Principles in the Principality


Last night the world listened to Lance Armstrong being interviewed by Oprah Winfrey. At last he publicly acknowledged that every one of his sporting accolades was obtained with the illegal assistance of advanced medical and chemical support.

The baying masses wanted tears and contrition but Armstrong refused. Instead he explained that, as far as he is concerned, there were at least 200 cyclists who operated just as far outside the written rules of the sport as himself. Therefore, in his mind, Armstrong was only doing what was needed to be done to stay competitive. If he did it more ruthlessly than them, well, that was his advantage.

To be honest, I can understand his logic entirely. That’s not an endorsement of the man because some of his actions – notably his wilful ransacking of careers and reputations among professional support staff – are unforgivable. But the competitive logic is pure.

Perhaps it is a matter of conditioning – after all, motor sport seeks ‘the unfair advantage’ in virtually every discipline. Engineers make their money and reputation from designing something that nobody else in the field has got, something which can be exploited to remove all possibility of being beaten.

Some 50 years ago, for example, the works BMC rally team took the sport into the modern age thanks to the inventive and restless brilliance of its manager, Stuart Turner. He brought about gravel and ice note crews, a whole host of inventive ways to service the team en route and of course the cars themselves were tailored to eke the maximum  possible advantage of the rules.

The Mini was bred in 997cc, 998cc, 1071cc or 1275cc guise to fit different classes with maximum competitiveness, while each and every loophole was explored to the fullest. Of course this spelt the end of the sport for many competitors, not least my wife’s grandfather, the accomplished Monte specialist J.W. Bowdage, who realised that the gentlemen had been surpassed by the players and he was only going to either go bankrupt or get hurt if he tried to keep up with Turner’s deft rewriting of the rulebook.

Today one of Turner’s teams would last about five minutes before falling foul of one regulation or another… but it makes him no less a hero to many like me nor detract from his record in the sport’s roll of honour. BMC’s record with the Mini, MGB and Austin-Healey was an example of brilliance that few team managers in any discipline have ever rivalled. His competitors were forced to play to his rules, give up or, in the case of the 1966 Monte, changed the rulebook during the event!

Coming back to 2013, we see another ‘unfair advantage’ being exploited for all that it’s worth in Monte Carlo. Indeed, I fear that it might yet provoke a complete meltdown from Sébastien Ogier.

Here is a man who has an enviable quota of self belief and the backing of Volkswagen’s €100 million superteam. He is almost 1 minute 20s ahead of his nearest challenger, Dani Sordo, and exactly 2 minutes ahead of the man expected to lead Citroën’s campaign through the full 13 events this season, Mikko Hirvonen. He’s light years ahead of his team-mate, former Ford number 1 Jari-Matti latvala. Yet last night Ogier was almost beside himself with rage.

All it took was the mention of Sébastien Loeb. The nine-time champion is in an event of his own, which is currently taking place a minute and a half further ahead of Ogier. While the prospect of Loeb’s points will be an extremely welcome one for his Citroën team, the complete demolition job being wrought on Ogier’s psyche through being forced to concede by such a margin will be of even greater long-term benefit.

Lance Armstrong lied again last night, when he defined cheating as seeking the means ‘to gain an advantage on a rival or foe that they don’t have’. That, my dear Lance, is precisely why many competitors get out of bed in the morning.


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