Posts by James

Watch out for a Raikkonen renaissance at the Belgian Grand Prix

It has been a difficult season for him, but the Hungarian Grand Prix showed some light at the end of the tunnel for Kimi Raikkonen. Since rejoining Ferrari at the start of the season, he has finished inside the points seven times, but the race at the Hungaroring was the first time he had finished inside the top six. He is also yet to finish ahead of team mate Fernando Alonso in a race.

He currently sits 12th in the championship which, if the season finished today, would be his worst drivers’ championship finish ever. This includes his maiden Formula One season back in 2001 for Sauber which he ended tenth, before which he had only a season of car racing experience (Max Verstappen, take note).

The crash at Silverstone might have grabbed the headlines but it is Raikkonen’s consistent lack of performance which is notable. It is as if old habits have returned. Kimi’s F1 career is of course split into two distinct parts, before and after his two-year break to try his hand at rallying. But even within those two sections, it is almost as if there have been two drivers taking his place.


Belgian Grand Prix betting odds:

Lewis Hamilton -143

Nico Rosberg +160

Daniel Ricciardo +1600

(All odds provided by are accurate as of today and subject to change)


At McLaren between 2002 and 2006, Raikkonen was regarded as one of the fastest drivers ever, and was only robbed of the 2005 championship by an incredibly unreliable car. But after moving to Ferrari, his performances became erratic. Even in winning the championship in 2007, he was unconvincing, with team mate Felipe Massa, previously (and since) regarded as an unremarkable driver, proving a match over their two-and-a-half years as team mates.

Throughout his time at Ferrari, speculation was rampant that he had lost motivation, perhaps encouraged by his typically Finnish approach to dealing with the media (i.e. barely) and alcohol (i.e. drinking lots of it). When it was announced he was being replaced by Fernando Alonso at the team, it was widely believed that he was being paid to leave and do something else, such as flinging Citroens between and into trees.

Which leads to one theory doing the rounds this year – that Raikkonen’s return to F1 in 2012 with Lotus was primarily motivated by money. This shouldn’t really be a shock, but there’s more to it: basically that after Kimi’s Ferrari pay-off finished, he needed to replace that source of income, so he needed to return to F1 with the purpose of getting back into Ferrari, after which he could go back to not caring. Thus, it would explain his exceptional first two seasons at Lotus and his sudden drop-off in performance this year.

But to be honest, this all seems a bit too cynical. To assume that Raikkonen had the next three years mapped out when he returned ignores the reality of the situation. Lotus ran out of money last year, to the point where Kimi wasn’t even being paid on time, and if you’re a former world champion who has finished third and fifth in the last two championships, you have enough market value to avoid this. The fact that Lotus have continued to tail off dramatically this season suggests he made the correct call to leave.


However, rejoining Ferrari might not have been the most sensible move, even if it made sense at the time. Yes, he was rejoining the team with whom he won the championship, but he was never entirely comfortable there, and he was to be driving alongside Fernando Alonso, probably the fastest and most consistent driver in F1 who has outperformed his team mates and machinery year in year out for a decade.

Before the start of the 2014 season, there were forecasts of tension and bust-ups as the two former champions battled for victory. There has been none of this, mainly because Kimi hasn’t got close enough to create any tension – not only has he been way behind his team mate, but Ferrari have had their worst season for over twenty years, with Alonso doing a remarkable job in putting himself fourth in the standings.

But the Belgian Grand Prix provides a massive opportunity for Raikkonen to kick on, as it is with Spa-Francorchamps that he has his best relationship within the sport. He won here for McLaren in 2004 and 2005, Ferrari in 2007 and 2009, and came close to a win in 2008 but for a mistake while battling Lewis Hamilton on a damp track. He also finished third here in 2012.

If there are races missing here, it’s because they either weren’t held (2003, 2006) or because he retired due to mechanical problems (2001, 2002, 2013). In short: the guy’s quick here.


Spa is one of the most unorthodox circuits on the calendar, with its high-speed sweeping corners that would never be allowed today and its erratic, unpredictable climate. The races here are often amongst the most exciting of the season, although it’s going to have to be a special one this year to compete with Bahrain and Hungary.

Theoretically Mercedes should once again have the advantage in pace, and 2010 Spa winner Lewis Hamilton will begin as favourite, but the teams behind are closing, and as we saw in Hungary, they will be on the defensive if it starts to rain.

Raikkonen’s expertise here will be an enormous help to Ferrari, who sit third in the constructors’ championship (albeit mostly due to Alonso’s contributions) but are rapidly being caught by Williams, who have emerged as Mercedes’ closest challengers in the dry. Ferrari haven’t gone a season without a win since 1993, when Jean Todt arrived to kick-start the transformation of the team into world-beaters once again.


There are rumours of driver changes for next season or beyond, including the possible arrival of Sebastian Vettel, but in the medium-term, it seems as if the team’s decline could only be stemmed by the arrival of another Todt to transform the way the team is run into a more efficient unit.

However, that won’t happen overnight. In the short-term, this may be their best opportunity for a victory for the rest of the season, and it’s certainly Raikkonen’s best shot of some silverware.


Betting Instinct tip – Kimi Raikkonen to finish on the podium this weekend is +1400 with


Sports blogger JamesJAMES BENNETT is a History MPhil/PhD student, who writes about soccer, Formula 1 and the NFL in his spare time to pay for his studies. He is also a Torquay United fan. He publishes articles in his sports blog, and you can follow him on Twitter and Google+.


Rosberg and Mercedes look to make history at Hockenheim

After retiring from the British Grand Prix, Nico Rosberg needs a strong result at his home race

Not since 1954 has a German car won a Formula One World Championship German Grand Prix. German drivers have won it – Michael and Ralf Schumacher, and last year’s winner Sebastian Vettel – and cars with German-badged engines have also won, but you have to look back to Juan Manuel Fangio’s win for Mercedes at the old Nurburgring Nordschliefe, once the most feared circuit in the world, to see a German car take the chequered flag. A German driver in a German car? You have to look back to the pre-war era, when German manufacturers Mercedes and Auto Union (the forerunner of Audi) were the dominant forces and employed drivers like Rudolf Caracciola, Bernd Rosemeyer and Hans Stuck Sr.

So no pressure on Nico Rosberg then. He might not necessarily be the most authentic German ever – his father is Finnish and he was brought up in Monaco – but he drives with the German flag on the side of his car, and that is all the records will show if he wins the German Grand Prix at Hockenheim this weekend.

And boy how he needs it. At the British Grand Prix, he looked all set to tighten his grip on the championship. After qualifying on pole with Lewis Hamilton losing out on a drying track, he led the race ahead of his team mate, only to suffer his first mechanical failure of the season. With Hamilton winning the race, Rosberg’s lead in the standings was slashed from 29 points to just four – had his car held out, it would probably have been 36.


German Grand Prix Betting Odds:

Lewis Hamilton -167

Nico Rosberg +180

Valtteri Bottas +1600

(All odds provided by are accurate as of today and subject to change)


Rosberg has now lost the momentum he had been building. In the previous three races, he had finished ahead of Hamilton and looked to be getting the better of his team mate, who was known to be faster but also more likely to make errors. Rosberg was always likely to have to rely on reliability and consistency to win the championship, so to lose 25 points to Hamilton at this stage was an enormous blow, as it puts the 2008 champion within striking distance once again – a win for the Brit here will see him take the championship lead.


Adding to the pressure, Rosberg’s record at the German Grand Prix is underwhelming. Since joining Mercedes in 2010, his best finish at the race, which is rotated between Hockenheim and the truncated Nurburgring, is seventh in 2011. In the last race at Hockenheim in 2012, he finished tenth, and last year at the Nurburgring he finished ninth.

It is a surprisingly poor record considering he spent the bulk of his junior career racing in Germany – he won the German Formula BMW series in 2002, followed by two years in the German-centric Formula Three Euro Series, during which time he won two races at Hockenheim. He even won at the circuit during his GP2 championship-winning season. So is it all just down to bad luck or poor machinery?


Hamilton, on the other hand, is a former winner at the circuit in F1, having taken a dramatic victory in 2008, carving his way through after a late safety car jumbled the field. However, this is the only time he has even finished on the podium at Hockenheim. In 2012, he retired after his 100th grand prix was ruined by an early puncture. However, he did also win the 2011 German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring for McLaren.

The last two German Grands Prix at Hockenheim have been won by Fernando Alonso for Ferrari. The 2010 race was particularly memorable for the use of team orders, with the infamous “Fernando is faster than you” hint to his team mate Felipe Massa. But while Ferrari are off the pace and Alonso is unlikely to extend his winning run at the circuit, Massa may be a dark horse. Williams have shown improved pace in recent races, with Massa taking pole ahead of team mate Valtteri Bottas at the Spielberg circuit in Austria, a similar Hermann Tilke-designed circuit to Hockenheim, while Bottas charged through the field at Silverstone to finish second.

How sweet would it be if four years after being asked to concede a victory to his team mate, Massa ended his victory drought, which stretches back to the 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix. Williams too have not tasted success much in recent years, with just one win since the end of 2004, and Bottas is yet to win, so any win for one of the team’s drivers would be popular and emotional. And yet they may be the nearest challengers to the dominant Silver Arrows.


As for home favourite Sebastian Vettel, it seems unlikely that he will mount a challenge. Instead, he will just be hoping for a change of luck – and to beat his team mate for once. Amazingly, Vettel is yet to beat his team mate Daniel Ricciardo in a race where both drivers finish, and only picked up a better result than the Australia in Malaysia, where Ricciardo failed to finish. Part of this is down to unreliability, but Vettel also simply hasn’t been as consistent as the youngster, and few would deny that the 28-point lead he has isn’t representative.

Vettel, like Rosberg, has a very patchy record on home soil, his win at the Nurburgring last year ending a poor run of results. The last time he came to Hockenheim, he was penalised by driving off the track while overtaking Jenson Button, dropping him from second to fifth, leaving his best result at the circuit as the third place finish in 2010. Surely it is unlikely that he will finish any higher than that on Sunday.

Instead, the attention at home will be focusing on Rosberg. His father Keke won the world championship via stealth in 1982, winning only one race all season. Nico has employed similar tactics this season, but he has to win races too if he is going to defeat his team mate. Hockenheim is as good a place as any to start.


Betting Instinct tip – Nico Rosberg to win the Formula 1 Drivers’ Championship is +130 with, and a win this weekend would put him in a great spot to do so.

Unfamiliar with American-style betting odds? Learn how to convert them to decimal or fractional odds with our handy guide


Sports blogger JamesJAMES BENNETT (James) is a History MPhil/PhD student, who writes about soccer, Formula 1 and the NFL in his spare time to pay for his studies. He is also a Torquay United fan. He publishes articles in his sports blog, and you can follow him on Twitter and Google+.

Could we see the first ever African World Cup winner in 2014?

Côte d’Ivoire are one of two African teams in the top 25 of the FIFA World Rankings

Much of the build-up to this year’s World Cup has seen the African challenge dismissed. But pride often comes before the fall: Cameroon defeated reigning champions Argentina and rocked England in 1990, Senegal were written off as no-hopers in 2002 before their remarkable run, and Ghana came within a hand’s width of the semi-finals four years ago. This group of African teams is arguably the strongest in years, and any of the continent’s five representatives could cause shocks.


Cameroon (401.00 to win the tournament with

Of all the African teams, Cameroon have been given the weakest hand. The Indomitable Lions were given the unenviable task of sitting alongside three good sides in Group A: they face Mexico first, followed by Croatia and the small matter of hosts Brazil in Brasilia’s National Stadium. Their current crop of players has not been blessed with creativity, instead relying on solid defensive midfielders like former Arsenal star Alex Song and Aston Villa outcast Jean Makoun.

And yet that may work to their advantage – great World Cup sides are often built from the back and are very difficult to beat, a mould Cameroon fit. They also have a strong group of forwards, spearheaded as ever by the legendary Samuel Eto’o, hoping to finally lead his team out of the group in his fourth and likely final World Cup appearance. Qualification seems doubtful, but they will certainly influence the result of the group.

Betting Instinct tip – Cameroon to score more than 2.5 goals in the group stages is 2.20 with


Côte d’Ivoire (151.00 with

Côte d’Ivoire, on the other hand, have a more straightforward task in progressing from the group stage. After two difficult draws in 2006 and 2010, they have been set the task of finding a way through a group that contains Japan, Colombia and Greece, all eminently beatable teams. Didier Drogba is no longer the centre-point of this team, with Swansea’s Wilfried Bony likely to start up front, but Yaya Toure is now an enormous influence. Where the other remaining members of the”Golden Generation” have already begun to decline, the Manchester City midfielder is operating at the peak of his powers and is capable of winning games on his own.

Yaya’s presence may be enough to guide The Elephants into the second round for the first time, but his supporting cast is also impressive. Alongside him in midfield will be Newcastle’s Cheick Tiote, with the width provided by Roma’s Gervinho and former Leeds winger Max Gradel. They look shaky defensively, with a centre-back partnership of the ageing Didier Zokora and former Leicester defender Sol Bamba, but can also call on rising star Serge Aurier at full-back. If the Golden Generation want a Golden Opportunity to qualify for the next round, this is it.

Betting Instinct tip Côte d’Ivoire to reach the quarter-finals is 5.50 with


Nigeria (201.00 with

As in three of their last four appearances at the World Cup, Nigeria have been drawn against Argentina. The Super Eagles fans must be sick of the sound of the Argentine national anthem, as they lost all three of those meetings by a solitary goal. But Nigeria enter the World Cup as strong as they have ever been, with a young, talented group of players who have already proven they can perform on the big occasion by winning the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations.

The player that scored the winning goal in the final, Sunday Mba, was a shock omission from the squad, but the other leading Nigerian talents were included: Emmanuel Emenike, John Obi Mikel, Ogenyi Onazi, and of course Shola Ameobi. There was also a surprise recall for in-form Stoke striker Peter Odemwingie. Captained by experienced goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama, this is a well-balanced squad, superior to Iran and capable of ousting Bosnia & Herzegovina from second place.

Betting Instinct tip – With the other African sides facing challenging groups, Nigeria to go the furthest of all the African sides could be worth a punt at 4.00 with


Ghana (126.00 with

Ghana have a much tougher task, but do at least have the experience of qualifying for the second round in the last two World Cups. Much of the side remains the same from that famous run of four years ago: Kevin-Prince Boateng has once again come out of international retirement just in time for the tournament, while Asamoah Gyan no doubt has some demons to banish after his extra-time penalty miss, though has pledged not to take another penalty in his career. In addition, Michael Essien returns after missing the 2010 tournament due to injury, but he is now a faded force and not even guaranteed to start in a midfield which also includes Sulley Muntari, Kwadwo Asamoah and Emmanuel Agyemang-Badu.

Perhaps the player to watch, though, is striker Majeed Waris. The 22-year-old Spartak Moscow forward has scored four times in his first nine appearances for the Black Stars, and has forced his way into a starting berth alongside Gyan. One of these came in the dramatic 6-1 play-off first leg win at home to Egypt which ultimately secured Ghana’s place at the World Cup, a display that demonstrated that when on song they are a formidable attacking force. Though they face a strong group in Germany, Portugal and old foes the USA, don’t count them out just yet.

Betting Instinct tip Majeed Waris to top-score for Ghana is 7.00 with


Algeria (751.00 with

Algeria are also being given little hope, as pundits have already slotted them into the discussion for the weakest team in the tournament. But you could be forgiven for thinking that this is much the same team that slogged its way through three narrow, scrappy games in 2010. Coach Vahid Halilhodzic has overseen a transition to a new generation of talented youngsters, with an attack-minded team which includes Inter’s Saphir Taider, Napoli’s Faouzi Ghoulam, Valencia’s Sofiane Feghouli, and Sporting Club’s Islam Slimani. Added to this, Tottenham’s teenage midfielder Nabil Bentaleb has worked his way into the squad after previously playing for France’s U19 side, while Leicester winger Riyad Mahrez has also been picked after a fine season.

Captained by former Rangers defender Madjid Bougherra, the oldest player in the squad at 31, this is a young side being built for the future, and we may not see Algeria become a force in African football for another two or three years. But if they are dismissed as routinely by Belgium, Russia and South Korea as they are by observers, they are certainly capable of picking up some points in this group. As with Cameroon, progression seems unlikely, but they can certainly be influential. The spirit of 1982, when Algeria defeated West Germany, is with them; their controversial elimination from that tournament will inspire them. Like all the African teams heading to Brazil, they will not be pushovers.

Betting Instinct tip Algeria to pick up three points in their group is 4.50 with


Sports blogger JamesJAMES BENNETT (James) is a History MPhil/PhD student, who writes about soccer, Formula 1 and the NFL in his spare time to pay for his studies. He is also a Torquay United fan. He publishes articles in his sports blog, and you can follow him on Twitter and Google+.

Hamilton hoping for a champagne shower, not a rain shower


Monaco is probably the most recognisable Grand Prix circuit in the world

Monaco is probably the most recognisable Grand Prix circuit in the world

The Monaco Grand Prix is probably the most clichéd sporting event in the world. If I was given £1 for every time the words ‘glitz’ and ‘glamour’ were mentioned over the course of the week of the race, I’d probably be able to afford a trip to the principality next year…well, providing I don’t try and buy any loaves of bread there.

What is the Monaco Grand Prix, though? To be honest, it’s the second-biggest pain in the arse of the F1 season (the biggest being the annual Bernie Ecclestone Offensive-Comment-a-Thon). It’s that one time a year when the rich and famous crawl from under their rocks and turn up at an F1 race, claiming they have always loved the sport and that they want the red car to win. The races are generally tedious processions, as it’s virtually impossible to overtake around the circuit; believe it or not, what Herbie did in the tunnel in Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo is actually impossible.

And it’s also incredibly dangerous – there’s not much stopping a car leaving the circuit and flying into a building or the harbour. Even the various safety improvements, taking the barriers back and thus making crashing far less likely (and the races more predictable), have not changed that.

And yet…the place has an aura. Nothing in F1 beats the feeling when watching the first moment of qualifying, where a car comes out of the pits and accelerates up the hill to Casino Square for the first time. As a circuit that’s only active for two weekends per year (the other being the Historic Grand Prix weekend, which clashed with the Spanish Grand Prix last weekend and proved to be much more interesting than the ‘real’ thing), it has still retained its special feel.


Monaco Grand Prix Betting Odds:

Lewis Hamilton – 1.60

Nico Rosberg – 2.60

Sebastian Vettel – 15.00

(All odds provided by are accurate as of today and subject to change)


Only the relatively minor events in Pau and Macau can compare for racing around such a dramatic city. Only the Indianapolis 500 (which incidentally takes place on the same day as Monaco) and the Le Mans 24 Hours have the history and status to match it. Ask any lay person about motorsport and Monaco is probably one of the things they will mention. Ask any lay person about Monaco and the grand prix is probably the first thing they will mention.


But the bigger picture entering Monaco week is that this may be another two-horse race. Lewis Hamilton arrives at the principality having won the last four races, and his team having won all five of this season’s grands prix. Lewis has only won the race once, but the way in which he won it suggests more are to come: in 2008, he recovered to win a dramatic wet races after an early puncture. He has always performed well and the circuit suits his driving style. Once again, he enters this race as the favourite for victory.

Team mate Nico Rosberg is also at home on the streets of Monte Carlo – quite literally, in this case, as he lives here. He won last year’s race convincingly, having finished second in 2012. After four second-place finishes in a row, he is undoubtedly keen to pick up his second win of the season; a fifth consecutive finish behind Hamilton will only increase the Englishman’s momentum and make it much more difficult for him to keep pace.


But while Mercedes’ dominance this year has been crushing thus far, there are some who doubt they can maintain it on the Monegasque streets, including Fernando Alonso. However, a Ferrari challenge seems unlikely judging by recent form, despite Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen having a combined total of three wins here themselves. Amazingly it’s now 13 years since Ferrari last won in Monaco, making it one of the team’s longest barren runs. The last win came courtesy of Michael Schumacher, who somehow managed to contrive not to win here during his most dominant seasons, a lesson Hamilton and Rosberg should heed.

The most likely challengers to Mercedes should be Red Bull, who have emerged as best-of-the-rest despite a rocky winter testing period and the disappointing Renault engine. Before Rosberg’s win last year, they had won three consecutive Monaco Grands Prix, with two wins for Mark Webber and one for Sebastian Vettel, who benefited from a late race stoppage in 2011. The champion’s record around Monaco has been inconsistent, which may again play into the hands of young team mate Daniel Ricciardo, fresh off the back of his first career podium in Spain.


You can probably also count on a challenge from Williams. Felipe Massa is a former pole sitter at Monaco, while Valtteri Bottas is performing well up against the experienced Brazilian, having qualified fourth in Barcelona. But like Ferrari, the team also don’t have a great record here, with their last win coming in 2003 with Juan Pablo Montoya at the wheel; their previous victory came courtesy of Nico’s father Keke Rosberg in 1983. A podium here this year would be a very good result for them.

As for McLaren, they are slowly slipping back into the midfield despite a positive start, with Jenson Button and Kevin Magnussen struggling to live up to the high expectations. They are no longer even the third-best Mercedes-powered team, with Force India now more likely to score points; they picked up a fifth place finish at Monaco last year thanks to Adrian Sutil, and a similar result would provide them with a major points boost.

But once again, this is Mercedes’ race to lose. They have the pace, the reliability and the drivers to secure another win. However, the Monaco Grand Prix is rarely that simple, especially factoring in the weather conditions. Rain is forecast for Sunday, and wet streets can make this race unpredictable, because while Monaco may have changed a lot since 1929, it’s still a street circuit, with bumps and slippery white lines. All of the great drivers have made mistakes here. If there’s one race Mercedes could lose this season, it is this one.


Betting Instinct tip – with Mercedes so dominant this season, there may be some value in more niche markets. Nico Rosberg to record the fastest lap, as he has done in three of the five grands prix so far, is 2.90 with


Sports blogger JamesJAMES BENNETT (James) is a History MPhil/PhD student, who writes about soccer, Formula 1 and the NFL in his spare time to pay for his studies. He is also a Torquay United fan. He publishes articles in his sports blog, and you can follow him on Twitter and Google+.

Bahrain Grand Prix – Mercedes set to continue dominance in the desert

As Formula One approaches its 900th world championship grand prix in Bahrain this weekend, it’s worth remembering that some of its previous milestone races have thrown up some big surprises. The 800th race was the infamous 2008 Singapore Grand Prix, won by Renault’s Fernando Alonso after Nelson Piquet Jr deliberately crashed early in the race to bring out the safety car. The 700th was the even more dramatic 2003 Brazilian Grand Prix, a modern classic in the wet won by Giancarlo Fisichella for minnows Jordan.

The 600th, the 1997 Argentine Grand Prix, was narrowly won by Jacques Villeneuve of Williams ahead of Ferrari’s Eddie Irvine, while the 500th, the 1990 Australian Grand Prix in Adelaide, saw Benetton’s Nelson Piquet fend off a charging Nigel Mansell in his Ferrari.


Formula 1 Bahrain Grand Prix Betting Odds:

Lewis Hamilton – 2.00

Nico Rosberg – 3.00

Sebastian Vettel – 8.00

(All odds provided by are accurate as of today and subject to change)


It is also the tenth anniversary of the first Bahrain Grand Prix, and to add to the spectacle this weekend, the race will be held under the lights at night, a move which may make little difference to the race but does at least make the cars look nice. The Bahrain authorities is no stranger to attention-grabbing moves such as this: in 2010, for the season opener, they used a longer circuit layout, which ultimately led to a terrible race, while in 2011, they decided to brutally clamp down on anti-government protests, which led to the race being cancelled altogether.

But with memories of the violent repression now conveniently forgotten by the F1 paddock (if not by the rest of us), everything is carrying on as before. The only difference is that there is a new team at the front. As expected, Mercedes are the team to beat, with Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton taking a win each from the first two rounds.

Hamilton has been on pole in both races, and has looked the faster driver of the pair. But he has never won in Bahrain; the most notable thing he has ever done here is driving into the back of former team mate Alonso on the second lap in 2008, ruining his race. Rosberg hasn’t won here either, but he did make his debut at the Sakhir Circuit in 2006, with an impressive charge from the back in his Williams.


The Mercedes team has won here before, albeit under the Brawn GP name in 2009, with Jenson Button at the wheel. Judging by their dominance in the first two weekends, they are comfortable favourites for this race.

But the last two Bahrain Grands Prix have been won by Sebastian Vettel, and you’d not count him out this time. Reports of Red Bull’s demise were greatly exaggerated, with Vettel finishing 3rd in Malaysia after Daniel Ricciardo was disqualified from 2nd place in Australia. Vettel even managed to make the front row of the grid at Sepang, but that was in the wet; rain on the Arabian desert island is highly unlikely.


So too is a win for anyone else. McLaren are strongly suggesting they expect to struggle in the next few races, with their car proving something of a disappointment so far. Ferrari have been equally underwhelming, though Alonso has picked up two 4th places to lie 3rd in the championship, a point behind Hamilton. Kimi Raikkonen’s race in Malaysia was ruined by Kevin Magnussen’s front wing on the opening lap, and so desperately needs some points from Bahrain.

But above all else, the eyes of the F1 paddock will be on Williams this weekend. In Malaysia, Felipe Massa ignored team orders requesting he let team mate Valtteri Bottas through. But this wasn’t just any old team order; Bottas was on (slightly) fresher tyres, and the team believed he was fast enough to pass Button ahead. Massa disagreed.


The added complication was revealed afterwards by the team; they revealed that if Bottas hadn’t found a way around Button, they would ask him to allow Massa back ahead, given that he was ahead fair and square in the first place. The implication of this is that Massa thought Bottas would probably fail to pass Button but then not give the place back.

Overruling team orders in F1 is not going to make you popular, especially at Williams, the team that always puts the interests of the team above that of the driver. But there is further context: Massa has just endured seven years of being told to move over for his team mate at Ferrari, where he played second fiddle to Michael Schumacher, Raikkonen and Alonso.

Asking him to move over after just two races at his new team was always going to be a sensitive issue, especially as they used the words ‘Valtteri is faster than you’, an echo of the message he received at Hockenheim in 2010, when the team asked him to yield the race lead to Alonso.


For a man that has been through a lot over the last few years, it is understandable that Massa ould be reluctant to agree to something that was likely going to lead to him getting criticism after, whether it be that he has disobeyed the team or that he’s ‘losing his competitive edge’. The lack of serious consequences for disobeying the team was the clinching point.

Williams have handled the situation poorly: they sacrificed driver and team morale for the sake of trying to get two more points. In the current climate (Multi-21 et al), it is perhaps naive to assume drivers will agree to every team order. Massa is not blameless, but the revelations after the race suggest he doesn’t trust Bottas, and that he didn’t want to be left exposed to another sucker punch. Williams might believe that drivers are expendable parts just the same as any nut and bolt, but they are human beings who make human decisions.


Massa and Williams (free of Martini logos for this weekend in the Middle East) now head to a circuit where the Brazilian won in 2007 and 2008 for Ferrari. After the furore of Malaysia, he has to deliver; Williams have had a disappointing start to the year after the promise of success, and he has already upset his team and his team mate. He needs at least a solid points finish, or it could already be the beginning of the end of his long career.

Betting Instinct Tip – Felipe Massa to silence the doubters with a podium finish is 5.50 with



Sports blogger JamesJAMES BENNETT (James) is a History MPhil/PhD student, who writes about soccer, Formula 1 and the NFL in his spare time to pay for his studies. He is also a Torquay United fan. He publishes articles in his sports blog, and you can follow him on Twitter and Google+.

Hamilton the man to beat in Australian GP

2008 World Champion Lewis Hamilton will look to start strongly as he chases a second title

2008 World Champion Lewis Hamilton will look to start strongly as he chases a second title

It’s probably not very good to start an article for a betting website with ‘all bets are off’, but as far as the opening round of the new Formula One season is concerned, it is genuinely impossible to predict. This is one of the most open races in the history of the sport, the result of a raft of rule changes which have left some of the top teams on the back foot.

Australian Grand Prix Betting Odds

Lewis Hamilton – 3.15

Nico Rosberg – 4.70

Fernando Alonso – 7.40

Felipe Massa – 8.20

(All odds provided by are accurate as of today and subject to change)


The most high-profile team affected is Red Bull Racing. They have been the dominant team of the last four and a half years, winning both the drivers’ and constructors’ championships in the last four seasons, and in part this has been due to the generous support of engine supplier Renault, who have produced powerful, reliable engines for many years.

But the V8 engines which have been used since 2006 have been consigned to the scrap heap, to be replaced by smaller turbocharged V6 engines, meant to replicate the shift towards smaller engines in the automotive industry as a whole. By all accounts, it seems Renault have made a monstrous error somewhere along the line. At the first test at Jerez in Spain, the Renault-powered teams were barely on the circuit, and when they were their engines were falling apart.


Red Bull in particular have been affected by these problems due to designer Adrian Newey’s aggressive design, which has led to the engines overheating. This isn’t the first time that Newey, by far and away the most successful designer in the last 25 years of F1, has had these issues: in 2004, his McLaren design suffered from serious issues, leading to the team being uncompetitive for half a season and only winning one race.

Unreliability largely leaves the drivers in the back seat. Sebastian Vettel, bidding to become only the second driver to win five F1 championships in a row, can only hope that Red Bull and Renault can fix their issues; at the moment, the car is so far off the pace, there’s a (slim) chance they may not even reach the 107% needed to qualify for the first race. New team mate Daniel Ricciardo, who replaces Mark Webber this year, seems to have joined at the wrong time.


The momentum seems to lie with the Mercedes-powered teams: Mercedes GP, McLaren, Force India and Williams. Mercedes GP seem to be the favourites, with their new car consistently setting good times in all of the tests and a fast driver line-up of Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton, who between them won three races last year. If I was to choose the driver I think will win the championship right now, it’s Hamilton: he has the experience of having won it before and is still arguably the fastest driver in the sport on his day.

McLaren may not quite have had the pace of Mercedes, and are coming off one of their worst seasons in F1, but they are still one of the best teams around, with a large budget, a former world champion leading the team in Jenson Button, and a highly-rated rookie in Kevin Magnussen. Race wins seem likely at this stage, and with Button having won in Australia three times before, you would think this would be one of their best opportunities.


Williams are the dark horses. Fresh from switching to Mercedes engines this year and announcing a new sponsorship deal with Martini, their car has shown good pace in the hands of Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas, suggesting their gamble to write off 2013 in favour of concentrating on this year may have paid off. Questions remain over the drivers – Massa hasn’t won a race since 2008, while Bottas is still inexperienced – and the team has only won one race in the last nine seasons, but with unreliability being more of a decisive factor this year, it may not matter. With Mercedes suffering a number of issues during the final test, Williams may be the surprise front-runners.

Force India are an unknown quantity. They have two quick young drivers in Nico Hulkenberg, returning after a year at Sauber, and Sergio Perez, who has joined after being ditched by McLaren. Their car was not the fastest in testing but seemed potentially fast enough to keep them in contention. They do have a small budget, though, so will be looking to make the most of this situation early on. They have never won a race in their current form, coming closest at the 2009 Belgian Grand Prix when Giancarlo Fisichella finished second, but did win four races in their previous guise as Jordan, the last coming in 2003.


Sitting between the Mercedes- and Renault-powered cars is Ferrari, who didn’t seem to be too slow, but didn’t seem to be too fast either. Their engine does seem to be down on power compared to the Mercedes, but they have arguably the best line-up on the grid in the shape of former world champions Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen, with the Finn having rejoined the team with which he won the championship in 2007. You would expect the ability of the drivers alone will help them to a couple of wins at the very least.

Lotus seem unlikely to repeat their win of a year ago. They are of course hamstrung by their Renault engine, but are also in financial trouble and have lost key personnel. Romain Grosjean, who ended 2013 strongly, is joined by one-time race winner Pastor Maldonado, bringing his Venezuelan backing which will hopefully stem the tide, but it’s looking pretty bleak for the team that won world championships as Benetton in the 1990s and Renault in the 2000s.


However it’s difficult to count anyone out. The Australian Grand Prix at Albert Park has always had a reputation of producing chaotic races, and this year is likely to be no exception. It may prove that the pace of the car and drivers may go out of the window with the last man standing taking the honours. Hamilton and Mercedes are a good bet for pole position, but finishing the race may prove more challenging.


Betting Instinct Tip – Lewis Hamilton to start the race from pole position is 2.30 with



Sports blogger JamesJAMES BENNETT (James) is a History MPhil/PhD student, who writes about soccer, Formula 1 and the NFL in his spare time to pay for his studies. He is also a Torquay United fan. He publishes articles in his sports blog, and you can follow him on Twitter and Google+.

Laudrup’s sacking is just what Swansea needed

Swansea sacked Laudrup after six defeats in eight league games

Swansea sacked Laudrup after six defeats in eight league games

That title’s a bold statement, isn’t it? Michael Laudrup’s sacking has already been ham-fistedly squeezed into that conservative, I-desperately-want-to-appear-reasonable-and-not-reactionary narrative based on the increasingly prevalent and influential myth that football managers always deserve more time.


Swansea City v Cardiff City Betting Odds

Swansea to win – 1.70

Draw – 3.50

Cardiff to win – 4.75

(All odds provided by are accurate as of today and subject to change)


The argument is that after winning the League Cup last year, the Dane deserved more than a few months to turn around Swansea’s poor run of form, and that he would eventually have guided them out of trouble. It’s a perfect line for anyone who wants to be outraged about any Premier League managerial sacking – those people who lurch from “he has to go NOW” when boards aren’t making a decision to “he shouldn’t have gone” when they do. This often seems to have more to do with personality, perceived intelligence and the attractiveness of the football than actual empirical evidence.

Laudrup is a perfect example of this. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest players of all time, is a charismatic and intelligent man, has Won Things (compare this with some of the criticism of David Moyes at Manchester United), and has been successful at continuing Swansea’s style of possession football which is generally considered to be “attractive” and positive.


But much like Andre Villas-Boas at Tottenham, this is largely based on fantasy. Swansea have been awful this year. They don’t play attractive football – they pass it around continuously, mindlessly and tediously with very little spark. More to the point, they are only two points above the relegation zone and have lost the same number of games as West Ham, whose manager Sam Allardyce has recently faced a barrage of criticism from the media. Laudrup’s overall record is little better than that of Paul Lambert’s at Aston Villa. Moreover, he has close ties with his agent Bayram Tutumlu, and problems in the summer between Tutumlu and the club nearly led to Laudrup’s departure.

Any other manager in this situation, particularly if he was of the ilk of Allardyce – stereotypically English in personality and style of football – would be facing media pressure and criticism. A form of snobbery seems to have developed among football opinionistas: the exotic is greater than the down-to-earth, or “Manager X must be good because he’s foreign and tries to play football The Right Way, but Manager Y can’t be good because he’s English, plays 4-4-2 and shouts a lot”.


I don’t mean this as anti-intellectualism, nor do I believe that English managers are better. The point is it shouldn’t come down to nationality: a good manager is a good manager, regardless of his place of birth, playing career or accent. Foreign managers can be crap too. The English national team might not be very good but that doesn’t mean English football should plunge into a period of extreme self-loathing.

But the stereotypes remain. Whoever replaces Laudrup will now face the same problem in trying to convince football writing’s self-appointed intellectual elite as Tim Sherwood at Tottenham, especially if interim head coach Garry Monk, an English no-nonsense mid-Football League centre-half who rose to the Premier League with the team as captain, is handed long-term charge of the team. He will face that snobbery if the Swans don’t pick up results immediately.


Luckily, it seems Swansea fans are more receptive than the media. It is the outsiders and not them who are criticising the sacking of Laudrup. The fans trust their board, who have been patient, stuck to their philosophy and made perceptive decisions virtually every time they appointed someone. The fans have watched their team and seen them decline. They followed the summer problems when it looked like Laudrup would ditch the team for a bigger club who would accommodate his ego and his agent.

They will also be aware that Laudrup’s effectiveness has been short-term at every club he has managed at: immediate success, before a rapid decline and a departure under a cloud. The problem is Swansea has become a popular club in the media for their values and their style of football, and Laudrup has been the figurehead of this, even though this was a process begun under Kenny Jackett and continued under the leadership of Roberto Martinez, Paulo Sousa and Brendan Rodgers.

This weekend they play Cardiff, with whom their explosive relationship is well-documented. The first top flight derby between the two clubs ended with the Bluebirds Red Dragons coming out on top in one of the most appalling games of football we will see this season (You clearly haven’t watched much of West Ham – ed.). Swansea were terrible, Cardiff were barely any better, and there wasn’t even any of the classic derby violence that we expect from and secretly hope for in such an encounter. With Laudrup at the helm, it was difficult to see anything other than this again – another tepid, uninspiring affair with the two sides more afraid to lose than desperate to win.


It’s a cliché, but Cardiff wanted it a little bit more that day. They are the club in this relationship with the chip on their shoulder at the moment. Arguably the main reason for some fans allowing Vincent Tan’s Glorious Revolution to take place was Swansea: their top flight status, their trophy, their popularity with the neutrals. Cardiff fans cannot stand seeing Swansea be successful. That certain supporters would be willing to trade in their history and traditions to get back at Swansea shows the ferocity of the rivalry between the two clubs.

A win for Cardiff in the Liberty Stadium would be enormous. Their win over Norwich last weekend ended a run of seven games without victory, though it had been a tough run of fixtures against the likes of Liverpool, Arsenal, and Manchesters City and United. To add a derby victory to this crucial win would give them serious momentum heading into a very winnable series of games: they play Villa, Hull and Fulham within the next four outings.


It would also be another huge blow for Swansea, who must now be considered relegation rivals. Remarkably, neither side has ever completed a league double in the fixture, and Cardiff have only won once in Swansea in the last 16 years. While a win for Cardiff will give them fresh impetus at a time when some have already written them into the first relegation spot, a defeat for Swansea might prove disastrous. That, in some way, explains the decision the Swansea board have made. If they had stuck with Laudrup, defeat was likely; choosing to make a change gives them a much greater chance of fending off Cardiff’s challenge.


Betting Instinct Tip – Despite their poor recent form, Swansea won their last home league game 2-0 against Fulham. Another 2-0 win on Saturday is 8.60 with


Sports blogger JamesJAMES BENNETT (James) is a History MPhil/PhD student, who writes about soccer, Formula 1 and the NFL in his spare time to pay for his studies. He is also a Torquay United fan. He publishes articles in his sports blog, and you can follow him on Twitter and Google+.

Aston Villa are now serious relegation candidates

Christian Benteke has failed to replicate last season's form for Villa

Christian Benteke has failed to replicate last season’s form for Villa

In the summer, I made what I thought was a perfectly sensible prediction: I chose Crystal Palace, Sunderland and Aston Villa the three clubs I thought would be relegated from the Premier League. Palace and Sunderland had Ian Holloway and Paolo di Canio in charge respectively, while Villa were terrible last season and hadn’t exactly spent big in the summer on reinforcements.

But no, apparently predicting Villa to go down was considered radical. I had a long argument on Twitter with a Villa fan who was convinced they were heading into the top half of the table, and that their signings, Luna, Okore, Bacuna et al, could potentially propel them into Europe. Even beyond the hardcore, very few people seemed to think they would go down this year.

And if you look at the table, you might think they were right. Villa lie 11th, a perfectly acceptable mid-table position. But this is deceptive. Villa are only six points above the relegation zone, where the trio of Cardiff, Palace and Sunderland currently reside. While I expect Palace and Sunderland to stay there, I should imagine that the likes of Cardiff, and West Ham – out of the bottom three on goal difference – will eventually get out of it.

Aston Villa v Arsenal Betting Odds

Aston Villa to win – 5.75

Draw – 3.80

Arsenal to win – 1.55

(All odds provided by are accurate as of today and subject to change)


Around this time of year, there’s usually one team in a particularly negative spiral who still manage to pull out of it even when the odds are against them. Villa were that team last year, somehow clawing their way out of trouble in the spring with their host of Football Manager regens. West Ham may be terrible right now, but Sam Allardyce knows what he is doing (honestly, he does) and they will find a few improbable wins from somewhere.

Of the others, Cardiff are utilising the not-at-all-suspicious system of signing players with the same agent as their manager, so may yet improve. Swansea will kick on once they’ve got the burden of the Europa League off their backs. West Bromwich Albion now have a new manager, and Norwich will probably have one before the end of the season.

Villa’s form is still pretty inconsistent. They may have beaten Manchester City, Arsenal and Southampton this season, but that has tended to be the exception rather than the rule. You can’t expect those results to just appear when you’re in a relegation battle. They did at least beat Sunderland on New Year’s Day, but you would expect them to. But they have also lost to Palace, Stoke and Fulham since the start of December, though even that’s not quite as embarrassing as losing to League One relegation candidates Sheffield United.

While Paul Lambert draws attention away from his players by making comments about whether or not the FA Cup means anything, it’s worth considering that the squad, on an individual basis, isn’t very strong. Their summer signings, far from being the “bargain buys” it was implied they would be, have been just what you would expect them to be: average players who might be outstanding in the Championship but could easily be part of a relegation team in the Premier League. And then there is Christian Benteke, scorer of just five goals this season and without one since September, who has proven the likes of Tottenham and Liverpool right for not spending a ludicrous amount of money on him.

Villa are definitely in this relegation battle, perhaps even more so than some of the teams below them. They certainly shouldn’t expect much from the visit of Arsenal on Monday, who theoretically should demolish them. I’m obliged to say nice things about Arsenal as anything less than total 100% praise will inevitably lead to me being accused of being a “hater”.

After this, Villa’s next two away games are against Liverpool and Everton, but they also have winnable games against West Brom, West Ham and Norwich coming up in the next two months. It’s vital that they take points from these games, because after this they face Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United before the end of March, and, ignoring the jokes about David Moyes for a moment, you would not expect much from those three games.

Paul Lambert doesn’t seem to be under the same pressure as some of the other managers in the Premier League. And maybe that’s fair – maybe he’s doing all he can with the resources available. Randy Lerner seems to have just stopped backing his managers financially, and essentially justifying it as “austerity”. The problem is a football club basing its transfer policy around austerity is doomed: if you don’t seriously invest in the playing squad, in transfer fees and wages, you will be relegated. It’s the paradox of thrift in football: if you try and save money now by cutting it from the playing budget, it will cost you more in the long term when you’re playing at a lower level.

With the way Aston Villa has been run over the past few seasons, selling its stars and replacing them with faceless average youth team players or over-hyped youngsters from abroad, their fans should not be surprised that they are struggling year after year. At any level, some big clubs occasionally struggle despite spending big, but the clubs that never spend big nearly always struggle, and their complacency will eventually cost them. We can debate whether that’s morally right or not endlessly, but it’s beside the point: this is the reality of English football in 2014.

Aston Villa has enormous potential as a club: an ideal location, a large fanbase, a large stadium, and a great history. They ought to be a club regularly competing for the European spots. But if they continue to be run this way, they will be relegated. It may not be this year, it may not even be next year, but it will happen eventually. The club has totally stagnated and needs a total culture change, if not a change of ownership, to prevent it sliding into the second tier again. The problem is, with a conservative owner and a conservative manager in charge, I don’t see it coming.


Betting Instinct Tip – Arsenal to beat Aston Villa to nil is 2.70 with



Sports blogger JamesJAMES BENNETT (James) is a History MPhil/PhD student, who writes about soccer, Formula 1 and the NFL in his spare time to pay for his studies. He is also a Torquay United fan. He publishes articles in his sports blog, and you can follow him on Twitter and Google+.

Saints to tame Panthers in the Superdome

Saints tight end Jimmy Graham is arguably having the season of his career

Saints tight end Jimmy Graham is arguably having the season of his career

Panthers @ Saints

Just over three months ago, before the NFL circus kicked into action, you’d have looked at this weekend and assumed the Seahawks’ visit to San Francisco would be Sunday’s big game – a potential division or even conference-decider. But with Seattle already in the play-offs and three games ahead of the 49ers with four games to go, the focus will instead be on the Superdome, for what looks like the game that will decide who will be the second seeds in the NFC, with the loser forced to play an extra game in the play-offs.

In the Cam Newton era, the Panthers have traditionally ended seasons on a roll, but seldom started them well enough to be a factor. This year, their momentum started earlier. Despite starting 1-3 (yep, they lost to the Bills), they have won their last eight games, including wins over the 49ers and the Patriots. With the Jets, Falcons and another game against the Saints in Charlotte to come, they’re in a good position to make the play-offs for the first time since 2008, a distant time when Jake Delhomme was the quarterback and Steve Smith was a sprightly 28 years young.

The Saints, on the other hand, have been consistently strong all year with intermittent defeats, bouncing back from a disappointing 2012 in the wake of the Bountygate scandal. Of their three losses, two are at least understandable: the late Tom Brady-inspired capitulation in Foxboro, and the crushing defeat in Seattle last weekend. The other was in New York at the hands of Geno Smith and the Jets, which looks even more bizarre in hindsight than it did at the time.

The obvious place to start is to compare the quarterbacks. While there are no doubts about the quality of His Holiness Drew Brees, there remain a few question marks about Cam’s ultimate potential. This is perhaps the biggest test in his career so far: a high-pressure game against a potential Super Bowl contender.

It’s also an enormous test of the Carolina defense, which has been exceptional of late. Four of the eight wins in this run have been by a score, and that is primarily because the Panthers have restricted their opponents to 16 points or fewer in seven of those games, the only exception being the game against New England. They also kept the Giants scoreless in September, and even restricted the Seahawks to just 12 points on the opening day. Second year linebacker Luke Kuechly is a candidate to follow up his Defensive Rookie of the Year Award from last year with the Defensive Player of the Year Award this year.

The Saints defense has allowed more points, but they have the offense to combat it, with Brees having numerous targets to choose from, the most notable being tight end Jimmy Graham. His fourth year in the NFL is proving to be by far his most successful, having already picked up twelve touchdowns and six 100+ yard games, both more than in any previous season. But even if the Panthers cover Graham (somehow), Brees still has the likes of receivers Marques Colston, Lance Moore and rookie Kenny Stills, and running backs Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas and Mark Ingram to fall back on.

Surely this embarrassment of offensive riches will be too much for the Panthers to handle, especially in the intimidating atmosphere of the Superdome.

Betting Instinct Tip: New Orleans Saints -3 is 1.83 with Intertops Sportsbook

Cowboys @ Bears

Another decisive game for two teams aiming to win their division – and I can’t work out which is more likely, despite differing fortunes in the last two weeks.

After their bye week in week 11, the Cowboys were 5-5. Two wins since then against the Giants and the Raiders has left them on course for their first winning season since 2009. All four of their remaining games are winnable: a trip to the Bears, the visit of a Packers team that’s spiralling out of control, a visit to Washington, and the final game at home to divisional rivals the Eagles. That still should leave them with at least 9, if not 10 or 11 wins.

A few weeks ago, you would have thought that would be enough to win the NFC East. However, the Eagles have also begun a good run since Nick Foles suddenly transformed himself into an elite quarterback overnight. Four wins in a row have also lifted them to 7-5. They also have to play the Bears and two of their NFC North rivals, the Detroit Lions and the Minnesota Vikings, before the crunch game against the Cowboys on December 29. The Cowboys thus have to win all of their remaining games to be sure.

Meanwhile, the Bears are minding their own business, as they try and claim the NFL’s most wounded division and week Nine win over the Packers seemed to be a turning point. However the Lions promptly beat them the following week, and they have lost two of their three games since, including a shock overtime loss to the Vikings last weekend. This has left them at 6-6, a win behind the Lions and probably too far behind for a wildcard spot.

Chicago haven’t been helped by an unstable quarterback situation, with Jay Cutler fit, then injured, then fit, then injured again. These latest defeats have been overseen by Josh McCown, who has done a credible job filling in. In his four starts, he has thrown seven touchdown passes and has only been intercepted once. He has also thrown over 350 yards in the last two games, and you wouldn’t bet against him making it three in a row against Dallas, whose defense has been very generous to quarterbacks this season.

With Tony Romo having a good season and the Bears defense also leaking points, this will be a game decided by whichever defense will collapse the least. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I’m calling a shootout. All the weapons are there: McCown has running back Matt Forte and wide receivers Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall, all in superb form this season; Romo has a similarly powerful offense include wide receiver Dez Bryant, tight end Jason Witten and running back DeMarco Murray.

It’ll be a disappointment if there aren’t at least 60 points on the board after this one, and I’m giving the edge to the in-form Cowboys.

Cowboys @ Bears Betting Odds:

Dallas Cowboys – 2.00

Chicago Bears – 1.83

(Odds, obtained from, are subject to change.)



Sports blogger JamesJAMES BENNETT (James) is a History MPhil/PhD student, who writes about soccer, Formula 1 and the NFL in his spare time to pay for his studies. He is also a Torquay United fan. He publishes articles in his sports blog, and you can follow him on Twitter and Google+.