Given he’s been touted as Mercedes’ next driver-in-waiting, this season confirmed you can expect some great moments from Ocon in the future.

However, the struggles continued at McLaren-Honda in 2017. Like in previous seasons, McLaren were tormented by constant reliability issues with their Honda engine. It was calculated that Stoffel Vandoorne had over 1 mile’s worth of grid penalties because Honda’s package was so troublesome, while Fernando Alonso made his displeasure of his engine public through his humorous radio messages. It is a shame that McLaren have had to face such problems, because the chassis design was actually a very effective piece of kit. Solid results at Hungary and Singapore, tracks that are not dependent on engine power, showed that the car was decent, yet it was the sheer lack of power that Honda’s engine produced which was holding McLaren back. The relationship between McLaren and Honda reached breaking point, and McLaren decided to end their partnership only three years into a ten-year deal, choosing to use Renault engines from next season. It was supposed to be a match made in heaven given their past glories, but it turned out to be a nightmare scenario.

Away from the track, Liberty Media’s ownership of the sport showed signs of clear progression from the past incarnation under the stewardship of Bernie Ecclestone. Fan engagement is the crucial factor in Liberty’s eyes to pushing the sport to new boundaries, with social media platforms being utilised effectively for the first time in the sport’s existence, and a blessed relief for its eager followers. The street demo in London was an amazing success. Even without Lewis Hamilton’s attendance at his home event, relative newcomers to watching Formula One were captivated by the spectacle it brought to the heart of the UK’s capital city, and people genuinely enjoyed themselves. The ‘walk-on’ entrance to the United States Grand Prix, partnered by the dulcet tones of sporting extraordinaire Michael Buffer, transformed what was a very generic procedure in drivers taking to the grid, even if not everyone liked the concept. Even the sport’s logo has changed to a more modern approach.

All of this is a clear indication that Liberty wants to take Formula One into a completely new direction, away from the stagnant state it was in under Ecclestone’s rule. They want to create a sport which people can enjoy, a sport that is no longer “under-managed and under-invested in” as F1’s commercial director Sean Bratches quite appropriately puts it. Especially when the sport is moving towards Pay-TV deals such as Sky’s exclusivity deal in 2019, securing a fan base in these circumstances is crucial to a sustainable sport, and these initial steps are an encouraging foundation to build on.

When looking back on this season in the future, it may not necessarily stand out amongst the crowd given a Mercedes car won the Championship for the fourth year in succession. However, the back story behind it is a fascinating legacy that will hopefully flourish for years to come. Will drivers such as Carlos Sainz and Esteban Ocon use this season’s glories to push further forward in their careers? Will Liberty’s initial progression prove to be the building blocks of producing a truly global sport for everyone? Will a team step up their development and be a match for Mercedes all season long in 2018?

Only time will tell.

Lewis Hamilton: Finding Motivation

Lewis Hamilton: Finding Motivation

It will be interesting to see how Lewis Hamilton prepares mentally for the future, and where he can find the motivation to carry on setting the standard in the sport. Looking back at his 3 previous title attempts, he had an extra reason to push him towards the title. In 2008, he won the title a year after he came within a point of clinching his maiden world title at his very first attempt, in the most agonising of fashions with mechanical issues crippling his attempts at the final Grand Prix of 2007 in Brazil. He showed his mettle when he needed it most, proven by his last-corner, last-lap escapade with Timo Glock to sensationally steal the title from Felipe Massa’s grasp, showing that it isn’t over until the chequered flag. 2014 saw a complete revival of the technical regulations, leaving his Mercedes team well ahead of their competitors in terms of performance. An open goal he had to take given his 5 years of championship anonymity, and one he took despite the year-long battle with his team-mate Nico Rosberg for the title.

In 2015, there was the silencing of the doubters. He had the clear fastest car in the field, he had a team-mate that ran him close to the title the year previous, and he also had critics who believed he wasn’t showing his full potential. How did he answer these critics? By comprehensively beating his team-mate Nico Rosberg in the championship, winning more than half of the season’s races, and only failing to finish off the podium twice the entire season. Decent.

Looking at this season, he came into it with another point to prove. After being beaten by Rosberg to the title in an exhilarating finale at Abu Dhabi, he knew that his main challenger over the last 3 seasons wasn’t going to be a problem, with Rosberg retiring from the sport. Despite this, he faced a great challenge with Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel for the crown, with Vettel himself having something to prove against his long-standing critics since his Red Bull days. It wasn’t a bulletproof season by any means. The very poor weekend in Monaco, together with Hamilton struggling to match the front-runners in Russia, Austria and Hungary, showed it wasn’t plain-sailing for the Brit. For once, Hamilton’s Mercedes looked vulnerable to the competition, yet it was his consistency and opportunism that helped him pull clear of his rivals, sealing glory with a sensible albeit mechanically-hindered performance in Mexico.

And here lies the conundrum for Hamilton. He’s taken Michael Schumacher’s record of all-time pole positions and almost certainly guaranteed recognition as the best qualifier in Formula One history. He’s won Championships in varying different scenarios, whether it be proving the doubters wrong or beating a rival in another team. He’s even managed to win the championship without mechanical issues forcing retirements at crucial stages of the season, as has been the case this season. No matter what scenario, he’s managed to come away from that an even better driver and with a world title to prove it. But what will encourage him from now on? Will it be to match Schumacher’s race win and title records? Because given the strides Mercedes’ rivals have shown in 2017, that will be a very big challenge indeed. Aside from Schumacher’s records, there is nothing distinctive that Hamilton can aim for that he hasn’t already achieved.

However, Hamilton has not leaned towards any suggestions that his motivation will be changed because of his latest title feat, with his immediate comments after winning his fourth world title being: “Four is a great number, but I want number five now”. We now have a Lewis Hamilton that has nothing to prove and everything to gain. He doesn’t have to worry about the strains of an intra-team rivalry because he’s beaten that. He doesn’t have to worry about holding off rival competitors because he’s beaten that. For Hamilton, it’s all about seeing how far up the statistical tree he can climb before he decides to depart from the sport, and his form and own comments suggest he’s got a while yet at the top.

Lewis Hamilton is without question an all-time great in Formula One. He’s almost certainly a Top-5 of all-time and I wouldn’t begrudge you if you had him in Top 3 or even Top 2. He went from marketable athlete 5 years ago to becoming THE product of Formula One that everybody outside of the sport looks out for, recognises and appreciates. With the Hamilton-Vettel rivalry blossoming this season, and the Red Bulls of Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo once again proving their worth at the top-end of the sport, it will be very interesting to see how Hamilton curtails these threats using all the credentials he has prided himself over in his success.

Sky F1: A narrative pushed too far?

Sky F1: A narrative pushed too far?

It’s fair to say Formula One hasn’t had the easiest of weeks, given it’s had to deal with the repercussions of the incident between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, and the backlash by many towards Vettel. Many fans have moved on since the incident, while many more chose to move on after Vettel’s hearing with the FIA over said incident, in which he received no further punishment. Despite this, much of Sky Sports’ coverage at this week’s Austrian Grand Prix has focused on the aftermath of this incident. A driver relationship has been scrutinised over and over, as if there is an obligation to delve into the fine details of this and find something to dig at, a desperate attempt to create a narrative for this season.

Now don’t get me wrong. It’s fair to say Sky have made Lewis Hamilton the poster boy of their coverage, and it’s hardly a surprise given there is no restrictions into how a private media organisation such as Sky sways in order to appeal to an audience, just take BT Sport’s coverage of MotoGP and their favouring of British riders as proof of this occurring in motorsport. But for Sky desperately trying to make an issue of a non-issue, especially an issue that was proven to be over by the FIA’s own standards, can only be detrimental to Sky’s own coverage.

You can go onto Sky Sports’ website and can see a story over whether Hamilton and Vettel refused to shake each other’s hands after qualifying in Austria, despite there being video footage proving otherwise. It’s as if they want there to be an issue between the pair, tension like what we’ve seen so often in the past with Sky with the intra-team rivalry of Hamilton and Nico Rosberg. Sky can only go so far in pushing this specific agenda before it turns away viewers, and for the benefit of the sport in this country, that may have long-term problems.

Currently there is a viable alternative to Sky’s coverage of F1, this being Channel 4. However, Sky will eventually gain exclusivity rights over F1 coverage in the UK in 2019, and this comes with an element of responsibility. Yes, it is perfectly acceptable for a British organisation to slightly favour British drivers in the sport, as I’m sure the German & French media do to their respective drivers. Yet to paint certain drivers in a bad light, like we’ve seen with the seeming vilification of Vettel after the Baku incident and its aftermath, is such an irresponsible move for an organisation that will eventually have to lead by example in promoting F1 in this country.

While the ‘hardcore’ F1 fans won’t think twice about subscribing to Sky’s coverage, there is also has to be an appeal to the casual viewer that may plan on watching given there will be no free-to-air alternative for these casual viewers to watch, unless you include “legal” sources. It is already a given that F1 viewing figures in this country will decline should the planned exclusivity deal with Sky go ahead, and this is without considering the casual viewer, not to mention the never-ending saga into the future of the British Grand Prix.

Sky Sports has the potential to define the future of Formula One in this country for a generation. While many (including myself) have expressed concerns over the exclusivity deal, it needs to show itself as a leading partner of F1 & that starts with giving everyone in the sport a fair share of the credit. Of course as a British organisation appealing to a British audience, it is acceptable to focus on the British drivers in the sport. However, to create pantomime villains like we’ve seen so often with Sky, like with Vettel and Rosberg, will only frustrate the fan base. Cracks are already very visible from those aware of the tricks that Sky try to slyly (or not) pull, and this will only deepen further once the pay wall takes full effect in 2019.