Friday, December 9, 2016

Hirscher facing once again a Norwegian overall title challenger

The five-time defending World Cup overall champion Marcel Hirscher is again leading the standings after the first five races of the 2016-17 season. After the second place of the season-opening Sölden giant slalom, Hirscher claimed the overall lead with a dominant slalom victory at Levi. Kjetil Jansrud dominated the opening speed races of the season by winning both the super-G and the downhill in Val d'Isère, yet Hirscher remained in a tied overall points lead with a 13th place in the super-G. With a second place in the Val d'Isère giant slalom, Hirscher leads Jansrud by 80 points.

Jansrud couldn't defend last winter his 2015 discipline titles in downhill and super-G, yet this season the Norwegian has got a perfect start for his campaign in speed disciplines with two victories. Yet once again his chances to race for the overall title seem slim. Hirscher already has the advantage of a tech-favoring schedule, and besides slalom and giant slalom he can score good points in super-G. Besides the speed disciplines, Jansrud does compete in giant slalom in which he once made his World Cup breakthrough and won the Olympic silver medal in 2010. Yet the past few seasons he's been struggling to make the top 20 in giant slalom and this season he is yet to finish a GS race. That will not be enough for the overall title if Hirscher stays healthy and in form.

Jansrud's countryman Aksel Lund Svindal has been Hirscher's main rival last years, though similarly to Jansrud, giant slalom has been Svindal's weakness. Back in the 00s when he won his two overall titles, he was among the frontrunners in GS before the early 2010s change in GS skis. Last year he was leading the World Cup overall standings before suffering a season-ending knee injury in a downhill crash in Kitzbühel. Svindal was just able to make a comeback in this season's opening speed races in Val d'Isère, impressing with the second place of the super-G and the third place of the downhill. Given he is likely to improve as the season progresses, the good form in the early season keeps him in those disciplines' title contention. He didn't participate in the giant slalom, which is understandable given his poor success in that discipline the past few seasons and his limited training in the offseason, yet that very much excludes him from the overall title battle.

Last winter Alexis Pinturault had a strong second half of the season, especially in giant slalom where he finished the season in second place. This season he's been ready to race for the GS title right from the start, winning the opening race in Sölden. With a third place from Val d'Isère he shares the GS standings' lead with the defending champion Hirscher.

Pinturault has versatility to compete besides giant slalom also in slalom, super-G, and alpine combined, in all of which he is a World Cup race winner. That makes him a potential overall title contender; however in the last couple of seasons his success has come only in GS and combined. He badly needs to beat Hirscher in either super-G or slalom to have a chance for the overall title. So far this season he hasn't succeeded in that; he was 11th in the Levi slalom and didn't finish the super-G in Val d'Isère.

Pinturault isn't the only successful Frenchman in giant slalom. The Frech team claimed four spots from the top five in the Val d'Isère giant slalom. Mathieu Faivre achieved his first World Cup victory and he is sitting in third place of the GS standings, 31 points behind Pinturault and Hirscher. Thomas Fanara finished the race in fourth place, yet suffered a season-ending knee injury. However Val d'Isère's fifth, Victor Muffat-Jeandet can be expected to be one of the frontrunners in giant slalom as well as in alpine combined.

The five-time World Cup giant slalom champion Ted Ligety has struggled the past two seasons and suffered a season-ending knee injury last January. So far Ligety hasn't impressed in his comeback; he sits in sixth in the GS standings with a fifth place from Sölden and an 11th place from Val d'Isère.

Henrik Kristoffersen dominated slalom last season as he ended Hirscher's run of three consecutive World Cup slalom titles. Besides that he was third in the giant slalom standings as he finished the season as the overall runner-up. This season he missed the opening slalom of Levi due to a sponsorship dispute, putting him already 100 points behind Hirscher. In giant slalom he hasn't been able to match his results from the last season, having scored two eighth places this season.

The veteran Italian Peter Fill achieved his second career World Cup victory last January in the Hahnenkamm downhill in Kitzbühel, over seven years from his maiden victory. At the end of the season he celebrated his first World Cup title in downhill. Fill's downhill title defense got a strong start with a second place in the Val d'Isère downhill. Besides Fill the Italian team has another strong contender in speed disciplines in Dominik Paris. Also Paris made the podium in Val d'Isère as he was third in the super-G.

Boštjan Kline didn't make the podium in Val d'Isère but had solid results of fifth in the super-G and fourth in the downhill. Results like that seem promising for the former junior world champion to achieve his maiden World Cup victory this season after last season's two second places.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Shiffrin in World Cup overall lead after impressive downhill debut

Three-time World Cup slalom champion Mikaela Shiffrin remains in the overall standings' lead after women had their opening speed races in Lake Louise. Following a second place to the defending overall champion Lara Gut, Shiffrin scored a dominant victory in the slalom of Levi. In Killington, Vermont, Shiffrin couldn't make the podium in the giant slalom, yet for the delight of the American crowd she celebrated her second season victory in slalom.

Shiffrin made her World Cup debut in downhill in Lake Louise. With an 18th place she scored points right in her debut downhill and on the following day she improved into 13th place.

The defending World Cup overall champion Lara Gut opened her season by winning the Sölden giant slalom by almost 1.5 seconds to Shiffrin. Yet in the following giant slalom in Killington, she crashed out on the first run, dropping her into fifth place in the GS standings. In Lake Louise Gut had a solid weekend with fourth and second places in the downhill races and a victory in super-G whose discipline title she is defending. As Shiffrin missed the points in the super-G, Gut reduced Shiffrin's lead to 28 points with the super-G victory.

Ilka Štuhec and Sofia Goggia have been the biggest positive surprises in the early season. Štuhec made her first World Cup podium appearances in Lake Louise as she won both downhill races. She was also fifth in the Lake Louise super-G and she is fourth in the overall standings.

Sofia Goggia is sitting in third place in the overall standings with podium finishes in giant slalom, super-G, and downhill. Following a fifth place in the Sölden GS, Goggia achieved her first career podium with a third place in the Killington GS. In Lake Louise she made the podium again as she was second in the first downhill race. She was only 12th in the second downhill race in Lake Louise, yet returned to podium in the super-G with a third place that reduced her gap to the overall leader 91 points.

It will be interesting to see if Štuhec and Goggia can keep up their form throughout the season. Štuhec is too much of a speed specialist to be an overall title contender, yet she could be a strong contender for the downhill title. While the defending downhill champion Lindsey Vonn is currently aside after having broken her arm in a training crash, Gut can be expected to be a contender also for the downhill title. Tina Weirather scored only 14th and ninth places in the Lake Louise downhill races, yet the second place in the super-G lets us to expect her to become a frontrunner in downhill as well. Kajsa Kling might also be a title contender in speed disciplines; she is third in the downhill standings with third and fifth places, and she was also fourth in the Lake Louise super-G.

Goggia seems unlikely for any discipline title, yet with her versatility she can finish high in the overall standings. However, beating Gut in the three disciplines they both compete in is going to be hard for Goggia. And with the speed skills Shiffrin showcased in Lake Louise and the tech-favoring schedule, the tech specialist Shiffrin might top the overall standings in a way reminiscent of Marcel Hirscher on the men's side.

The Austrian team is missing two big names. Two-time World Cup overall champion Anna Veith (née Fenninger) is still recovering from the knee injury that kept her aside last season. While Veith is aiming for a comeback mid-season, the defending giant slalom champion Eva-Maria Brem broke her leg in training and will be aside for the rest of the season.

While Brem is aside, a former giant slalom world champion has returned to top. After the sixth place of Sölden, Tessa Worley dominated the Killington giant slalom, making her first podium appearance since December 2013 when she suffered a knee injury. After two races, she leads the GS standings by 15 points to Shiffrin. Third in the GS standings, 30 points from Worley, is the 20-year-old Italian Marta Bassino who has third and fourth places from the two GS races.

In slalom Shiffrin dominated the two races so far. Besides her, Wendy Holdener made the podium both at Levi and Killington, yet is trailing Shiffrin already by 60 points. The defending slalom champion Frida Hansdotter is only 19th in the standings, already 174 points behind Shiffrin.

Nina Løseth had strong performances in the previous technical races in Killington, finishing second in the giant slalom and fourth in the slalom. While it's hard to see anybody beating Shiffrin for the slalom title, the GS title battle is more open and Løseth could be a contender for it if she keeps on performing like in Killington.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

How to improve the Champions Hockey League?

Two seasons of the Champions Hockey League are now behind. In this text, I'm going to tell how I'd improve the format.

First of all, I'd reduce the number of teams. Among the 48 teams there are just too many teams that don't have a realistic chance of advancing from the group stage. I think 32 or even 16 would be fine. Or 24 if you want to keep the groups of three teams. Right now there are just too many teams that don't create interest among fans in big hockey countries; the result in those games is even more predictable than in domestic league games. Sure, it's great for the weaker hockey nations to get Europe's top clubs playing there but I'm not convinced people in those countries care about the CHL once their local team has been eliminated.

I wouldn't be worried if reducing the number of teams would lead to only big hockey nations' teams being in the CHL. CHL's task shouldn't be to grow hockey in Europe but it should aim to grow its brand in the big hockey nations, to be a highly-regarded title there. Exciting games against top-level opponents should make it more attractive for fans and improve its recognition.

For the playoffs, I'd make two changes. Firstly, don't draw teams from the same country into the same draw section unless you really need to. I mean, if there are two teams from the same country, don't draw them into the same half, or if there are up to four teams from the same country, don't draw them into the same quarter, and so on. Playing against domestic league rival in a European competition just doesn't feel right.

Secondly, I'd adopt the format used in the CHL's first incarnation; instead if aggregate scores, you get two points for win or one for a tie. I mean, Frölunda winning the first leg of its semifinal against Davos by five goals made the second leg lack excitement. Had the other format been in use, they would've still needed a tie to avoid an overtime. That old format was closer to the spirit of playoffs; you don't count aggregate goals in best-of-seven either, it doesn't matter if you won the previous game 1-0 or 5-0.

And I'd keep the two-leg format for the final, too. It's the game that creates the most interest; why not to have it played in both teams' home arenas? Neither the domestic leagues go into best-of-one for the final but they know they can get big crowds for the entire final series. If anything, I'd like the CHL final be best-of-three with the Game Three being played a day after the Game Two if needed. Though I'm not sure the TV companies would like that. And of course, I'd like to get continuous overtime in case the second leg goes into overtime.

One major European league is missing from the CHL, it's the KHL. Personally, I'm not sure if the CHL needs the KHL. It's a league that aims to be Europe's leading league. That's contradictory to what the CHL should aim to be. I wouldn't totally trust in the KHL's commitment in the CHL, so maybe it's better to develop the CHL without them.

And of course, the CHL has one major problem that it can't fix. Its position in the calendar is problematic. The national leagues' playoffs with best-of-seven series are the highlight of the season. There's nothing the CHL can do for that, its season just must finish before the national playoffs. But to create interest for its product, the CHL should get rid of the weaker teams, to have genuinely exciting matches; that way fans would truly like it and the title would become higher-regarded.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Why the Ski Flying Worlds are my favorite championship in ski jumping

Few weeks ago I wrote about why the Four Hills Tournament is my favorite wintersports event. Though if we don't count it as a championship what the World Championships and the Olympic Games are, then this weekend is the time for my favorite championship in ski jumping, the Ski Flying World Championships.

Photo: virgosystem.cc

In some ways, the Ski Flying Worlds are reminiscent of the Four Hills Tournament. While at the Olympics and Worlds in large and normal hill, there are only two jumps, at the Four Hills there are a total of eight jumps, rewarding consistency while still requiring to perform at highest level. At the Ski Flying Worlds there aren't eight jumps but it's still a two-day competition with four jumps. That puts more emphasis on consistency than in two-jump competitions, yet still not allowing bad jumps.

Of course, at the last two Ski Flying Worlds one of the competition days had to be cancelled. Yet the two-day format makes it easier to cancel competition round, knowing there will be, or has already been, another day of competition in fair conditions. There have been some cases of major championships having taken place in difficult and unfair conditions, like the 2009 Worlds' large hill competition that had to be finished after the first round. The two day format makes that less likely at the Ski Flying Worlds.

If I were in charge of those events, the large and normal hill events at the Olympics and Worlds would have a two-day, four-jump format similar to the Ski Flying Worlds. Though, I guess TV companies prefer the one-day format.

Another reason why I like the Ski Flying Worlds is that it's ski flying, the most spectacular form of ski jumping. It has some specialists like Robert Kranjec and Jurij Tepeš whose best chance for success is in flying hills, while the history has even overall World Cup champions who never won on a flying hill. Given how underrepresented ski flying is among the major events, that makes the Ski Flying Worlds even more special. As ski flying isn't included in the Olympics (for understandable reasons), I'd almost like the Ski Flying Worlds to be an annual event.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Why the Four Hills Tournament is my favorite wintersports event

The Four Hills Tournament starts today in Oberstdorf. While alpine skiing is my favorite winter sport, ski jumping still has my favorite wintersports event.

Photo: Brigitte Waltl-Jensen, OK Vierschanzentournee

Most ski sports have the season-long World Cup and are featured in the Winter Olympics or have their own World Championships. While the Olympics and Worlds get the biggest recognition, I am reluctant to rate them above the season-long World Cup, especially in a sport as sensitive to weather conditions (or other random factors) as ski jumping (or alpine skiing or even cross-country skiing).

Sure, in some ski sports some of the best athletes skip some World Cup events to concentrate on the Olympics or Worlds. Then somebody can score easy points in their rivals' absence to win the World Cup title while getting beaten by rivals peaking at the major events.

The Four Hills Tournament has nicely the best of both worlds. All the best athletes are there and want to win. But unlike at the Olympics and Worlds, getting hot for two jumps doesn't win the title, one needs to be consistently good for eight jumps, in four different hills. And that is different to the World Cup where one can recover from bad competitions whereas at the Four Hills even one bad jump can end the title hunt. Still, small differences in wind conditions are less likely to decide the title than at the Olympics or Worlds; at the Four Hills there are eight jumps instead of only two for luck to even out.

Of course, one can get hot for the Four Hills, win the title, and disappear after that. But that is harder to do over eight jumps compared to two jumps at the Olympics or Worlds. That's why I rate surprise titles at the Four Hills over surprise gold medals at the Olympics or Worlds. That's not anymore luck but peaking at the right time.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Aston Martin in F1 rumours and my opinion on it

Last weekend it was reported Aston Martin is in talks with Red Bull Racing for sponsoring the team Mercedes power units. Meanwhile, today it was reported Aston Martin has been in talks with the current Mercedes customer teams (Williams, Lotus, Force India) for a similar arrangement.

Red Bull currently has a similar contract with Infiniti, a brand of the Renault-Nissan Alliance. Infiniti is the title sponsor of the team and sponsors the team's Renault power units. But Red Bull haven't been happy with the performance of Renault. Previously there was the rumour of the Audi partnership or even buyout of the team but that obviously isn't happening. Red Bull would probably be willing to switch to Mercedes, the best power unit in the series. The Aston Martin deal could enable that. Aston would replace Infiniti as the title sponsor and sponsor the Mercedes power units to the team. Daimler, the parent company of Mercedes-Benz, owns five percent of Aston Martin and produces engines for their models, so that could be a way to enter the brand into F1. Besides, Red Bull Technologies has a joint road car project with Aston Martin.

But would it make sense for a World Champion team Red Bull to become a power unit customer for the current World Champions Mercedes? Their current partner Renault is possibly going to buy a team, e.g. Toro Rosso or Lotus. Being a Renault customer might not be any better option. At least the Mercedes power unit is the best one they can get, even if the works Mercedes team had some advantage.

But, why would Mercedes supply power units to a team that could be a serious contender for their works team? Maybe they would just welcome a new customer as it would bring them money. And maybe a rival team succeeding wouldn't be so bad if they were sponsored by a car brand partly owned by the same group. And the works team would anyway have some advantage over customer teams.

Then, what about Aston's other options? Force India seem least likely, they are an eternal midfield team whereas Williams and Lotus are former World Champions. Lotus is financially distressed so I wouldn't see it as such an attractive option. Also there are rumours of Renault buying the team again, so it wouldn't be an option for Aston Martin.

The current third in the constructors' championship, Williams, might be an attractive option for Aston Martin. They are a team in the front of the grid but wouldn't be a similar threat to the works Mercedes team as Red Bull would be. And maybe this would be a good deal for Williams. They don't have the financial resources of Mercedes, Ferrari, or Red Bull. Free or discounted engines for Aston sponsorship would help them to fight against financially stronger teams in the front of the grid.

But, Red Bull and Williams are former World Champion teams and surely want to be title contenders also in the future. Maybe right now, the Mercedes power unit is what seems like the best option. But being a customer puts them into disadvantage compared to the Mercedes works team. The works team can better design the car around the power unit, get updates first, and in general could get preferential treatment. Being a customer isn't what a title contender team wants unless there are no competitive alternatives. Personally, as a Williams fan, I would like them to enter into a works agreement with a car manufacturer if there were one entering the series. Of course, new manufacturers don't seem very likely right now so Mercedes power units are the best option available. So, maybe that might drive also Red Bull switching to Mercedes power units now, especially if they got the Aston Martin sponsorship. There was even the rumour of Red Bull going to Ferrari power units, and given the poor record of Ferrari customer teams, being a Mercedes customer may not be the worst option of all. But being Mercedes customers can't be the ideal option in long term if these teams want to win titles.

As for Aston's F1 involvement, it feels somewhat unfortunate that such a traditional car manufacturer would come only as a sponsor. A bit like the Group Lotus as the title sponsor of the Lotus F1 Team. I would rather see them expanding their involvement in sports cars where they are really manufacturers. An LMP1 project might be too expensive for them but maybe they could be one of the engine suppliers for IMSA prototypes like another British luxury car brand Bentley is rumoured to be planning. But that's just how I would like it to be. In F1, they would probably get more exposure for their brand, even if they weren't showcasing their technology.

Do I expect this to happen? We'll see. I can see why this could make sense but this came quite surprisingly so I'm not convinced yet. The Red Bull-Audi rumour seemed just as sensible and still it doesn't seem to be happening.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

My vision of the future of IMSA's Prototype class

ACO, the organizers of Le Mans, announced the new rules for Le Mans P2 cars starting from 2017. Without going into details, ACO will approve four chassis suppliers and one engine supplier. IMSA, the sanctioning body of the Tudor United SportsCar Championship, is planning to adopt a modified version of the P2 regulations for their Prototype class. But IMSA and ACO have different needs. P2 will be IMSA's lead class with manufacturer involvement and all-pro lineups whereas for ACO it's a pro-am class with no manufacturer involvement. The proposed solution to that issue is allowing multiple engine manufacturers and manufacturer-specific bodykits in IMSA with also ACO-spec P2s being allowed there. ACO would allow multiple engine manufacturers only at Le Mans with their performance balanced and all cars using the ACO-spec bodykits.

Le Mans-compatibility is an issue here. Spec bodykits might make balancing the performance easier but it would also mean IMSA teams using engines that are designed to use with a different bodykit with different air intakes, etc. So probably the teams using ACO's spec engine would be at advantage. Also, ACO requires a pro-am lineup in the P2 class whereas IMSA allows all-pro lineups. That might be another issue for IMSA teams willing to race at Le Mans.

So, obviously racing at Le Mans wouldn't be so appealing for IMSA teams not using the ACO-spec P2. And the ACO-spec P2 with pro-am lineup wouldn't probably be winning against manufacturer-supported P2s with all-pro lineups in the Tudor Championship. How I would do it would be to split IMSA's Prototype class into two: Pro and Pro-Am classes. The Pro-Am class would use the ACO-spec P2s and those Pro-Am teams could get an invitation to Le Mans. In the Pro class, teams would be allowed (but not mandated) to use car manufacturers' engines and bodykits. If the car count is sufficient, then Pro-Am P2 could replace the Pro-Am PC class.

In my opinion that would be the sensible solution given ACO's and IMSA's differing needs for P2. IMSA needs manufacturers to their Prototype class and ACO doesn't want them to P2. A Pro-Am P2 class in IMSA would be an American route to Le Mans for privateer P2 teams. The Pro class would keep manufacturer involvement in IMSA's top class. And if the Pro class were based on the P2 chassis, the ACO-spec Pro-Am cars might be reasonably competitive against them.