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Fernando Alonso and the scarlet dream

I once made a Fernando Alonso voodoo doll.

Well, not an Alonso doll per se, but a few of us fanatically pissed Formula One supporters took a tiny F1 car, wrote Renault on it with a felt pen, and called it the Spaniard’s vehicle. Tacks were jammed into tyres, and a magnifying glass may or may not have been used to ignite its nose. Either way, we wanted nothing more than that perpetually whiny, arrogant and exasperatingly talented World Champion to crash out in Brazil, the final round of the 2006 season.

It was Michael Schumacher’s last race, and while the retiring German had handled an unfortunate, gruelling season with grace, Alonso was crying himself blue saying his own team was sabotaging his chances. It was the last straw after two years of watching a bizarrely quick brat of a champion constantly blame either his team or other drivers. In a team sport, with a team solidly behind him — later proven to even be illegally behind him, but more on that in a bit — he was enough of a jerk to compare himself to a lonely Tour De France cyclist, going uphill all by himself. It was nauseating, watching an obviously brilliant driver who happened also to be a whinging putz. Champ and chump all at once, he could win the title but couldn’t come close to earning our respect.


1In November 2012, Fernando Alonso and I rode up a New York elevator in silence. We smiled at each other, him because he had to, me because I really felt like. I felt, as a matter of fact, like reaching out and grabbing his hand and pumping it with the love and gratitude of a sworn Ferrari fan.

This was two days after the US Grand Prix, and, again, five days before the World Championship finale in Brazil. Again, it was Michael Schumacher’s last race. Again, Alonso was locked in battle with a flawless German racer. Again, I had my fingers crossed for the result.

Things had changed. Tacks were not involved.

Ever since he joined Ferrari in 2010, Alonso had turned into a different man: a team player, a good sport, a man candidly generous with praise and one who looked at (most) on-track mishaps with unflappable calm. Just when fans around the world had made up their minds to dislike him, he switched abruptly from Heel to Face. Dashed inconvenient, but there it was. In Ferrari gear, he was a Champion’s Champion (even without winning the title) an extraordinary warrior who made even mediocre cars shine. It was as if he’d decided the Darth Vader mask didn’t go well with scarlet overalls.


We were in Manhattan because Kaspersky Lab, the anti-virus software folk who now rent some inches of real estate on those aforementioned red overalls, were hosting a press event to highlight their links with Formula One. The Russian outfit’s charismatic CEO Eugene Kaspersky was on hand to break the ice with Fernando before handing him over to us, and this he did like a particularly personable pickaxe. Having started out collecting computer viruses when “other children collected postage stamps or butterflies,” the information security expert spoke of how he related to Ferrari as a team. “Like my company, Ferrari is like a group of friends, a gang that fights for success.” The gang is also the oldest team in Formula One, a company who started selling cars so that they have money to go racing, instead of the other way around. And all their hopes rest on 31-year-old Alonso’s shoulders.

2Alonso began go-karting at the same time that the late great Ayrton Senna — the legendary three-time world champion Alonso hopes to emulate — made his Formula One debut: which means the Spaniard was all of three years old. “I don’t remember anything,” Alonso admits, “but there are the videos and pictures at home, and also I have the drivers licence which says 1984, so it should be true. I only know that the first race was a 20-lap race in a straight circuit in a go-kart, and I think I did 3 or 4 [laps] and the winners did 20, so they had lapped me some 20 times.” Progress, however, was remarkably swift. “At 8, or maybe 7, I won the karting championship of my area, my region, and then competed in the Spanish championship, then the European championship… and when I was 14, I was World Champion in go-karts. So it was something that happened very quick.”

Success that rapid that early in life can be sufficiently heady, but Alonso’s family kept him grounded. “When you’re racing and you’re winning trophies at this young age, everyone is very friendly with you and everyone wants something from you, and you become like a toy to them; they try to use you all the time.” Alonso’s family — with his mother working in a perfume shop and his father in a mine — was quick to disabuse him of any growing notions of glamour. “Every time I went home, my father always told me that ‘you are racing now, but next year you will be studying or helping me repair homes or put in windows. I have a good friend that now puts elevators, so I think I can find a job for you in the future.’” The very idea of becoming a Formula One driver was too absurd, too unreal. “I honestly thought it sounded like a good opportunity; that I am driving right now but maybe next year I have no contract, and so maybe I’ll put elevators.”

But those hands just weren’t meant to install lifts. “After I won the World Championship, I started getting paid to race in go-karts and I said this is fantastic. I’m 14, doing what I like to do, and I receive some money. A dream come true. And when they offered me single-seaters I said ‘no way.’” Eventually Alonso hesitantly took the jump, and instantly won in single-seater racers. There was no looking back. “Yeah, I was the third youngest in history to make the debut in Formula One in 2001, at 19, and then youngest to win a race, youngest to get a podium, and youngest to win the World Championship in 2005. So, yeah, everything was coming very quickly and I enjoyed it.”

“My first car was a company car,” he says, smiling. “It was a Renault Megane when I was racing for the Renault team. And it was quite a big day because I was 18, and got my driver’s licence, and my only thought at that time was to go to school in that car. And the school is 400 metres from home! It was impossible to park, a big problem. But it was my dream to take my car to school. I was looking for a car that was nice, that was fast, but that was not the case and so I enjoyed it anyway.” A racer who leaves all the adrenaline on the track and ambles about when in a roadcar, Alonso took it so easy during his driving licence test that the teacher had to comment. “I passed the exam and it was all okay, but there was a small note from the teacher saying that I was too slow.”

It’s a complaint motorsport pundits could never consider with the Spaniard, a driver known for instinctively finding the sweet spot in weaker cars and driving them beyond their optimum. It’s a rare gift, and so adept is Alonso at disguising a car’s weaknesses that even his team engineers have complained in the past that his driving style doesn’t give them enough to work with; that he makes bad cars look deceptively good. And when given a genuinely good set of wheels — as Renault did in 2005 and 2006 — he took the fight to none other than Michael Schumacher and his wheezing Ferrari.


3Fernando Alonso hasn’t won since then. Primed to dominate the decade, he has looked on as Kimi Raikkonen (2007), Lewis Hamilton (2008), Jenson Button (2009) and Sebastian Vettel (all three years since) have marched away with the titles. In 2007, he joined McLaren for one season where he was trounced by Hamilton, then a rookie. The scowl on the Spaniard’s face was permanent and, it must be said, most amusing. In 2008, Renault boss Flavio Briatore wilfully engineered an accident to give Fernando an on-track advantage in Singapore, bringing about his first win of the season. An investigative committee later found Alonso innocent of the conspiracy, banning Briatore and others involved.

In 2010, Alonso moved to Ferrari, and now seems so vitally a part of the team that even his accent sounds spaghetti-flecked. He has also started to smile a winning smile. A lot. (On YouTube, there are videos of Vettel playfully doing impressions of other drivers. The popular Alonso clip, on the other hand, has him casually cracking open a walnut using his neck.) He seems to be relishing racing, more than ever.

I can’t help but ask him about the discernible change in his approach, the way he has gone from being a person who badmouthed his team whenever possible to a man who stands firmly behind his team, however big the gaffe. Is it because he’s happier at Ferrari or has he just matured as a driver? “I think it’s because they do a hundred percent. If I feel the team does 99% while I’m doing 100%, 365 days a year, I say it to everyone. It’s strange because a team should do 100% for their goal, and for winning, and some teams didn’t do this in the past, and the year after that I’d change the team. I have this [kind of] luck.”

6He clearly feels things are different now, and he speaks of his new team not just effusively but firmly enough as if declaring war on rival teams. “With Ferrari, this is a racing team. They do everything for racing. They love racing, they have always been in Formula One. We can win or lose, we can do better or worse, we can have the fastest car or not, but every single person in the team dedicates 24 hours a day to this team, and they love this team. Even when they see, passing in the street, one Ferrari GT, they feel like they did something. Maybe they just painted the mirror, maybe they painted something, but they feel like it is theirs. This is very different with Ferrari compared to any other team, so I love this team.”

Another reason Alonso loves Ferrari is because he has been handed the reigns to the stable, with teammate Felipe Massa clearly in a Number Two position. This suits Alonso, who hated his torrid McLaren year with Hamilton, a partner who’d fight him to the end. Alonso prefers and flourishes in the captain’s role, even though it may not suit Ferrari’s needs: a more competitive teammate than Massa (in current form) may have taken Ferrari to the Constructors Championship. In 2012, it may well have helped Alonso’s chances to have a partner nimbly holding back his rivals. But then everything last year was achieved against all odds.

When the 2012 season began, the Ferrari was one second off the pace. It started to improve, but very slowly. Alonso — as if a crummy car (and, resultantly, poor qualifying position) were immaterial — kept his foot down and decided to stay flawless. Midway through the season — a whimsical season that saw seven different winners in the first seven races, a season with no formbook — Fernando Alonso led the field by no less than 40 points.

“We’d like to have boring seasons where we know [what will happen in] the races,” he smiles. “That will be our dream season. But it is very difficult to get that. So this year we arrived at a circuit and didn’t know if we will be tenth or pole position on Saturday. It’s something we can  try to enjoy as drivers, and the engineers and teams don’t like it too much, because with the computers and simulations everything is ready and all settled, and when something is out of control they get a little bit distressed. But it’s a wonderful season, I think, because people enjoyed it from the outside. And hopefully we’ll enjoy it more next time.”

4It has indeed been a miraculous year for him, and even after his luck wore thin and Sebastian Vettel’s Red Bull started looking characteristically good, Alonso continued bullishly to guarantee victory. In a field littered with increasingly young winners and prodigious prodigies, Alonso appears an alpha-male scrapping it out with boys. The Spaniard has a samurai tattooed on his back, and frequently, in a run up to last year’s finale, began referring to himself as both gladiator and samurai, assuring the world he would win, despite Vettel having usurped his lead.

He is clear, however, that this self-assurance has nothing to do with rage. (Which also means he doesn’t have a katana handy to slice Seb’s front-wing off if he gets too close at the second chicane. Pity. ) “It is not revenge, not at all,” he assures. “This is sport and sometimes everything goes good and sometimes not so good, and what’s important is to give it everything you’ve got. And we did that this year. And I think if we win, it will be some kind of justice. Not revenge, but I honestly feel we deserve it more, so 99% of the people watching, I think, will be happy.” That includes the drivers: a poll before the last race of the year showed nearly 90% of the pilots in the paddock agreeing on Alonso deserving the title more.

Alonso says the first world championship is the hardest, because it’s so hard to sleep when fighting for that first title. It gets easier, but — when a season is heading into its climax — not by much. As a multiple World Champion, how important is winning on a race-by-race basis? “Oh, it’s not that we enjoy winning,” he beams, bathed in confidence. “It’s that we hate losing.”


Five days later, he lost the 2012 World Championship to Sebastian Vettel. By three points. Vettel, six years younger, pipped him to the third world title, and will be gunning for a fourth. And that’s not all, by a long shot. Hamilton, Button and Raikkonen, all with blood on their fangs, are furiously circling the trophy now, each with a point to prove. There will be new regulations and engine changes, and more to get used to. As the F1 circus gets into gear again later this month, the Spaniard’s task is going to be anything but simple.


Then again, Fernando Alonso has never had anything to do with simple.


That November afternoon, Eugene Kaspersky gave the world’s press a tip, a tip to will Alonso to victory: “All of you please support Fernando by drinking to him. Don’t do it before, but just after the start of the race. Raise your glasses, drink to Fernando and it’ll help. We need you.” Raising an imaginary toast to himself, the driver laughingly nodded agreement.

In 2006, I had tacks. In 2012, I had tequila. Fernando Alonso defied wishes each time. Champions, clearly, carve their own fortune.




First published Man’s World magazine, March 2013


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Why Jenson Button has enough to smile at

button12012 was supposed to be a Jenson Button year.

No, the ridiculously fast Red Bull cars weren’t suddenly backing off. No, the McLaren hadn’t gotten away with photocopying Ferrari’s notes again. It’s just that this year was all about the tyre, and the whole field looked on the 32-year-old Englishman as being extraordinarily kind to his rubber, a master of preservative driving who would surely find a competitive advantage. Not so. Nothing has quite gone to plan, or to formbook, this season turning instead into a free-for-all, the first seven races — for the first time in F1 history — seeing seven different winners. Button, the first of those winners at the Australian Grand Prix, languishes now in sixth place far from title dreams.

But you can’t tell from looking at him.

Button flashes that wide grin, that cheeky toothy one that makes women around the world swoon, and starts talking about moustaches. He wants to grow one for November, to raise money for prostate cancer — for a movement called Movember— and is taken aback by my gargantuan Dali-meets-darwan mouch. “I wish I had one like that. It would be so impressive.” I ask him to try and he laughs his head off. “Me with a handlebar? Can you imagine? Big blond fluff on the upper lip?” It’s the 26th of October, and it’s true, both driver and aforementioned lip are running out of time. We’re sitting in a Delhi hotel the night before Qualifying for the Indian Grand Prix, and Jenson — who admits to a tattoo, quirkily enough, of a shirt-button somewhere on his body — is as relaxed as can be.

“In terms of the Driver’s Championship, it’s over, yes,” he admits, ever more realistic than teammate Lewis Hamilton who still points to mathematical chances. “But the Constructor’s Championship is a possibility — it’s tough but it’s a possibility.” That possibility at the time of writing this, hours after that very weekend’s race, with McLaren ten points behind Ferrari and over a hundred behind Red Bull, seems bleak. “For us, winning races is very, very special. For the team. The emotions, the adrenaline. And while a world championship is twenty races, in a Grand Prix you don’t know you’re going to win until that last lap. And that really means a lot. That’s some very good emotion you see on people’s faces within the team, and those moments really pull you a lot closer. So that’s what we’re hoping for, ending the season with style.”

button2Putting the team first isn’t new for Button. He talks about relishing back-to-back weekends as a racer, but immediately undercuts this enthusiasm with concern for his overworked engineers, and how he is fortunate enough to travel with family and girlfriend but the mechanics have to spend longer away from their families. Said girlfriend is the stunning Jessica Michibata, a half-Japanese half-Argentine model now engaged to Button, and — in the McLaren motorhome minutes before the Qualifying session — she shares a couch with Jenson’s father John, a rallycross driver in his day, now best known for wearing the Union Jack as a cloak to cheer his son at every race. She throws giant smiles all over the place, and they work wonders.

Jenson walks in, his heavily insulated racing suit undone above the waist, making him look like half a silver superhero.

He digs into a salad, smiles at the family who leaves him be, as key mechanics and engineers huddle around. In a nearby corner that seems somehow distant, Lewis Hamilton’s father sits and scowls into an orange Gatorade; Hamilton’s kid brother sits all the way across the room, staring at a screen. Lewis isn’t here yet but it’s hard not to assume that McLaren has indeed become Jenson’s team — quite the feat considering Lewis cut his teeth here and has been headline-grabbing top dog.

Even Jenson’s biggest fans thought he was taking too big a risk coming to Team Lewis after winning with Brawn GP in 2009, but Button held his own in 2010 and trounced Lewis in 2011. Now Hamilton’s the one moving to Button’s old team, now called Mercedes GP, even as the rest of the racing world is calling it a monumental blunder. Hamilton’s gone because of salary negotiations and because Mercedes will let him keep the trophies he wins for them, something McLaren doesn’t allow, though it remains to be seen how much Mercedes — who have won one race in the last three years —  can do for his trophy cabinet.

Button, on the other hand, was staunchly loyal to the Brawn team (formerly Honda) taking a massive pay-cut to allow that team to even come into existence, and striving with them for many years in the midfield before Ross Brawn pulled the 2009 season out of his hat with a conjuror’s flourish. Now, as Hamilton moves out and young Sergio Perez enters McLaren, Button will formally be team leader — a role he looks already to have naturally assumed. An engineer squeezes his shoulder, another cracks a gag. Laughter. Jenson stands, stretches and struts out, smiles remaining trained on his back. His rival’s corners stay quiet; McLaren may have said its goodbyes.

“As a kid, I loved racing,” he smiles. “I used to watch my father, and he used to race a VW Beetle and it was so loud! I remember it was really, really loud, and as a kid you’ve got very good, very sensitive hearing. I watched Formula One the whole time, and Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, those were the two guys I watched in the late 80s, and then my dad bought me a kart when I was eight. And it was just for fun, really, just to have fun on the weekends with my dad, and then somebody said ‘He’s quick, why don’t you race him?’ So I raced, and I won my first race.” He stops short, immediately, instinctively cautious against braggadocio. “And it wasn’t all a fairy tale, but it was a great start.” It certainly was, 11-year-old Jenson winning each of the 34 races in the British Cadet Karting Championship.

Looking back, he encircles 14 as the age when he knew this could be a career. “Before that I was asked the question — ‘Do you want to race in Formula One?’ ‘Yes, I would love to be a Formula One driver’  — but I didn’t understand what I was saying, you know? I was living in the moment, that’s what you do as a kid, but at 14, that’s when I realised this could be it, if I focus and work hard.”

Since his F1 debut in 2000, it’s been rough, and Jenson’s been impressively patient. He started with Williams, became the youngest driver to score a point, but was booted in favour of Juan Pablo Montoya. Benetton came next, where he had mixed results at the back of the field, and it was with BAR Honda, which dropped Jacques Villeneuve for Button, where he appeared to find his feet. The first step of the podium, however, remained elusive till 2006, after which the Honda became embarrassingly awful. It was in 2008 when team principal Ross Brawn decided on spending the year readying for the next, and after Honda pulled out in 2009, Brawn GP had their unlikely but miraculous season of perfection. Button won his first race in 2006; he was eighteenth in 2008; he was World Champion in 2009.

jensonandrajaAs mentioned, he is a perfect fit for McLaren, but this has been a season of tremendous uncertainty. A bit too uncertain, perhaps? “Uh, yeah. I think everyone was excited about having so many different winners, but I think it got to a point for the fans where it was very difficult for them to back drivers, and get excited about backing a driver for the championship. So yeah, I think after those 7 or 8 races, the normal resumed and you had the 3-4 top teams racing at the front, which I think people like, and there were so many good fights this year. There have been some really good races, and good overtaking moves and exciting results.”

Yet purists — and drivers themselves — have complained. That the overtaking has been artificially induced by whimsical tyre-wear, and that drivers have to play nursemaid to rubber more often than going as fast as cars, corners and cojones allow them. “I agree, it’s been tricky. And even with a very good car, if you can’t get the tires in their working range, you can’t exploit that great car. So it’s been tough in that respect, and it’s taken us a really long time to really understand the tires and get the best out of them. Today again,” he says of India, where he would qualify fourth on the grid, “it’s been difficult for us to get tyre temperature and to get the tyres working. So it’s hurt us, and we know what to do, but is that going to be enough for the weekend? I really don’t know.”

Not knowing is something that may well exasperate a driver so given to accuracy, to that smooth driving style spoken about so much. Isn’t this supposed to be his game? “Yeah, it is, if there’s high degradation with the tyres. It’s something that I’ve worked on a lot in my career, on looking after the tyres, and next year I think there’s going to even be high degradation, so it’s a good thing, I think, for my style.”

“The problem this year with the tyre is that it’s not the degradation that’s an issue, it’s getting the tyre into a working range. If the bulk of the tyre is not hot enough and the surface is too hot, the tyre doesn’t work; if the surface is too cold and the bulk [temperature] is too high, the tyre doesn’t work — it has to be perfect, and if it isn’t perfect, you don’t go fast. So it’s tricky, and sometimes you luck into it, and that’s why I think we’ve seen so many different winners this year.”

True, and there have been several races where last-minute tyre-changes have resulted in someone normally slower flying past frontrunners. That must be painful. “No, that’s part of the game. Either they’ve got lucky with the strategy, or they’ve done a very good job of understanding the strategy and the tyres. That’s part of racing,” he says, unflappable before frowning. “But actually never, never getting the tyres to work is frustrating and, you know, you work on so many different areas with the car and improve so many different things, but if you put the tyres on and they don’t work for you, you go nowhere. So that’s why it’s been tough for us.”

He sums up his season — one that began in fireworks but petered out with a whimper — succinctly, unemotionally. “We’ve had a bit of everything this year, yeah. And you can’t win them all,” he shrugs. “Only one team and one driver come out on top every season. It’s a very competitive sport, and we just learn from our mistakes and make sure they don’t happen again.”

This equanimity is at odds with F1 as we perceive it, the sport regularly rewarding aggression and even arrogance, the most meteoric drivers being the most talked about. Little wonder, then, that Button idolised Alain Prost, the fanatically precise French legend dubbed Le Professor. “I feel that Ayrton had more natural ability in terms of speed, and Prost worked harder at it, had to work harder at it. And he was a very clever guy, and that really added something for me, how he went about his racing. And that’s why I liked him. As a kid, I chose him over Ayrton because they were both so strong and I’m a competitive person, I had to have someone to cheer for.”

“But since then, I spent a lot of time watching his racing and also, he gave me an opportunity to drive one of his cars; my first test in a Formula One car was with him in a Prost car. And since then we’ve spent time together, we’ve done a couple of interviews together, for Tag Heuer, and he’s a great guy and, strangely, we’ve got quite a bit in common when we talk about racing, in the way we approach the sport.”

Prost, who won more titles than Ayrton Senna, while throwing far fewer tantrums. Yes, there is definitely a resemblance.


First published Man’s World magazine, November 2012

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The world’s shortest love story

How romance began, blossomed and withered all in the space of an epic 98.


I first saw her at the Arts Centre. The University’s cricket-loving population was sprawled under a giant screen, a distinctly visible demarcation between hundreds in blue and an equal number in green. Actually, I had seen her before — even held the door open for her, thanked refreshingly by a ‘shukriya’ instead of the ubiquitous ‘cheers’ — but with her beaming and bouncing and cheering, looking drop-dead delicious in her Pakistan tee-shirt waving some rude-yet-clever slogan at us, 1st March 2003 was the first time I had actually stopped to look.

An enthused Pakistani fan cheers her team to victory against Canada.

Wasim Akram began with two dot balls. I, with shaggy hair much bluer than my team tee, kneeled next to a friend and watched Sachin Tendulkar cream the next ball to the ropes. Obviously, I stayed on that left knee for more than half the match, while Sachin layeth the smacketh down, but, every time He wasn’t on strike, I pivoted back. To auburn curls, light eyes, an electrifying smile and lots of flag-waving sass. Eye-contact was made over Shoaib getting spanked, and there was much playful slogan-warring; she even thumbed her nose once and irresistibly stuck out a sharp tongue. I decided that I would keep the post-match gloating to a minimum, and instead offer to take her out for a consolatory slice of pie or something.

Boundary. Six. Pivot. Boundary. Dot ball. Pivot. Pivot. Halfway down the 28th over, Tendulkar was out. On 98. We sighed and fretted, but we knew he’d already given us an innings more special than many of his tons, and that the match by now was won. We patted each other on the shoulder as if we’d been running those ones and twos, smiled and applauded. Pivot. She stood atop a table celebrating the master’s dismissal, her eyes gloriously, gorgeously aflame as she mouthed and gestured ‘get out of here.’ To Sachin. If my left knee wasn’t already ground into the carpet, it might have buckled. The friend amused by my Pakistani preoccupation clapped his arm around my shoulder. I’m not sure, but I think he might have offered me pie. Or something.

You get it, right? I’m all for a pretty girl vociferously egging her team on and willing ours to lose. That’s passion, and that’s sport. But doesn’t Sachin move beyond merely geographic boundaries? Doesn’t everyone just want to watch Him bat?

From opposing bowlers to infamously partisan Australian crowds, they all applaud and marvel and wistfully, briefly picture Him wearing their own colours. In the IPL, I used to support Kolkata Knight Riders, but when we faced Sachin all I wanted to see was that legendary drive straight past the bowler. Or an audaciously square cut. Or just a bullying six. We all want to watch Sachin bat — like Warne turn or Murali decieve or Wasim york or McGrath castle — because that is as good as cricket gets.

Many years ago, at an Eden Gardens game, my mother cheered Viv Richards on to hit a six. This was admittedly because she wanted to see the handsome Nawab of Pataudi, then fielding near the outfield, to get closer to her stands while retrieving the ball. Still, dubious motive aside, her aghast fellow-spectators had to concede that they all wanted to see the same piece of savagely sculpted poetry. Because magic is for everyone.

I don’t know where that girl from eight years ago is, or even her name. I just wish, by now, that she’s learnt to appreciate Tendulkar. Because just watching cricket is a darned sight less lyrical without Him. And Sachin belongs to us all.


First published Mumbai Mirror, April 6, 2011


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Not just another sports movie

The problem with pitching a story way, way too good to be true.

“We open with a young boy,” gushes the director breathlessly — exaggeratedly enthused by every word he himself utters, his very tone an exclamation mark — hardselling his pitch. “Cute, middle-class, short even. With an afro. Wants to play cricket, be a fast bowler.”

The producer grunts, a non-committal, potentially dream-crushing grunt. “Another sports movie? And bowling toh already had Iqbal na. Make him a batsman.” “Okay, okay,” says the director, undeterred and eager to compromise. “Bowling coach tells him he’d bat better. So he does. Young teenager, total prodigy.”

“We can even have a Gavaskar cameo, where he gives the boy his own pads after seeing him bat. When he’s 15, he scores a hundred in every match he plays. At 16, they pick him for the team.”

“For India? At 16?”

“Yeah, yeah India, boss. And he debuts against Pakistan! Bloody fast bowlers hammer him. Just picture it: in slow-motion, he wipes the blood off his nose and plays the next ball.”

The producer scratches his belly, yawning. “So phir, success and more success?” “Haan boss, but the scale of it! Something else! Boundary pe boundary, century pe century! Soon, he’s the best player in India. And he’s only 20, 21. Whole world watches him bat. Stadiums chanting. Bowlers having nightmares.”

The producer leans forward. “Okay, okay, I get it. And then? What’s the twist? Health problem?”

“Well yeah, his back starts cramping. Long innings start to worry him. But then he gets over it.” The producer groans impatiently. “Uff. Then maybe some scandal? Match fixing?” “Oh totally, sir. Fixing changes the face of Indian cricket, but only proves this guy is super-clean. He even wins matches India is supposed to lose.” “Listen, how can this work?” demands the producer. “Where is the drama? Conflict? Any ladki issue at least?”

“No no, he marries early on.” “Then what, one day he just loses form? New kids start playing better?” “Actually yes, after he turns 30, the magic seems to dry up.” “Aha,” smiles the producer, finally relieved. “So then, loss of form, forced retirement, drinking, frustration. I see. And then at the end of the film,” he soothsays, getting ahead of himself in that way producers do, “we have redemption: he turns into a coach or something, gives something back. Interesting.”

Nahin boss, after a couple of years of bad form he starts clicking again.” “Huh? But you said he was 30. Retire nahin karega kya?”

Arre sir, what are you saying? This is when he gets really special. Becomes even better than he ever was. Breaks every record in the books. People routinely call him better than Bradman. Full-blown worship, you see?”

The producer’s exasperated hand slams sweatily onto the sunmica desk. “Abe yaar, what is this? You said sports drama. This is saala fantasy movie, like Krrish or something! Does he also have a cape? Your damn batsman is more than Batman even. No thanks,” he snorts. “I want to make something realistic, which excites people. This is a fairytale, a complete comicbook kahaani.  Nobody will ever believe it only.”


He’s right, you know, that hardboiled producer. As Mark Twain said, Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t. And, yeah, none of us would buy that film. Yet here we are, pinching ourselves in awe, year after year, match after match. Happy 50, SRT. And thanks.


Originally published Mumbai Mirror, December 22, 2010


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The article that inadvertently got me into Rediff*

*A friend forwarded this blogpost to someone he knew at Rediff, and they mailed in asking if I would write for the sports section. I was incredulous, because they had the one and only Prem Panicker. I did scribble a couple of cricket pieces but became their F1 columnist.. and one thing, as they say, led to another.


The Mediocrity Of Being Out Of Range

Some people are just not destined for greatness.

There is a tremendous unbridgeable difference between the very good and the great. The Good, gripping all their vast reserves of natural talent and indomitable spirit, push forward, either impetuously or stoically, and grind on, doing absolutely everything it is humanly possible to do. Theirs is a quest it is hard to raise a finger toward, and nearly impossible to demand higher stakes from. They give their all, and we appreciate and applaud.

The Great, on the other hand, sometimes do not even cover all the above ground so comprehensively. Or, at least, visibly. What they bring to our everyday existences is sublime magic and jaw-slacking awe. And the realization that these are the people who live beyond the confines of normality, these are the supermen, albeit uncaped. And, as we understand this, we demand more. And more. And more. Relentless, unceasing. Nothing is ever good enough. At this, The Great smile, throw their heads back, and continue, stretching towards an ultimate perfection.

No matter what the achievement, The Great will be dissatisfied, incomplete. This is what spurs them on. Inevitably, they fail. And this final, unreal failure is what pulls the mantle of true excellence tighter, more permanently, around their shoulders. Lesser men would pale at the thought of living with it; greatness is not for us all.


Thankfully, a certain Mr. Dravid will never have to worry about this. He will forever remain entrenched in being very very Good indeed. As said, there is no doubting his talent, the man is a masterful technician. As cameras zoom in on his helmeted head and the sweat drips down by the gallon, even as he hits it through the covers for four, we are reminded of how hard he works. And how important he is to us, how valuable.

Today, India made history. We beat Pakistan by an innings, and more. In Pakistan. This is the stuff of absolute folklore. Rahul Dravid happened to be captain. What will he be remembered for? His stellar contribution of six runs in the Indian innings? His magnificence in building a fabulous, new-look, young Indian side? No. He will be remembered for carving a new chapter in ridiculous personal insecurity, the ingrate.

We all know what happened: Tendulkar 194*. The declaration was apparently made in favour of giving us the best possible chances for a win. Sachin turned to the pavilion, and was visibly stunned. After having played the cautious foil to a superb innings, he had just begun to cut loose, to treat the world to an exhibition of inimitable batting. He seemed uncharacteristically pained by the decision, and this was not because he missed out on a double ton: it was because he felt let down. Et Tu, Rahul?

It is also bad captaincy. Ponting, Haq, Waugh, Miandad, Dev – a prolific list of captains felt outraged. For a second, forget that we are talking about Sachin. If one of your main batsmen had a particularly disastrous 2003, and is working himself back to form, with an undismissed rampage of runs against the world’s most feared bowlers, you let him take his second double ton on the trot, dammit. By the way, I’m curious: how many Indian batsmen have scored successive 200s, Rahul? [“The team is bigger than the individual,” was constantly parroted around on the day. “In this case”, said Dean Jones, “It’s hardly an accurate description.”]

Sachin, of course, is totally unfazed. The Great hardly ever need to even bounce back. It was heartbreaking to see him at the press conference that evening, looking visibly stirred, disappointed, surprised. He will go on, unabated, scoring his runs. O’Four, a year which is yet to see him dismissed, looks like it might be another of the unforgettable ones. His innings has been martyred into legend, like Gavaskar’s last innings 96, and is all the more memorable just because he was denied the last six runs.

dravid1Called to the dias, the winning captain today seemed to forget his was an extremely temporary, stand-in role. Kapil wrote about how the win should be dedicated to what he referred to as Sachin’s supreme sacrifice. Hah. The injured original leader stood, his black t-shirt visibly distancing him from the boys in their whites, his boys, and looked on as Rahul collected the accolades, and did not even credit Saurav. His is an arrogant, egoist heart, and it must have bled. Rahul might have to face consequences when the Prince returns. He deserves it, and I daresay it might provoke many a grin.

What really gets me is that I have always liked Dravid. He’s a good batsman, but that’s that: consistency redeems the lack of strokeplay, the sheer ordinariness of his shots salvaged by the man’s gritty doggedness. This match showed us who he was, as opposed to what he can do, and it was a disappointing awakening. Respect flew out of the window. Mediocrity of being an also-ran is going to hound this man forever. Greatness is something he can only dream of, and I would advise him not to.

The man has collected several epithets in his time – The Wall, Jammy, Mr. Dependable, and even, very recently, God. Let me do the deed and add the definitive:

Rahul Dravid, twat.


Blogged on April 1, 2004.


Filed under Column, Unpublished

F1 Column: Melbourne 2009

That magnificent Brawn and his flying machines

Goodbye, pecking order.

The last time a Formula One team won on its debut was 32 years ago, in 1977. The team was called Wolf, and owner Walter Wolf took some aid from then-collaborator Frank Williams, and an engineer went over from Williams to work on the cars.

The young man’s name was Ross Brawn, and he’s today’s Formula One superstar extraordinaire. With tremendous lyrical grace, his team this Sunday scored a phenomenal one-two on its very first race — without breaking a sweat.

Not that he’s new to the limelight, you understand. Widely considered the finest racing strategist of all time, Brawn tasted successive-year championship glory with Michael Schumacher and Benetton in the mid 90s, and then joined the German at Ferrari where the two — along with team principal Jean Todt — created a scarlet age winning six back to back constructor’s titles and carving out an era of dominance unprecedented in modern-day motorsport.

He had been working at the Honda team for a couple of years now, but the recession led the auto-manufacturer to pull out of F1. Brawn pleaded to let the team be, but Honda decided they would rather sell it. No buyers loomed near, and for a while it looked like drivers Rubens Barrichello and Jenson Button — who took a voluntary £5 million paycut to keep racing — would be out of jobs, and F1 head honcho Bernie Ecclestone started saying top-rung teams would run three cars instead to make up for the lack of Honda.

With weeks to go before the season started, the magnificently wily Brawn engineered a full buy-out of the Honda team. He knew the car had what it takes; knew it so well he was willing to sign his name onto the team’s livery. The timesheets went crazy through the last two weeks of testing, but it was only at Melbourne that we saw the force of Brawn, demolishing the rest of the field with efficient brutishness.

And now Formula One finds itself, at least momentarily, without status quo. A Brawn GP car leads the field, a Red Bull car follows close, and a BMW pushes them both hard — all this while the Ferraris and McLarens limp and pray, nowhere in the same league. Wow. The emergence of Brawn doesn’t look like a flash-in-the-pan success, and could truly signal in an era of the aspirants, one where the hitherto mid-rung teams suddenly lead the race and, most importantly, an era where more than half the drivers on the grid can realistically challenge for race wins. Hold your breath, it’s happening.

The emergence of the gloriously logo-less (not for long, surely) Brawn GP team has been like a tabby cat landing in the midst of F1’s chubby pigeons. There is complete disarray as the teams protest Brawn’s diffuser, but my two cents are just that Ross has seen a technical loophole better and before anyone else, and he’s exploiting it to the fullest. Also, it cannot be enough emphasised that Brawn kickstarted work on this year’s Honda as early as the beginning of last season, which is what has made the most massive difference. Compare a year-long development cycle to, say, a team like McLaren too busy tweaking its 2008 challenger to the very last race to even start on development on its 09 charger before weeks past Lewis Hamilton’s celebrations.

The fall out is obvious. No, we’re not about the instant kneejerk reactions in the paddock, which will go from the frantic establishment of clearer rules on diffusers to the entire field me-tooing pretty much exactly the same diffuser Brawn has devised. Ha. The true impact that Brawn will have on its competition — especially if they take another win this Sunday at Malaysia — is that they will throw in the towel early. Teams like McLaren and Renault, more than a second behind the Brawn GP cars, are already making fatalistic statements about this season. It is only likely that at least 2-3 top tier teams will emulate Ross’ method and begin on the 2010 car right away, and try to use this season academically — ie, collect data as they lose.

This is a masterstroke. All Brawn has to do is turn up the heat in the opening few races, and watch the frustrated former frontrunners wistfully stare at their white-neon rear-wings, annoyed Ferrari drivers wishing scowling at the diffuser would crack it open. That is really all they need to make this season theirs, and while it’s admittedly far too early to talk about a season’s worth of dominance right after one race, the performance differential — and Brawn’s strategic acumen — cannot be discounted. These debutants have the greatest championship winning chance since.. since Lewis Hamilton in 2007. Then again, Ham lost that round so the old-money teams still have a hope.

Which brings me to a rather funny little coincidence. Following their disqualification in 2007, McLaren were listed lowest on the FIA classification in 2008. Their driver won last year. This time, because Brawn are completely new entrants, they find themselves carrying the last two driver numbers. Are we likely to see another incredible last-to-first upset? (And will this trend be Force India’s biggest hope?) Heh.

We’ve seen Ross Brawn on many a podium, most often as a scarlet-clad giant teddy bear whose arms Michael Schumacher would leap into with victorious glee. Yet Formula One is a driver’s sport, and there is only so much credit the car-makers, the thinkers can take. Especially behind a truly great driver.

This Sunday at Melbourne, Rubens Barrichello and Jenson Button — drivers with largely underwhelming careers — got off their podium and doused their boss in unison. In my favourite moment of the day, Brawn used his trophy like a champagne shield as all of us rejoiced for the new team. Deservedly, Ross Brawn needs to be celebrated. He might be a little taller than Vitalstatistix, but by Toutatis, he’s sure brought the sky down on Formula One’s head.

Published Rediff, April 1, 2009.


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Most Wins=Champ? F1 09 Poll

Answer here, and let’s have a discussion group on the subject below.

Also, here’s the FIA list of what would have been, had the wins-for-title theory been implemented through racing history. Of course, considering that the drivers didn’t know the rules,the results might have been significantly different. Heh.


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