Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Ayrton Senna and F1 today.

I used to be an F1 fanatic. From the age of 12 (when there were only 3 channels on TV and BBC2 dedicated Sunday afternoons to the Grand Prix races), I grew up to love the support along with the inane commentary of Murray Walker and his co-commentator James Hunt.
I was a keen fan of Nelson Piquet, and as he reached the end of his career, I started to follow a young upstart, another Brazilian named Ayrton Senna.

He quickly became my boy hood hero and I followed Senna avidly through his F1 career and his 3 championship titles. I even took up indoor karting under his inspiration. He raced the greats like Piquet, Prost and Schumacher and beat them all, but a fateful outing at Imola in 1994 saw Ayrton suffer a fatal crash. He had a poor start to the season that year, but led this race from the beginning. However, on lap 7, at a speed of over 300 kmh, Senna's Williams simply failed to turn into the Tamburello corner and he smashed into the barrier totally destroying the outside of the car. With new materials and technology, safety in Formula 1 had come a long way and the monocoque frame within which Senna was sitting actually saved his body from serious injury. Unfortunately, the cars front tyre ricocheted off the barrier and crushed Ayrton's head causing massive brain damage! He was announced dead a few hours later in hospital.

It was a sad weekend, and the world lost a great sportsman, and to me, the best driver that every lived. He mastery of tight courses and his legendary ability to drive in the rain will, and do, live on. A quiet man, he was great technically, a perfectionist and always supremely focussed. He wasn't in the sport for the money or the glamour. He was in it purely to be the fastest and the best in the world.

I lost interest in the sport that afternoon. Over the passing years I have tried to get back into it. I have followed it by it's results, but have not been inspired to spend weekend afternoons watching it. I even went to the inaugural Abu Dhabi race and took my son along to the trials to give him some exposure. It was a great father / son weekend. Shaan loved getting close to the cars and the noise and smell around a Formula 1 track cannot be matched ... but I still couldn't find excitement in the racing. To me, the sport had become too technical. I don't doubt the skill of the drivers, but I felt that the sport had become more "machine versus machine" instead of "man versus man". The cars are so sophisticated today (and for the past 10-15 years) that a dominant manufacturer can simply run away with the prize, at least that's what I believed until this weekend!

I wasn't planning it, but I had time on my hands and was channel surfing when I saw the Monaco race was on. Jensen Button was just pitting for a tyre change. 7 seconds to change 4 tyres! Perhaps I took this for granted when i was younger, but today I found that outstanding. Cross 10 seconds, and it's considered slow!

Button came out of the pit lane in 3rd place, and within a few laps was right behind the two front men ... Vettel and Alonso. Vettel on old tyres in first place. Alonso was right behind on slightly newer tyres and Button in 3rd place on fresh tyres. 15 laps to go and suddenly this was a race ... old school. It was riveting. 1.5 seconds separating the first three places. Would one driver make a wide turn and let another through? Would there be an over zealous overtaking manoeuvre that would take a driver (or two) out of the race? Each corner, schicane and straight was gripping. It was as it was when was a kid. I loved it. That old excitement was back! Sadly, an incident that occurred outside the top 3 caused the safety car to come out and the excitement ended prematurely.

Having been "out of touch", I don't know if I've been missing this for the past few years, or this was a one off incident, but this was enough to make me want to give watching the sport another chance.

Perhaps the timing my regained interest is fortuitous... I have just heard of a new movie being released next week called "Senna".

Monday, May 23, 2011

Bieber Fever !

I am just off a flight on which I saw "Never say Never", the documentary about Justin Bieber.

With 2 young kids at home, I can't help to have heard of Justin Bieber, and to be honest, as a "pop music" lover, I have heard some of his music on the radio and found it quite catchy ... but don't let my kids know that !

This teenage phenomenon has spawned great passion from young kids today. He is either loved or hated ... with a passion!

I understand those who have become positively fanatical about him, but what has spurned the "hatred"? Perhaps it's just envy of his success ? Either way, whatever one feels about him as a person, a celebrity or a musician, he has to be admired for what he has achieved till now. This is not an example of easy success or a manufatured "star". Justin Bieber is a talent who is the product of a social media revolution. He was not found and promoted by any of the major record labels (in fact to the contrary, he had to fight against their resistance to sign and promote him). He was found through his home videos on You Tube and followed on Twitter.

He is now a massive sensation and at just 16 years old is a mega star, touring the world and playing to sold out audiences in venues like Madison Square Gardens. In my opinion that takes more than luck. It takes more than just talent also! It takes courage and a drive that should be congratulated and not underestimated.

In addition, he is still growing up (he's been doing this for a couple of years now), and his single mother and grandparents have done an admirable job of keeping him "normal" (or as normal as can be expected). He is being tutored on tour, so he has a complete education, and he is being taught some decent and basic humble habits and manners.

And to me, this is the most remarkable thing, to handle all of this at such an early age. He is a singer, a dancer, a musician and a role model and idol to some very young and impressionable young girls, and unwittingly that brings a whole new responsibility with it.

Justin Bieber is lucky in this respect. He comes accross as a rather sensible young man, perhaps because he is also surrounded by a team of caring individuals. I don't doubt that a number of them want their pound of flesh as well, but he seems to he more protected than exploited right now and I hope that continues!

It must be unimaginable pressure at times. There must be times when this boy just wants to be a boy, and although he has willingly chosen this life and this path, that doesn't make it any easier or mean that one can't sympathise with the challenges he must face every day.

So whatever the opinion on his music, personality, performances or celebrity status, don't knock him for what he has achieved and how he has achieved it. You don’t have to like him or what he does, but I for one wish him continued success and more importantly, continued good guidance and protection from those around him who profit from him.

Good luck Justin!

Monday, May 9, 2011

3 days in Bordeaux

An early summer in Europe and we couldn’t resist the chance to get away for a few days in Bordeaux to enjoy a tour of the finest French wine country.

From Paris we took the TGV to Bordeaux, a beautiful city from the moment you step out of the station. We arrived at midday, a day later than the main group (3 other couples from the Moscow YPO) and so we went directly to meet them for lunch … to the spectacular city of St. Emillion.

We went directly into a beautiful courtyard restaurant and were acquainted with our group. We had to jump in at the deep end and catch up with the drinking, and it began with a lovely light chilled Rose on this beautiful day with excellent surroundings washing down an ample Entrecote steak.

To work off this heavy start, we continued on a tour of this historic village. St. Emillion was the first entire village to get protection under UNESCO and it is easy to see why. The impressive monolithic cathedral, the underground caves and the cobblestone streets make this a lovely place to roam around or just sit back and enjoy as the world passes by.

We didn’t have that luxury though. We knocked back our espressos and it was off to Chateau Petit Villages. This small “boutique” Chateau was a good place to start. Modest in name, they make a fine Pomerol and seem to have modernized themselves to bring production techniques into the 21st century. The astonishing thing I learned all along was the cost of failure for a crop. Wine making has become a science as much as it has always been an art!

Following this, we went to check in the hotel and then immidiately left for dinner. A simple restaurant on the river embankment that was packed. It certainly seemed popular, and my grilled prawns would vertainly have been one of the reasons for that.

At the end of this very pleasant evening and what had definatley a strenuous day for our stomaches, we decided to enjoy the gorgeous weather and walk back towards our hotel. Charming in the day, Bordeaux is beautiful at night.

A bright an early start the next day saw us go to two of the most famous producers in the region. Chateau Margeaux and Chateau Latour, and it was a great experience at both.

The properties in Bordeaux are beautifully kept and Chateau Margeaux and Chateau Latourare are simply stunning.

Chateau Margeaux
Chateau Margeaux, which has become an appelation in its own right, is a beautifully maintained property and Chateau Latour produces a lovely deep Pauillac and the landmark tower on the property adornes each bottle.

Chateau Latour

Each of these top rated vinyards manages to maintain their history and it is fascinating to learn about the subtle differences in each. The slightly different ways that each chooses to age their wine, and the differing quality control processes, but at the heart of both, this is traditional wine making at its best !

The Chateau Margaux cellar

"If you insist" - a taste of Margeaux!

Historic bottles of Chateau Latour

Degustation at Latour

Some young grapes at Chateau Latour.
Some day, these will be in a bottle for Euro500 !

We broke the chateau visits with a break for lunch. A small village restaurant (Cafe Lavinal) that served up an outstanding steak tartar and a superb grilled chicken. We enjoyed that with a delightfully fruity bottle of Le Cygne.
Lavinal ! ... looks like an anagram for Lalvani !
simply delicious !
The next (last day) was to be a real treat. We again had an early start to see the very exclusive Chateau Yquem. I had never heard of it, but we were told that this was the one not to miss. A Chateau draped in history and now owned by LVMH (we were told that Bernard Arneux comes twice a year to spend a week with his family here), the grounds are spectacular and the quality of the wine produced here is as near to perfect as you can get. This relatively small Chateau produces a beautifully sweet wine, that can not only be treated as a dessert wine, but a perfect accompaniment for strong or spicy foods. Here, each grape is individually plucked by a team of expert pickers who are constantly walking up and down the vinyard. There is no bunch picking and sorting here. There is no relevance of vintage here either. The wine has a window to be drunk either 2 years after bottling, or thereafter, 10 years after bottling (and a window each 10 years). It doesnt matter which year you buy, as Chateau Yquem has exacting standards. In their longer than 100 years history, there have been a handful of years where the Chateau has not produced any wine. The philosophy of this vinyard is simple. If the wine isn't perfect they don't bottle it. It will simply be a gap year where there is no Chateau Yquem produced. That takes discipline, but it seems to have paid off over the years, as people now know that any bottle of this fine wine is "guaranteed" to be good. That is why this is the only wine to attain the classification of Premier Cru Superieur.

The beautiful tree lined roads in the Sauternes
So, very satisfied, we headed back to the hotel for an afternoon of relaxation before a sumptuous meal at the hotel in the evening. Craving some "saucy" food, I picked out the Beef Strogonoff on the menu straight away, and it was perfect !
I go home feeling relaxed and well educated on a subject I, frankly, knew very little about. I will drink each bottle of wine in future with a greater understanding of what goes into its production process and also with fine memories of a thoroughly enjoyable trip.

Monday, May 2, 2011

One - Nil to The Ars-en-al !

A glorious summers day at the Emirates. The sun shining and the Arsenal came out to play Manchester United. It should have been the crunch game of the season. The winner was to take the spoils ... the Premier League title.

As it turned out, the last week saw Arsenal drop 9 out of a possible 11 points, and they are, for all intensive purposes, out of the race, but this match mattered for a whole host of other reasons.

On a practical level, Arsenal need the points to ensure a minimum of third place and automatic European qualification for next year. On an emotional level, they had to put in a performance against the league leaders to prove they are still contenders, and on a survival level, this was about Arsenal ending the season with respect. There has been too much bad press lately doom Arsenal, but they had to show that all is not lost. It may be (another) season without any silverware, but Arsenal remain in technical contention with just 4 games left in the season.

So the team came out, and after all the debate around Cesc Fabregas' future again, he was nowhere to be seen. Instead, the midfield was Wilshere, Ramsey and Song, and they proved today, beyond a doubt, that there can and will be life after Fabregas.

Today was a day when The Arsenal won 1-0. It was a super impressive performance against their biggest rivals. Admittedly Manchester United didn't look at their best, but Arsenal took the game to them. They dominated possession and played their beautiful passing game with no fear of their opposition. They worked hard, moved well, and eventually got the result they needed. A well crafted goal from Aaron Ramsey after a fine run by Van Persie. Perhaps more significantly even than the goal, was the resilience Arsenal showed after that as they ground out a result with resolute defending. So many times this year they have looked shaky at the back, and have never looked convincing when leading a game (even when 4-0 up!!!), but today was different. They looked confident and in control, and I hope this is a change of things for the future and better results for next year.

Alex Song was strong at the back of midfield, and Wilshere and Ramsey partnered superbly to show what the future of Arsenal football club holds.

The defence was strong (for once). They were resolute, solid and reliable and Szczesny was outstanding in goal. Commanding and reliable, for the first time in a while, I think Arsenal have a competent and reliable goalkeeper.

Up front, Van Persie worked tirelessly with Nasri and Walcott. Perhaps in the absence of Fabragas, all of these players are going to be able to come into their own and spread their wings. Nasri, the most skilful player in the Arsenal team (in my opinion), should have the freedom to flourish. He has ball skill and flair like no other.

The team played as a unit. They controlled possession and played their passing game as they wanted to. They did not cave to any pressure from their opposition. When the attacks didn't produce goals, every man on the pitch fought hard to keep or win back possession, and Man Utd, usually so powerful on the break, where largely ineffective.

I'm an eternal optimist, and as long as there is a mathmatical chance to win the league, I will not give up hope. A draw between Chelsea and United next week will really open things up, but I do accept that Arsenals chances are remote.

At the end of the day, I go home feeling this was a tremendously encouraging display by this Arsenal team and I believe gives hope for next season.

Arsene Wenger's way still has merit and his team still have ability and talent. Yes the defense can be strengthened and Vermaelen will be welcomed back, and a couple of "mediocre" players could be replaced by truly good players (read Denilson, Diaby, Squillaci, Eboue and , but this memoriable victory changes the feeling of all Arsenal supporters from their depressions of a week ago.

Hope reigns and a new season is not far away!