Formula One needs more than a Hamilton-Vettel title race to get it out of the slow lane

Lewis Hamilton is the title favorite but a one-sided title race will do little for the sport's appeal. (AFP)
Updated 23 March 2018

Formula One needs more than a Hamilton-Vettel title race to get it out of the slow lane

LONDON: Even in enforced retirement, octogenarian Bernie Ecclestone remains a vibrant voice in Formula One as on the eve of the 2018 championship, the former motorsport overlord who helped engineer its glory days of the 1990s and turn it into a billion-dollar industry, declared it has lost its “fascination.”
He claims an all-too-familiar title race and increased safety measures — with the advent of the distinctive and divisive “halo” cockpit guard for the new season — have led to a diluted product which lacks the fundamental lifeblood of all great sport — unpredictability.
There is a degree of irony within Ecclestone’s critique, as his pandering to the large manufacturers and desire to turn it into a corporate cash cow raised the financial requirements to compete and marginalized the smaller, boutique teams, arguably contributed more so than anyone to the status quo which permeates today’s racing.
However, whatever his motives, culpability and potential prejudice against successors Liberty Media, it’s difficult to disagree with the 87-year-old, as Lewis Hamilton looks set to dominate again in his Mercedes with Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel once again his chief and sole realistic challenger.
Hamilton-Vettel may be several laps behind the high drama of Prost-Senna, Lauda-Hunt or even Hamilton-Rosberg, which had its own modern-day reality show-like intrigue in 2015. But still, it is a rivalry and one which forms the backdrop to the new season. When Liberty purchased F1 for $3.3 billion in 2016, their motives were clear, with a desire to introduce a sense of modernity and, after Ecclestone’s world tour to new outposts such as Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Russia and Azerbaijan, capture the imagination of their own American audience. We are still only in the formative stages of Liberty’s reign and while work has been done on the surface to give F1 a new lease of life with a new logo, greater social media presence and banishing grid girls into the past, the fact remains that without more exciting racing or a greater and wider level of competition, they cannot hope to steal Stateside petrolheads away from NASCAR or IndyCar.
There is considerable history on the line this year as not only does the iconic French GP return after a 10-year absence, Hamilton and Vettel compete for a fifth world title, to tie Juan Manual Fangio in second on the all-time list (Michael Schumacher has seven).
It gives Hamilton and Vettel’s duel an additional layer of narrative but for all the focus on the top two drivers, Mercedes and Ferrari, F1 ultimately needs more than just a fiercely contested title battle between two of the best drivers of all time.
Hamilton has been talking up the chances of Red Bull duo Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen, arguably two of the most likeable and exciting drivers on the grid who were plagued by reliability issues in 2017. Pre-season testing in Catalunya saw Red Bull complete 100 laps more than in 2017, a welcome start and relief after last year’s troubles throughout spring and summer.
Focus will also fall on McLaren, trying to rebound from one of their worst seasons in their 52-year history in the sport, with Fernando Alonso’s tragi-comedy of seven retirements simply not good enough for him, the team or the sport itself. Alonso has boldly declared they are ready to become a fixture in the top five this season.
Outside of the big names, it will be intriguing to see how last year’s big overachievers Force India fare with an increased level of expectation, and with McLaren, Renault and Williams all snapping at their wheels to be “best of the rest.”
F1 desperately needs the excitement factor, beyond the inevitable of Hamilton vs. Vettel. Not just for Liberty and their grand plans but for the sport itself to force its way back into the wider consciousness, because in an age of instant gratification, quick fixes and short attention spans, it is well off the pace.

WHO ELSE CAN JOIN THE TITLE PARTY?

Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes)
The Finn produced a solid debut season for the Silver Arrows in 2017 with three race wins to finish third overall. A more confident Bottas should once again be a regular face on the podium but he’s unlikely to unseat Hamilton in the Mercedes pecking order.

Max Verstappen (Red Bull)
It’s almost unconceivable that Verstappen won’t be a world champion one day. On his day, perhaps the quickest of all 20 drivers, certainly the most adventurous and aggressive. If the RB14 can stay on the track for the course of the season, he should at least able to exceed his two race wins of 2017.

Daniel Ricciardo (Red Bull)
The perma-smiling Australian will want to make an instant impact on his home GP, a race where he has failed to finish three times. If an early foundation can be built he has the skills and driver smarts to compete with Hamilton and Vettel. The main question, like Verstappen, however falls on the consistency of his car.


Conor McGregor blasts Cerrone in 40 seconds in UFC return

Updated 19 January 2020

Conor McGregor blasts Cerrone in 40 seconds in UFC return

LAS VEGAS: Conor McGregor came back with a big bang.

McGregor stopped Donald Cerrone with a head kick and punches 40 seconds into the first round at UFC 246 on Saturday night, announcing his return to mixed martial arts with his first victory since 2016.

The Irish former two-division champion came out of a three-year stretch of relative inactivity and outside-the-cage troubles with a performance that echoed his greatest fights during his unparalleled rise.

After bloodying Cerrone’s nose with his first punch, McGregor (22-4) then floored Cerrone (36-14) only 20 seconds into the bout with a perfectly placed left kick to the head. He mercilessly finished on the ground to the delight of a sellout crowd of 19,040 at T-Mobile Arena.

“I feel really good, and I came out of here unscathed,” McGregor said. “I’m in shape. We’ve got work to do to get back to where I was.”

McGregor’s hand hadn’t been raised in victory since November 2016, when he stopped lightweight Eddie Alvarez to become the first fighter in UFC history to hold two championship belts simultaneously. With his fame and fortune multiplying, McGregor fought only his boxing match with Floyd Mayweather in 2017, and he lost a one-sided UFC bout to lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov in late 2018.

After a year spent out of competition and in repeated trouble with the law, McGregor got back into training and vowed to return to elite form. This dramatic victory over Cerrone indicated he’s well on his way, and McGregor has vowed to fight multiple times in 2020.

Welterweight champion Kamaru Usman and veteran brawler Jorge Masvidal watched UFC 246 from cageside. Either man could be McGregor’s next opponent.

“Any one of these mouthy fools can get it,” McGregor yelled into the microphone. “Every single one of them can get it. It does not matter. I’m back and I’m ready.”

Cerrone is the winningest fighter in UFC history with 23 victories, a mark that reflects both his durability and commitment to an uncommonly busy schedule. Cerrone, who also holds the UFC record with 16 stoppage wins, had fought a whopping 11 times since McGregor’s win over Alvarez, and he was in the cage for the 15th time since he lost his only UFC title shot in December 2015.

But Cerrone’s last two fights were stopped when he took too much damage, and he couldn’t block McGregor’s decisive kick or recover from the punishment on the ground.

“I’d never seen anything like that,” Cerrone said. “He busted my nose, it started bleeding, and he stepped back and head-kicked me. Oh, man. This happened this fast?”

Although many observers have scoffed, the 31-year-old McGregor believes he can reclaim the fearsome form he showed during his meteoric rise to unprecedented MMA success. He won 15 consecutive fights during a five-year run from low-profile shows in Dublin to the world’s biggest MMA events, stopping five straight elite UFC opponents with punches on the way up.

McGregor walked to the cage at UFC 246 with the Irish flag wrapped around his shoulders. The bearded fighters touched gloves beforehand in an extension of this bout’s unfailing sportsmanship — not always a hallmark of McGregor’s previous bouts.

After the referee stopped the bout, McGregor peeled away briefly to celebrate, but quickly returned to comfort his disoriented opponent. When Cerrone’s grandmother, Jerry, entered the cage after the fight to hug her grandson, McGregor also hugged Jerry and got a kiss on the cheek.

Even after his prolonged absence — or maybe because of it — McGregor’s return is expected to be a huge seller on pay-per-view. The UFC said it made more than $11 million in ticket sales at T-Mobile Arena for the fourth-biggest gate total in the promotion’s history.

An eager sellout Vegas crowd showed up in person, with celebrities including Matthew McConaughey, Jeremy Renner and Dave Bautista, along with NFL stars Tom Brady, Christian McCaffrey, Baker Mayfield, Myles Garrett and Jon Gruden.

Former bantamweight champion Holly Holm beat Raquel Pennington by unanimous decision in the penultimate bout of UFC 246. The 38-year-old Holm (13-5) had lost five of her seven fights since she memorably knocked out Ronda Rousey in November 2015.

On the undercard, 37-year-old flyweight Roxanne Modafferi pulled off one of the biggest upsets in recent UFC history with a one-sided decision victory over previously unbeaten 21-year-old Maycee Barber, the UFC’s top 125-pound prospect.

Barber (8-1) injured her left knee during the bout, but Modafferi (24-16) was already dominating with the superior jiu-jitsu she has been practicing for Barber’s entire life. Modafferi was the biggest betting underdog on the UFC 246 card, facing 10-to-1 odds at some sports books.

Aleksei Oleinik, a 42-year-old heavyweight who made his pro debut in 1996, also beat Maurice Greene by submission in the second round.