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Operation Puerto and it’s Legacy Part 2

Before getting started I just wanted to say a massive thank you to anyone who read part one of this story I massively appreciate it! If anyone hasn’t yet read it yet they can find it here.

Last time we made it up to early 2006 and by this time not much had happened with Manzano’s allegations. A Spanish Sports Council investigation was dropped due to lack of evidence and the sport of cycling moved on denying any of his allegations. Things began changing  in early 2006 when the Spanish Guardia Civil opened a police investigation on these allegations based on endangering public health crimes.

The police began investigating Fuentes using wire taps of his phone and covert surveillance on his movements. What they were quickly able to establish was that Fuentes had become a major player in the doping of professional cyclists. Just in May alone they were able to place him with a wealth of Spanish connected riders.

Whether it was Santiago Botero and Constantino Gutierrez on the 4th May, Oscar Sevilla on the 13th May or Jorg Jaksche on the 14th May it was clear that Fuentes offices in Madrid had become a one-stop doping shop for most in the peloton. Multiple blood bags with dates matching their arrivals would later be found in medical freezers in Fuentes apartments. As well as cyclists flying in on an almost daily basis Fuentes was also orchestrating doping for many top name riders competing in the 2006 Giro D’Italia that month also.

Phone records from this time period show Fuentes talking with his assistants Alberto Leon Herranz and Jose Luis Merino Batres, along with Comunidad Valenciana DS Ignacio Labarta Barrera, who were organising the doping in Italy. After both stages seven and eight on the 13th and 14th of May Fuentes and Labarta Barrera comment on the days stage, talking about the contenders they have doping links with.

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Ivan Basso grimaces during his victorious 2006 Giro D’Italia win. Months later he would prove a key player in Operation Puerto, casting overwhelming doubt on his Giro win being clean. Photo: Tim de Waele/TDWSport.com.

Those include dominant overall winner Ivan Basso, who is linked in the documents with having taken a blood bag two days before his first stage win on the 14th May, however this has never been confirmed. Second place Jose Enrique Gutierrez was also listed as a client of Fuentes, with his documents suggesting he took two bags, one days before the Giro and the second on the 12th the same as Basso. Michele Scarponi and Unai Oso Eizaguirre were also mentioned as having finished well with both later being implicated by documentation to using Fuentes for doping.

The first shocks of this investigation were felt on the 23rd May with Spanish police arresting Liberty-Seguros directeur sportif Manolo Saiz along with Fuentes and three others. Raids of Fuentes medical practices found a trove of performance enhancing drugs and documents linking him to professional cyclists. 

Between two medical practices in Madrid Spanish police uncovered 185 refrigerated blood bags along with plasma bags to maintain the blood and medical equipment for blood transfusions. Police also found Actovegin,Andriol (testosterone), Eposino (EPO),Jintropin (HGH),Synacthene, Vivarin (Caffeine tablets) and six different varieties of Insulin.  The majority of these medications were illegal in Spain and were bought from counterfeit labs across the world. Along with these were a trove of legal medical products such as Prozac and Diazepam. 

Police also found a jar of white pills with a hand-written known which they believed to be a steroid called Oxitosone. They uncovered a mysterious red powder which they believe was given to athletes to use to contaminate any doping tests to ensure they would not test positive.

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The man at the centre of this scandal, Eufemiano Fuentes leaves Spanish court during his trial for charges of endangering public health. The case has floundered in court since his initial arrest in May 2006. Photo:AP.

In police interviews on the 24th May Liberty-Seguros team director sportif Manolo Saiz noted star rider Roberto Heras requested working with Fuentes in early 2004. From here fellow former Kelme riders Marcos Serrano and Angel Vicioso made similar requests. After impressive 2nd and 7th places in the 2003 and 2004 Vuelta Saiz then requested that Isidro Nozal work with Fuentes from late 2004 onwards.

Barely six months later Nozal would be suspended for two weeks after registering a hematocrit of over 50% at the 2005 Dauphine Libere, a key Tour de France warm-up race. He would later admit to having done three blood transfusions with Fuentes in 2005.

What the documents would show was that Fuentes had extensive links with the doping of the two Spanish teams Liberty-Seguros and Comunidad Valenciana. He appeared to have a personal relationship with Liberty-Seguros DS Manolo Saiz and Comunidad DS Jose Ignacio Labarta along with his prior relationship to the team as their former doctor in their Kelme days as well as having his sister Yolanda Fuentes as the teams doctor from 2001-2006.

He was directly linked to the likes of Roberto Heras, Jorg Jaksche, Joseba Beloki, Isidro Nozal, Marcos Serrano, Michele Scarponi, Angel Vicioso and David Etxeberria at Liberty-Seguros to name just a select few of many. He had similar longstanding links at Comunidad Valenciana along with a wealth of foreign riders who used him for doping.

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Spanish climber Roberto Heras wearing the leaders jersey at the 2005 Vuelta a Espana. After a positive EPO test from the penultimate day Heras was stripped of victory but was later reinstated in 2012 after numerous court appeals. Heras had requested working with Fuentes 18 months prior to this race. Photo: Rodolfo Espinosa/Brand.

In this early stage however this information was not public with media speculation leaking slowly as more and more riders were speculated to have worked with Fuentes. Amid this hysteria the teams looked to protect themselves with T-Mobile asking riders to formally distance themselves from Fuentes whilst Phonak suspended star riders Santiago Botero and Jose Enrique Gutierrez.

On the 1st June Comunidad Valenciana DS Jose Ignacio Labarta resigned, as Liberty-Seguros ended their sponsorship of the old ONCE team. This left the team scrambling as they transitioned from Liberty-Seguros-Wurth to Astana-Wurth. The sport was descending into farce as Astana-Wurth were first banned and then allowed to compete in the 2006 Tour de France as the 2006 Spanish National Road Race was cancelled after 500 meters because of a mass rider protest.

The biggest drama from the case would come only two days before the start of the 2006 Tour de France. I’ll explain what happened and bring us to the modern day in the third and final installment of this thread which will be coming very soon!

Thank you for reading part two if you have any feedback or comment at all feel free to leave it below you can find me on Twitter @JWjournalism.

 

 

 

 

 

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Operation Puerto and it’s Legacy Part 1

July 12th 2003. In the scorching summer heat the Tour de France peloton prepares for a punishing day heading east from Lyon into the mountains of Morzine. The first mountain day of the centenary Tour and the chance for the top contenders to lay their mark on the race.

Within the Kelme team bus Spanish climber Jesus Manzano confidently phones his wife telling her to expect a big win today. How could he be so sure of victory? The team doctor Dr Eufemiano Fuentes had just given him an injection of an unknown substance. He would later find out that it was Oxyglobin, a blood substitute used to treat anaemia in dogs.

Manzano’s predictions rings true early in Stage Seven, as he and eventual stage winner Richard Virenque break from the peloton on the first climb to attempt to join the earlier breakaway. Three kilometers up the Col de Portes Manzano begins to feel dizzy before collapsing at the side of the road 500 meters later. The race doctor mistakenly diagnoses heat stroke as he is airlifted to a nearby hospital. It’s here that Manzano claims team manager Joan Mas asked him to refuse all blood tests.

He suffered a near-fatal dehydration that day, something he later testified was because of his Oxyglobin injection. This near death experience had a massive effect on Manzano who begins to grow disillusioned with the sport. He was forced by the team to ride to 2003 Volta a Portugal, however in the days leading up to the race he became ill again with an allergic reaction after receiving an contaminated 125ml blood bag from Fuentes assistant.

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Jesus Manzano in the green,white and blue Kelme jersey in happier times. Soon after this early break on Stage Seven he would collapse from extreme dehydration caused by doping products. Photo: AFP.

Two serious health scares thanks to doping were a lot to handle for the young Spaniard. Late in the 2003 Vuelta a Espana the team fired him for disputed reasons. The team said they fired him for breaking the rules on having a woman in his room during the race. He testified in court that the team fired him once he told them they were putting riders lives at risk with their doping programme.

Kelme moved on without Manzano, who was now facing an uncertain future within cycling. After six months of quiet the matter exploded back into life in March 2004 when he did an interview with Spanish newspaper As detailing Kelme’s doping.

The story made national news as he listed the cocktail of drugs he used between 2001-2003 including EPO, blood transfusions, cortisone, a female hormone called human chorionic gonadotropin,testosterone, Synacthen which has been used in horse racing, Actovegin derived from calf blood  and Oxyglobin. He also made damning allegations that the team pressured him to dope and that they assisted with doping. He also explained that before the 2003 Tour de France he was asked to contribute €3000 to contribute towards the teams medical expenses, something he believes every rider on the team did.

His allegations caused a stir within the sport as he explained that every rider on the Kelme team apart from Juan Miguel Cuenca were doping. This was a major controversy that engulfed star riders on the team such as 2002 Vuelta winner Aitor Gonzalez, 2nd in the 2001 Vuelta Oscar Sevilla, 3rd overall in the 2003 Vuelta Alejandro Valverde and 4th overall in the 2002 Tour Santiago Botero. These were some of the most successful and promising Spanish riders in cycling being implicated in doping.

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Aitor Gonzalez on the top step celebrating victory in the 2002 Vuelta a Espana. Gonzalez never climbed these heights again before retiring in 2006 after a two-year doping ban. His more recent exploits have included alleged bank fraud and robbery. Photo: Tim de Waele/TDWSport.com.

The response from the sport was to be expected. The team refuted all allegations and said that Manzano’s motives were revenge after the team fired him the previous September. Tour de France director Jean-Marie Leblanc also questioned the allegations, however after further revelations he rescinded the Kelme teams invite to the 2004 Tour.

Whilst the sport dismissed his claims the Spanish Sports Council opened an investigation immediately looking into these allegations. They questioned three doctors and staff associated with the team during the early 2000’s Dr Walter Viru,  Dr Eufemiano Fuentes and Alfredo Cordova. The investigation was later dropped because of a lack of evidence.

This appeared to the end of the matter, with the revelations seemingly going nowhere as the sport moved on into 2006 with nothing having changed. That however, was soon to be shattered in a massive way.  Find out in Part Two.

By Jordan Wilkins

Thank you so much for reading this article if you have any feedback at all I would massively appreciate it just let me know in the comments section below! Find me on Twitter @JWjournalism.    

 

 

 

Cycling Still Has A Way To Go

Professional cycling is the sport most keenly associated with the abuse of performance enhancing drugs. Other sports such as athletics and baseball have similar problems which blighted their sport, however the story of Lance Armstrong was so captivating it brought the sport’s problem to the forefront of our minds.

In the last decade it has made a sizeable attempt to change the culture from one of doping to a cleaner, purer public image. Innovations such as the biological passport and greater out-of competition testing have made it much harder for cyclists to dope.

All of these testing measures and the attempts to change the culture within the sport have meant and end to the wild west era’s of the 1990’s and early 2000’s when riders were transfusing multiple blood bags, EPO, testosterone, cortisone and HGH to name just a few.  Despite all of these new preventative measures being put in place some within the peloton still give in to temptation and use doping products.

In recent months the sport has been hit with a setback from Operation Aderlass. Whilst this is not Operation Puerto where multiple top name riders were linked with doping, this German police investigation into blood doping has uncovered links with cyclists. So far the majority of named athletes have been cross country skiing, but so far two Austrian cyclists have confessed to blood doping during this investigation.

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Lance Armstrong is the most recognizable cyclist because of his comeback from cancer and subsequent downfall for doping. Here he celebrates his seventh and final Tour victory in 2005 alongside Italian Ivan Basso and German Jan Ullrich.  All three would later be implicated in doping scandal. Photo: Christophe Ena/AP.

The doctor at the centre of the scandal, Dr Mark Schmidt, has previous experience in cycling with links to the Gerolsteiner and Milram teams in the late 2000’s as team doctor. Disgraced Austrian cyclist Bernhard Kohl previous alleged that Schmidt organised doping within the Gerolsteiner team at the 2008 Tour de France. Kohl finished third in that race but was later busted for using EPO variant CERA at the 2008 Tour.

The police investigation is still ongoing, and so far Austrian cyclists Stefan Denifl and Georg Preidler have confessed to blood doping using Schmidt. The police have uncovered 40-60 blood bags from athletes from a diverse range of sports and more names are sure to be revealed as the investigation progresses.

Along with this news Trek-Segafredo climber Jarlinson Pantano was found last month to have failed an out-of competition test in late February for EPO. He was a previous winner of a stage at the Tour de France in 2016. The important thing with all of these cases is that none of these riders with respect is a superstar within the sport. These are not contenders for the major races and yet they have been busted for doping.

Whilst this is not an indictment that the top-level riders are doping, it does raise the question as to the sincerity of the results we see in recent years if riders who are not achieving massive results are doping would they not be better contenders than they have been if everybody else is not doping. This is a simplistic mindset not backed up by facts but this is how ordinary fans of cycling might think.

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Georg Preidler on the left and Stefan Denifl on the right were the two cyclists currently implicated in Operation Aderlass. Both admitted to blood doping and are currently suspended by the UCI. Photo: BBC 

It’s likely that these riders were doping merely to compete or to give themselves a better chance at success to earn a lucrative new contract in the future. Only they can explain their actions if they ever will.

The sport of cycling is making massive progress in it’s fight against doping, with all sides making proactive steps after years of burying their heads in the sand about the problem. All of these steps are helping make the future of the sport much healthier, however it is also very difficult to quickly change a doping culture that has existed in the sport dating back over 110 years to it’s origins. This will take time and a sustained effort from all involved to change this culture and ensure the public can have faith that the results they are seeing are credible.

Cycling is on the right path for the first time in a long while, and it needs to continue doing everything it can to combat doping. In all sport athletes will cheat because of the massive fame and fortune at stake if they can get away with it. Cycling is no different in this regard. The UCI and the national anti-doping bodies need to continue to punish those who do cheat to send a clear message to the peloton that doping will not be tolerated in any form. The UCI currently has 19 male and female riders under suspension for doping, showing they are taking the right steps to combat this problem.

Of course all of this talk might be a smokescreen as we do not know what exactly goes on within the world of professional cycling. Riders might have found a way around the testing measures although until we see major evidence indicating this we can’t assume this. Only time will tell if this era of results we are eagerly watching are credible or just another grand deceit.

A massive thank you for reading this article and if you have an opinion on this article feel free to leave a comment below or get in touch with me on Twitter @JWjournalism.

By Jordan Wilkins

2019 Rolex 24 LMP2 Preview

The big change at the top of the IMSA WeatherTech series is the split of the DPI and LMP2 machinery for 2019. This has had a massive effect on the health of the LMP2 entries, with many teams opting to move into the DPI class as they look to continue fighting for race victories.

For the Rolex 24 there are only four entries, and only two of these are for the full IMSA season. This is been an issue for the series all winter, with the health of the class beyond this season looking very shaky right now. Despite the long-term reservations of this class, the small entry more thank makes up for in quality what it lacks in quantity. Let’s assess each of the four contenders for class victory and a priceless Rolex watch.

#18 DragonSpeed Oreca 07-Gibson: Ryan Cullen/Roberto Gonzalez/Pastor Maldonado/Sebastien Saavedra

DragonSpeed has risen quickly to become one of the most competitive LMP2 teams in both the European Le Mans Series and the World Endurance Championship. The team have now turned their attention to the Rolex 24, and have brought plenty of talent with them.

This #18 entry is piloted by the WEC driver pairing of Roberto Gonzalez and Pastor Maldonado. They currently sit 4th in the WEC points and have quickly formed a strong duo. They are joined by Sebastien Saavedra, former Indycar racer who transitioned to the IMSA series last season. Completing the driving crew is another sportscar convert from single-seaters, Ryan Cullen.

All four drivers have sportscar experience and whilst Maldonado is the star name because of his F1 career, all four are very quick and can win this class for the team. The crew struggled slightly in the pre-race qualifying session, however it’s impossible to judge ultimate pace from one session as we don’t know the programmes’s teams were running at the test.

 

#38 Performance Tech Oreca 07-Gibson: Cameron Cassels/Kyle Masson/Robin Masson/Kris Wright 

Performance Tech were one of many teams that graduated from the LMPC class up to the main Prototype class last season. The team flashed potential, most notable with their 4th place qualifying result for the Rolex 24 last year, but the team did struggle to translate this into consistent results across the year.

The team have retained a driver line-up largely familiar with the team, beginning with Kyle Masson. He raced with the team in the series last year and is quick racer. Cameron Cassels steps up to the series after good results in the LMP3 support series last year. Kris Wright is another promising driver who won the LMP3 class last season and has now been rewarded with a promotion for the Rolex 24.

The team were the slowest of the LMP2 entries at the pre-race Roar, however over a 24 hour race one lap pace is not a key to victory. The team have a years worth of experience with this Oreca and the series, and can go for the win. They’re drivers are not as flashy as other line-up’s in this class, but they are consistent and underrated for sure.

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#52 PR1/Mathiasen Motorsport Oreca 07-Gibson: Gabriel Aubry/Enzo Guibbert/Mark Kvamme/Matt McMurry

2018 was a difficult year for the PR1/Mathiasen team, and one they will hope to rebound from this year. The team partnered with Indycar team AFS Racing, and switched from a Ligier to Oreca chassis halfway through the season. The team now have some experience with the dominant Oreca chassis and will go into the Rolex 24 with renewed confidence.

The driving crew is a mix of young talent and experience, led by Gabriel Aubry and Matt McMurry. Aubry is currently proving his talents in the WEC and looks a highly promising prospect for the future. Matt McMurry, despite only being 22, has a wealth of sportscar experience and is a proven talent at this level. Enzo Guibbert is another talented young racer who has shown good performances in Europe. Experienced Am Mark Kvamme completes the crew. He won’t be as fast as his young teammates but he does have a wealth of experience at this level.

The team showed their one lap pace is good, setting the fastest time at the Roar qualifying session. They were almost half a second clear of their rivals, although for the race consistent pace and a clean run are much more important than one lap pace. The team has a good chance of winning this class, and based off the Roar they would be favourites to claim the class pole also.

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#81 DragonSpeed Oreca 07-Gibson: Ben Hanley/Henrik Hedman/Nico Lapierre/James Allen 

The second DragonSpeed entry is this #81 car, the teams usual ELMS entry. The team have flashed potential in the ELMS, but have not quite found the ultimate pace to challenge consistently for the title. It’s clear however that the team have more than enough pace to be able to challenge for this Rolex 24 victory.

The team have brought over their usual ELMS driving talent, of Ben Hanley, Henrik Hedman and Nico Lapierre. Lapierre is a former Toyota factory driver and is a very quick driver at this level. Ben Hanley is a fellow single-seater convert who has found a place to show his considerable talents after a few years out of car racing. Henrik Hedman is the Am in this entry, but he has shown solid pace and has years of experience with the team. Completing the team is James Allen, a young Australian with bags of potential and has already shown tremendous potential at this level.

The #81 crew got the best of their teammates in the pre-race Roar, finishing almost a second better than them in qualifying. The team can take promise from this good showing, and will fancy their chances against the two American based teams in the race. Either one of these DragonSpeed entries will likely be favourites for the race, barring any accidents or mechanical issues during the 24 hours.

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Who do you guys think will win the LMP2 class at this years Rolex 24? Let me know in the comments section below. A massive thank you must go to Motorsport.com and LAT Images for those featured in this page. Find me on Twitter @JWjournalism and thank you for reading!

2019 Rolex 24 DPI Preview

The only place to be as a racing driver in late January is Daytona International Speedway, for the annual Rolex 24 season opening extravaganza for the IMSA WeatherTech series.

The winter has seen substantial change, with the DPI formula cars now being given center- stage, after sharing the top class with European spec LMP2 cars for the past five seasons.

The DPI class has been given a power boost, with the cars already looking much quicker in the Roar pre-race test. The DPI class boasts an impressive eleven car entry, with factory backed efforts from Cadillac, Acura, Nissan and Mazda. The level of manufacture support shows that the class has a long-term health, with more car makers strongly rumoured to be joining the class from next year.

Let’s take a look at the eleven entries that will be fighting for the overall victory and the Rolex watch.

#5 Mustang Sampling Action Express Cadillac DPI: Filipe Albuquerque/Joao Barbosa/Mike Conway/Christian Fittipaldi 

For the #5 crew 2018 was an up-and-down year for the team. They won the Rolex 24 after narrowly missing out in 2017, yet aside from a further win in Long Beach the team struggled. Albuquerque finished the year sixth in the points, a down year for one of the benchmarks in the series for the last few years.

For this year regular driver Christian Fittipaldi is only doing the Rolex 24 before retirement, so former Audi factory man Albuquerque steps in alongside Barbosa for the full season. Regular endurance co-driver Mike Conway returns to a strong entry looking to give Fittipaldi the perfect send-off.

The team will be pleased with fourth and top Cadillac car in the Roar qualifying for pit-box and garage selection, however to be almost 0.9s back from the factory Mazda team is a slight concern. The team have a proven entry and reliable car but lady luck needs to smiling on you if you’re to win the Rolex 24 such is the competitiveness of this class.

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#6 Acura Team Penske Acura ARX-05: Dane Cameron/Juan Pablo Montoya/Simon Pagenaud

The factory Acura programme instantly became a force in the IMSA series last season, with the might of Team Penske behind it this was not surprising to many. Going into 2019 the team looks increasingly formidable, with a year now behind the team to iron out any reliability issues.

Dane Cameron and Juan Pablo Montoya are the full season pairing again, with former Indycar champion Simon Pagenaud joining them for the endurance rounds. Montoya is the star name in this entry because of his F1 experience, however it’s Dane Cameron who is the hidden gem of this entry.

Seventh fastest in qualifying for deciding the pit garage/box selection will slightly hinder the team, but less than two tenths away from their team-mates in third just shows the fine margins that make a big difference in this series.

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#7 Acura Team Penske Acura ARX-05: Helio Castroneves/Ricky Taylor/Alex Rossi

The #7 took the only win for Acura last season, however they were less consistent over the year when compared to their teammates. After making their debut last year the team can now go into this years Rolex 24 knowing they have a good chance of winning this race.

Helio Castroneves and Ricky Taylor return to form a very strong duo, and for the Rolex 24 have former Indy 500 winner Alex Rossi on board. Rossi is a quality signing will be very quick in the Acura, with the only knock on him being a lack of significant sportscar experience.

The team were very quick in the pre-race testing, finishing best of the rest behind the Mazda’s in the pit selection qualifying session. To be at the front of a very tightly packed field is a good result, with the only downside being the 0.8s gap to the factory Mazda duo.

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#10 Konica Minolta Wayne Taylor Racing Cadillac DPI: Fernando Alonso/Kamui Kobayashi/Jordan Taylor/Renger van der Zande 

The Wayne Taylor racing team created all the pre-race headlines this winter when they announced that double F1 world champion Fernando Alonso would be joining the team for the Rolex 24. He made his debut in the race last year, but this year he joins an already formidable team as he looks for his first Rolex 24 victory.

Coming off an incredible Petit Le Mans victory last October, are returning dynamic pair Jordan Taylor and Renger van der Zande. Both proved last year to be a good pairing and very quick. Completing the line-up is Toyota factory driver Kamui Kobayashi, another headline maker adding to an embarrassment of riches for this team.

The team was right in the mix at the pre-race Roar, although sixth in the qualifying session will be a slight disappointment. This team has all the ingredients to win this race, although every winner needs a clean run and a dose of luck to succeed over 24 hours against this quality field.

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#31 Whelen Engineering Action Express Cadillac DPI: Eric Curran/ Pipo Derani/Felipe Nasr

The defending champions return for another crack at the Rolex 24, after being the bridesmaid behind their teammates last year. They claimed the overall championship however, along with the North American Endurance Cup.

The championship winning partnership between Eric Curran and Felipe Nasr has been broken up for 2019, with Brazilian Pipo Derani joining countryman Nasr for the full season. Curran has now been shifted to an endurance rounds only deal with the team.

The team ran well at the Roar, finishing a close fifth in the qualifying session, less than a tenth behind their teammates. The DPI class gets stronger every year in IMSA and this line-up has only improved despite winning the title last year. This entry is one of the several that can seriously challenge for victory should they not run into problems.

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#50 Juncos Racing Cadillac DPI: Rene Binder/Agustin Canapino/Kyle Kaiser/Will Owen

The IMSA series is improving in quality every year, with the addition this year of Indycar outfit Juncos Racing. This is the team’s first foray into sportscar racing, however they have a very good CV from the American open wheel scene.

The team went for the proven Cadillac DPI package, and will hope to impress in their first sportscar outing. The team have brought in plenty of drivers they have experience with, starting with young driver Rene Binder. He’s hoping to impress and cement himself in America after spending years chasing the F1 dream in Europe. Will Owen will provide sportscar experience and was a former Juncos driver, as was Kyle Kaiser. Both raced for the team in the Mazda Road to Indy ladder.

The fourth and final driver is a wildcard, the Argentinian Agustin Canapino. He’s been a proven winner in various Argentinian touring car series, and will no doubt grab his chance to shine on the international stage. This is the first race for the team in sportscar so they will have a lot to learn, but they could spring a surprise if others hit misfortune.

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#54 CORE Autosport Nissan DPI: Jon Bennett/Colin Braun/Romain Dumas/Loic Duval 

The surprise package of the 2018 IMSA season was this CORE Autosport team, but it’s all change for the team this year. In an unfancied LMP2 entry they came within three points of winning the series title, with Colin Braun and amateur driver Jon Bennett.

After the rules change to separate the DPI and LMP2 entries and the closure of the ESM team CORE have made the step up to take on their Nissan DPI entry for the 2019 season.  The returning duo of Colin Braun and Jon Bennett have a long history together and work very well. They are joined by Porsche and Audi factory drivers Romain Dumas and Loic Duval, further adding to the talent in this team.

At the pre-race Roar they were off the ultimate pace, being the slowest DPI outfit in the qualifying session, behind even the fastest LMP2 entry. Whilst the team have to learn the intricacies of the Nissan DPI package, the team shocked everyone last year so why can’t they do it again this year?

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#55 Mazda Team Joest Mazda DPI: Jonathan Bomarito/Olivier Pla/Harry Tincknell 

The Mazda factory DPI outfit started the year slowly but improved massively as the season wore on. The team have the might of Team Joest running their programme, and for 2019 they could prove to be a good outside bet for the championship.

On the driving front Jonathan Bomarito and Harry Tincknell return for the full season, and for the endurance rounds are partnered by Frenchman Olivier Pla. All three are proven at this level as quick sportscar racers.

In pre-race testing the Mazda team stole the headlines, securing a 1-2 in the qualifying session, significantly quicker than their rivals. Whilst this may not be reflected in the race, the team certainly have everyone guessing right now as to their ultimate pace.

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#77 Mazda Team Joest Mazda DPI: Timo Bernhard/Oliver Jarvis/Tristan Nunez/Rene Rast

The 2-3 for Mazda at Petit Le Mans last year gave the team some positive direction going into the winter, and they appear to have worked hard to maintain this forward progress. Team Joest and Mazda have clearly been working hard to make themselves regular contenders in this uber competitive class.

Oliver Jarvis and Tristan Nunez return for another full season with the team, and for the Rolex 24 they have Timo Bernhard and Rene Rast joining them. Both are very quick prototype drivers who are high profile additions to the team.

The #77 car showed very well at the Roar test, setting an unofficial track record in the qualifying session. Their time was only closely matched by their team mates, showing the team have very good one lap pace. If they can stay reliable for 24 hours they will be tough to beat if they can consistently replicate their one lap pace shown at the Roar.

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#84 JDC-Miller Motorsport Cadillac DPI: Chris Miller/Juan Piedrahita/Stephen Simpson/Simon Trummer

JDC-Miller are another team that have switched from LMP2 to DPI chassis this year as they continue hunting for overall race wins. The team have taken the safest choice and are running two Cadillac DPI chassis this season.

The team’s race winning line-up from last season has been split up, with Stephen Simpson moving to this #85 entry for this year. He is joined for the year by Simon Trummer, another single seater convert looking to find a long-term home. Joining them for the Rolex 24 is experienced racer Chris Miller, along with Indy Lights convert Juan Piedrahita.

The team were one of the surprises of last year along with CORE Autosport, and for this year with a proven Cadillac DPI package and a strong driver crew the team could be contending for the podium come Sunday afternoon.

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#85 JDC-Miller Motorsport Cadillac DPI: Rubens Barrichello/Devlin DeFrancesco/Misha Goikhberg/Tristan Vautier

JDC-Miller’s win at the 6 Hours of Watkins Glen last year proved they can be successful at this level after recently stepping up from the LMPC class. The switch to Cadillac DPI machinery is a big step for the Minnesota based team, and one that should bring more success for the team in the coming years.

Misha Goikhberg was very impressive last year and is paired this year with Tristan Vautier. He is a very quick and experienced racer who moves across from the Spirit of Daytona team. GP3 racer Devlin DeFrancesco returns to the team after last year and completing the line-up is star name and former longtime F1 racer Rubens Barrichello.

The JDC-Miller motor sport team proved last year they are a very well run team who can perform well in IMSA. They should have time during the winter to get used to the new Cadillac DPI package, and they have every chance to spring a deserving surprise with Rolex 24 victory.

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Who do you think will win the Rolex 24 this weekend? Let me know your thoughts in the comment section below. A massive thank you to Motorsport.com and LAT Images for the photos featured in this post. Find me on Twitter @JWjournalism and thank you for reading!

 

January Improvements Needed at Arsenal

The Unai Emery revolution is six months in at Arsenal, with both positive and negatives to draw from the start he has made. The atmosphere around the club has improved and the team is playing with more intensity this season, however some old questions still linger with this side.

This is not to be unexpected as the squad is largely the same as under Arsene Wenger, and this is certainly not Emery’s fault as he has improved many of the Arsenal team already this season. The Christmas period was a difficult one for Arsenal, with a disappointing 1-1 draw away to Brighton on Boxing Day, and then a 5-1 humiliation at Anfield against title-challenging Liverpool three days later.

The revolution is underway at Arsenal, and compared to last season we currently sit one place higher in fifth with 41 points, three more than at this stage last year. Now this is small progress for the club and this shouldn’t be criticized, however a common issue for Emery this season has been the depth in quality of this squad.

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Rob Holding being stretchered off with a torn ACL in their 2-2 draw with Manchester United last month. Holding has improved under Emery and his absence is keenly felt. Photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images.

The biggest issue this season has been the defence, we have the joint ninth worst record for conceding goals, shared with Watford and Everton, with 31 goals conceded in 21 games. That’s also only worse than Manchester United and West Ham in the top ten. A massive reason for this has been our wealth of defensive injuries, with Laurent Koscielny, Hector Bellerin, Rob Holding and Konstantinos Mavropanos all out injured for long periods of the season.

The loss of Bellerin and Holding proved especially tough, with both starting the season in good form anchoring the back four. The recent return of Koscielny is a boost, although he has admitted his return from injury was slightly rushed because of the defensive injury crisis. The good news is that Bellerin and Mavropanos return in the coming weeks, providing greater depth which should help ease the defensive problems of Arsenal.

Now that the January transfer window is open, Arsenal could use this month to improve their squad for a late-season push for a return to the Champions League. By and large the summer signings have proved a success so far, with Lucas Torreira and Bernd Leno making instant impacts at the club. All five signings such as Sokratis, Matteo Guendouzi and Stephan Lichtsteiner have made over 15 appearances this season, showing how much they’ve added to the team this season.

The triumvirate transfer committee of Emery, head of recruitment Sven Mislintat and director of football Raul Sanllehi have shown that they can be trusted to find promising talent at affordable prices, but will they pull the trigger on anyone else in January?

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Lucas Torriera has been the midfield pitbull Arsenal have craved for a decade. The club will be hoping to replicate their success in the market in the coming summer. Photo: Getty Images.

The early names linked have been out of-favour Chelsea defender Gary Cahill on a short-term loan, and the ever-present midfielder Ever Banega. The move for Cahill is a more likely one, as the club are already making noises that there will not be much if any money to spend this month. Chelsea could however be unwilling to loan him to a direct rival, and some will have legitimate questions as to whether his quality at this stage of his career is enough to make a big contribution for Arsenal.

From all of the noises being put out by the club and the media closely associated with the club, it appears that Arsenal will be quiet in this window, with a focus instead of spending in the summer to improve key positions such as at winger and defensively.  The team had great attacking options last season, and they have now fixed the defensive midfield and goalkeeper positions.

The first six months of Emery’s reign have been a success so far, with an improvement in results and the performance of previously poor key squad players. The new transfer committee will need to build on they’re early success, and if they can, Arsenal will definitely begin to more seriously rival the likes of Manchester City, Liverpool and bitter rivals Tottenham.

Thank you for reading this article if you have any thoughts on it please feel free to leave a comment below. For any interested I’m on Twitter @JWjournalism. 

Is Greed Killing European Football?

Wednesday 14th November 2018: German publication Der Spiegel publishes it’s latest instalment of their Football Leaks articles, revealing how Chelsea midfielder and World Cup winner N’Golo Kante refused to be paid part of his Chelsea salary through Jersey for tax benefit and to receive offshore image rights payments. Kante has rightly been lauded as being one of the seemingly few top-level footballers who is not abusing the tax system.

Just let that last sentence sink in for a moment. We’re lauding Kante for being one of the few footballers at the highest level who is doing the right thing. Much like the Lance Armstrong doping era in cycling, it now seems the number of footballers who are not manipulating the system for financial gain are few and far between.

The Football Leaks documents have shown that the world’s best in football have been engaged in tax avoidance for maximum financial benefit. Mainly centring around Spanish clubs the world’s elite of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have both been forced to pay fines and back taxes for dodging tax. Predicted Ballon D’Or winner Luka Modric has also fallen foul of this, and now also faces a potential perjury charge back in Croatia for links with a former agent whilst at Dinamo Zagreb.

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Luka Modric wins the best FIFA men’s player 2018, yet he has been embroiled in a tax evasion scandal of which he could now face perjury charges for back in Croatia. Photo: Ben Stansall AFP/Getty Images. 

World super-agents such as Pino Zahavi, Jorge Mendes and Mino Raiola are all facing allegations based from the latest Football Leaks documents. Zahavi is accused of flouting Belgian league rules by owning Royal Mouscron, along with potential fraud and money laundering charges from Belgian police.  Mendes is accused of bypassing English FA rules with a clear conflict of interest as he appears to profit from player transfers from his business partner who owns Wolves. Finally Raiola is accused of breaking FIFA rules on player transfers by not disclosing he was negotiating on behalf of all three parties in the record-breaking transfer of Paul Pogba from Juventus to Manchester United in 2016, thus earning himself a £41 million pound commission.

The latest allegations are a more serious sporting violation, with articles outlining star Real Madrid and Spain defender Sergio Ramos failing a doping test only hours after beating Juventus to win the Champions League in 2017. He is said to have tested positive for banned in-competition dexamethasone, a cortisone preparation which is an anti-inflammatory which can also help improve concentration levels.

Ramos is also accused in a separate incident from April 2017 of defying anti-doping protocol and taking a shower before providing a urine sample. In Spanish anti-doping regulation to knowingly do this could be considered an violation of anti-doping laws.

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Real Madrid captain Sergio Ramos celebrates winning the 2017 Champions League final against Juventus. Hours later he is alleged to have failed an anti-doping test. Photo: Press Association.

This is not even taking into account the fact that in the build-up to the 2018 World Cup in Russia, several players from the Russian national side were under suspicion of doping as part of the national sporting doping programme that was exposed after the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014.

The Russian Football Union sent FIFA a list of eleven professional players who played in Russia who were under suspicsion for doping. Yet due to confidentiality reasons they would not disclose these names with FIFA without written permission from these athletes. This farcical explanation doesn’t pain Russia in an entirely positive light, and Der Spiegel alleges that two of those names were Russia national team defenders Sergei Ignashevich and Mario Fernandes. Star midfielder Denis Cheryshev’s father is also quoted as saying in the build-up to the World Cup his son was given an injection containing growth hormone.

FIFA is also alleged to have dragged it’s heels with a potential independent investigation into doping in Russian football, prolonging this to prevent an adequate investigation being completed before the 2018 World Cup was held in Russia. Maria Claudia Rojas has effectively been FIFA General Secretary, and stalled for months with leading anti-doping investigator Richard McLaren about setting up an investigation into Russia ahead of the World Cup.

The Premier League has not escaped the Football Leaks documents, with champions Manchester City accused of flouting financial fair play rules, along with examples of some of the leagues top clubs and players being accused of avoiding tax on agent fees and players image rights. Then you have outgoing Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore close to getting to £5 million farewell pay-off, and the PFA spending £1.65 million on a L.S Lowry painting, yet only spends £100 000 pounds on research into links between football and dementia.

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This 1953 L.S Lowry oil painting Going to the Match was bought by the PFA in 1999 for £1.9 million pounds, yet they only spend £100 000 pounds on research into dementia and football. Photo: L.S Lowry/ The Lowry Collection.

Even the Bundesliga, often held up by many fans as the last bastion of fan power within corporate European football has not escaped the greed. In 2016 champions Bayern Munich secretly began planning to breakaway from the Bundesliga along with Europe’s elite, to create a European Super League to replace the Champions League. Lawyers were also drafted in to look at whether they could refuse to release their players for the German national side, to keep them fresh for their club side.

Of course all of these allegations are simply that, and nothing has so far been proven and everyone involved should be given the benefit of innocence until proven to the contrary, however the latest allegations that are presented in the Football Leaks documents provide detailed and compelling evidence. We must not also forget that their first round of allegations led to a lot of unpaid tax convictions across the football landscape that led to suspended prison sentences and heavy fines.

The points that I have listed in this blog are only the tip of the iceberg from the second wave of Football Leaks documents, and they paint a damning image of modern European football. Clubs are trying to bypass the history and tradition of both their club and national sides for financial benefit, along with abandoning the fans who have made these clubs the best in their respective countries. The day that any European Super League is announced will be a very dark day for all football fans.

For professional football players and their super agents, with the exorbitant wages they already earn, to then be trying to maximise their earning further by funneling money through offshore tax havens and not declaring it as gifts to themselves is just greed of the highest order. I can imagine that being taxed heavily is extremely frustrating, but these players and agents will still be earning more than 99% of the population after tax. The potential court cases and perjury charges pertaining to this are an unfortunate consequence of corporate greed that has engulfed football in Europe.

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Borussia Dortmund fans protest at rising ticket prices in the Bundesliga, but yet the club were in talks to join a European Super League several years ago. Photo: Getty Images. 

If these doping allegations prove to be true about the likes of Sergio Ramos and the Russian national players, then what are the hundreds of millions of fans worldwide watching. Fans want to see the best players in the world, not simply the players whose bodies are the most responsive to doping products. We have seen in other sports such as baseball and cycling how widespread doping can ruin the spectacle, leaving fans questioning every good athletic performance. Please don’t let this happen to football. The anti-doping authorities at FIFA have more work to do, as their commitment to the anti-doping message is severely questioned by their obtuse tactics with Richard McLaren and setting up a truly independent investigation into Russia.

The Premier League is widely recognised as the best and most competitive league in the world, with a global following that is unmatched by any other league. The unfortunate truth is that the massive influx of money into the Premier League have largely turned it into a corporate entertainment event. Many fans complain of high ticket prices, players and managers earn obscene wages and the players union spends almost twenty times as much on famous paintings as they do on research into links between football and dementia just shows that money has become a primary motivator for the majority of people associated with the Premier League.

For anyone interested please check out some of the Football Leaks stories from Der Spiegel and their partners at the EIC network a list of their articles can be found here. If you have any comments or reaction to this article I’d love to hear what you have to say in the comments section below. Anyone interested can find me on Twitter @JWjournalism and thank you for reading!

By Jordan Wilkins