Monthly Archives: May 2010

Monaco, baby, Monaco!

Need I say more?  The 2010 F1 season has officially arrived, because the circus is back in Monaco, baby.  Monaco is the heart and soul of F1, it’s the ultimate stage of motorsport, and the one race everyone wants to win.  Regardless of how the Drivers and Constructors championships play out, the Monaco GP will guarantee one driver their place in auto racing history.  Adding to the intrigue of this year’s race is the relative parity of the elite teams this year except for the Red Bulls, who have been consistently faster in every race this season.  Five previous winners will be lining up on the grid, and Schumi has a chance of scoring a record tying 6th win.  Monaco, for all its glitz and glamour, is a driver’s circuit.  The challenge of driving an F1 car through a tightly enclosed makeshift street circuit is the ultimate test of a driver’s ability to control and push a car to its absolute limit.

3 of the last 4 Monaco winners went on to win the Drivers championship, which bodes well for this year’s winner.  Unlike other circuits, Monaco emphasizes less on aerodynamics and top speeed and more on traction, braking, and driver control.  Despite its ferocious nature, Monaco is the most difficult circuit to overtake, so qualifying and pit stop strategies usually end up determining the race results.  We’re a 1/3rd of the way into this season, so instead of a running diary of the race, let’s hand out some preliminary grades to every driver for their performance so far this season.  You have 3 hours, you may begin…

Mark Webber: A+
Webber is currently the hottest driver on the grid.  He followed up his win at the Spanish GP with a dominating win from pole position at Monaco.  He almost pulled off the perfect race, but was denied by teammate Sebastian Vettel for fastest lap.  At the beginning of the season, there was a considerable amount of speculation if Webber could race wheel to wheel with the other top drivers.  He hasn’t been exactly stellar in traffic, evidenced in Australia and China, but he’s been arguably the strongest in qualifying with 3 pole positions, and his two wins and 78 points are tied for the lead.  He’s in a groove right now, and he has to be considered a championship contender.  If he can maintain his consistency, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s in the hunt for the Drivers championship all the way to the last race of the season.

Sebastian Vettel: A
Vettel’s up and down season so far can’t be blamed on him for the most part, as the reliablity of his RB6 has failed to match its raw speed.  Which begs the question, why has Vettel suffered from reliability issues while his teammate Webber has been relatively unscathed?  Vettel might be the faster driver, but his aggressive driving style could also be working to his detriment.  Vettel’s season feels reminiscent of Kimi Raikkonen’s 2005 season, when he stormed to 7 race wins and was widely considered the driver of the year, despite not winning the Drivers championship.  The Iceman that year was also forced to retire three times with reliability issues.   We’re only a third of the way through this season, and it remains to be seen if Red Bull can improve the reliability of the RB6.  At the same time, Vettel is tied for the Drivers championship lead with Webber, and if I was forced to choose one driver, I would go with Vettel.

Fernando Alonso: A-
Alonso’s maiden season with Ferrari started off with a bang at Bahrain, but it’s fizzled out as of late.  His drive at Monaco was a spirited salvaging of a lost race for the Spaniard, who wrecked his car during Saturday’s last practice session and was unable to participate in qualifying.  Even with the return of Schumi, everyone is looking at Alonso to set the standard for the Drivers championship battle.  If the most complete driver in F1 can find that extra 1 percent of pace throughout the rest of the season, Alonso has a chance to climb the pantheon of the greatest drivers in F1, and reaffirm Ferrari’s unmatched stature as the greatest F1 team ever.  Vamos, forza!

Felipe Massa: B-
After his down to the wire championship battle with Hamilton in 2008 and his near death incident at Hungary last year, Massa has seen his share of drama and intrigue.  Much like Manny Pacquiao, Massa has markedly improved at his craft from the beginning of his career.  But this season has been somewhat of a speed bump, and he’s been uninvolved with the leaders at the front since his 3rd place finish at Bahrain.  Alonso’s pit entry pass on Massa at China is the biggest story this season involving the Brazilian, if he wants to change the tone of his season, he needs a strong performance sooner rather than later.  I wouldn’t count on it, but who doesn’t enjoy rooting for the underdog?

Jenson Button: A
The reigning world champion put on clinics in silky smooth driving and race management at Australia and China.  His unfortunate retirement at Monaco was the fault of a plastic cap that was lodged into his radiator duct intake, which led to his engine overheating within two laps.  But his most significant feat this season has been his success in winning over the entire McLaren team with his mild mannered enthusiasm for racing for Team England, who thought they already had their talisman in Hamilton.  Could we see a repeat of 2007, when McLaren drivers Hamilton and Alonso duked it out to the last race of the season, only to be pipped by the Iceman Kimi Raikkonen?  Let’s hope so!

Lewis Hamilton: B+
If Vettel this season has been the fastest, then Hamilton has been the most exciting to watch.  His relatively mediocre qualifying performances have forced him to put on some clinical demonstrations in overtaking on race day, especially at Australia and China.  But his season has also been marked several black eyes, from his temporary arrest for doing a burnout on a public road in Melbourne, to murmurs that he is a marginally overaggressive driver.  But love him or hate him, he expects to be in the mix, as does frontrunners Red Bull, who recently called out Hamilton and Alonso as their biggest threats for this season, but not Button interestingly.

Michael Schumacher: Incomplete
Why no grade for Schumi?  The main reason, as evidenced by his strong performances at Monaco and Spain, is because he dealt with a car that clearly didn’t suit his driving style for the first four races of the season.  Granted his teammate Nico Rosberg outperformed him with the same car, but some of that can also be attributed to rust from being retired for three years.  His critics in the media and in the F1 community have been quick to jump on him and write him off as a contender, and it’s possible he may have conceded too much too early in the season to mount a challenge for the Drivers championship.  But this is no regular man, he is Schumi, a 7 time world champion, and still the GOAT, and any season with him behind the wheel has special meaning.  It seems he now has a car that suits his style, can he at least repay his team for their efforts by winning a few races before season’s end?

Nico Rosberg: B
For most of this season, Rosberg has managed to outperform his legendary teammate while fielding endless questions over the disparity in their pace.  Mercedes’ improvements(or radical changes) introduced at Spain were widely touted as Schumi flexing his muscle over the all German team, and his lack of pace didn’t help to quell the rumors.  And lately young Nico has been a little chilly towards the media, and things could get frostier if he continues to fall behind Schumi.  If Nico wants to follow in the footsteps of his father and former world champion Keke, then he needs to man up, tighten his racing shoes, and drive flat out.  Only then will he be able to truly challenge for #1 status.

Robert Kubica: A-
The surprise of the season, Kubica signifcantly raised his stock with strong drives at Australia, Malaysia, and Monaco.  There’s no doubt that Kubica is in the same class with the other top drivers, but there was considerable speculation over Renault’s operation coming into this season.  Of all the team driver duos in the paddock, Kubica’s edge over teammate Vitaly Petrov is the most sizable in terms of sheer speed, and if wasn’t for the Pole, the engineers at Renault would be pulling their perfectly moussed hair out.  Courtesy of F1Fanatic, this chart gives you an idea of the disparity in speed between the drivers in the context of within their team.

The big question with Kubica is will he stay after this season, or could he jump ship and go to Ferrari or somewhere else?

Team Lotus: B
Of all new teams this season, Lotus has shown they have the strongest operation, although that isn’t saying a whole lot.  But I expect them to show the most improvement by the end of the season, and their investment in veteran drivers Jarno Trulli and Heikki Kovalainen should pay off at some point.  It’s unlikely that the team will score any points this season, but if they do, then it could set a positive tone going into next season.  Colin Chapman isn’t exactly doing jumping jacks in his grave right now, but a podium finish could maybe yield a wry smile.

Virgin Racing: C-
It’s one thing to use a budding technological development tool like CFD to wholly design an F1 car, like Virgin did, but it’s another thing to design a race car with a fuel tank that isn’t large enough to finish a race.  Branson’s new pet project has been an exercise of visionary pomp and grandiose hubris.  All the buzz surrounding the team at the beginning of the season has been replaced by moans and smirks over their futility.  Branson needs to realize that he can’t just wave his magic entrepreneurial wand and proclaim a new era has begun in F1.  For him to do that, they need to win races, and if it wasn’t for Team Hispania, his Virgin outfit would be the laughingstock in the paddocks.

MP

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Viva Espana: An Aussie reigns supreme while the GOAT finds his legs

Vamos!  Last weekend’s Spanish Grand Prix officially kicked off the start of the European leg of the 2010 season, and practically every team brought a host of improvements to their cars to the Circuit de Catalunya in Barcelona, which also happens to be the preferred test circuit for the majority of the teams during the offseason(Hmm, I wonder why?  A world class city with a remarkably preserved yet progressive culture in food, art, sport, architecture, and everything else that matters.  Short answer is if you’re a part of F1, you can live pretty much wherever you want.  But I digress…)

Of all the teams, Mercedes GP made the most significant in-season changes to their car’s aerodynamic profile; Team Deutschland revamped their W01 by lengthening the wheelbase and introducing a radical new split airbox intake to adjust the aerodynamic balance of the car.  The changes were made to appease some driver named Michael Schumacher, who since the beginning of the season voiced his struggles to cope with W01’s apparent natural understeer.  In response, a number of explanations and solutions to Schumi’s problem were brought forward: The narrower front tires of a 2010 F1 car compared to formulas from past seasons, which led to reduced front mechanical grip, which is the inherent element of understeer; The reduced power of the 2.4 liter V8 engines compared to the more robust V10s used during Schumi’s first career stint in F1, which would make it more difficult for him to power-oversteer out of a turn; or perhaps the simplest yet most controversial hypothesis brought forward by the F1 community, which is that he is simply not the same driver he was during his championship winning heydays in the 90s and the first half of the 00s.  F1 pundits and Schumi critics could smell the blood in the water, and no punches were pulled, with article headlines like the “Poor Schumi’s lost it” and “The Regenmeister is all dried up.”  But like the seven time world champion that he is, Schumi insisted that his comeback was a gradual work in progress, and that he and team were not satisfied with the performance level of the car.

Throughout his career, Schumi has always preferred a car that is quick in turning into a corner, which necessitated that the car leaned towards exhibiting oversteer rather than understeer.  Lengthening the W01’s wheelbase by pushing the forward axle slightly forward and modifying the rear body work, Mercedes was able to shift the weight balance of the car towards the rear axle without sacrificing any downforce.  In China, he was so far off the pace that many speculated his team artificially reduced the level of rearward downforce on his W01 in hopes of altering the weight balance to his liking, but the downside of this decision was that Schumi struggled consistently throughout the race because of a lack of grip in the rear tires coming out of slower turns.  The end result was a 10th place finish and a race performance that was quite honestly one of the most feeble and pathetic efforts of Schumi’s illustrious career.  All things considered, the changes made by Mercedes wasn’t more than just a bandaid to heal his driving woes, it was a last ditch lifeline to salvage what’s left of this season, and quite possibly, Schumi’s career.  So did the changes work?  Only way to find out is to keep reading…

Before…

and after.

The split double air intake just behind Schumi’s head is the most noticeable change in the bodywork, and in auto racing, and especially in F1, the most minute changes can add up to create a significant change in performance.  So how did Schumi fare in Valenica on Sunday?  He earned his best place of the season, finishing 4th, ahead of championship leader Jenson Button, former pupil Felipe Massa, and currently F1’s most sought after driver Robert Kubica.  Granted he finished 62 seconds behind race winner Mark Webber, but it was clear that the changes made during the three week layoff were well served in bridging the gap between Schumi and his rivals.  But what about his teammate Nico Rosberg, who for the first four races of the season consistently outperformed his legendary teammate?  His weekend didn’t go as well; His 13th place finish was the worst of his season, and he consistently struggled to match the pace of his competitors, which naturally included Schumi.

One of the most frequent criticisms through the years on Schumi’s approach to racing is his unwavering demand for the absolute commitment of his team’s resources to providing him a car that suits his driving style.  And make no mistake, Mercedes is fully committed to doing just that, and it seems they have made significant strides in providing him a competitive car, but at what cost?  Rosberg’s season?  The Constructors championship?  And despite Schumi’s pace, he was still nowhere close to touching both Red Bull drivers or Alonso in his F10, evidenced by Webber’s emphatic win, who finished 24 seconds ahead of runner up Alonso, and a minute clear of Schumi.  Courtesy of my peeps at F1Fanatic, here’s a bar chart of both Schumi’s and Rosberg’s fastest laps in each race relative to the race winners this season.

As you can see, Schumi’s pace for the first four races was either essentially matched or exceeded by Rosberg, and Spain was the first race where Schumi definitively Nico.   Both drivers were cumulatively farther off the race winner’s pace in Spain more so than any other race this season, which is the most telling figure.  This season could very well play out with both Schumi and Rosberg struggling to match the pace of the other three teams comprising the Big 4, which would be a poor result for the defending Constructors champions.  If so, Schumi’s resurgence would be nothing more than a pyrrhic victory for Mercedes this season.  What we do know is the balance of power within the Mercedes team has clearly shifted back in Schumi’s favor, and the question now is can he deliver the goods?  Time to head to Monaco, baby.  Monaco!

MP

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One Plate at a Time: Celebrating Cinco de Mayo

Feliz Cinco de Mayo!  Oh, Cinco de Mayo, if you only you were a real and authentic holiday of Mexican culture, and not some American commercial concoction.  Before I say anymore, I acknowledge the historical significance of the Battle of Puebla is very limited in Mexico’s historical timeline in becoming a sovereign state, and that Cinco de Mayo’s cultural proliferation as an American holiday is a reflection of our collective ignorance.  The ugly truth is most, if not all, Americans love you, including myself. But who doesn’t love Cinco de Mayo?!  Think about it, along with St. Patrick’s Day and Halloween, those three days are truly some of the most fun and festive holidays on the calendar.  Who doesn’t love the sound of a mariachi band playing, the smell of churros in the air, and the sight of sombrero-donning gringos who’ve had one too many Tecates?

Rick Bayless is at the moment my favorite chef/personality in the culinary arts.  His show on PBS, Mexico: One Plate at a Time, based on his excellent cookbook of the same name, is now in its seventh season.  Bayless is more or less the primary authority on the incorporation of classic Mexican flavors and ingredients into modern American cuisine.  The show is primarily set in Bayless’ backyard in his suburban Chicago home, and every episode feels like a picnic with old Uncle Rick.  Here’s a clip of him prepping some rib eye steaks with a roasted serrano pepper marinade.

I don’t know about you, but watching that makes me want to go go out and buy a Kalamazoo hybrid outdoor grill and start getting my grill on.  So in homage to one of my culinary idols and one of my favorite days in the spring season, I submit my first recipe ever:

Grilled Marinated Flank Steak Tacos with Black Bean Soup, Chips and Guacamole, and Dodger Blue Margaritas (serves 4 to 6)

Ingredients:

Flank Steak & Marinade:
1 (2 to 3 pound) flank steak
1 large red onion, sliced
1/4 cup olive or canola oil
1/8 cup lime juice
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon ancho chile powder
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/8 cup chopped cilantro

Guacamole:
4 avocados
1 small red onion, finely diced
1 serrano pepper, minced with seeds
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
2 to 3 tablespoons lime juice
1/2 tsp kosher salt

Black Bean Soup:
1 (16 oz) can of canned black beans or 8 oz of dried black beans
16 oz chicken stock
1/2 small red onion, minced
1 oz cotija cheese
1 tsp cumin
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper

Chips:
canola oil to fry
corn tortillas
kosher salt

Margaritas:
16 oz tequila(preferably a reposado like Cazadores, so please, no Jose Cuervo silver)
8 oz blue curacao
8 oz fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon sugar

Directions:

Begin by prepping the marinade in a small bowl, and place the steak and sliced onions into a sealable plastic bag.  Pour the marinade into the bag, and then seal it while removing any large air bubbles.  Place the bag in the refrigerator for up to several hours until ready to grill.

For the chips, preheat enough canola oil to 375 degrees in a large pot or saucepan so that it’s several inches deep, or use a deep fryer if available.  Cut the corn tortillas into wedges and fry them in the oil for five minutes or until golden brown and crispy.  Drain the chips of excess oil and season while still hot with salt.

For the black bean soup, if using dried black beans soak in water for an hour, and then boil in water until soft, for up to two hours.  To save time, use canned black beans instead and place into a medium pot.  Add the chicken stock, onion, cumin, and garlic to the beans and simmer on low heat for 20 minutes.

While the soup simmers, prep the guacamole by halving the avocados, removing the flesh, and adding the remaining ingredients into a bowl.  Mix until the guacamole is smooth yet slightly chunky in texture.

Preheat the grill to high heat, sprinkle the steak aggressively with salt and pepper, and grill for 4 to 6 minutes on each side until cooked to desired doneness(For medium rare, grill about 9 minutes total, look and listen for telltale signs of blood leaving the steak).  For the onions, grill until slightly caramelized, for about 5-7 minutes.  Rest the steak and onions on a cutting board or serving dish for at least five minutes before slicing and serving.

If available, use a stick blender to blend the soup mixture, if not, place soup mix into a stand blender and pulse for several seconds.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.  Top with cotija cheese.

For the tacos, heat the corn or flour tortillas on the grill or on a pan, and slice the steak across the grain into strips.  Serve with grilled onions, additional cilantro, and sour cream if desired.  Serve with the soup and chips and guacamole.

For the margaritas, mix all the ingredients in a pitcher with ice, serve with glasses rimmed with salt if desired.

That’s it, there you have it, my favorite meal for one of my favorite holidays not just in the month of May, but the entire year.  I’ve made this recipe a number of times, and it’s always been a crowd pleaser.  And the best part is, it’s relatively easy to extrapolate the recipe for a larger group of people.  So whatever it is you plan on doing for Cinco de Mayo: if you’re like me and have the time, fire up the grill and sit back and enjoy the beautiful spring weather; Or if you don’t the time or luxury because of work, grab some tacos and a beer, and find a shady spot outside; Just be thankful that the Mexican army defeated the French at Puebla on this fateful day back in 1862, cuz goddamit, it’s the American Way.

MP

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The Legend of Didier Drogba continues to grow…

Words cannot express the delight when I read Time’s inspirational puff piece on Didier Drogba.  My friend pointed out that it’s written from the perspective of how we want to view him, and he’s absolutely right in that regard.  The article focuses on Drogba as an inspiration to society, and not so much on his footballing persona.  Drogba as a footballer is highly feared and respected, but he’s not exactly the most beloved.  He can be dramatic and temperamental at times, but it belies his passion and love for the game.  As a person and humanitarian, though, Drogba is larger than life.  The world would be a better place if we had more Didiers running around.  But we only have one, and that’s good enough.

Of all the teams in the World Cup, the Ivory Coast is highly worth watching(The others for me are Spain, Argentina, and England).  They are in the same group with Brazil and Portugal, but I wouldn’t write them off for one second.  Part of me believes that a compelling sporting tale could be written by Drogba and les Elephants if everything goes perfectly for them this summer.

My advice to you is to read the piece, think about it for a moment, and then watch this clip.

http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1984685_1984949_1985240,00.html

MP

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