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)
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

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.”


NEOM announces principal partnership with T20 cricket giants Rajasthan Royals

NEOM announces principal partnership with T20 cricket giants Rajasthan Royals
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NEOM announces principal partnership with T20 cricket giants Rajasthan Royals

NEOM announces principal partnership with T20 cricket giants Rajasthan Royals
  • Under agreement terms, team will sport NEOM’s corporate brand logo during India Premier League in 2024 and 2025

NEOM: NEOM, the sustainable development taking shape in the northwest of Saudi Arabia, announced it has been appointed as principal partner of Rajasthan Royals, one of India’s leading T20 cricket league teams.

Under the terms of the agreement, Rajasthan Royals will sport NEOM’s corporate brand logo on the chest of all official team clothing during the India Premier League in 2024 and 2025.

“We are delighted to welcome NEOM on board as our principal partner. This landmark deal, emblematic of our global reach, national appeal as a franchise and cricketing expertise, signifies a shared commitment towards creating a positive societal impact,” Manoj Badale, lead owner of Rajasthan Royals, said.

“Over the past year, our collaboration has not only elevated cricket within NEOM through the strategic implementation of our workforce cricket program but has also contributed significantly to their mission of fostering a physically active and inclusive society.

“We are excited to be the flag bearers of cricket in NEOM, with the potential to contribute to the overall growth of the sport across the Kingdom, which is being driven by the Saudi Arabian government and the Saudi Arabian Cricket Federation,” he added.

“This partnership also provides us with the opportunity to work as a conduit for fostering connections between NEOM and our passionate Indian supporters.”

The partnership builds on the success of a 2023 pilot program, with this year’s initiative marking another step forward in NEOM’s commitment to nurturing a physically active and healthy society.

Its work with both Rajasthan Royals and the SACF will enable NEOM to provide cricket opportunities for men and women, supporting young Saudi talent to excel in the sport.

Prince Saud bin Mishal Al-Saud, chairman of the SACF, said: “We are thrilled to see the formalization of NEOM’s cricket partnership with Rajasthan Royals, which holds great promise for the growth of the sport across Saudi Arabia. It’s important that we continue to develop a vibrant cricket community that can be enjoyed by all.”

Jan Paterson, managing director of NEOM Sport, said: “Following a successful pilot program last year, we are excited to take our partnership with the Royals to the next level as a principal partner and continue growing cricket as a tool for social growth. Working with the Saudi Arabian Cricket Federation and Rajasthan Royals will enable us to provide cricket for men, women, girls and boys alike, across NEOM. This will pave the way for development at an individual level and contribute to the growth of the sport across the Kingdom while amplifying the NEOM brand globally.”


Ronaldo returns against Al-Ain as Al-Nassr eye AFC Champions League glory

Ronaldo returns against Al-Ain as Al-Nassr eye AFC Champions League glory
Updated 04 March 2024
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Ronaldo returns against Al-Ain as Al-Nassr eye AFC Champions League glory

Ronaldo returns against Al-Ain as Al-Nassr eye AFC Champions League glory
  • 9 points behind Al-Hilal in the SPL title race, Al-Nassr’s best chance of success this season could be in the Asian competition

RIYADH: Cristiano Ronaldo returns to action for Al-Nassr on Monday with a simple task: rescue the team’s season and lead them to success in the AFC Champions League.

On Monday, the nine-time Saudi Arabia champions will make the short trip to the UAE to take on Al-Ain in the first leg of the quarterfinal in Asia’s biggest club competition. It comes at a crucial time in the season for a team that has never won the continental title.

At the moment, Al-Nassr are in second in the Roshn Saudi League but Ronaldo was on the sidelines last Thursday with head in his hands as Al-Nassr hosted the bottom team Al-Hazem.

Four times the Yellows took the lead and fans and Ronaldo sat back in anticipation of a comfortable win. Yet four times the visitors came back, helped by some dreadful Al-Nassr defending, to draw 4-4 and grab a point.

The 39-year-old had been banned for one game after making an offensive gesture during a Saudi Arabia league match four days earlier. At the end of the 3-2 win over Al-Shabab, video footage appeared to show Ronaldo cupping his ear and repeatedly thrusting his hand forward near his pelvis, in a gesture that seemed to be aimed at Al-Shabab fans.

The draw with Al-Hazem leaves Al-Nassr — even at this stage of the season — with a mountain to climb if they are to win the Saudi Pro League.

“Ronaldo strengthens the team and ensures that the opponent respects you more but his absence had nothing to do with the result,” said a visibly frustrated Al-Nassr coach Luis Castro. “The fact is that we are conceding too many goals and the problem is not organizational but due to individual mistakes. At the moment we are now focused on the Asian Champions League.”

Al-Hilal’s 3-1 win over Al-Ittihad on Friday leaves them strong favorites for another league championship. In theory it is not over — Hilal themselves have overturned such deficits in the past to lift the title. But with the leaders winning their last 25 games in all competitions, it is almost unimaginable that they will not win a 19th league title.

So it means that Al-Nassr know that only glory in Asia and winning the continental championship for the first time will save their season. The King’s Cup is always a welcome domestic trophy, but does not quite hold the same gravitas.

The tie against Al-Ain will not be easy. The Emirati club won their group and then got past Nasaf of Uzbekistan in the round of 16. They are going well at home and abroad and are unbeaten in eight, with seven of those ending in victory.

They possess plenty of attacking talent and will have watched Al-Nassr’s defensive issues of late with interest. Kodjo Fo-Doh Laba especially will be looking forward to it. The Togolese international has already scored six goals in Asia this season and has been in fine form domestically.

Al-Ain boss Hernan Crespo will have some sympathy for Al-Nassr. The Argentine legend was in charge of Qatar’s Al-Duhail last year and took the team to the last four where they were hit for seven by Hilal.

“We know how strong Al-Nassr are,” said Crespo. “They are full of talented players and it will be a great challenge for us. You expect to face tough opposition at this stage of the continental championship. We will have to be at our best.”

While Ronaldo’s return is big news, there will also be huge interest in Tuesday’s clash between Al-Hilal and Al-Ittihad in Riyadh.

Hilal’s recent SPL win over the Tigers was deserved though, the team from Jeddah could have gone in at the break 2-0 ahead instead of 1-0, and then the rest of the game would have been very different.

The problem for Al-Ittihad, and shared by the rest of the Saudi Arabia teams as well as Asia, is how to stop Al-Hilal.

Now that the Blues are nine points clear at the top of the table, they can almost afford to turn their focus to the Champions League.

Hilal may still have Neymar out, but Aleksandar Mitrovic is in excellent form as are Ruben Neves and Sergej Milinkovic-Savic.

But Al-Ittihad can also save their season. The best they can probably manage at home is to sneak into the top three.

A win in Asia, however, and a third continental title would make what has been a forgettable season into something special. It is the biggest game of their season and Al-Nassr can say the same.


Saudi Arabian Football Federation launches platform to broadcast local competition matches across the Kingdom

Saudi Arabian Football Federation launches platform to broadcast local competition matches across the Kingdom
Updated 04 March 2024
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Saudi Arabian Football Federation launches platform to broadcast local competition matches across the Kingdom

Saudi Arabian Football Federation launches platform to broadcast local competition matches across the Kingdom
  • SAFF+ will initially deliver coverage of 15 men’s and women’s competitions utilizing cloud broadcast technology and cameras in 62 stadiums
  • Platform also set to house player database to support clubs, coaches, scouts and national youth teams with talent technical analysis

RIYADH: The Saudi Arabian Football Federation has unveiled SAFF+, an AI-assisted multi-purpose digital platform that will air all local competition matches that do not have exclusive broadcast rights.

The SAFF+ platform will begin streaming matches on a trial basis through its dedicated website, with a smartphone application set to be launched next week, the federation said in a release on Monday.

The platform will initially broadcast live coverage of 15 competitions held across 62 stadiums, with more to follow. Utilizing cloud broadcasting technology alongside the high-quality multi-angle cameras fitted in stadiums, SAFF+ will deliver coverage with a Riyadh-based broadcast center overseeing and managing production.

Yasser Al-Misehal, president of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation, said: “The launch of SAFF+ is the realization of a dream to help take Saudi football to the next level and provide fans with instantaneous access to matches being held throughout the Kingdom. By embracing digital transformation and technology integration, we’re excited to enhance fan access to various levels of our national football ecosystem while simultaneously delivering benefits to clubs, coaches, scouts, and our national youth team set-ups through this innovative digital-first platform.”

Besides broadcasting a wide range of men’s and women’s matches across Saudi Arabia, the SAFF has revealed that the platform will also become home to an extensive player database. This is for clubs and national youth teams to access player statistics and data for technical analysis and performance evaluation. Furthermore, this feature is intended to assist coaches and scouts in their talent discovery endeavors.

The new channel is the latest step in the SAFF’s long-term, football transformation strategy, launched in 2021 to help elevate Saudi Arabia to elite status in world football.

The platform will also feature digital content related to the federation’s activities and events, serving as a hub where fans can keep updated on the country’s latest football news, and access behind-the-scenes content.


‘World class’ Foden reaches new heights as Man City inflict more misery on Man Utd

‘World class’ Foden reaches new heights as Man City inflict more misery on Man Utd
Updated 04 March 2024
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‘World class’ Foden reaches new heights as Man City inflict more misery on Man Utd

‘World class’ Foden reaches new heights as Man City inflict more misery on Man Utd
MANCHESTER: Pep Guardiola said Phil Foden has become a “world class” talent capable of deciding big games after the 23-year-old scored twice in Manchester City’s 3-1 win over Manchester United on Sunday.
Marcus Rashford’s wonder strike had fired United into a shock lead at the Etihad.
Erling Haaland was then guilty of a miss that will go down in Premier League folklore when he fired over an open goal just before half-time.
But Foden ensured City ceded no ground in the title race as he blasted into the top corner to level and then produced a composed finish 10 minutes from time.
Haaland atoned for his earlier miss in added time as City moved to within one point of Liverpool ahead of a top-of-the-table clash between the two next Sunday.
“I always had the feeling he would score goals and now he is winning games. To become a world class-player at that age you have to win games,” said Guardiola.
“He lives to play football. That’s why with 18, 19 years old he proved things but now he’s more mature.
“He always scored goals but now scores goals that win games and when you do this, you reach another level as a player.”
An 11th league defeat of the season for United leaves Erik ten Hag’s men 11 points adrift of the top four with 11 games remaining.
United could have few complaints after being outplayed and having just one shot on target, even if it was a spectacular one.
Rashford rounded on his critics this week as he hit back at questions of his commitment.
The England international has been a pale imitation of the forward who scored 30 goals last season for most of this campaign, but showed a glimpse of the quality by smashing in off the crossbar from long range.
Guardiola’s men dominated from that moment on, but were kept at bay for nearly an hour by wayward finishing and some fine goalkeeping by Andre Onana.
Twice the Cameroonian foiled Foden when clean through, while Rodri was also denied by a smart stop low to his left.
United’s lead remained intact until half-time but only thanks to a moment that will be replayed for years.
City finally cut the visitors’ massed defense to shreds as Rodri’s cross was headed back across goal by Foden, inviting the finishing touch from Haaland.
However, he incredibly turned the ball over with the goal gaping from point-blank range.
The rearguard action from the Red Devils was finally undone as Foden produced a strike to match Rashford’s in the first half.
Ten Hag was furious that a foul had not been awarded to Rashford at the other end, but he appeared to go to ground too easily under contact from Kyle Walker.
Rodri picked out Foden, who cut inside and arrowed a blistering shot into the top corner.
A slick one-two between Foden and Julian Alvarez opened up the United defense for the decisive goal as the England international fired in his 18th of the season.
“That’s my aim, to turn up in the big games,” said Foden, who has now scored six goals in nine Premier League games against United.
“That’s what I want to do. I think this season I’m proving that.
“I understand what it means to the fans. It means everything to me. To score is even better, but it was all about the win today.”
Haaland’s redemption rounded off a fine afternoon for the English champions.
Rodri dispossessed Sofyan Amrabat and teed up the Norwegian to curl beyond Onana for his 28th goal of the season.

IT firm Atos announces Riyadh HQ, sports technology center during LEAP conference

IT firm Atos announces Riyadh HQ, sports technology center during LEAP conference
Updated 03 March 2024
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IT firm Atos announces Riyadh HQ, sports technology center during LEAP conference

IT firm Atos announces Riyadh HQ, sports technology center during LEAP conference
  • The firm said its new Riyadh HQ and center of excellence would also help support Saudi Arabia’s development

LONDON: Global information technology services firm Atos announced on Sunday its plans to open a sports technology center in the second quarter of 2024 as part of its new MENA (Middle East and North Africa) headquarters in Riyadh.

Announced at the LEAP 2024 conference, an Atos statement said the center would enable the firm to continue providing “best-in-class IT services and solutions to global sporting events” and “develop cutting-edge technology applications to benefit athletes, fans and the sports sector in Saudi Arabia.”

Marc Veelenturf, CEO for the Middle East and Turkiye at Atos, said: “Through the Sports Technology Center of Excellence, Atos will empower organizations in Saudi Arabia with the technologies needed to thrive in the Kingdom’s digital economy. Drawing upon our best-in-class digital tools and IT solutions, the center will become the epicenter for major events technology and digital innovation in the region.” 

The firm said its new Riyadh HQ and center of excellence would also help support Saudi Arabia’s public sector initiatives, transformation projects and various giga-projects and smart destinations such as Expo 2030 and Saudi Entertainment and Amusement Expo.

Mutaz Salem, general manager at Atos, said: “Atos will enable Saudi’s major projects to become pioneering, future-proof smart destinations rooted in tradition, sport and culture with strong expertise and experience.”

Javier Escudero, commercial director at the firm’s Major Events arm, said: “The center of excellence will be located in the heart of Riyadh to provide major events with seamless technology, orchestrating flawless operations and secure data flow.

“Our unique track record in sport includes over 25 Asian projects such as the Olympic Games, and Asian, Arab and Gulf Games. Atos’ innovative solutions will serve as the backbone, enabling organizers to captivate audiences worldwide while ensuring reliability and precision behind the scenes.”