Archive: 2008 December

At work, we are given a choice between working on Boxing Day or working on the 2 January. I have always opted to take 2 January off, even though I tend not to drink much on Hogmanay — certainly not enough for me still to be hungover two days later. Sure enough, this year I have no plans to see in the new year with a bang.

(Even if I did, I probably wouldn’t be able to attend, as I’ve been hit by some winter disease that has taken it right out of me. Yesterday I was sent home from work, and when I got home I went straight to bed and accidentally fell asleep. This was at around 16:30. I stayed asleep more or less right through until 08:30 this morning. I feel better today, but still in no form to celebrate properly.)

Nonetheless, it feels right to work on Boxing Day rather than 2 January, even though I couldn’t articulate a reason why. I don’t know if this is some kind of subconscious Scottish patriotism, the day being recognised as a holiday in few other countries. Maybe it’s just because it’s later, and I want to save it up to enjoy (time discounting wouldn’t be much of a factor, as I filled in the form months ago). Or maybe it just indicates a preference for New Year as a holiday over Christmas.

It has to be said, Hogmanay is pretty naff. To be frank, we could do without the twee BBC Scotland fiddle-me-dee extravaganza. Only an Excuse? ceased to be funny about a decade ago, and lost all relevance to me as I lost interest in football. The other side is not much better, as if the BBC thought that making us suffer most Fridays of the year with Jools Holland on the box wasn’t enough.

But there is still something special about Hogmanay. I think it stems from my memories of it as a child. It was more or less the only day of the year when I was allowed to stay up late. For a nightowl like me, it was amazing. And sometimes I even got an extra special tipple with which to see in the new year: Irn Bru.

Mind you, it’s not as if childhood memories of Christmas are exactly dire. But I think it is easier to fall out of love with Christmas as you become an adult. Gleefully receiving presents makes way for having to give presents. Your eyes are opened to the stress everyone puts themselves under. People get hung up on creating the perfect Christmas, which I would have said rather ruins the mood, which is supposed to be cheerful.

Some people are forced to spend Christmas with family members that they don’t like, and possibly don’t even see for the rest of the year. For some, Christmas Day is a day of dreary, dreaded routine.

Perhaps most importantly, Christmas brings with it a whole suite of naffness. Tacky tinsel, Christmas cards with garish depictions of Santa Claus, and a list of terrible Christmas songs as long as your arm.

Despite the twee TV, our attitude towards New Year is much simpler. You go out with your pals, get blootered and take two days to recover. And perhaps most importantly, there are no bad Paul McCartney songs about New Year. Awesome.

So happy new year everyone! Thanks for sticking with the blog through the dry patches. I might make it my new year’s resolution to update more often. Then again, that was my resolution last year as well…

One of the Radiophonic Workshop’s most famous composers, Delia Derbyshire, left in the early 1970s partly in dismay at the increasing popularity of synthesisers. Disillusioned with the state of electronic music, she soon stopped composing music altogether, only returning to the scene briefly for a couple of years just before her death in 2001.

In recent times, Delia Derbyshire has probably attracted more attention than any other Radiophonic Workshop composer. But during her life it can’t have felt like that. One story often told is that of her application to work as an engineer at Decca, only to be rejected because Decca did not employ women in their studios.

Meanwhile, she received no official credit for realising perhaps the most famous piece of electronic music in the world, the Doctor Who theme tune. It was her job to convert Ron Grainer’s ideas into an electronic composition, and the result stunned Grainer so much that he insisted that Derbyshire share the credit. The BBC wouldn’t allow it.

But while recognition of her talent largely deserted her during her life, today people are well aware of her important contributions to the development of electronic music. There is a near obsessive clamour for any Delia Derbyshire material that can be unearthed.

Earlier this year a library record called Electrosonic was reissued on CD. Along with Li De la Russe (the pseudonym sometimes used by Delia Derbyshire outside of her BBC work), music on the record was also composed Nikki St. George (fellow Radiophonic Workshop composer Brian Hodgson) and Don Harper — not that you’d know it from most references to the album that I have come across. All retailers are listing it as being by Delia Derbyshire. Quibble aside though, there are some real gems on this album, with my favourite track being the delightfully eccentric ‘The Wizard’s Laboratory’.

Tantalisingly, it was revealed this year that 267 tapes from Delia Derbyshire’s attic have been unearthed. There is a promise to “make the archive available to everyone who wants to hear it”.

Appetites have been whetted by the publication on the BBC website of some of the unearthed recordings. Among them is a spellbinding piece of music that sounds quite like a contemporary experimental techno track. Orbital’s Paul Hartnoll noted, “That could be coming out next week on Warp Records.” Amazing for a recording that is almost certainly around forty years old. Nonetheless, Delia Derbyshire comes across as dismissive on the recording itself, saying, “forget about this — it’s for interest only.”

Doctor Who at the Radiophonic Workshop Volume 1 Meanwhile, a couple of CDs of music from Doctor Who were re-released this year. Delia Derbyshire, of course, provided the theme tune(s), though little in the way of effects or incidental music. Most of that was provided by Brian Hodgson, whose works make up the bulk of Doctor Who at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop: Volume 1: The Early Years 1963-1969. For the most part, this disc is less musical, though no less enjoyable for it.

On Volume 2: New Beginnings 1970-1980, the centrepiece is the series of music created by Malcolm Clarke on the “Delaware” synthesiser in which he specialised. This was the first time the Radiophonic Workshop “officially” created music for the series. The result is quite extraordinary — a set of stabbing, piercing, esoteric electronics that sound like the output of someone working in an extra dimension. It’s all the more amazing considering how weedy the Delaware version of the Doctor Who theme sounds.

Doctor Who at the Radiophonic Workshop Volume 2 The sleevenotes describe it as “undoubtedly some of the most uncompromising electronic music ever to feature in mainstream popular entertainment.” It is certainly hard to imagine today’s Doctor Who featuring such adventurous music.

The album is completed by the inclusion of Peter Howell’s 1980 version of the Doctor Who theme — a nod to a new era that is more fully examined in volumes 3 and 4 (not yet re-released). Of all the tweaks and alternate versions of the legendary theme, Howell’s is probably the most successful with the exception of Delia Derbyshire’s original.

Also re-released this year were old compilations The Radiophonic Workshop and BBC Radiophonic Music, the legendary “pink album”.

The John Baker Tapes Volume 1 But among my favourite Radiophonic Workshop-related treats released this year were two CDs comprised of music by John Baker. His brother, the broadcaster Richard Anthony Baker, owned several reels of tapes containing rare John Baker music going back as far as the 1960s. Fearing that these historical tapes would otherwise have been consigned to the dustbin, Richard Baker passed the tapes on so that they could be painstakingly restored. The two volumes of The John Baker Tapes were released on Trunk Records this year.

John Baker was in fact trained as a jazz musician, but ended up in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop as a result of his interest in tape effects. In the words of Radiophonic Workshop archivist Mark Ayres, he could “make musique concrète swing”. A couple of common themes to his music is the twanging sound of a ruler being transformed into some exotic kind of guitar, and inventive uses of glass bottles.

Working there from 1963 until 1974, John Baker became one of the Workshop’s most prolific composers. But in addition to his work for the BBC, he earned about three times as much making music for commercials and suchlike. All the while he was using complex tape manipulation techniques, the main avenue of electronic music exploration prior to the widespread availability of the synthesiser.

The workload began to take its toll, and John Baker became dependent on alcohol. The BBC persevered with him for a few years, but he was eventually dismissed in 1974, partly because his music had also become weirder and less popular. Like Delia Derbyshire, he made very little music after leaving the Radiophonic Workshop.

The John Baker Tapes Volume 2 Volume 1 of The John Baker Tapes focuses on his work for the Radiophonic Workshop, while volume 2 contains his other work. In addition to his delightful music, there are some wonderful behind-the-scenes gems. You hear John Baker describing the process behind how he made two of his pieces. Volume 2 is peppered with strange electronic experiments that were done at home, along with some wonderful recordings of his jazz piano playing.

The disc concludes with his obituary as broadcast by Richard Anthony Baker on BBC Radio 5 Live’s Brief Lives. More touching, though, is the obituary he wrote for the sleevenotes, which you can also read online. The CDs also come with rare photographs of John Baker and notes for each track. The CDs are both exquisitely packaged, with a beautiful 1960s-influenced design.

One CD I’m waiting to get my hands on is Oramics, a collection of music by the pioneering co-founder of the Radiophonic Workshop, Daphne Oram. I can hardly wait to hear it.

Radiophonic Workshop resources

I also got a lot of the information contained in these two posts from an edition of the Stuart Maconie’s Freak Zone podcast, ‘FreakZone: 26/10/08 The Radiophonic Workshop Special’. It’s not available from the BBC any more, but if you can find it elsewhere I highly recommend it.

Regular readers may know that I have an interest in electronic music. 2008 has been a bit of a treat for fans of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. This year marked 50 years since the establishment of the hugely influential sound effects and music department of the BBC. That, combined with a coincidental discovery of new tapes, has brought a feast of Radiophonic Workshop-related CD releases during the year.

I love the work of the composers of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. For anyone with even a passing interest in electronic music, some of these CDs are an absolute must. Over the years, the Radiophonic Workshop produced some of the world’s most famous electronic music.

It is probably most famous for providing music to Doctor Who. The Radiophonic Workshop was, however, originally set up to meet the growing demand for music and effects to be used in experimental plays and “radiophonic poems” on the Third Programme for which suitable library music could not always be found.

But eventually, the Radiophonic Workshop’s music and effects were in fact used by programmes in every single department of the BBC, meaning that few people in Britain can have been untouched by this magical music. Low-budget education programmes made particularly frequent use of the Workshop’s output. An early exposure to experimental electronic music inspired many to become electronic musicians themselves.

Of course, almost all music produced today is electronic in some form. What we take for granted was largely pioneered by a rather unexotic bunch working away painstakingly in a Maida Vale studio. Initially, the equipment they worked on was old and unreliable even by contemporary standards, having been recovered from the BBC’s “redundancy plant”.

At first no-one could work at the Radiophonic Workshop for longer than six months, as the BBC had a fear that prolonged exposure to electronic music could cause mental illness! Meanwhile, the time-consuming musique concrète techniques largely employed in the 1960s would have many of today’s musicians, who practically have electronic music on tap, running for the hills. Brian Hodgson says he once stayed up for three successive days and nights in order to meet his deadline.

“Radiophonic” music was made possible by the increasing availability of tape recorders which allowed inquiring minds to manipulate sounds in interesting ways. The majority of early electronic music was made by cutting and splicing tapes, changing their speed in order to create the right notes and sounds. Delia Derbyshire always carried with her a book of logarithms so that she could make the calculations required to do her work.

BBC Radiophonic Workshop -- A Retrospective artwork One CD released this year, BBC Radiophonic Workshop — A Retrospective, provides an excellent overview of the output of the Workshop over its forty year life. It showcases the extraordinary diversity of the Radiophonic Workshop. It ranges from a comedy belch produced in 1959 for The Goon Show, to the 1997 theme tune for Michael Palin’s Full Circle, via local radio station jingles and news stings.

The double disc compilation is arranged in chronological order, allowing the listener to track the development of electronic music-making techniques over time. The earlier tracks are, oddly enough, the ones that have stood the test of time much better.

The introduction of the synthesiser may have enabled composers to create electronic music much more easily and quickly. But it also brought with it a set of identikit sounds that were mostly devoid of the charm of the earlier compositions. In my personal view, even though the mastery of the composers remains fairly high throughout, the quality of the sound diminishes as the CD goes on, particularly from the mid-1980s onwards.

By that time, Radiophonic Workshop was struggling to set itself apart. While in the 1960s and 1970s the Workshop had unrivalled access to excellent electronic music making equipment, the 1980s brought about the more widespread availability of such equipment, along with a quality that today sounds rather naff. Soon enough the Radiophonic Workshop found itself being undercut by freelance musicians.

With the BBC’s cost-cutting era under John Birt well under way, the Radiophonic Workshop struggled to justify its existence. It was finally wound up in 1997, just short of its fortieth birthday, by which time just one composer, Elizabeth Parker, was working for it.

Although it is easy to let romance get the better of you, listening to the CD makes me think that the Radiophonic Workshop had ceased to be relevant by then. Fifty years ago, electronic music was a largely unexplored area, ripe for experimentation. By the 1990s, any musician could make music from his home that sounded just as good as what the Radiophonic Workshop could produce.

Nonetheless, there are some real gems to be found on this album. Maddalena Fagandini’s ‘Interval Signal’ is hypnotic and magical. Along with Delia Derbyshire’s ‘Dance from “Noah”‘, it sounds decades ahead of its time. Meanwhile, Peter Howell’s ‘Greenwich Chorus’ sounds so fantastic that it reportedly jammed the BBC’s switchboards when it was broadcast.

This excellent retrospective CD was just one of many Radiophonic wonders that we were brought this year. My next post will look at some of the other Radiophonic Workshop-related gems that have been unearthed.

Around a year ago I wrote a post that analysed the year’s activity on Last.fm. For those who don’t know, Last.fm is a website that tracks your music listening habits. It produces lovely graphs and churns out recommendations as well as providing tailored radio stations for you to listen to at your leisure. I adore the site.

This year, instead of looking just at the past year’s statistics, I have decided to look at my entire Last.fm history. A couple of weeks ago, I hit my 100,000th scrobble (instance of listening to a track). It’s a suitably big landmark.

My 100,000th scrobble happened on 7 December, just over four years after my first scrobble on 18 November 2004. By that time I had listened to 730 different artists. Of these, 18 had 1,000 plays or more. 196 artists had over 100 plays.

My top thirty artists chart looked like this:
My top 30 artists

And my top thirty tracks were:
My top 30 tracks

There are a few problems with this chart. The top track, ‘untitled (live)’ by Boards of Canada, is actually several different tracks from bootlegged gig recordings. I am quite sure that ‘Xmd 5a’ by AFX should not be that high, as one day I logged in and it showed many more plays than there should have been. It’s still a good track though.

John Cage tracks figure highly because I own three different recordings of Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano. In fact, many of these tracks are high up simply because I own multiple versions, normally because I have the single as well as the album. Shining’s ‘To Be Proud of Crystal Colors is to Live Again’ is actually two different tracks with the same title. All of the Autechre tracks and most of the Jaga Jazzist tracks are here purely on their own steam.

It is obvious that, interesting though they are, Last.fm statistics are far from scientifically rigorous. For one thing, one track counts as one scrobble whether it’s 31 seconds long or 31 minutes long. One website, Last.fm Normaliser, attempts to get round this by weighting your artists by the average length of their tracks. This is also completely unscientific, but it is interesting nonetheless.

Top 20 artists (normalised)

This table makes my obsession with Autechre even clearer. Even in the normal Last.fm table they have a huge lead. But by this measure I like Autechre twice as much as any other artist. The biggest climber in the top twenty is Steve Reich, who is number 20 in this table, but number 37 in my original Last.fm chart.

My favourite thing to do with Last.fm data, though, is to analyse it using LastGraph. I did this last year, looking at my Last.fm activity throughout 2007. This time, I am looking at my Last.fm activity as far back as the data goes — March 2005, just a few months after my first scrobble.

The graph is so huge that I can’t include a readable version on this page, but a miniaturised version appears below. Click on it to view it at its original size (Warning: It’s a large file).

LastGraph

I love looking at these graphs. They tell a story about my developing taste in music. But they also, in a way, tell a story about what is happening in my life at a certain point. I can glance at the graph and remember that I had exams during a certain period, or I was working lots in that summer, or whatever. It takes me back. I’m also quite surprised sometimes at which artists appear where on the graph. It appears that my memory was a bit out in a few places.

So there we have it. 100,000 scrobbles; four years of tracking my music listening habits.

For those of you who were celebrating, I hope you all had a great Christmas. I had a great time and a number of Formula 1-based gifts were involved. Keith at F1Fanatic wrote a series of posts outlining F1 gift ideas, but none of the gifts I received were featured by Keith.

Firstly I got a model car. I used to collect diecast models in 1:43 scale, and at one point I wanted to collect all of the Drivers’ Championship winning cars in 1:43 scale. I got bored of that after the third Schumacher Ferrari in a row in 2002.

Graham Hill Lotus 49B (1968) 1:18 scale model

Recently, my father came across a small selection of inexpensive 1:18 scale models in our local TK Maxx. He decided to get me Graham Hill’s Lotus 49B, which the side of the box informs me finished 2nd in the 1968 US Grand Prix.

Manufactured by Sun Star Models under the Quartzo brand, it is nice enough. But in all honesty it is not the highest quality model I have ever set my eyes upon. For instance, the rear wing is made of plastic, it comes separately and you have to attach it yourself. The engine is also made of plastic and is rather wonky-looking. It is also far from the best presentation I have seen. However, the majority of the model is diecast and looks great. For the money, it’s a pretty good buy.

Bernie's belt The most surprising gift I got was this official Formula 1 belt, which I got from my brother (who sometimes writes here as Onebrow) and his girlfriend. It was surprising not just because I didn’t expect it, but because I didn’t even know you could buy an official Formula 1 belt!

I’ve never been one for official Formula 1 merchandise. I feel little loyalty to Formula 1 — I will follow any great grand prix racing. Plus, the thought of adding more money to Bernie’s pockets doesn’t fill me with total joy.

Nonetheless, this is a classy little belt. The Formula 1 logo looks quite good on the buckle. The ‘F’ in the logo is actually transparent, thereby only turning black when you do the belt up. I don’t exactly see myself going around the place wearing it, but I did wear it for all of Christmas Day and it certainly brought a smirk to my face when I unwrapped it. I wasn’t expecting to get Bernie’s belt for Christmas. I’m just glad it wasn’t Max’s whip!

For those interested in it, for some reason the product is not available on the official Formula 1 store, but the belt was bought from Tesco!

But my favourite present was the one that I bought for myself! It is a Mega Bloks McLaren F1 Racer. It is a McLaren Mercedes MP4/22, the 2007 car driven by Fernando Alonso, in 1:12 scale. For the uninitiated, Mega Bloks is like Lego, but less Danish. This McLaren model clearly takes its cue from Ferrari Lego.

Given that the McLaren–Alonso combination didn’t exactly work out, it may not be the most sought-after of gifts. But as I quite like both McLaren and Fernando Alonso, I have no problem whatsoever with it.

I got this out of my workplace, Woolworths. The original price of this was north of £20, which I think is quite a lot. But thanks to the fact that Woolies has been holding a closing down sale, I got an extra 20% off this on top of my normal colleague discount, which made it much better value for money.

McLaren Mega Bloks tin I was, in fact, lucky to get it. We had sold out of it long ago, but a customer returned one and I put it aside so that I could buy it myself. It originally caught my eye partly because it was F1-related, but also because it is beautifully presented in a gorgeous tin, which this photograph does no justice to.

Christine and Me at Sidepodcast had a similar idea, although Christine got the smaller pit stop version.

Mega Bloks McLaren-Mercedes MP4/22 1:12 scale

And here is the finished article! I didn’t time myself, but I reckon all-in-all I probably spent about three hours on it. When I first opened the tin and saw the number of pieces (455, but it felt like about a thousand) and the size of the instruction manual it looked quite daunting. But once I got stuck into it, it became difficult for me to tear myself away from it. In the end, I was quite upset when I came to the final few blocks, despite the sense of accomplishment.

In fact, by far the most difficult aspect was putting the stickers on at the end. I think I did a pretty good job of it though. I think it looks absolutely great. Being made of Lego-style building blocks, it doesn’t exactly have the sleek look of an actual McLaren F1 car. But it is still gorgeous, and I can hardly stop examining it.

Mega Bloks McLaren-Mercedes MP4/22 1:12 scale sans engine cover In parts it is very blocky, but in other areas the detail is suprisingly good. The frong wing has a curvaceous look to it, and additions such as the T-cam, the ‘horns’ and even a couple of aerodynamic flick-ups are all present and correct. Be careful not to lift the car by the engine cover (the natural place to pick it up, I think) because it is not attached. It comes straight off so that you can examine the engine!

The tin and the instruction manual appear to promise a “building challenge”. It appears to be another model — some kind of fantasy futuristic vehicle, WipEout-style — that you can build with the same pieces, but there are no instructions for it. However, having completed the McLaren model, complete with stickers, I don’t think I can actually do this. Taking the McLaren apart, having basically stuck many of the bits together with sponsor stickers, will be near impossible. This seems to be an oversight on the part of the manufacturers.

Mind you, it looks so gorgeous that I probably wouldn’t be able to bring myself to take it apart anyway.

Meanwhile, I got my brother a 1:43 scale model of Takuma Sato’s Super Aguri SA03. It may only have competed in four races, but that makes the model all the more special if you ask me. My brother is fond of Takuma Sato and Super Aguri, so it felt right to get him it!

Did anyone else receive F1-related gifts for their Christmas? If so, what did you make of them?

I am in two minds about Christmas. I adore the day itself. And despite the fact that I am a Pastafarian, I feel no contradiction in celebrating Christmas, despite what Malc says.

After all, without Christmas — or any similar winter festival — these months would be fairly rotten all round. It is good sense to inject some cheer into the long, cold, dark winter nights. It is, of course, no coincidence that Christmas just so happens to fall at the same time as an ancient Pagan festival.

But while I enjoy Christmas Day, what I really don’t like is the run-up to Christmas. This brings nothing but stress and pain. I don’t see the point in getting stressed out over something that is supposed to make you feel better. So I tend to eschew traditional elements of pre-Christmas such as Christmas cards and the like.

This year, the pre-Christmas period has brought with it an added stress: the slow and humiliating death of my workplace, Woolworths. The shelves have been largely empty for weeks now, and products have been replaced by tacky, generic (Hilco-supplied) “closing down” posters. Friends and customers frequently tell me how sad it is to see the store like that, and I have to agree with them. Christmas cheer, like many Woolworths products, has been in short supply this year.

Even though I wasn’t exactly pinning my career hopes on Woolies, I am still terribly sorry to see it go. When I got my first card this year, though, it cheered me up enough to decide to participate the the Christmas card tradition. It looks like other people have done the same. My tally of cards received has gone up from five in 2006 to nine in 2007 to twenty this year. Even then, I have given out more cards than I have received, which is unusually festive of me.

So in that spirit, I want to wish all of this blog’s readers all the very best for the Christmas period and beyond.

Apologies, too, for the radio silence. I have been extraordinarily busy recently. Despite the imminent closure of Woolies, I’m currently working there more than ever. I will be straight back to work on Boxing Day, but I won’t complain too much. I just have to make the most of it because in another couple of weeks the work won’t be there at all. I will write more about Woolworths after we close down (which, incidentally, is on 5 January, although we’ll be sticking around for a few days to convert the unit back into an empty shell for someone to buy).

As well as that, I have been juggling a couple of other projects and of course I am on the job hunt for real now. So spare time has been in short supply, meaning that the blog has been put on the back burner. This is an uncertain period of my life, and I still need to work out how the blog will fit in to my future plans. Once I figure it out, activity on the blog will hopefully increase. I have a few posts I want to squeeze out before the new year so I don’t intend on it remaining silent any more at all.

In the meantime, to bring this post back to its original point, have a merry Christmas. (Or Chrifsmas.)

The rest of the rankings came fairly easily to me. Perhaps that is because the spotlight is not on the lower positions so much. It doesn’t seem to matter so much whether I place Kazuki Nakajima 15th or 16th.

But the top five is really, really tough to get right. I keep on changing my mind, juggling the positions even as I write this post. Really, the number 1 position could be justified for all of these drivers. To put one of them fifth feels just wrong. But that is what I have to do.

5. Sebastian Vettel (11; 12)

I was very tempted to place Vettel higher than this, perhaps even in 2nd place. In the end, I think the young German still has more to prove before he can be that high. But there can be little doubt that Vettel will climb up these rankings next year.

In many ways, Sebastian Vettel’s first full season is just as impressive as Lewis Hamilton’s. After all, the Toro Rosso, while clearly a handy car in the right circumstances, is no McLaren. Mind you, it was an inauspicious start to the season, which saw him retire from four races on the trot, mostly as a result of accidents. But when the new Toro Rosso chassis started racing, things started to improve. Before long the car was well and truly in the groove, and Vettel rose to the occasion and performed magnificently on occasion.

The highlight was, of course, his unbelievable victory at the Italian Grand Prix. When he grabbed pole position in torrential conditions, it was a clear signal of his talent. But he floored the world by almost flawlessly taking practically a pole-to-flag victory in conditions that were far from easy.

Monza was a high watermark for the promising youngster, and it has to be said there were a few occasions where he didn’t shine nearly so brightly. But consistency will come with experience, and it is surely a matter of ‘when’, not ‘if’, Sebastian Vettel finds himself in with a shout of winning the Championship one day. Whether he will achieve that in next year’s Red Bull car is debatable, but there is no doubt that they have a major star on their hands.

4. Felipe Massa (5; 5)

I can scarcely believe that I have had to place a title contender in 4th position. What makes this all the more flabbergasting is the fact that Massa has undoubtedly raised his game, stepped up to the plate and shown that he is capable of performing at the sharp end of the grid more or less throughout the season. Few drivers can have improved their reputation so much in such a short period of time.

After a rather shaky start to the season that raised questions about the Brazilian’s ability to drive without traction control, Massa withstood the pressure and ultimately passed the test as convincingly as he could have.

Strong results at Bahrain, Spain and Turkey were perhaps not expected, but they did little to dissolve the widespread scepticism about his driving abilities. What impressed were his good drives at Monaco, France and Canada, where he pulled off one of the most amazing overtaking manoeuvres I have ever seen — an audacious double-move on Rubens Barrichello and Heikki Kovalainen.

The British Grand Prix was a major disappointment, with a decidedly sluggish pace at the back of the field complemented with no fewer than six spins. This cast doubts on Massa’s abilities in the wet, not helped by another mediocre result in damp Monza. However, in fairness, it appears as though the Ferrari was a particularly poor car for rainy conditions, as Räikkönen wasn’t exactly a star in the wet this year either. Aside from those wet races, Massa’s only other poor results came as a result of Ferrari foul-ups in Hungary and Singapore that cost him a sackful of points.

Massa was a true star of this season. He may not have had a perfect season, but no-one can really say that. His behaviour after the Brazilian Grand Prix was worth a championship in itself, and it is a shame that I am unable to place him higher than 4th.

3. Lewis Hamilton (3; 3)

Well, Lewis Hamilton did it. He won the Drivers’ Championship in only his second year, becoming the youngest ever World Champion. I wouldn’t doubt he deserved it. Overall, Hamilton did a great job this season, and a much more mature, conservative, restrained approach eventually helped deliver the goods — even though it almost looked like it was too conservative until the final corner!

However, a flawless year it was not. A number of lapses in concentration cost Hamilton dearly a few times during the season. There was the infamous crash with Fernando Alonso in Bahrain, when Hamilton got spooked as a result of being in the midfield. He was the main protagonist in the pitlane pile-up in Montreal, when he lost concentration and failed to notice a red light — an almost unforgivable error. Meanwhile, a highly erratic performance at Fuji raised question marks about the Brit’s ability to stay cool under pressure.

However, ultimately Hamilton was able to come up with the goods, and for that you have to take your hat off to him. A particularly strong point of the season was a dominant couple of races at Silverstone and Hockenheim. His drive at the British Grand Prix was among the most dominant I have seen since I started watching F1 in the mid-1990s. Meanwhile, his fightback from a compromised position in Germany as a result of a terrible strategy decision by McLaren was, dare I say it, Schumacher-esque. I wouldn’t say Hamilton is the rounded driver that Schumacher was, but with time that could well come.

2. Robert Kubica (1; 9)

Other drivers may have attracted spectators’ attention with glitzier, showier performances. Hamilton, Alonso and Vettel all shone in flamboyant ways. But Robert Kubica arguably did the most solid job of all the drivers in the entire grid.

Most of the other drivers on the grid also had a tendency to make mistakes. 2008 will be remembered for a lot of things, but flawless drives will not be one of them. However, Robert Kubica made very few mistakes throughout the season. Indeed, I cannot think of any real driver errors by Kubica, except for a spin in treacherous conditions at Silverstone.

In the process, he took a stunning — if slightly lucky — win at Montreal. And despite the fact that the BMW Sauber car clearly fell behind other cars in terms of development as the season went on, the Pole continued to punch above his weight. Most notably, Kubica started the Japanese Grand Prix extremely strongly until Fernando Alonso in the superior Renault car took him during the first round of pitstops.

Of course, at the end of the season the challenge of contending for the Championship proved too much for the Kubica-BMW combination. Fingers will always be pointed at the team’s decision to stop development of the car in order to focus on the 2009 effort. Only time will tell whether that was the right decision or not. But in the meantime, Kubica had a clutch of extremely strong results, but just one win. And even though he was always near the top, he never felt like a real Championship contender.

1. Fernando Alonso (8; 2)

I have long believed that Fernando Alonso is the best driver on the grid since Michael Schumacher retired. Beforehand, I may have been in a minority. People would have been more likely to cite Kimi Räikkönen or, latterly, Lewis Hamilton. However, I believe that the events of 2008 vindicate my belief, despite the fact that in terms of results 2008 was actually comparatively poor for the Spaniard.

The Renault car was clearly pretty poor when the season began. And as it became clear that Renault’s engine was falling behind in terms of development, things became even worse. It was difficult to see where improvement was going to come, and Alonso hit a mid-season slump. This was encapsulated by the fact that his team mate Nelsinho Piquet managed to grab an excellent 2nd place at Hockenheim. At that point, Alonso’s best result had been 4th at an attrition-hit Australian GP.

However, that very race was the turning point of Alonso’s season. From then on, he never finished lower than 4th, with the exception of the European Grand Prix at Valencia where Kazuki Nakajima put paid to his race before he had even completed a lap. In the last eight races of the season, Alonso scored more points than anyone else.

The Renault resurgence was completed with back-to-back wins in Singapore and Fuji. The Singapore victory did have an element of luck to it, but was no less remarkable for it. This was a sign that Renault and Alonso were back on the map. When it was followed up by a fluke-free victory in Fuji, we knew it was for real.

Alonso’s resurgence can partly be put down to Renault’s turnaround. Amazingly, Alonso seems to have avoided Renault’s worst season of recent years, 2007. Dare I say it, Renault are perhaps six tenths faster than last season. But even though the car has improved, Alonso has almost always retained his authority over his team mate Nelsinho Piquet. Alonso beat his “junior” team mate in all 18 qualifying sessions. No other driver on the grid can say that.

What a travesty that Alonso has missed out on the World Championship for two seasons in a row. The new regulations will mix things up a lot, but who is to say that Renault will be particularly disadvantaged? I think Alonso is overdue another title.

Better late than never. I have finally got the chance to tap out the final part of my end-of-season driver rankings, although I am currently being distracted by the live web stream of the Race of Champions. Hopefully I’ll stay coherent enough for this section of my rankings to make sense. So here goes.

As before, the first number in brackets refers to their position in my mid-season rankings, and the second number is their position in last year’s end-of-season ranking.

11. Heikki Kovalainen (9; 6)

I have found myself becoming increasingly disillusioned with Heikki Kovalainen. Not so long ago he looked like a star of the future. Now I think Kovalainen simply does not know how to win a race. His one and only victory came in Hungary — but he did not deserve it, having inherited P1 as a result of Felipe Massa’s engine expiry.

Kovalainen may well complain that the McLaren team has focussed all of its efforts on Lewis Hamilton, particularly when it came to fuel loads in qualifying. That is true. But even taking this into account, I can’t help feeling that Kovalainen has been a major disappointment this season. In what was arguably the fastest car on the grid, Kovalainen finished just 7th in the Drivers Championship, behind both Ferraris, both BMWs and a Reanult. You can’t lie all of that at the door of having one or two laps extra fuel on board during qualifying.

Most of all, I feel that Kovalainen simply does not have that extra drive that it takes to win a race. I struggle to think of many moments during the season when I was particularly impressed with him. Indeed, I can think of a number of blunders — among them the moment during the Australian GP when he gifted Fernando Alonso a position by accidentally hitting the pitlane speed limiter at the start of the main straight. And he was totally hoodwinked by better drivers at least twice during the season. Double-overtakes initiated by Massa in Canada and Heidfeld at Silverstone particularly stick in my mind.

10. Jarno Trulli (7; 17)

This time last year I had almost totally written off Jarno Trulli. Having achieved little throughout his F1 career, he appeared consigned to midfield anonymity, with his greatest legacy to the sport remaining the dreaded Trulli Train.

However, I have to say that I have been quite impressed with Trulli this season. He appears to have made a mini-resurgence. Although he will never be able to count himself among the very best drivers on the grid, he has scored a number of impressive results this season.

A lot of this may be down to the improved Toyota car. But even so, I think there have been a number of times this season when Trulli has excelled, particularly when he finished 3rd at the French Grand Prix.

9. Mark Webber (4; 10)

The first half of the season in particular was a very strong one for Mark Webber. The Australian has been hit by far more than his fair share of bad luck throughout his career, but at the start of this season, with a competitive Red Bull car underneath him, it finally looked like things were going his way. From Malaysia through to Monaco, Webber scored five points finishes in a row, a career record.

Unfortunately, mid-way through the season his Renault-powered Red Bull car lost much of its advantage and the second half of the season returned far less, with just a handful of 8th place finishes. At least he can say he totally outclassed his team mate David Coulthard this season.

8. Timo Glock (16; -)

After a slightly underwhelming start to the season, Timo Glock finally began to fulfil his promise more towards the end. The first sign of life came with a 4th place finish in Canada, a very strong result at a tricky circuit.

A huge crash at Hockenheim was a worrying moment, but from then on Glock has finished in the points more often than he hasn’t. A second place at Hungary, immediately after the German GP, was a particular high point. And his 4th place finish at Singapore is certainly not to be sniffed at either.

Glock appears this high on my list mostly as a result of the second half of his season. After his abortive first shot at F1 at the struggling Jordan team way back in 2004 — when, to be frank, he wasn’t ready — Glock has had a second spell as a rookie. Now the 2007 GP2 Champion looks set to have a creditable career in motor racing’s top flight.

7. Kimi Räikkönen (2; 1)

Kimi Räikkönen’s oddly scruffy season has been widely-commented on. The season started off reasonably strongly, with four podiums in the first five races, including two wins. From that point onwards, though, it all came unstuck thanks to a combination of horrendously bad luck and unusually unfocused driving.

The first warning sign came with a dire performance during the Monaco Grand Prix, culminating in a hugely unpopular crash into Adrian Sutil. Then came a run of bad luck. He was taken out of the Canadian Grand Prix after Lewis Hamilton crashed into him in the pitlane. Then an unusual exhaust failure put paid to his hopes for a win in France. In the following race in Britain, his Ferrari struggled in the wet conditions. At Valencia he left the pitlane with the fuel hose still attached. As if that wasn’t enough, his engine blew a few laps later.

Amid this run of bad luck, the Finn lacked focus, appearing to lose his motivation. The only stand-out performance was in Belgium, and he even ended that race by crashing. A number of needless mistakes ensured that World Champion was in no shape to defend his title.

6. Nick Heidfeld (6; 4)

Unquestionably, Nick Heidfeld struggled this season in comparison to his BMW team mate. The German did particularly poorly in qualifying, with the finger of blame pointed at the difficult of getting heat into the tyres. To Heidfeld’s immense credit, he worked hard on fixing this problem and things very much began to look up in the second half of the season.

Even so, when you look at Heidfeld’s results, even at the start of the season they are extremely impressive. Four 2nd place finishes and a clutch of strong points finishes ensured that Heidfeld finished a creditable 6th in the Drivers’ Championship. The only reason Heidfeld’s season felt underwhelming was because his team mate was even better…

I had planned on my next post being the second part of my driver rankings. Unfortunately, real life events have intervened. In the meantime, events have overtaken me as Formula 1 was hit by a huge news story on Friday — Honda’s sudden withdrawal from the sport.

Now, normally such an announcement wouldn’t raise too many eyebrows. Ever since I started watching Formula 1 in the mid-1990s, I have watched teams and manufacturers come and go on a regular basis.

I saw Renault withdraw from the sport as engine supplier to Williams and Benetton in 1997, only to return as a fully-fledged constructor when they bought the Benetton team just a few years later in 2000. Ford came to the party when they bought the Stewart team in 1999, only to leave the sport entirely a few years later in 2004. Peugeot left the sport in a huff at their own lack of success in 2000, having only joined the circus in 1994.

I learnt quickly, therefore, that manufacturers’ interest in F1 is almost always transient. For every Mercedes that appears fully committed, there are a handful of Renaults and Hondas who will enter and exit the sport according to the wind direction.

Honda’s announcement was shocking partly because of its suddenness. The speed with which the decision was taken is made clear when you read James Allen’s account. There is also the fact that at the start of this year Honda owned not one but two F1 teams. Now they have dramatically trimmed right back to zero, and will not even offer an engine supply to any teams next season.

There is also the fact that Honda were massive spenders in F1. This appeared to signify a magnificent commitment to the sport, despite the relative lack of success. But the flipside of this is that it made Honda an absolute laughing stock within the sport.

The huge amount of money the Honda F1 team spent also made it more vulnerable to the red pen of the bosses. No other manufacturer will save as much money by axing their F1 team. It may be true that Honda’s withdrawal is for political reasons, as former BAR-Honda driver Jacques Villeneuve posits. But it is Honda’s huge costs, coupled with the utter lack of success, that made it vulnerable to such political manoeuvring.

As such, the withdrawal of Honda is not such a shock when you think about it, even though I wouldn’t have predicted it. Moreover, Honda is not a fixture of Formula 1 like Ferrari, or even Mercedes. The current incarnation of the Honda F1 project only got the nod in 1998, and even then it was quickly reigned in to become a mere engine supply deal with BAR. Honda bought the team when tobacco sponsorship left the sport just a few years ago. Despite having run a team in the 1960s, and the huge success of the corporation as an engine supplier in the 1980s, an F1 institution it is not.

What makes people worried, though, is the economic climate in which this news has come. Whereas Ford found a buyer for Jaguar Racing easily enough in Red Bull in 2003, buyers for Honda will be thin on the ground due to the lack of credit that will be available to interested parties.

Next season’s Formula 1 calendar has already lost two races — Canada and France — and China and both German circuits currently in use have recently warned that they may not hold races for much longer. Again, it all comes down to money, with circuit owners being unable or unwilling to pay Bernie Ecclestone’s fast-increasing costs of staging a grand prix at the same time as attendances are tumbling.

Meanwhile, car sales are in freefall on a global scale, with a number of large car manufacturers seemingly in serious financial danger unless drastic action is taken. In the backdrop of these events, participation in motorsports looks like an extravagance. Even if the old “win on Sunday, sell on Monday” mantra holds true in normal times, right now western consumers are tightening their belts meaning that any increase in sales may be too small to be justifiable.

As such, Honda’s withdrawal is seen as just another sign that Formula 1 faces a crisis. We have a slimmed-down calendar that relies increasingly on flyaway races away from the sport’s European heartland to help pay CVC’s bills, and no races in the vitally important North American market for the first time in five decades.

Now there is a slimmed-down grid of just 18 cars — a number that is getting smaller. When you consider that the 2008 season was originally destined to contain 24 entries, F1 has essentially lost a quarter of its teams in a matter of months. Formula 1 is beginning to look like a shadow of its former self.

Now the question everyone is asking is, “who is next?” Initially the finger pointed at Toyota. Many pointed out that Toyota are only really in F1 because Honda were there. Toyota are also, like Honda, huge spenders with little to show for it.

But Toyota quickly put the lid on the speculation by issuing a statement that appeared to affirm their commitment to F1 — although, as James Allen pointed out, the word “currently” in front of “committed” looks like a carefully worded way to give them an easy exit should things take a turn for the worse. After all, if Honda’s decision was so sudden, why would a decision from Toyota not be?

BMW and Mercedes-Benz have both also affirmed their commitment to F1. But one manufacturer has spoken with a deafening silence.

I always suspected that the first manufacturer to go would be Renault. Its CEO, Carlos Ghosn, is said to be sceptical of motorsport participation, and there has been a question mark over the team’s future ever since he joined Renault in 2005. Besides which, Renault’s history in F1 has shown that it will come and go as it pleases.

Even though some news websites have reported that Renault is committed to F1, I have seen no quotes which the other manufacturers have been happy enough to provide. Was the media palmed off with a stock answer from a Renault spokesperson?

Meanwhile, rumours circulate around Red Bull. Dietrich Mateschitz recently re-bought Gerhard Berger’s 50% stake in Toro Rosso, but many think he did this so that he could sell it more easily. But with billions to play with and no car sales to drop off a cliff, I see little reason why he would pull the plug on both teams.

Williams has been perceived to be in a vulnerable position for a few years now. It is the last brave privateer team that is in it not to sell cars and not to sell drinks, but purely for the love of racing. It has been hit hard, but it doesn’t have to be seen to be reducing costs for political reasons like the manufacturers have to. Ironically, Williams may be safer than some of the manufacturers now.

We will just have to wait and see. It’s clear that Formula 1 is currently undergoing a massive change. Could the ground be being laid for a return to a privateer era? If so, you won’t find me complaining too much, no matter how painful the current events are in the medium-term.

As you may know, one of the many plates I am currently spinning is my involvement in Scotweb2.

Alex Stobart wanted Scotweb2 to have a blog, and he asked me to build it. Here it is. It has a gradient and everything.

There is not much there for the time being. But over time it will be fleshed out. We plan on it being a place where people can learn about interesting uses of web technologies from government, business, the third sector, or indeed any organisation.

In the spirit of web 2.0, in the long term we will be offering people the chance to suggest their own ideas to be featured on the blog, possibly by writing for the blog themselves. So if you have an interest in web 2.0 and the way it is used in Scotland, keep an eye on the Scotweb2 blog.