A wee article I wrote for the World in Sport website, covering what blown diffusers involved, why they are banned, and what impact the ban might have: vhttp://worldinsport.com/2012/02/formula-one-regulations-2012/

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For a sport so focused on strategy and calculation, Formula 1 has always had a tendencyimage by nick@ on Flickr to celebrate the mercurial and maverick champion. Compare the fans’ perception of the great rivals Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, and most would say that they remember Senna’s swaggering performances much more fondly than Prost’s pragmatic approach to the sport. Senna’s successes and failures are saturated with drama: few can forget him being lifted from the car after victory in the 1991 Brazilian Grand Prix, physically overcome after pushing the ailing McLaren to the win. Equally, his retirement from the lead on lap 67 at Monaco in 1988 was as unforeseen as it was unnecessary: with a lead of over 20 seconds on Prost, there was no need for the sudden charge which led to him losing control and colliding with the barrier.

Ask these same people whether they would prefer to watch Senna or reigning champion Sebastian Vettel, and you imagine that Senna would be the preferred choice. Yet this is an argument for the romantic notion of the flawed genius which makes champions more memorable but ultimately less successful.

Image by Pranavian on FlickrVettel does not fit the mould of the flawed genius. He does not show much sign of the inner fire which could propel but also sabotage other legendary sportsmen. He is affable, relaxed and funny: at a recent event, as Steve Rider attempted to elicit a grandiose acceptance speech from Vettel, the German responded with a series of good-natured jokes and an unflattering impersonation of Renault driver Kimi Raikkonen. 

But this kind of irreverence might well be part of his success story. Vettel expends little time on soundbites or rhetoric, and invests most of his efforts trying to master his craft. The Red Bull crew all point to his phenomenal work rate as a reason for his success. And, while Vettel is rarely hyperbolic about his desire to not only win but be the best, it can clearly be seen on the track. In this year’s Korean Grand Prix, he set a fastest lap on the final lap of the race, despite holding a substantial lead and the crew’s insistence that he avoid any risk taking.

Photo by Nick J Webb on FlickrVettel’s all round brilliance has been magnified by the shortcomings of both his immediate rivals and previous champions. This year, he has shared the track with four other champions, and it is only by examining where some of them fall short that you can see all the areas Vettel seems to have mastered. Lewis Hamilton is tenacious, but has been overly aggressive and rash, causing accidents: Vettel has entered daring overtaking moves and judged them perfectly. Mark Webber, Vettel’s team mate, is fast but took too long to adapt to the new Pirelli tyres: Vettel understood how to manage the tyres from an early stage. Webber’s speed in qualifying has been undone by a series of poor starts: Vettel, understanding the importance of getting the car into an early lead, has consistently started well.

These two areas of Vettel’s superiority over Webber are indicative of perhaps his greatest strength, the ability to adapt. There are many who cannot accept Vettel as a true great while he is driving the Red Bull RB7 car, a machine which won Autosport’s Racing Car of the Year. Many have questioned whether Vettel is nothing more than a very good driver in a superior car to everyone else. The reality is that he has simply adapted extremely well, making the most of the car’s strengths and making irrelevant its weaknesses. And there are undoubted weaknesses: the RB7 has far less straight line speed than its nearest rival, the McLaren. At Monza this year, Vettel’s car was 20th fastest out of 24 through the speed trap. He has managed this situation adeptly, ensuring the car builds an early lead to put him out of the crucial 1-second DRS zone before others can use it to catch him. The RB7’s grip levels are its major strength, and Vettel has maximised this advantage to be faster through the corners than anyone else.

2012 may just prove to be the best chance for the German to prove any doubters wrong. The competition looks likely to be closer. Adrian Newey, Red Bull’s chief designer, has already stated his doubts as to the likelihood of Red Bull dominance, given that the RB8 car will not have the blown diffuser system which has been the crux of the RB7’s downforce. There are major threats from the pack: both Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button can claim to have driven on a par with Vettel with inferior equipment in 2011. But if Vettel finds himself in a bigger scrap this year, it is a chance to prove he is made of different stuff than some of the sport’s biggest names. For instance, when Michael Schumacher seemed to drive deliberately into Jacques Villeneuve in the Jerez title decider of 1997, many saw it not as an indication of ruthlessness but simply an inability to understand what to do in the face of potential defeat. Various team mates of Schumacher have since revealed his reliance on meticulous planning and inability to deal with things not going to plan. If we see the RB8 in less pole positions and more battles for the lead in 2012, Vettel’s cool head will be tested: and against the supremely shrewd Button, his in-race strategy will also be stretched. A season characterised by these challenges presents the perfect opportunity for Vettel to quash all doubts about his prodigious talent.

Chris Leslie

Like most us I was well acquainted with the lies used to justify our country’s war with Iraq. However, I wasn’t aware of some of the most sinister and horrifying implications of the first Gulf conflict until reading John Pilger’s book The New Rulers of the World (2002).

Iraq under Saddam seems to have been a country of contradictions: one where, despite the brutality of the regime, people could count on reasonably effective public services and the country as a whole enjoyed good health and a respectable standard of living (My information here isn’t as comprehensive and I am happy to be contradicted).

Following the first Gulf war, the UK government began a decade long embargo of Iraq, starving the country of medical and food supplies. This was justified on the premise that weapons of mass destruction existed. Pilger’s book exposes the UK’s willingness to allow the deaths of Iraqi children in order to pursue this embargo, despite no evidence that Saddam was constructing WMDs.

In one particularly disturbing example, Pilger reveals Dr. Kim Howells’ recommendation that vaccines be stopped from reaching Iraq, on the grounds that they might be used to construct chemical weapons.

After the first Gulf War, healthcare professionals in Iraq reported a vast increase in birth defects and a twelvefold rise in deaths from cancer. These professionals pointed to the presence of a huge amount of depleted uranium, used by US and British forces in the first Gulf War. Iraqis lack the expertise to get rid of this material. In Pilger’s book, US physicist Professor Doug Rokke describes his experiences at international conferences watching Iraqi officials ‘ask, plead’ their British counterparts for ‘help with decontamination’.

A lack of vaccines and medication, due to the embargo, left doctors unable to even begin dealing with the health crisis. The deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children has been the legacy.

Pilger’s article is named Paying the Price. This was lifted from a quote by Madeleine Albright, the US Secretary of State from 1997-2001, who was asked if she felt that the embargo was worth the deaths of half a million children. Albright replied, “We think the price is worth it.”

Pilger’s article can be found by clicking here. If you have a spare ten minutes, the interview with James Rubin on page 15 onwards makes for shocking reading. Rubin was Albright’s assistant during her time as Secretary of State. Were it not for the fact that there is such a horrible backdrop for the interview, it could quite easily pass as a script for The Office: Rubin is eloquent for several paragraphs before being backed into a corner and becoming defensive and curt. Very soon, he runs out of any evidence to back up his claims and it suddenly gets very easy to picture David Brent being challenged by his superiors about his groundless, slapstick decision making. It is a disgustingly arrogant performance.

I felt that since I hadn’t heard about this, it might the case that others hadn’t too. My post hardly scratches the surface of the British and US exploitation of Iraq: Pilger’s book, despite being published in 2002, is still important reading. His sources are comprehensive and authoritative, and his writing style is based in fact while allowing the reader to see that he really he has been deeply affected by his experience in Iraq.

It makes me wish I had bothered to be informed before listening to Blair’s WMD argument and swallowing it for even a second.

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