Formula One season starts amid shadow of Black Lives Matter movement

There will be no fans when the Formula One season starts at the Spielberg track in Austria, above, but political statements would be aplenty instead. (AFP)
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Updated 02 July 2020

Formula One season starts amid shadow of Black Lives Matter movement

  • ‘It is so important that we seize this moment,’ says Lewis Hamilton, the only Black driver to become F1 champion

SPIELBERG, Austria: Four months after the opening race was called off at the last minute, the Formula One season finally gets underway this weekend on another continent and in a different-looking world.
There will be no fans on hand at the remote Spielberg track in Austria, with the coronavirus still creating uncertainty over how many races can actually be held — and where.
That may not be the only unusual sight, as drivers are discussing whether to take the knee together on the grid before Sunday’s race in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Defending F1 champion Lewis Hamilton has been an outspoken supporter of the movement and will be competing in an all-black Mercedes car — instead of the usual silver — as a statement against racism.
“It is so important that we seize this moment,” said Hamilton, the only Black driver to become F1 champion.
The truncated campaign kicks off with back-to-back races in Austria, as part of a hastily reworked schedule. It was meant to start nearly 10,000 miles (16,000 kilometers) away in the Australian city of Melbourne.
But the fast-spreading impact of the coronavirus pandemic led to the Australian GP being canceled on March 13, two days before the scheduled race, while people were still queuing for the first practice sessions. Several other races, including the showcase Monaco GP, were also canceled.
A rescue package with eight European races squeezed into 10 weeks, culminating with the Italian GP on Sept. 6, was scrambled together. F1 still hopes to rearrange some of the postponed races in order to finish the season with 15-18 of the scheduled 22.
There will also be two consecutive races at the British GP. If the season continues beyond Europe, it will end with races in Bahrain and Abu Dhabi in December.
“We actually don’t even know the amount of races we are going to do,” McLaren and future Ferrari driver Carlos Sainz Jr. said. “It’s an unprecedented scenario.”
Spielberg’s Red Bull Ring, cut off from major towns or cities, offers a reassuringly secluded feel amid coronavirus fears.
But strict health and safety measures have been put into place.
Everyone entering the track, including a greatly reduced number of media representatives, must have tested negative for Covid-19 and further tests will be carried out every five days. F1 teams are not allowed to mingle with each other — on or off the track — and media have no access to F1’s paddock area.
Drivers would normally have faced a barrage of questions in a news conference room, but health requirements dictate that drivers hold news conferences via video link and with questions sent in advance.
And, of course, Spielberg’s 4.3-kilometer (2.7-mile) circuit will be largely empty. It is normally swarming with tents, camper vans, makeshift barbecues and tens of thousands of orange-shirted Max Verstappen fans.
The Red Bull driver, hugely popular back home in the Netherlands, has won the past two races here.
The track is among the shortest in F1 but also one of the most aggressive. Drivers spend about 72% of the time at full throttle, second only to Italy’s Monza track with 77%.
That’s perfectly suited to Verstappen’s bold and abrasive racing style. Last season he chased down the leading trio before making a typically brazen overtaking move on race leader Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari.
The 22-year-old Verstappen showed last season that he is closing the gap to Hamilton in terms of wheel-to-wheel driving. Red Bull’s car also made a considerable jump in speed, while Ferrari’s faded, and Verstappen is emerging as a major title threat to Hamilton.
The 35-year-old British driver is chasing a record-equaling seventh F1 title to equal Michael Schumacher’s record, and only needs to win eight more races to beat Schumacher’s mark of 91.
Aside from Verstappen and possibly Valtteri Bottas — Hamilton’s improving teammate at Mercedes — the other main challenger is Leclerc.
The 22-year-old Monaco driver is extremely quick and impressed observers in his first season at Ferrari with seven pole positions — two more than Hamilton — and two wins.
He is now Ferrari’s No. 1 ahead of four-time F1 champion Sebastian Vettel, whose star has faded after he wasted mid-season leads in 2017 and 2018 and lost those titles to Hamilton.
The German veteran is leaving at the end of the year after failing to agree on a new contract, and his future in F1 is uncertain.
Like so many other things this season.


Why Riyad Mahrez should shed reluctant hero tag and join Arab greats

Updated 05 August 2020

Why Riyad Mahrez should shed reluctant hero tag and join Arab greats

  • The Algerian winger could be a few weeks away from his crowning glory
  • Beyond his goals, assists and medals, he is one of the most aesthetically pleasing players to watch in the Premier League

DUBAI: We should talk about Riyad Mahrez. Because, it seems, Riyad Mahrez doesn’t really like to talk about Riyad Mahrez.

Manchester City’s Algerian international is famously reticent when it comes to dealing with the media. For one of modern football’s most unique and successful talents, Mahrez remains an enigma; brilliant, instantly recognizable, and yet so often underrated.

Most fans would struggle to recall what his voice even sounds like. Though he has 5.5million followers on Instagram, and a further 2.2 million on Twitter, he mostly shuns the behind the scenes glamorous posts that so many footballers seem to enjoy in favor of match action shots. And there is no team of PR warriors shouting his achievements from the rooftops.

Which is a shame. One of the greatest Arab footballers of all time certainly deserves more. Except that, when the discussion of the greatest Arab or African footballers to play in Europe comes up, Mahrez rarely comes near the top.

A strong showing in the mini-champions League tournament over the next few weeks, starting with Friday’s round of 16 second leg against Real Madrid, could throw some gold dust on an already outstanding career.

Since his quiet introduction to the Premier League in 2014, Mahrez has been nothing short of a revelation; an enchanting, balletic footballer, whether gliding across the right wing to set up yet another chance for Jamie Vardy or Sergio Aguero, or cutting inside onto his magical left foot to score another stunning curling effort. Or, as he has done twice, winning the Premier League.

Beyond his goals, assists and medals, he is one of the most aesthetically pleasing players to watch in the Premier League, even the world.

So why does he struggle to gain the acclaim of other Arab and African footballers of past and present?

Like Karim Benzema in Spain, Mahrez is the right player, at the right place, at the right time. But not always, metaphorically speaking, the loudest of players.

By most metrics, Mohamed Salah takes some beating as the outstanding Arab footballer of modern times, perhaps ever. Since joining Liverpool in the summer of 2017, he has played a pivotal part in transforming the club from a fourth-placed team to proven winners, both in the Premier League and Champions League; twice won the Premier League Golden Boot, and also claimed the PFA Player of the Year in 2017-18.

Like Salah, Mahrez has won the Premier League in England, arguably the most high profile league in the world. In fact, he is one of only 11 players to have won it twice, first as the driving force behind Leicester City’s still scarcely believable 2015-16 title win (which also earned him the PFA Player of the Year award), and then as part of Pep Guardiola’s staggering collective at Manchester City in 2018-19. 

Unlike Salah, though, he has yet to win the Champions League. That could be about to change in a few weeks. Manchester City remain the favorites to win the delayed competition, now scheduled to conclude in Lisbon between 7th and 23rd of August.

Salah’s army of fans, from Liverpool to Cairo, rightly hail his every move.

But for Mahrez, there are no murals on neighborhood walls in New York or the Northwest of England. No string of television commercials. And no fashion magazine covers.

It is not for lack of achievement or talent either. You get the impression Mahrez just prefers it that way.

The 29-year-old, at first instance, might also suffer in comparison to one of Algeria’s greatest footballers.

Rabah Madjer achieved instant international fame when he scored in his nation’s finest hour-and-a-half, the 2-1 win against mighty West Germany at the 1982 World Cup in Spain. Five years, and many domestic titles later, he would return to haunt the Germans, scoring a remarkable back-heeled goal in Porto’s 1987 European Cup final win over Bayern Munich. Later that year he put on a man-of-the-match performance, and scored the winner, as Porto beat Penarol to claim the Intercontinental Cup in Tokyo.

Such iconic moments are hard to compete with. Yet Mahrez has many of his own.

In February 2016, Mahrez produced one of the Premier League’s most memorable individual performances of the last decade as Leicester defeated his future club Manchester City 3-1 at the Etihad stadium on the way to that stunning league title win. Even that early in the season, the Player of the Year award was in the bag.

And Premier League-centric viewers, at least those who don’t follow Manchester City, may have missed a truly outrageous stoppage time free-kick in a 2-1 win over Nigeria which secured Algeria’s place in the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations Cup. Where the home crowds had eagerly anticipated a Salah and Egypt triumph, it was Mahrez and Algeria that were crowned African champions after beating Senegal 1-0 in the final at Cairo International Stadium.

Again, and inexplicably, the achievement did not garner the global acclaim it deserved.

Perhaps the biggest reason for Mahrez’s understated reputation is the company he keeps. When you play in forward line alongside Aguero, Raheem Sterling, Bernardo Silva, Jesus Gabriel, David Silva and, above all, the peerless Kevin De Bruyne, the credit will inevitably be spread around.

Mahrez, a maverick at Leicester, has been transformed by Pep Guardiola into the perfect team player at Manchester City. An excellent return of 11 goals and 12 assists in the Premier League this season may not quite see him at the top of either chart. But, in addition to one goal and four assists in the Champions League, his numbers accurately illustrate a consistent, at times spectacular, overall contribution in a season where he has been one of the club’s most impressive forwards.

If all that still doesn’t make him one of the greatest Arab footballers of all time, perhaps a Champions League medal on August 23 finally will.