Monday, May 11, 2009

Excitement in Spain – by mimitig

So here we are again. Two weeks since Formula One graced our screens, one week since MotoGP failed to make any inroads in the mainstream sports media, and only a matter of days since Barcelona hogged the headlines.

Now, although only a part-time football fan, I did follow the Chelsea v Barca game and was astounded at the reactions of the losing side. Compared to other sports that I follow, Drogba’s behaviour really did appear to be beyond the pale. There seems to have been a generally negative reaction to his antics – provoking a debate about how to win or lose gracefully.

Well you need go no further than MotoGP. Valentino Rossi won his first race of the season last Sunday in Jerez. After qualifying off the front row (in fourth place), Rossi had it all to do, and did it with flair and skill. He beat local favourite, Pedrosa and Stoner and paid tribute to his rivals after the race.

Neither Stoner or Dani had a bad word to say about the man who had made them look ordinary. This is grace in victory and defeat. Admittedly Rossi was in a class of his own last weekend in the race. He diced a bit with the Aussie but caught and passed him in style. He had a tougher opponent in Dani Pedrosa, but a mixture of Dani’s fitness (the poor boy is still suffering from pre-season surgery and crashes) and Valle’s experience and determination ensured the result of the race was pretty secure with not more than a third of the distance to run. It didn’t make for a dull race though – with Rossi gunning for a win there’s always fun in wondering how he will celebrate his win. It was a visit to the Portaloo again this time. Maybe not as much fun as the first time he did this, but it shows he still has great joy in winning.

In the 125cc race last weekend there was great excitement for supporters of British Motorcycling, as young Bradley Smith took his first win in the top rank of his racing. He is just 18 years old and a very very bright hope for the future.

For fans of bike-racing, it is particularly rewarding to see Smith cutting the mustard because our only representative in the premier class, James Toseland, double world champ in Superbikes, is not delivering the sort of results that promise another championship. Our hopes for a British winner sometime in our lifetimes rest with the young pretender.

That was the bikes and the focus of motorsport moved to The Circuit de Catalunya. The F1 Teams arrived in Spain with a myriad of changes to their cars. All wondering how to do better than the top dogs – Brawn GP and Red Bull. Everyone arrived thinking they had a special part or idea to beat the Championship leaders, but it didn’t work.

In qualifying Button snatched a last-second pole, Vettel continued to show Red Bull’s class with second, and Barrichello took third. These drivers, along with their teams, have set up a great race.

While the motor-fired peddlers were doing their stuff in Spain, my favourite sportsman was doing the business in Italy.

Mark Cavendish – there are no superlatives good enough for this young man. Having won Milan-San Remo already this season, Mark is on fire and keen to improve on last year’s tally of 19 wins. With his team, Columbia, Mark took the first stage of the Giro d’Italia and he thereby becomes the first Briton ever to wear the Maglia Rose.

Here is a possible example of how not to lose gracefully: Mark’s key opponent is the Flemish rider Tom Boonen. A World Champion, but a man who has not taken opposition well. Facing Cav this season, sadly Tom has chosen a disappointing path in his career and for the second time in three years has tested positive for a class A drug.

It is such a shame that on the day when the headlines should have been all about Mark, they were all about Tom. Although this story is not about performance-enhancing drugs rather it is about the poor choices made by a man who is seemingly unhappy and disturbed, it adds to the shadow hanging over pro-cycling. It would appear that for every stride forward that transparently clean teams like Columbia and Garmin take, there is an individual in cycling determined to drag the sport down again.

On Sunday the Giro continued and although Cav was edged out of the sprint win by Alessandro Petacchi, Manxman Mark will wear the Pink Jersey tomorrow.

So to the motorsport event of the day.

Historically the Barcelona F1 race has been a snooze-fest with the previous eight pole-sitters going on to win the race and very little over-taking going on. Also in the 18 years of running the race, the Safety Car has only been deployed some four times at the Circuit de Catalunya, so it could have been a seamless lights to flag cruise for the boy Button.

Mercifully for spectators the race turned some of those statistics on their heads. Barrichello made a demon start and led Button in to the first corner. Massa, Ferrari’s only chance in this race for any points after Raikkonen and his engineers had somewhat fumbled in qualifying and the Finn hadn’t even made it to Qually 2, was a rocket off the line and jumped Vettel in to third. Further behind Webber reminded us of what a fine driver he is by making the move of the day on Alonso, and behind them, mayhem.

Rosberg edged Trulli off the track, and as the Italian returned, he speared in to Force India’s Adrian Sutil (who had been on his own little off-track manoeuvre) and the subsequent chaos took out both Toro Rossos. A racing incident said former F1 Team Principal and current BBC pundit Eddie Jordan, but one which will have cost tens of thousands of pounds for the teams involved.

The “incident” brought out the safety car and when it pulled off, it was game on again for the leaders. The Brawns had to keep the KERS-enabled Ferrari of Massa behind them, which they did with coolness and team driving.

From then on, Brawn was in control. And that meant not just the drivers but head honcho Ross Brawn. He called the strategy shots which ensured his boys ended up with a race 1-2. It could have been Barrichello but for one poor stint which saw Rubens’s times tumble and Jenson’s accelerate. For the fourth time this year, Our Jense (as the meeja have taken to dubbing him) took the chequered flag and extend his lead at the head of the table. Brawn GP sit atop of the Constructors’ Championship.

It is ironic that this is a position familiar to Ross – for years at Ferrari he held the key to winning. Now he is doing it for himself and Ferrari are minnows struggling at the back and shooting themselves in the foot with poor reliability and increasingly poor decision-making.

Mark Webber consolidated his fine drive with a podium finish meaning that the British engineering excellence of Adrian Newey and Ross Brawn continues to rule the roost.

Far be it from me to indulge in schadenfreude – oh go on, Davies, you know you love it! – but the sight of Massa’s Ferrari running out of gas on the closing lap, with Schumacher in the garage, was a precious gem.

All in all, I would call this a satisfactory week and weekend of sport. Cav in pink – historic. England wiped the Windies in three days – dodgy win, but great. Valle stamped his mark all over MotoGP with Brad Smith playing the second hand and Button proving to the world that he has what it takes.

Next week we’ll be back with the bikes, in the interim the Giro goes on and another Test Match starts on Thursday. I think there’s a bit of football as well. What a treat for sports fans.

While we are waiting, there’s no better way to spend time than with the Pixies – I highly recommend this:

Levitate me – that’s what sport does.

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