14 August 2020 01:23 AM

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SREELATA S.YELLAMRAZU | 19 JULY, 2020

Cricket and F1 Return: Windies Punch Up, Ferrari Tumble On

Bizarre finds a new home in Maranello


Ferrari’s embarrassing tumble into infamy continued while the West Indies team pulled a rabbit out of their hats, as cricket joined Formula1 racing in a return to the field post Corona - minus the spectators.

The track in Austria was bereft of the usual tifosi and siren calls of the hooting and cheering spectators. The ground in Southampton was bereft of crowds enjoying the little bit of English sun during an absorbing day of Test cricket.

Yet optimism rang out cautiously as Formula1 racing saw a revised calendar, while cricket made a comeback after 100 days no less, to a longer tour for players and shorter match days.

The West Indies had much to cheer over the weekend as they pulled off a scintillating four-wicket win over the favourites, hosts England, who were playing without their skipper Joe Root, who missed the first Test to be present for the birth of his second child.

Ben Stokes suffered a tough initiation, an embarrassing excursion as England failed to knock themselves out, playing catch-up to the resilient West Indies team who were undeterred despite the usual cricket weatherdrama of rain, bad light, and poor umpiring amidst some stringent revised rules and regulations in the wake of the pandemic.

The Black Lives Matter movement also made inroads into cricket, which saw all the players take the knee, but not the Formula1 drivers, who preferred the ‘No Racism’ anthem.

The West Indies played a solid game of cricket, whether in the bowling of Shannon Gabriel, the enterprising captaincy of Jason Holder, or the batting of Jermaine Blackwood in the second innings, clinically playing a game of consolidation and initiative to spring a surprise on the unsuspecting hosts.

In contrast, the England team looked far more subdued, with conversations revolving more around Stuart Broad’s omission from the team and James Anderson’s continued accurate bowling at age 37 rather than the actual game on the field, as the team collapsed in scandalous fashion in the second innings, with five wickets toppling for just thirty runs after Stokes’ departure.

In the end, the 100-plus run lead conceded in the first innings proved costly for England as the Windies held their nerve and kept to the gameplan, seeing off the target of 200 runs on the final day, to take the match to the near-full stipulated duration, to the delight of the purists.

For Ferrari though, neither was their off field drama subdued like England’s, nor was their on-track record as clinical and fuss-free as the West Indies’.

If anything, Ferrari seemed to pick up from where they had left off in the 2019 season, barring their development plans as far as their cars were concerned.

Although some of the glitches could have been attributed to the curtailed test times which were the bane of all teams on track, Ferrari shocked themselves as much as the rest of the Formula1 racing world when on the eve of the first revised race of the season, their top driver and four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel announced that he and Ferrari were not parting ways on mutual terms, and that in fact, he was being let go without discussion of a contract going into 2021.

If bizarre found a new home, it was in the explanation, or lack thereof, from team principal Mattia Binotto, who merely said the late-hour letting go of Vettel was a decision brought on by the pandemic. Unfortunately for Binotto, this was just another act of infamy after an erratic last season when Vettel locked horns with fellow Ferrari driver Charles LeClerc, making for a fiery competition within the team, much to the detriment of the team, without any obvious establishment of authority or hierarchy in the pit garage through the entire attritional, frictional season last year.

Binotto, who had earlier claimed that Vettel was their “number one” option, despite inquiries from other drivers over the winter, corroborated the German’s story about news of the contract being conveyed over the phone and of the unusual turn of events that soured the air right at the time of resumption.

Binotto’s explanations were far from satisfactory, not only for Vettel fans but also for the Formula1 racing followers who reacted negatively to the adverse treatment meted out to the former champion by the Prancing Horse.

The team principal gave sundry reasons but no specific explanation for Ferrari’s change of heart, although he did mention that due to the pandemic, Vettel lost time to prove his commitment, a telling sign if any that the relationship had gone sideways, unbeknownst to at least one party.

When prodded, Vettel stuck to his stand of every man for himself ahead of the resumption of the 2020 season. Ferrari might have thrown a spanner in the works, leaving Vettel this late, to secure another deal for the next season and therefore possibly jeopardising themselves if Vettel went off the boil and chose to show little commitment in the truncated season going forward.

Of course, Ferrari had little chance to put to the test that conspiracy theory, as Vettel’s car suffered a failure in the first race and in the second, was taken out in the early laps by his own teammate who later apologised profusely.

But the damage was done, the early fireworks at the ready, and it soon became obvious that Ferrari might spend another season firefighting, while the likes of Mercedes have flown out of the gate virtually trying to establish domination even as other teams are catching up to the Mercedes and Red Bull in terms of competitiveness - Lando Norris of McLaren making a point by finishing amongst the points in both races thus far.

Charles LeClerc has moved quickly up in the rankings of the Ferrari pit garage despite his impetuous, brazen and sometimes maverick driving that has won him laurels in his rookie season.

However, that he is not above those rookie errors was emphasised once more in the second race, after he finished in astounding second position in the first race despite starting rather low on the grid.

Taking the blame upon himself and rightly so, LeClerc was apologetic, “Excuses are not enough at a time like this. I am very disappointed in myself, I have done a very bad job. I have let the team down.”

It only emphasised the kind of nurturing and tough love missing in the leadership in the pit garage, which has seen Vettel take a defensive position last season to fight for his square inch while LeClerc has been allowed to learn as he goes, with another team sometimes benefitting from Ferrari’s internal wrangles.

With hopes fading about Vettel’s ability to recreate his world championship story from Red Bull at Ferrari, even as Hamilton builds himself a towering reputation, it was not hard to see why the team from Maranello decided to put their faith in LeClerc, the young Monegasque driver who will be partnered by Carlos Sainz next year.

Lewis Hamilton, chasing Michael Schumacher’s world record of seven world drivers titles, recovered from the first race mishap in the final laps, colliding into Alex Albon who must have had a feeling of déjà vu after a similar incident at the penultimate race of last season in the Brazilian Grand Prix.

Although Hamilton was promptly penalised, for the second time in the race, he led the second race from start to finish in Austria, for Mercedes to set the bar high early heading into Hungaroring.

But in the high-stakes game when points on offer are unknown as the Formula1 racing cautiously added two more races to the initial eight (as opposed to the 22 races originally scheduled) even the Mercedes team cannot take it easy despite the auto-implosion continuing in the Ferrari camp.

Similarly for the West Indies, exemplary as their sublime competitiveness was in the first Test, they will know, with back to back Tests scheduled, they cannot afford to let their early success get to their head.

Although the pandemic restrictions might have given them more than usual time to warm up in English conditions and prepare in earnest, England have had the early wakeup call.

With Stokes in good all-round form and Root set to join the team, the West Indies will need to produce a similar level of intensity if they are to pull off the series victory over the hosts, this without the breakdown due to attrition.

Back-to-back events are not just the bane of the cricket world.

Max Verstappen of Red Bull, who finished third at the Spielberg circuit in the second Styrian Grand Prix, was quick to point out that drivers and teams would need a break even if it was an all European affair at the moment to spend some time with family and refresh:

“Not only the drivers but especially for the mechanics, you know, with a family. Otherwise, they could file for divorce you don’t want that to happen! It’s good to visit family and friends and that it’s not only F1 in your head. Sometimes you need to relax and think about other stuff because F1 is not everything. It’s part of your life but there are also other things you have to do.”

Verstappen’s words only emphasise the strange times under which sportspersons are spending time away from home, with the added threat of infection and isolation from their families, and the financial compulsions on the line not only for them but also, for the entire ecosystem of sport.

While the world watches cautiously from the comfort of their homes, as their favourite sporting rivals resume their battles, despite the almost deceptively sedative atmosphere of empty stands, vacant seats and stark stadiums, the heat is very much on as far as the sporting action is concerned.

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