Formula 1: Japanese GP 2019 Thoughts

The 2019 running of the Japanese grand prix at Suzuka wasn’t really that interesting to me, which is a shame since the circuit has hosted some truly classic races in the past, and is one of the all-time greats of circuit design. That said, the final result was an unexpected one. Due to Typhoon Hagibis, qualifying had to run on Sunday, right before the race itself. Ferrari blitzed the opposition to lock out the front row but it was the return of Finger Man as Seb Vettel blew away all challengers to snatch pole and set a new lap record of Suzuka in the process.

Ferrari’s speed advantage over Mercedes pointed to the red cars dominating the race, but clearly nobody informed Valtteri Bottas of the script. I don’t know what he had for breakfast that day but I want some of it! Driving like a man possessed, he got a mega start and bolted from the second row of the grid, around both Ferraris and into the lead of the race. He would stay there until the chequred flag, beating both Ferraris and his illustrious teammate, Lewis Hamilton.

I have nothing at all against Hamilton but when Mercedes put the two drivers onto different strategies, I thought, “here we go again…” Hamilton was to do a one-stopper while Bottas was put onto a two-stop and it was predicted that he would have to pass Lewis on-track to win the race. So it was that I expected Merc to play a crafty one and have Lewis magically appear in first place after benefitting from Mercedes controlling the outcome between their two drivers. Thankfully, I was wrong on this occasion and Valtteri was able to win the race – a win that he thoroughly earned.

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Hamilton was, in fact, not happy. He didn’t agree with the team’s tyre strategy and felt that he could have challenged for the outright win. As it turned out, he was on the radio a lot, clearly displeased with the team as he found himself stuck behind Vettel during the race’s closing stages. It was a big battle but no matter what Hamilton tried, Vettel stood firm and just about managed to hang onto his P2.

Away from the front three, Charles Leclerc had an uncharacteristically bad day at the office. He under-steered wide at the first turn and collided with Max Verstappen who was attempting to take the Ferrari on the outside of the corner. The two young chargers – billed by many as the next two protagonists of the sport – clashed and Verstappen was ultimately eliminated from the race, being forced to retire later on as the damage to his car rendered further running pointless. Leclerc continued a clumsy weekend by trying to continue with his damaged front wing dragging on the ground and sending up a shower of sparks. The damaged bodywork on his car eventually parted ways, showering a chasing Hamilton with carbon fibre, ripping the W10’s right-hand mirror off. Hamilton was lucky not to get hit by the debris; Leclerc and Ferrari were fortunate not to get penalised for causing a dangerous, avoidable incident.

The race opened with the above drama and closed with the Hamilton/Vettel battle but the middle was fairly uneventful.

Albon continued his streak of good results by coming home in fourth – some small consolation for the team after Verstappen’s earlier elimination. Elsewhere, Sainz and McLaren impressed once again by finishing fifth.

My main closing thought here: Valtteri Bottas was superb this weekend but how I wish he could be more consistent with it! He is often absolutely nowhere in the races, trundling around well off the pace of Hamilton and also – frequently – Vettel, Leclerc and even Verstappen. Then, out of the blue, he will morph into a completely different driver and annihilate the opposition (as we saw in Australia). Valtteri can mathematically still win this year’s driver’s championship but he will have to carry his Suzuka performance through to every single remaining race of the season. I never say never but all of the smart money is still on an inevitable – and deserved – sixth for Hamilton.

Book Review: The Institute (Stephen King, 2019)

DSC_0476Year: 2019
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton (UK)
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 485
ISBN: 9781529355390

Deep in the woods of Maine, there is a dark state facility where kids, abducted from across the United States, are incarcerated. In the Institute they are subjected to a series of tests and procedures meant to combine their exceptional gifts – telepathy, telekinesis – for concentrated effect.

Luke Ellis is the latest recruit. He’s just a regular twelve-year-old, except he’s not just smart, he’s super-smart. And he has another gift which the Institute wants to use…

Far away in a small town in South Carolina, former cop Tim Jamieson has taken a job working for the local sheriff. He’s basically just walking the beat. But he’s about to take on the biggest case of his career.

Back in the Institute’s downtrodden playground of corridors where posters advertise ‘just another day in paradise’, Luke, his friend Kalisha and the other kids are in no doubt that they are prisoners, not guests. And there is no hope of escape.

But great events can turn on small hinges and Luke is about to team up with a new, even younger recruit, Avery Dixon, whose ability to read minds is off the scale. While the Institute may want to harness their powers for covert ends, the combined intelligence of Luke and Avery is beyond anything that even those who run the experiments – even the infamous Mrs. Sigsby – suspect.

It’s fair to say that I was a little cautious going into The Institute because, as much as I love Stephen King’s work, I wasn’t as enthralled by his latest output as I have been by the classics from his back catalogue.  Sleeping Beauties, for instance, was a great read until the anticlimactic finale and implication that men are the cause of most of the world’s problems. Then there was Gwendy’s Button Box and Elevation – two enjoyable page-turners that were just too short and not wholly satisfying as a result.

But Amazon were offering the The Institute at half-price (£10 instead of £20) if the book was pre-ordered so I threw caution to the wind and did just that. I’m glad that I did too because The Institute is a fantastic read and a real return to form that left me with very little to dislike.

One of the things I liked the most about this book was that it had the classic King formula of multiple plot strands converging for the endgame. On one hand, there is Tim Jamieson, an ex-cop turned drifter. Jamieson is hitch-hiking his way to New York, taking on temporary jobs along the way, until fate brings him to the tiny South Carolina town of Dupray. Tim takes on an old-school night knocker job, only intending to stay in town for a while, but finds himself unexpectedly warming to small-town life and the people in Dupray. And they warm to him too. Tim quickly goes up in the estimations of Sheriff Ashworth and also manages to impress the frosty Deputy Wendy Gullickson, earning himself a dinner date with the attractive officer.

But if life is on the up and up for Tim, the same can’t be said for Luke Ellis. Luke is a child genius – a real one-in-a-million find – who is about to be enrolled into two colleges simultaneously…at the age of just twelve. Bright, popular and seemingly destined for greatness, Luke’s life should be about to take off but other people have different ideas. Luke is abducted from his home in the dead of night – and his parents murdered – by a special ops team who deliver him to the titular Institute, a top-secret off-the-books state facility that gathers together gifted children and subjects them to experiments.

It isn’t Luke’s incredible intelligence that the Institute are after however; it’s his latent telekinetic (TK) abilities. The Institute acquires children with TK or TP (telepathy) and uses their collected power to eliminate targets deemed dangerous for the world’s stability; terrorist leaders for example, or prominent figures that are seemingly on-course to start undesirable chains of events. The kids don’t know this to begin with though. What they do know is that they live in eerie replicas of their real bedrooms and have the freedom to roam the corridors of the Institute, use the vending machines and even access the (censored) internet…provided that they have earnt tokens from the Institute’s staff of course. They can even buy cigarettes and alcohol from the vending machines!

But this soft, open-prison style of incarceration comes with a nasty side. Scientists at the Institute subject the kids to all kinds of experiments that initially make little to no sense to Luke and his new group of friends. Failure to co-operate results in beatings, electric shocks from stun guns and even waterboarding. And this all before they have even graduated to the dreaded ‘Back Half’ of the Institute where their TK/TP abilities will be harnessed for the “greater good”.

So you have these two seemingly disconnected plots running parallel to one another before they finally meet up. It works very well in my opinion because I grew to really enjoy each of the lead characters and the supporting casts surrounding them. Whether it’s the town folk in Tim’s story or the kids that Luke befriends inside the Institute, both sides of the book are nicely fleshed-out and even the most minor of the supporting characters are brought to life believably in that special way that Stephen King has always been so adept at doing. Admittedly, there is more intrigue in Luke’s story but I wouldn’t say that either half is weak.

And you will love to hate those Institute people. From the cold and ruthless Mrs. Sigsby to the caretakers who seem to enjoy beating on kids and torturing them – they are all pretty nasty pieces of work and the cruelty that takes place within the walls of the Institute is described vividly by King with no punches pulled, even if it is just scared children who are the victims.

The book is apparently inspired by the thousands of children who go missing all across America each year and never seen again. The themes of government conspiracy and black site operations are also so relevant in this post-Wikileaks age where countless Youtubers and internet sites are eager to show you the proof that operations like the Institute are, perhaps, not so fictional at all.

I think that Stephen King has really done it again with The Institute. I would have liked the book to be just a little bit thicker and have the same level of detailed characterisation that the likes of IT and The Stand boasted but that’s pretty much the only criticism I have. The plot is full of intrigue and leads up to a fast-moving, action-packed finale that I found myself unwilling to pause with a bookmark. And the characters – as I have already said – are just so likable (or detestable in the case of the Institute’s staff). I would say that this is the best Stephen King book in this style since the fantastic Doctor Sleep (which seems like such a long time ago now!).

Highly recommended.

Formula 1: Singapore 2019 GP Thoughts

The dust has settled on the 2019 edition of the Singapore Grand Prix and I’m once again reminded of how incredibly biased and one-sided a lot of fans’ views are. What happened to a balanced opinion? I suppose that’s why I want to talk about F1 – the only sport I follow – here; because I think that there needs to be some balanced analysis rather than simply “Fuck Hamilton – he’s so lucky” or “Vettel is shit and always has been”.

That said, this isn’t going to be some form of deep analysis wrapped up in professional packaging. I am, after all, just a bloke with a laptop who does this blogging thing for the fun of it.

Anyway, the big story from Singapore is how Vettel apparently “stole” Charles LeClerc’s victory. Admittedly, Vettel probably shouldn’t have been on the top step of the podium and yes, he leapfrogged both LeClerc and Hamilton through a Ferrari pit-stop strategy. I have even read some fan reactions that speak of Vettel using “underhanded tactics” to undercut his teammate and “steal” his win. Let’s clear that up first of all: it was the team that called Vettel in to the pits so if anything, it should be Ferrari themselves that LeClerc fanboys need to be unhappy with.

Vettel’s fortune should also take nothing away from his blistering out lap that enabled him to pass LeClerc at the pit exit. Nor should it make redundant the fact that he aced three safety car restarts and broke the DRS back to Charles every time. Granted, LeClerc dropped back on the last few laps after the team informed him that they would not be giving him any extra engine power but up until then, he had no answer to Seb’s control of the race.

 

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Lastly, Vettel tore through the slower cars to get through to first place and was extremely commited when it came to dispatching the Toro Rosso of Pierre Gasly. The latter was a risky move for sure and it should be said that a collision was incredibly close. Should it have actually occured, then anything that Vettel had achieved up until that point would have been nullified and we would be adding the incident to Vettel’s growing collection of on-track errors.

All of this praise for Vettel said I do believe that this is a blip in the overall scheme of things. For one, it remains to be seen whether this win will be a turning point for Vettel or whether he will continue to spin out and collide with other cars in a fashion that certainly doesn’t suit a four-time world champion of the sport. Secondly, there is no doubt that Charles LeClerc is in his ascendecy right now and will only continue to get stronger and faster. Would a more mature Charles have fallen for the way that Vettel mixed it up at the third safety car restart and bolted earlier than he had on the previous two restarts? Doubtful.

Seb is also closer to the end of his career than the beginning and so his speed is naturally going to tail off. I believe that he also has a much narrower operating window than some of the other big talents currently on the grid. When everything is spot-on for him, then he is pretty much unstoppable (as we saw in 2013) but he clearly isn’t as flexible as the likes of Hamilton.

There was plenty of other action away from the hot Ferrari-on-Ferrari tussle. Mercedes, for example, were not the force to be reckoned with on the streets of Singapore. Hamilton didn’t look to have any answer to LeClerc despite hanging on to the red car for the first stint. The team pitted teammate Bottas and used him as a rolling roadblock in order to hold up the Red Bull of Albon…by instructing Valtteri to drive three seconds a lap slower.

Motor Racing - Formula One World Championship - German Grand Prix - Practice Day - Hockenheim, Germany

It isn’t really what we – as fans – want to see in the sport and it brings to mind the bad old days when Ferrari would employ Eddie Irvine as Michael Schumacher’s lieutenant and simply use their second driver to block other cars.

Elsewhere, it was the return of the Torpedo as Daniil Kvyat took Kimi Raikkonen out of the race with a very optimistic lunge up the inside. He came from an incredibly long way back and collided with the inside of the Iceman’s Alfa Romeo as the Finnish driver was turning into the left-hander, completely unaware that the car behind would be trying something so extreme. Daniil laid all of the blame at Kimi’s door and was quoted as saying, “He just…suicided himself. He tried to kill me as well.” How eloquent and measured! The overhead footage told a different story – to me at least. Kvyat looked like a man who would not have been able to stop his car in time whether there was somebody else there or not. As has been said countless times over the years, you cannot simply expect another car to disappear.

Another clash, ending the race for Williams’ George Russell, surprised nobody considering that it involved one of the two Haas drivers. Romain Grosjean was recently re-signed for another season at the American outfit – despite the fact that his performance there has been pretty damn poor after a decent first year with the team – and the Frenchman marked the occasion by causing a clumsy, completely avoidable collision that put another driver into the wall and out of the race. It was an incredibly optimistic move that was never going to happen but instead of backing out of his around-the-outside attempt on Russell, Romain forged on and pushed him into the wall instead.

I like Grosjean as a person but how this guy keeps on getting re-signed when the likes of Ocon and Hulkenberg are denied seats in Formula 1 is a mind-boggling mystery.

That’s all I have for Singapore 2019. Next stop: Russia.