Five off-track takeaways from 2023 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix weekend

The Formula One season came to a close in Abu Dhabi with one last Max Verstappen win of the year — his 19th in 2023. (AFP)
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Updated 27 November 2023
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Five off-track takeaways from 2023 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix weekend

  • Reem Abulleil sheds some light on paddock conversations and celebrity sightings at Yas Marina Circuit

ABU DHABI: The Formula One season came to a close in Abu Dhabi with one last Max Verstappen win of the year — his 19th in 2023 — and Mercedes edging Ferrari to P2 in the Constructors’ Championship by just three points.

It has been a busy four days at Yas Marina Circuit with lots of takeaways from the conversations we have had with the drivers and team principals, as well as numerous celebrity sightings around the paddock all weekend.

Here’s what you may have missed from some of the action off the track.

Tennis players rock the paddock

The F1 paddock is always a popular destination for celebrities and Abu Dhabi this year has been no exception with the likes of Chris and Liam Hemsworth, Priyanka Chopra, Naomi Campbell, and Jason Statham among the A-listers making an appearance at Yas Marina Circuit.

From the football world, Sergio Aguero rocked a custom-made Manchester City race suit and presented the DHL Fastest Lap award to Verstappen on Saturday, while Patrice Evra was in an all-white linen suit when he turned up to the paddock on Sunday.

However, what stood out the most was the number of tennis stars in the house this weekend. Tunisian Ons Jabeur attended both qualifying and the race as a guest of title sponsors Etihad Airways.

The three-time Grand Slam finalist got to catch up with retired Russian ace Maria Sharapova, who walked into the paddock with the Hemsworths, Chopra and Statham before going up to the stands to watch the race.

 

 

Poland’s world No. 9 Hubert Hurkacz is a big fan of the sport and came to the track from Friday to Sunday. A guest of F1, Hurkacz told me he has always loved cars and was thrilled to attend his first grand prix.

Danish world No. 8 Holger Rune was spotted at the Ferrari hospitality villa and had a quick catch-up with Charles Leclerc before the race, while tennis pair Denis Shapovalov and his fiancee Mirjam Bjorklund arrived just in time for the action as guests of Aston Martin.

“It’s that Canadian connection,” said Shapovalov with a laugh, referring to his compatriot Lance Stroll, who drives for Aston Martin.

Other tennis players in attendance included Hemsworth look-alike Karen Khachanov and Alexander Zverev.

 

 

Gasly not interested in entertainment and sport debate

The Las Vegas Grand Prix last weekend reopened the debate of how much of a spectacle a sport is allowed to be. Several drivers said the inaugural race in Vegas was more of a “show” than anything else, and many complained about the tough scheduling that made them see no sunlight for the whole weekend.

Sport, of course, is a business and is entertainment and it cannot survive without generating a great deal of interest from fans around the world.

Alpine driver Pierre Gasly was asked to weigh in on the debate and whether he felt F1 got the balance right between putting on a show and highlighting the sport.

“I love the sport and personally I’m quite fine with the entertainment side of things,” said Gasly.

“I think it’s very personal and it depends how you can cope with it. I know I’m not someone that is really disturbed with that side of the sport. Obviously the priority needs to always remain on the actual sport.

“What I’d like is to almost have more priority on the driver side of things, where I feel at the minute it’s too much driven by car performance. So that’s more something that I’ll be focusing on as a sport rather than entertainment, sport, blah, blah, blah. At the end of the day we survive and everyone is paid here because people are watching us, so it’s a balance you need to find.

“But what I care the most about is that all drivers will be given fair chances to fight for the best positions, where at the minute there’s clearly a sort of imbalance in the performance of all 10 teams. It’s always been the case in F1, I’m fine with it, but I do see a lot of talk of this entertainment versus sport balance kind of thing and I think it’s really personal how you deal with it.”

Toto Wolff: Sport is a meritocracy

Speaking of “fair chances,” Mercedes’ team principal Toto Wolff was asked about the massive gap between Red Bull and the rest of the field, and whether the Austrian team’s dominance is hurting F1.

“The numbers that we are seeing are strong. When we go on social we see races that are packed and sold out,” said Wolff on Sunday.

“But as a matter of fact it is all around the spectacle and if the spectacle is not good, fans are going to follow us less. What I always say is that the spectacle follows the sport. And the sport is a meritocracy; whoever is doing the best job wins and if somebody is doing a much better job than everybody else, then they’re winning 19 races.

“It is us and Ferrari and all the other teams that have to do a better job in order to compete with Red Bull Racing.”

Hamilton focused on growing his legacy

So much of Lewis Hamilton’s pre-race press conference was dominated by Christian Horner’s claims that the British driver had reached out to Red Bull to see if they had a seat for him.

As Hamilton clarified, it was in fact the Red Bull team principal who had contacted him and not the other way round, but something way more interesting caught my attention in what he said.

One of the journalists asked Hamilton — a seven-time world champion — if driving for Red Bull was an appealing prospect for him, given he would be racing in a winning car. The 38-year-old said building toward beating Red Bull with Mercedes would be much better for his legacy in the sport.

“Let’s be realistic. Every single driver that’s racing here dreams of being in a winning car. I think probably in my younger days when I hadn’t maybe had a lot of success, maybe in those McLaren days, it would have been a lot more attractive,” he explained.

“When I think about (it), just from a racing perspective and my viewpoint of things, when I moved to this team I enjoyed moving from a more successful team to a team that hadn’t had success, with the vision of growing and building on the team. Because when we did then win, it was such a better feeling.

“Whilst every driver here looks at the Red Bull and would love to drive that car, and I’m not saying I wouldn’t love to drive that car and experience how good that car (is), every driver would want to feel that. I feel that we’ve had two very difficult years and if we work towards beating that car that’s going to be a way better feeling than just stepping into the best car.

“It wouldn’t do much for me in the sense of just stepping into the car that’s been the most dominant car of all time. Working with my team to build, to be able to beat them, I think would be better for my legacy, for sure.”

It is fascinating to see how clear his perspective is on the matter.

Alonso welcomes added pressure in 2024

Fernando Alonso deemed his 2023 campaign a “dream season” for himself and his Aston Martin team after securing fourth in the Drivers’ Championship with an impressive eight podiums.

No one expected the 42-year-old could pull off a season like that at the start of the year, and the Spanish two-time world champion acknowledges the pressure will be much higher in 2024. It is something he is welcoming with open arms.

“It has been a historic season for Aston Martin and for myself. Eight podiums, 300 points nearly for the team. Twelve months ago this was unthinkable,” said Alonso on Sunday following his P7 finish in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

“This is the best season ever for the team as well, with whatever name they had before. It’s an incredible year to remember. The expectations were low, so we exceeded the expectations this year. Maybe next year is the opposite, expectations will be very high, so we have some pressure on our shoulders.

“This is Formula One, this is not a charity event. We have to have the pressure, we have to deliver. Fifth in the constructors’ hurts a little bit because I think we were better than that. We were hoping for better than that at the beginning of the year.

“To finish fourth in the drivers’ is a little bit unreal. Fighting with the guys that we were fighting with, in fact, if we are fifth in the constructors’ you should be ninth or 10th.

“So, it’s a dream season for many people in Aston Martin, including myself.”


West Ham’s winless run in EPL finishes. Non-league Maidstone’s FA Cup fairy tale ends

Updated 39 min 50 sec ago
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West Ham’s winless run in EPL finishes. Non-league Maidstone’s FA Cup fairy tale ends

LONDON: Jarrod Bowen scored his first English Premier League hat trick for West Ham as they beat Brentford 4-2 and eased pressure on coach David Moyes on Monday.
The Hammers’ first win in 2024 ended an eight-game winless run in all competitions.
West Ham jumped from 10th to eighth in the league, behind Brighton only on goal difference.
Brentford was 16th, five points above the relegation zone.
Bowen was already West Ham’s top goal-scorer but he hadn’t scored in the league since before Christmas, and he broke that drought in spectacular fashion.
His first goal was a potent left-foot strike that gave the goalkeeper no chance, and the second capped a counter-attack when he side-footed home a cross from Vladimír Coufal.
Neal Maupay got one back soon after for Brentford but Bowden grabbed his and West Ham’s third after 63 minutes when he headed home a cross from Mohammed Kudus.
Full-back Emerson Palmieri made it 4-1 six minutes later with a spectacular long-range shot.
Yoane Wissa got a second for Brentford with eight minutes remaining.

Maidstone’s FA Cup run ends
A first-half hat trick from Coventry’s Ellis Simms helped to end Maidstone’s FA Cup fairy tale 5-0.
Maidstone was the first sixth-tier team to appear in the fifth round since 1978.
But second-tier Coventry was too strong from the off, with Kasey Palmer pulling the strings in midfield.

Maidstone United pose for a team group photo after the match. (Reuters)


His passes helped Simms to his first hat trick for the club. Tavares Desidério got two more in the dying seconds to complete the rout.
The rest of the fifth-round ties will be played on Tuesday and Wednesday.


Babar, Arif star as Peshawar beat Islamabad in last-over PSL thriller

Updated 27 February 2024
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Babar, Arif star as Peshawar beat Islamabad in last-over PSL thriller

  • Babar Azam scored an unbeaten 111 runs from 63 deliveries to help Peshawar set a 202-run target
  • Arif Yaqoob claimed five wickets for just 27 runs as Peshawar restricted Islamabad to 193 for nine

ISLAMABAD: Babar Azam hit a blistering century and Arif Yaqoob registered a five-wicket haul as Peshawar Zalmi defeated Islamabad United in their exciting match of the Pakistan Super League (PSL) 9th edition at the Gaddafi Stadium in Lahore on Monday.

Islamabad won the toss and sent Peshawar in to bat. Babar orchestrated a relentless assault on Islamabad and scored an unbeaten 111 runs from 63 deliveries, laying the foundation of his side's win.

Saim Ayub and Paul Walter respectively added 38 and 19 runs to help Peshawar set a 202-run target for Islamabad. In response, Islamabad could reach 193 runs in 20 overs.

"Comeback for the ages," PSL wrote on its official account on X. "Islamabad United lose 6 wickets for just 10 runs as Peshawar Zalmi clinch a last-over thriller."

For Islamabad, Shadab Khan returned 2/28 figures, while Salman Ali Agha and Naseem Shah took one wicket each.

In the second innings, Azam Khan hit 75 runs from 30 balls as Islamabad attempted to chase the mammoth 202-run target.

Colin Munro partnered with Khan and added 71 runs from 53 deliveries, but Islamabad faltered towards the end, losing six wickets in quick succession.

Yaqoob claimed five wickets for just 27 runs, while Ayub and Luke Wood dismissed one each to guide Peshawar to an eight-run win in the last over.

This was Peshawar's third consecutive win in their five matches, while Islamabad have won only one of their four games this season.


Anthony Kim to make pro golf return at LIV Jeddah

Updated 27 February 2024
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Anthony Kim to make pro golf return at LIV Jeddah

  • Greg Norman: ‘It is an honor... to give the opportunity for this star to be reborn’
  • Anthony Kim made a record 11 birdies in his second round at Augusta in 2009

PARIS: Three-time PGA Tour winner Anthony Kim will make his first professional golf appearance since 2012 at this weekend’s LIV Golf event in Jeddah, the Saudi-backed circuit announced on Monday.
Kim suffered a series of injuries and has not played a tour event since undergoing surgery on his left Achilles tendon, but has been working for months on a return to competition and had spoken with PGA Tour and LIV Golf officials.
“He oozes incredible talent,” tweeted former world number one and LIV commissioner Greg Norman.
“The world has seen it in the past and now it is an honor... to give the opportunity for this star to be reborn.
“Welcome back and to the LIV Golf family mate. The golf world has missed you.”
American Kim finished third at the 2010 Masters and made a record 11 birdies in his second round at Augusta in 2009.
On the PGA Tour, he won the National and Wachovia Championship in 2008 and the 2010 Houston Open and was ranked as high as sixth in the world in 2008.
Kim also played on triumphant United States teams at the 2008 Ryder Cup and 2009 Presidents Cup.


Hamdallah the savior for Al-Ittihad once again

Ittihad's Moroccan forward #99 Abderrazak Hamdallah. (AFP file photo)
Updated 26 February 2024
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Hamdallah the savior for Al-Ittihad once again

  • After playing a key role in his team’s Asian Champions League victory win last week, he scores both goals in a dramatic late victory against Al-Wehda in the Saudi Pro League
  • It helps save the blushes of strike partner Karim Benzema, who earlier missed a penalty and had two goals disallowed

JEDDAH: For the second time in a week, Abderrazak Hamdallah saved the blushes of an unfortunate Karim Benzema on Monday, this time stepping up to give Al-Ittihad a last-gasp 2-1 win at home to Al-Wehda.

Four days previously, Hamdallah intervened to equalize after Benzema scored an own goal, helping the Jeddah giants to a 2-1 win over Navbahor of Uzbekistan in the Asian Champions League Round of 16. Back in domestic action in the Roshn Saudi League, this time Hamdallah scored both of his side’s goals after the Frenchman missed a first-half penalty and had two goals disallowed.

The result keeps the team in the race for a top-three finish, six points behind third-placed Al-Ahli, and the atmosphere in the stadium at the end was particularly jubilant given that it looked, just a few minutes from time, as if the visitors were about snatch a famous victory.

Earlier, Benzema had the ball in the back of the net on the half-hour mark but his goal from just inside the area was ruled out due to a Fabinho foul in the build-up.

Five minutes later, Al-Wehda took the lead through Odion Ighalo. A well-worked free-kick found Craig Goodwin on the left side of the area and the Australian’s low cross was poked home by Ighalo for his 10th league goal of the season.

Deep into first-half stoppage time, 11 minutes no less, Benzema had a chance to equalize when Al-Ittihad were awarded a penalty after Hamdallah went down in the box. Benzema stepped up but his low effort was well saved by the diving Munir Mohamedi.

Al-Ittihad continued to push forward after the break and were finally rewarded for their efforts seven minutes from the end. This time it was the turn of Hamdallah to attempt a penalty, after Ahmed Hegazi went down in the area. The Moroccan marksman made no mistake as he coolly chipped the ball into the middle of the goal.

This spurred the hosts on to try to snatch a winner but their hopes looked to have been dashed when Saad Al-Mosa was shown a red card in the 90th minute. Time seemed to be running out but Hamdallah was not ready to give up, and four minutes into added time he grabbed the winner.

Benzema, who earlier had a goal disallowed for a second time, for handling the ball from a headed knockdown by his strike partner, this time turned provider. He twisted and turned at the near post to take two defenders out of the picture and then pulled the ball back for Hamdallah to score from close range. The fans went crazy, the players went crazy, the coaching staff went crazy.

Al-Ittihad next face Al-Hilal away from home on Friday and will need to be ready to make the most of all their chances if they are going to take anything from the league leaders, who are sitting 22 points ahead of them.

 


Eddie Howe sets ambitious Newcastle United target with Joelinton deal top of priority list

Updated 26 February 2024
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Eddie Howe sets ambitious Newcastle United target with Joelinton deal top of priority list

  • “That’s always been in my mind as an absolute priority, to try to get him to stay at the club long term. I see that as hugely important,” Howe said of Joelinton, whose current Magpies’ deal runs out in the summer of 2025

NEWCASTLE: Persuading key man Joelinton to pen a new Newcastle United deal is a “priority” for Eddie Howe, even with chief negotiator Dan Ashworth out of the Magpies’ exit door.

The Brazilian has been a huge miss in the Newcastle midfield since he suffered a thigh injury in the FA Cup third-round win over local rivals Sunderland. Joelinton went under the knife on Jan. 23 to rectify the issue, and is not expected back until May.

On the eve of Newcastle’s fifth-round tie at Championship Blackburn Rovers — who, like Howe’s men, have won the trophy six times — the team’s head coach has been discussing his desire to see the Brazilian stay on Tyneside, even with sporting director Ashworth on gardening leave, with Manchester United his desired destination.

“That’s always been in my mind as an absolute priority, to try to get him to stay at the club long term. I see that as hugely important,” Howe said of Joelinton, whose current Magpies’ deal runs out in the summer of 2025.

“I think we’ve missed Joe’s qualities, especially physically, his robustness, his abilities in duels, set-plays for and against. We’re very lucky to have a midfielder that’s as big as he is and as competitive as he is and whenever you lose those qualities, you notice when they’re not there.

“He’s a very unusual midfielder, really, a prototype. You don’t get many like him and it’s certainly been missed, what he can bring.”

When asked who will fill Ashworth’s role in taking up the contract talks, Howe said: “I think it’ll be a mixture of Darren Eales and probably Amanda (Staveley) and Mehrdad (Ghodoussi).”

While attentions turn to the pursuit of silverware and the temporary distraction of the cup, Newcastle’s Premier League form has been starkly different to anything seen under Howe for 18 months. Long gone are the weeks of endless points, a firm backline and wins galore, a trend which had followed Newcastle from their avoidance of relegation in 2021/22 into their Champions League-qualifying campaign of 2022/23.

Mixing with Europe’s best, at this moment in time, feels like a lifetime ago, even though their last Champions League clash with giants AC Milan was only two months back. Since then, the Magpies’ form has dropped through the floor, mainly underpinned by an increasingly leaky backline and, of course, injury issues, which are thankfully starting to be less of a burden.

Howe’s team have the worst defensive record in England’s top flight in the calendar year. Across the season just the bottom three, Nottingham Forest and Bournemouth have conceded more goals. It is something all associated with the club know needs to be addressed — and sharpish.

“We are still in the throes of deciding where this season ends up. Nothing is decided for or against us. I definitely want to squash that feeling that we are feeling sorry for ourselves because that has negative connotations,” said the head coach.

“We need the players excited and ambitious, thinking brightly about the future. I always have a positive outlook. I’ve been in football long enough that it changes very quickly both for and against.

“This season has been very challenging. When you start the season it could be one thing but there have been so many scenarios that have happened that have led us to this point. But I think we will be better for it. The squad will be better for it, we will be better for it and the thought we could have had another season where everything seemed to go for us again, that very rarely happens in football. It’s how you navigate the situation and come back better.”

When pushed specifically on Newcastle’s defensive record — they have conceded 45 goals in just 26 games in the Premier League — Howe said: “Yes, of course we’re looking for solutions to everything.

“There’d be sort of the outcome which is the goals, of course, but there’s a whole body of work that goes into how you defend. Whether that’s how you press, how you defend in the mid-third of the pitch, how you defend toward the goal. Certainly we need to do a better job.

“I think regardless of how you tactically set up, it’s individuals doing their jobs and making sure you don’t make individual errors. I think we’ve been guilty of a combination of a lot of those things in the last few weeks.

“We’ve proved we can defend, we’ve proved we can defend even recently and we’ve put in some really good performances. Certainly we’re capable but we just need to deliver it consistently.”

Newcastle will be backed by more than 7,000 supporters on Tuesday night in Lancashire, with a Geordie invasion of Ewood Park in store. The Magpies have not won the competition since 1955, but can put themselves just one game away from a Wembley semifinal with victory.

“It’s a huge game for us,” said Howe. “We’re absolutely committed to the FA Cup to do well and have been all season. We’ve had two difficult games away from home to get to this stage, and now another one. We’ve been looking forward to this game for a while so we know how important it is.

“There have been performances where we’ve not been at our best and you can understand — we were disjointed, had players out of position, no substitutes, relying on 11 players continually. Arsenal (a 4-1 loss on Saturday) was different. We just did not perform and we have to take responsibility for that.

“Qualifying for Europe is right at the top of our priorities. Of course, qualifying for the Champions League was unbelievable last year. But if you can’t make that again, then we have to look for the next best alternative. That’s what we’re trying to do, and for me, they’re (Europa League and Conference League) realistic objectives, and we’ll give everything we can to achieve it. I think, for the football club, to try to qualify regularly for Europe is an achievement in itself, and that’s something we’re looking to do.

“We don’t want to be easy to play against; we want to be very difficult to play against. We didn’t execute what we wanted to do against Arsenal well enough, that’s clear. That’s clear from the performance and I take responsibility for that.”