How I so nearly called it right…

As the avid reader of this blog will know, I have from time to time been known to spice up sporting events by putting a small amount of money on the outcome. Sometimes I bet on a dead-cert to try and make some sweetie money, sometimes I bet against the outcome as an insurance/compensation policy, and sometimes I pop a fiver on a rank outsider on nothing more than gut instinct.

My betting for the Malaysian Grand Prix followed the third of these doctrines. Well, actually that’s not strictly true, for there was an element of induction and deduction involved that was not present in previous ‘hunches’ like tipping North Korea to beat Brazil in the World Cup and backing Lionel Messi to score six goals in last season’s Champions League final (both of which, unsurprisingly, failed). This combination of gut instinct and logic brought me agonisingly, agonisingly close to a four-figure sum.

The Malaysian Grand Prix has a long history of heavy rainfall. In 2009, the race actually had to be stopped at half-distance because of torrential rain and was subsequently cancelled. That was the race where Kimi Raikkonen had an ice cream, Jenson Button won, and half points were awarded across the board. With the 2012 race starting at 4pm local time so as to be at a more friendly time for the European viewers, I and thousands of others saw there was a good chance that the daily monsoon would come halfway through the race. Given the strength of precipitation there has been in the past, this also meant there was a strong possibility of the race being curtailed and the winner being the guy who just happened to be leading when the red flags dropped.

The last season and a half has also seen a number of races where Mexico’s Sergio Perez has made an alarmingly low number of pitstops, due in part to his Sauber car treating its tyres very gently but thanks even more to his deft, measured, utterly brilliant driving. Perez wouldn’t have the speed to win the race outright, I thought, but he could well still be on his first set of tyres, and therefore be in the lead by virtue of having not made a pit stop, by the time the rain came. A plan was coming together. I checked the odds for Checo – as Sergio is known – and choked with laughter when I saw he was at 300/1 for the race win. This had to be worth a fiver.

Race starts. Perez loses out at the start, ends up behind his teammate who started seven places behind him. Perez pits early, goes onto full wets, then it really starts pissing down. The Mexican has fought back up to third by the time the red flag inevitably comes down on Lap 9. Bugger. So close. Should have gone each way.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock (or don’t follow F1), you’ll then know that something seemingly amazing happened. Checo then took off at lightning speed after the restart, ended up second after the next round of pitstops, and promptly proceeded to start reeling in race leader Fernando Alonso. As the gap went down from fourteen seconds to thirteen to twelve, then six to five to four, and then less than two, I started pulling and twisting my hair. And as my wife will tell you, that’s what I do when I get really anxious. There was a real and significant possibility that one of my silly bets was going to work.

And then Perez went off the track. All sorts of conspiracy theories started doing the rounds of the blogosphere, but I don’t think it’s possible to put his excursion down to anything other than what golf pundits would call ‘the yips’. It put me in a really funny mood for the rest of the day, for never before have I been close to winning so much money from gambling. If truth be told, the fact was that I was very shaken by what happened, and it kind of scared me. So much so that it’ll be a while before I back another driver in a race on a whim like that. On the plus side, so full of rage was I that I was returning balls like a boss at tennis that afternoon.

And what of Perez himself? He recovered and finished a fine second, a terrific result for his team. The rumours about him going to Ferrari to replace the stuttering Felipe Massa have gone into overdrive, but I can’t help but feel it’s all a bit premature. I’m not just saying that because he lost me money, or because I’m a big fan of his teammate Kamui Kobayashi, who had to retire from the same race with brake problems. No, I’m saying that because the current F1 grid features more than a few drivers who have been tipped for greatness after a good result, only to go on to mediocrity. Vitaly Petrov, third in the first race of the year in 2011 ring any bells? Nico Hulkenberg, polesitter for the 2010 Brazilian Grand Prix? Race-winner Heikki Kovalainen? I know all these cases are different, and I don’t want to take anything away from these drivers, all of whom have very special memories they will treasure for the rest of their lives, but in motor sport when the weather is funny and it’s early in the year, anything can happen. What Perez needs to do now is follow up on this with a few solid drives, and keep finishing ahead of a teammate that scored more than double his points total last year.

What’s also worth remembering is that there is a huge jump in expectation between a midfield team and a frontrunning team. Remember that one of the main reasons Massa is coming under pressure from the fans and the media is that he has more than his fair share of ‘off days’ alongside the few good races he has in the season. In the midfield, as a good friend of mine always says it’s easy to have ten or so poor races that slip under the radar, but generate lots of hype by punching about your weight in a few races in the year. At the front, on the other hand, one is under the spotlight every race – as Lewis Hamilton would be all to quick to point out. Consider Perez’s last two races before his stonking drive at Sepang. Australia 2012 –
collides with teammate at first corner, loses two places on last lap by colliding with rival car. Brazil 2011 – in race where team require points to secure position in Constructors’ Championship, spins out on a dry track with no cars around and no mechanical troubles. One can get away with such things in a mid-grid team, but at the sharp end the vultures would be starting to circle.

The above is not intended to take the shine off what is a tremendous achievement from Sergio Perez and his Sauber team. Rather, it’s just a note of caution that one terrific race does not a champion make, and that there is no guarantee that Perez – or di Resta, Hulkenberg, Kobayashi, Vergne or any of the other mid-grid heroes for that matter – would be able to turn in the consistently high standard of performances that the top teams demand. The time to really take notice is when someone is consistently tearing strips off their teammate, beating those in superior machinery and bringing in a steady haul of points. It may sound strange, but that’s worth a lot more than one heroic result, a few bent cars and a lot of anonymous races. As a wise middle-aged man once said to me about top-level motor sport, you’re only as good as your last cock-up.

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