How the Hamilton-Verstappen rivalry (and Netflix) breathed new life into Formula 1 racing

Mercedes' British driver Lewis Hamilton leads Red Bull's Dutch driver Max Verstappen during the Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix. (AFP)
Mercedes' British driver Lewis Hamilton leads Red Bull's Dutch driver Max Verstappen during the Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix. (AFP)
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Updated 01 April 2021

How the Hamilton-Verstappen rivalry (and Netflix) breathed new life into Formula 1 racing

Mercedes' British driver Lewis Hamilton leads Red Bull's Dutch driver Max Verstappen during the Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix. (AFP)
  • Thanks to Red Bull’s formidable challenge to Mercedes, and a little help from the streaming giant, the 2021 season could be one of Formula One’s best and most engaging in years

DUBAI: “The fastest car always wins.”

That’s the problem with Formula 1 you see. Nothing ever happens. There’s no excitement. The fastest car always wins.

Lewis Hamilton. Max Verstappen. Valtteri Bottas.

Mercedes. Red Bull. Mercedes.

The podium finish at the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix may have had a distinct business as usual look to it. For those that keep a causal, sometimes cynical, eye on Formula 1, here was yet more proof that the more things change the more they stay the same.

Once again, it seems, we are in for season of a valiant Red Bull challenge to the  supremacy of Mercedes, with reigning champion Lewis Hamilton ultimately winning an expected, record eighth F1 title.

Except that, for the first time in years it can be said: No, Hamilton did not win a Grand Prix because he was in the fastest car. For once, the British champion was the underdog to Max Verstappen’s favourite.

Those who have been paying attention will know that it is, in fact, Red Bull that have had the fastest car in the build up to the new season.

What’s more, it was, incredibly, the first time that Verstappen and Hamilton had been the front two at any Formula One Grand Prix grid, in either order.




Red Bull's Dutch driver Max Verstappen (L) inspects Mercedes' British driver Lewis Hamilton's winner's trophy on the podium after the Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix. (AFP)

And yet, here was Hamilton, somewhat incomprehensibly now one of the older drivers on the grid, taking on the almost-certain future world champion Verstappen. And still winning.

The thing about the best cars is that they still need the best drivers inside them.

Hamilton’s brilliant win may just have seen the real birth of a rivalry between him and Verstappen.

Yes, the brilliant Dutchman may have followed up his third-place finish in 2019 with a runner-up spot last year, but it was a distant runner-up to a champion at the peak of his powers.

No one is remotely suggesting Hamilton has suddenly lost any of those powers, certainly not after his masterful drive in Bahrain, but the season had started with Verstappen favourite to win the Bahrain Grand Prix, if not the drivers’ championship. It is, for now, Verstappen who is in the fastest car. But for how long?

Formula 1 races can very often turn into processions when certain cars are clearly superior, faster, than the rest of the field, leading to accusations of lack of competitiveness.

But that does a disservice to drivers. That Juan Manuel Fangio, Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher, Sebastian Vettel, Hamilton and now Verstappen ended up in the best car is merely racing Darwinism.

It is futile to speculate just how Hamilton or Verstappen would get on in a slow car, in the same way it is pointless to question how Lionel Messi or Pep Guardiola would fare at a lower ranking La Liga or Premier League team.

The best athletes invariably gravitate to the best teams.

Now we have a real F1 title race that may transcend motorsport. And nothing attracts new fans than a good old-fashioned head-to-head.

Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe. Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. You don’t need to be a boxing, basketball, tennis or football fanatic to know the names.

In private, Formula 1 bosses are probably weeping tears of joy at the prospect the most exciting championship battle in recent times, in the middle of an ongoing pandemic and with live audiences mostly restricted.

Perhaps they should also say a little prayer of gratitude to Netflix, too.




The Netflix F1 documentary ‘Formula 1: Drive to Survive,’ now in its third season, has made even the most casual fan sit up and take notice of the brilliance of the sport. (Screenshot)

Thanks to the supreme Formula 1: Drive to Survive series, which on March 20 released its third season, we know now more, and crucially, care more, about the F1 field than ever before.

Suddenly, everyone knows who George Russell, Esteban Ocon and Pierre Gasly are, never mind the likes of Daniel Ricciardo, Charles Leclerc and Lando Norris. Even the departed Nico Hülkenberg, Alex Albon and Romain Grosjean have tugged at our heartstrings.

We now know Toto Wolff and Christian Horner as two of the most powerful men in racing. We recognize that, for Leclerc and Sergio Perez, racing in the red of Ferrari carries with it a huge burden that perhaps doesn’t exist at other teams. That the drivers are infallible beings who are at risk of losing their jobs when they don’t perform, and who are susceptible to paralyzing loss of confidence and form.

We know the drivers behind the helmets; the technical teams behind the drivers; and the Team Principals and owners behind it all.

Perhaps for the first time ever, casual fans are armed with the insight that makes Formula 1 racing one of the world’s most exciting and popular sports.

And the 2021 Formula 1 season, could well be the most exciting in years. As will, naturally, next season’s Drive to Survive.

Even if in the end, inevitably, the fastest car ends up winning.


UAE Pro League announces dates for remaining fixtures

UAE Pro League announces dates for remaining fixtures
Updated 22 April 2021

UAE Pro League announces dates for remaining fixtures

UAE Pro League announces dates for remaining fixtures
  • Al-Jazira top the table with 50 points, followed by Baniyas on 49 and Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai on 43
  • Fujairah and Hatta occupy the two relegation spots at the bottom of the table

The UAE Pro League (known for sponsorship reasons as the Arabian Gulf League) has announced the dates of its remaining fixtures, the Emirates News Agency reported on Thursday.

With three rounds of fixtures still to be played following a short break to accommodate the AFC Champions League group stages, Al-Jazira top the table with 50 points, followed by Baniyas on 49 and Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai on 43. Fujairah and Hatta occupy the two relegation spots at the bottom of the table.

For each of the remaining rounds, all teams will compete on the same day. Matchweek 24 will be played on Monday, May 3, with Ittihad Kalba vs. Al-Ain, Al-Wasl vs. Khorfakkan, and Al-Nasr vs. Al-Dhafra all kicking off at 9 p.m. UAE time. The games between Sharjah and Hatta, Ajman and Al-Jazira, Fujairah and Al-Wahda, and Bani Yas and Shabab Al-Ahli will kick off at 11 p.m.

The 25th round of games will be held on Friday, May 7, with Khorfakkan vs. Fujairah, Ajman vs. Sharjah, and Hatta vs. Ittihad Kalba kicking off at 9 p.m. and Al-Jazira vs. Al-Ain, Al-Dhafra vs. Bani Yas, Al-Wahda vs. Al-Nasr, and Shabab Al-Ahli vs. Al-Wasl kicking off at 11 p.m.

The final round of matches on Tuesday, May 11 will see Al-Jazira take on Khorfakkan, Al-Ain vs. Hatta, Fujairah vs. Ajman, Ittihad Kalba vs. Sharjah, Al-Wasl vs. Al-Dhafra, Bani Yas vs. Al-Wahda, and Al-Nasr vs. Shabab Al-Ahli. Kick-off times have yet to be confirmed.

The UAE Pro League said in a statement that it had arranged the fixtures to ensure equal opportunities for all teams, whether they are competing for the title, battling to avoid relegation, or aiming to secure a place in next season’s AFC Champions League.


Al-Wahda coach Henk ten Cate ‘a proud man’ after team’s dramatic AFC Champions League comeback against Al-Rayyan

Al-Wahda coach Henk ten Cate ‘a proud man’ after team’s dramatic AFC Champions League comeback against Al-Rayyan
Updated 22 April 2021

Al-Wahda coach Henk ten Cate ‘a proud man’ after team’s dramatic AFC Champions League comeback against Al-Rayyan

Al-Wahda coach Henk ten Cate ‘a proud man’ after team’s dramatic AFC Champions League comeback against Al-Rayyan
  • Three goals in 24 minutes saw Abu Dhabi team claim all three points against Qatari opponents

RIYADH: Al-Wahda coach Henk ten Cate has revealed his delight with his players’ attitude after the Abu Dhabi team on Tuesday recovered from a two-goal deficit to defeat Al-Rayyan SC 3-2 in Group E of the 2021 AFC Champions League.

Fares Juma’s stoppage-time winner secured Al-Wahda their first win of the campaign, taking them to second in the group on four points, five behind leaders Persepolis who defeated FC Goa 2-1 in the other Tuesday match.

Dutchman ten Cate praised his players for the fightback that saw three goals in 24 minutes dramatically defeat their Qatari opponents.

Speaking to the AFC official website, he said: “I’m a proud man. Especially to see where we are coming from. We had to play with a man down in the last 15 minutes and needed some luck. You need to have luck to win games and we had some today.

“I brought in a few players late in the second half and one of them was a 16-year-old (Awadh Mohamed). Then suddenly something changed within the team. Those players changed the way the game was played. They brought some renewed energy to the team and scored one goal.

“I’m extremely proud of my team, I know how much this win means to them. We have injured players, with little rest to restore our strength and I’m really happy with their team effort. Everybody in the UAE should be proud,” he added.

Al-Rayyan were the better side for most of the first half but started to fade after the break, and another collapse followed after a similar one against Persepolis.

After another three goals were conceded having taken the lead, Al-Rayyan find themselves at the bottom of Group E with coach Laurent Blanc admitting that the latest defeat to Al-Wahda has made things more difficult for the club’s progress into the Round of 16.

“It was a disaster. Honestly, I felt we played well. It was incredible the way we played. But we made some mistakes and conceded goals,” Blanc told the AFC website.

“I think both teams wanted to play good football and as you can see it was not a boring match. At the end of the day, to lose the match at this stage of the competition makes things complicated for us.

“If anyone saw us up by two goals, it should be 3-0 and then game over. But instead, we conceded and lost the match. That is football,” the Frenchman said.

Al-Rayyan will have a chance to make amends when the two teams square off again on Friday.


5 things we learned from Saudi teams’ results as AFC Champions League group stage hits halfway mark

5 things we learned from Saudi teams’ results as AFC Champions League group stage hits halfway mark
Updated 22 April 2021

5 things we learned from Saudi teams’ results as AFC Champions League group stage hits halfway mark

5 things we learned from Saudi teams’ results as AFC Champions League group stage hits halfway mark
  • Al-Hilal, Al-Nassr edge closer to knockout stages while Al-Ahli finale claimed first win

RIYADH: At the halfway stage of the AFC Champions League plenty has happened for the three Saudi Arabian representatives and all are in with a chance of making the next stage.

In the latest round of matches, Al-Nassr drew 1-1 with Foolad of Iran to stay top of a tight Group D with five points; Al-Hilal defeated Tajikistan’s Istiklol 3-1 to go three points clear at the top of Group A; and Al-Ahli picked up a 3-0 win over Al-Shorta of Iraq and now have four points in Group C.

Here are five things we learned about Matchday Three.

1. There is a danger of recent history repeating itself

It is just a few months since Al-Hilal were forced to withdraw from the group stage of the 2020 AFC Champions League after the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) tore through the squad and staff.

Al-Nassr are not at that stage yet but the fact that five players and four other members of the club have tested positive is of huge concern to everyone. If it gets worse, then there is a real danger that the nine-time Saudi Arabian champions could be out.

As coach Mano Menezes pointed out, it is not just about the players who have contracted COVID-19, there are psychological effects among those who are still playing. “We must find new ways to compensate for the absence of players due to the coronavirus,” the Brazilian boss said.

“I am concerned about the effect on the players psychologically, and on the group as well and that is something that we have to think about.”

2. From now it is all about fitness and squad depth

Six games in the space of 15 days are going to be a punishing schedule especially given the time of year and the conditions in Saudi Arabia. Now the real tests come.

There is no time for training, just rest, recovery, and preparation. Coaches will have to rotate and will need to use all their experience to get the best out of their squads. Those with the strongest benches will have the best chance of getting through.

Tractor FC head coach Rasoul Khatibi spoke for many after his team’s 0-0 draw with Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya.

“After the 70th minute our players were exhausted and both teams had to stay focused to see it through. For the next match, we will make sure we have a quick recovery to avoid this experience of losing energy in the latter part of the game. The team with the better recovery will have a better chance in the next match,” he said.

3. Hattan Bahebri steps forward for Al-Hilal

The encouraging thing for the three-time champions is that various players have stepped forward in the games so far. That was the case in the 3-1 win over Istiklol.

It was always going to be that the Tajikistan powerhouse would sit back and allow the Saudi champions possession, and it was used to very good effect by Hattan Bahebri who set up the opener and then grabbed two goals of his own. Both were delightful finishes. The first saw the winger cut inside on the edge of the area and the second was a cheeky chip that was worthy of winning any game.

A repeat performance against the same team on Saturday will leave Al-Hilal with one foot in the second round and Bahebri an even brighter reputation.

4. Al-Nassr show what they are made of

It was not a surprise that Al-Nassr were not as impressive in their 1-1 draw with Foolad as when defeating Al-Sadd three days earlier.

Injuries and absences took their toll and given that, it was a decent performance, and they were perhaps a little unlucky not to collect three points against solid Iranian opposition.

The goal conceded was a little weak and could have been avoided had usual No. 1 Brad Jones been available.

Once again, coach Mano Menezes looked to hit the opposition on the counter as much as possible and had the finishing been a little better and the Iranian goalkeeper not made a couple of excellent saves, then three points could have been taken.

If Al-Nassr can avoid losing more players due to COVID-19 and continue playing this way, then a place in the second round is very much within reach.

5. Al-Ahli break the streak

After 10 games without a win, a dismal run that included seven defeats, Al-Ahli finally tasted victory with a 3-0 victory over Al-Shorta of Iraq.

The opposition may have been the weakest team in the group but had the Saudi team failed to win it would have been hard to see a way back in the group.

It was a nervy start but once the Jeddah club took the lead, they looked fairly comfortable and saw the game out.

The question is, what happens next? Can Al-Ahli actually make it out of the group? Just challenging would be a step in the right direction. Another win against the same opposition would put the three-time Saudi champions right in the mix.

That would mean they would have to get something against Al-Duhail and Esteghlal, but the confidence would be there and there would be a chance. That is the ideal scenario and gets the team back on track.


Peshawar Zalmi excited to be ‘first team from Pakistan’ to play in Saudi Arabia

Peshawar Zalmi excited to be ‘first team from Pakistan’ to play in Saudi Arabia
Updated 22 April 2021

Peshawar Zalmi excited to be ‘first team from Pakistan’ to play in Saudi Arabia

Peshawar Zalmi excited to be ‘first team from Pakistan’ to play in Saudi Arabia
  • Earlier this month, franchise owner Javed Afridi challenged the Saudi cricket team to a friendly match

KARACHI: Players from the Pakistan Super League (PSL) franchise, Peshawar Zalmi, have said they were excited to be “the first team from Pakistan” to play a friendly match in Saudi Arabia.

Earlier this month, franchise owner Javed Afridi wished the Saudi Arabian Cricket Federation (SACF) the best over its media partnership with Arab News, and challenged the Saudi cricket team to play a friendly match against Peshawar Zalmi. SACF accepted the challenge. A date for the match has yet to be announced.

Peshawar Zalmi have won the title of Pakistan’s hugely popular Pakistan Super League once, and been a runner-up twice since the tournament’s launch in 2016. Arab News Pakistan has been an international media partner for Peshawar Zalmi since 2020.

“This will be the first team of Pakistan to go and play in Saudi Arabia,” Kamran Akmal, a wicket-keeper batsman who opens the innings for the team, told Arab News in an interview last week.

“International players will come (to Saudi Arabia) to play cricket. So, they will also get experience ... This is a good sign when players like Wahab Riaz (Peshawar Zalmi captain) and international players like Saqib (English bowler) will go there ... their young players will get good experience.”

“They (Saudi Arabia) will get to know how to improve cricket, how the environment should be, how other teams play, so it’s a good sign for Saudi cricket,” Akmal added.

Speaking to Arab News, Peshawar Zalmi captain Riaz said a friendly match between his team and the Saudi team would be a “great opportunity.”

“It’s really good that a country like Saudi Arabia is taking interest in cricket, because they are well known for football mostly. So, it’s a great challenge for us as well. And it’s going to be a fun game, honestly, to play against the Saudis, so they will get some experience as well,” Riaz added.

He said he hoped Saudi Arabia would develop a good team in the coming years and that Peshawar Zalmi would have some role to play in their development.

“Because in Peshawar Zalmi, you know, a lot of Pakistan and international players are playing. So that will give them (Saudi team) some confidence, that will give them some experience,” Riaz said. “And then I think with the passage of time, they will start working on their skills and they will become better.”

Sending a message to the around 2.6 million Pakistanis who live in Saudi Arabia, Riaz invited them to come and watch Peshawar Zalmi play Saudi Arabia.

“My message to them is that they should come, they should see us, they should support both of us, even Saudi Arabia team,” the team captain said. “They can take that entertainment and excitement which they have been missing from the last few years. The message is they should always come support both the teams and enjoy the game.”

In March, Pakistan suspended the PSL tournament after seven team personnel tested positive for COVID-19. The series is expected to resume in June.


Super League dead as Italian, Spanish clubs follow English exodus

Super League dead as Italian, Spanish clubs follow English exodus
Updated 21 April 2021

Super League dead as Italian, Spanish clubs follow English exodus

Super League dead as Italian, Spanish clubs follow English exodus
  • The Super League promised guaranteed entry for its founding clubs and billions of dollars in payments

LONDON: The two Milan giants and Atletico Madrid followed all six English Premier League clubs in pulling out of the European Super League on Wednesday, dealing a fatal blow to the project.

The withdrawals by Manchester City, Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham came just 48 hours after the league’s unveiling late on Sunday following a furious response from fans and officials.

The three Italian clubs involved — Juventus, AC Milan and Inter Milan — admitted defeat and La Liga leaders Atletico Madrid also pulled out.

Real Madrid and Barcelona  — the last of the initial group of 12 clubs to sign up — have yet to make any comment but the project in its current form is dead in the water.

AC Milan were one of the main drivers behind the plans, having missed out on the Champions League for the past seven seasons.

The seven-time European champions said change was necessary due to the changing football landscape but admitted they “must be sensitive to the voice of those who love this wonderful sport.” 

Italian champions Juventus said they remained “convinced of the soundness of the project’s sport, commercial and legal premises” but accepted it could not go ahead in its original form.

The Super League promised guaranteed entry for its founding clubs and billions of dollars in payments. Most of the clubs have huge debts and wage bills, and suffered a sharp drop in revenues during the coronavirus pandemic.

But the project was vehemently opposed across the football spectrum, from fans to players, coaches, politicians and UEFA and FIFA, the European and world football bodies.

The clubs were threatened with a ban from domestic and European football, while their players could even have been barred from representing their countries.

UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin struck a conciliatory tone on Wednesday, saying he wanted to “rebuild the unity” of European football, and described the English clubs as “back in the fold.” 

“I said yesterday that it is admirable to admit a mistake and these clubs made a big mistake,” Ceferin said in a statement.

“But they are back in the fold now and I know they have a lot to offer not just to our competitions but to the whole of the European game.

“The important thing now is that we move on, rebuild the unity that the game enjoyed before this and move forward together.”

Shares in Juventus plunged by more than 13 percent on Wednesday following a slump in the value of Manchester United stocks.

In response to the English pullouts, the Super League had said it was looking for ways to “reshape,”  insisting the “status quo of European football needs to change”.

“We shall reconsider the most appropriate steps to reshape the project,” its statement said.

Liverpool owner John W Henry apologized for his part in the planned Super League after club captain Jordan Henderson said the players did not want it to happen.

“I want to apologize to all the fans and supporters of Liverpool Football Club for the disruption I caused over the last 48 hours,” the American said in a video posted on the club’s Twitter site.