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On Champions and Underdogs

Most people like a winner, but they don’t like consistent winners. . . . When people perceive you as an underdog, they are very supportive. Then when you’re on top, they turn you from a David into a Goliath and immediately try to tear you down.

(Ron Dennis, quoted in Grand Prix People)

Back in the 1990s, Michael Jordan led some Bulls of a nonracing (but also red!) persuasion to six NBA championships.

For Chicagoans who were basketball fans at that time — including the many Chicagoans he turned into basketball fans — Michael Jordan will always be something akin to a deity. A city with a massive love of sports and yet precious little victory to celebrate so much of the time, Chicago had never seen anything quite like him. Neither had anyone else, for that matter. So immense was his talent that he was able to lead what had been a truly pathetic team out of the depths failure and eventually into the stratosphere, where they dominated pro basketball for the better part of a decade.

Six championships. Three years winning, two years merely making it to the conference semifinals, then three more years winning. And I can tell you as one of those Bulls fans that not a single one of those championships was taken for granted or regarded as simply routine. Each championship was unmitigated joy, like we experienced with the 1985 Bears, except an unbelievable six times.

Of course, that was us. Of course we were happy. We were the ones doing the dominating. The dominated — well, they felt a bit differently about Michael Jordan’s Bulls.

My dad told me a story about when he and my mom traveled to San Antonio during one of those later championship seasons and went on a boat ride with a bunch of other tourists. The boat operator struck up a chummy conversation with everyone about NBA basketball — where the passengers were from, what teams they followed. My dad kept quiet as long as he could; he knew what was coming. When they finally got around to him and my mom and learned they were Bulls fans, my parents became more or less pariahs. No one spoke to them for the rest of the ride.

Never mind the years and years of obscurity. Never mind that, not even ten years earlier, a Bulls championship would have been nearly unthinkable. At this point, people elsewhere hated the Bulls. One championship? Sure, that’s an inspiring story for a team with the Bulls’ dismal history. Two championships? Okay, starting to push it a bit, but I guess you do have Michael Jordan and all. . .  Three championships? No, no, you’ve worn out your welcome — that’s quite enough. You’ve gone from potentially lovable underdog to predictable winner who needs to be brought down several pegs. Four, five, six championships? We hate you, thou epitome of evil!

Surely, the point of transition from underdog to unwelcome habitual winner isn’t set in stone and depends on numerous factors, but I’d venture to guess it often occurs right around the time of the second championship. Yes, often, but not always. Which brings me to the case of Red Bull Racing.

By the end of the 2010 F1 season, many fans were talking about Red Bull as though they were already an unwelcome winning dynasty — which is interesting, considering they won their first constructors’ and drivers’ championships in that same season. What is it about Red Bull that got so many people so sick and tired of them so quickly? Is it Sebastian Vettel, the young and emotional yet by all accounts friendly and down-to-earth German driver with a quirky sense of humor, whom people somehow love to hate? Is it Red Bull itself, the “drinks company” run by Austrians with buttloads of cash at its disposal? How much did Mark Webber’s deft use of the press and all the whisperings of favoritism within the team in 2010 have to do with it?

One complaint that was (and is) heard above all others relates to boredom and predictability. How boring that Red Bull is constantly on pole position! How predictable that Vettel wins whenever he’s on pole position! And yet how anyone could call the 2010 season “predictable” or “boring” is beyond me. Did everyone miss the part where the only time Vettel led the championship during the course of the season was when he won the championship in the very last race? Did everyone miss the part where there were five — FIVE — drivers on three teams who were absolutely in contention for the championship toward the end of the season? Yes? Here’s a picture to jog your memory.

Still, it is widely acknowledged that Red Bull has had the fastest car for a couple of years now, a fact that has rubbed many the wrong way and produced a long-term sense of foreboding. The response often takes the form of speculation about how the designers must be cheating, particularly with regard to flexing of the front wing. Frankly, I’m no engineer, and I keep hearing different things about this. The front wing must be entirely rigid, and Red Bull’s clearly isn’t! / It’s impossible for a front wing to be entirely rigid, but Red Bull’s is way more not rigid than it ought to be! / Red Bull’s front wing is totally illegal and evil in every respect, but Adrian Newey has used black magic to make it flex hugely during races and not while being tested by the FIA! Etcetera.

But isn’t that what F1 engineering is all about? Figuring out ways to work around the letter of the regulations to make your car faster than all the others? And another part of F1 engineering, as I understand it, is to try to figure out exactly what your successful competitor is doing to work around the letter of the regulations and then try to copy it as well as you can. These processes have been proceeding apace. All part of the game, right? Teams try to improve their own performance with the goal of beating other teams.

What I find puzzling is the number of fans who are already seemingly so invested in seeing Red Bull taken down by whatever means necessary. People are already talking about the team and Vettel in terms of the Schumacher/Ferrari dynasty that apparently drove so many away from the sport because of the boredom and predictability of being faced with the same team and driver always winning. It amazes me to hear demands that the FIA do whatever they have to to devise a wing flex test that will catch Red Bull out and put an end to their dominance. Really? Is that the way you want to go about it? Do you have so little faith in other teams’ ability to come up with their own solutions? Is leveling the playing field by stamping out design creativity the way you want the sport to proceed? Along similar lines, a couple weeks ago people were fantasizing about punishing Red Bull for “not using KERS correctly.” Again — really? The tone of some of the stuff I read about Red Bull’s imaginary “start-only KERS” made it seem like a mechanism that involved the blood of freshly killed kittens and puppies rather than the simple use of a (nonrequired!) bit of technology at one point in the race but not at others.

In the end, I suppose it comes down to the fact that people want to be entertained and to feel invested — to feel that there’s always sufficient uncertainty about the outcome of a race (or a game) and that their guy will have a chance. Despite the fact that more guys than usual did have a chance at the championship very late in the season last year, people were already feeling threatened by the potential in Red Bull — by the idea that, if the team were able to eliminate some of the car’s reliability issues and Vettel were able to cut down on some of the mistakes he’s prone to make, then there would be nothing to stop them from becoming the next Schumacher-led Ferrari. Never mind their status as still a relatively new team, never mind that they ranked seventh in the constructors’ championship as recently as 2008. Red Bull Racing is no longer any kind of underdog.

I got the impression, back in the 90s, that some might have been happier had Michael Jordan been required to play at least a quarter of every game with one hand tied behind his back. Would that have leveled the playing field sufficiently for everyone’s liking? Similarly, perhaps many F1 fans would be in favor of the FIA prohibiting Adrian Newey from working on car designs when. . .oh, I don’t know, how about when his blood alcohol level is below a certain threshold? Because if you succeed in forcing Red Bull to make their front wing work in just the same way as everyone else’s, Newey is likely to work his genius magic in some other way. Perhaps it’s time to stop this plodding, whack-a-mole approach to eliminating the threat of boring, excessive excellence in F1. Why not go straight to the source and hobble the creative thought process before it has a chance to devise excessive excellence in the first place?

(The graphic in this post was made using light textures by SICKBOYGFX and ROJOdesigns, available at Official PSDs.)

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2 Responses

  1. See, I didn’t know you could do this.

    It was worth the dislike. I can remember going to Bulls games when it didn’t matter what seat your ticket was for, you sat where ever you wanted. Heck, I can remember when Wrigley field upper deck was closed and it was a good day if 2400 people were in attendance.

    Things change. If people resent that you can enjoy the moment forget it.

    Bertrand

  2. You’re right — it’s worth it. Although it’s nothing like when the Bulls or the Cubs are dominating… Hahahaha! Sorry, it’s hard to talk about the Cubs “dominating” without laughing — but you know what I mean. My point is, there’s no long history of Red Bull fans suffering, because there’s no long history of Red Bull fans, period. This is only the team’s seventh year of existence. But, like most new F1 teams, they were really struggling for most of that time, and even before they won their first championship last year, they had already become villains! It’s almost like they had an air of dominance around them that people could catch the scent of before it actually became reality…

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