‘This is our Super Bowl’ when it comes to US Grand Prix coverage

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Words like “greatness,” “storylines,” and “electricity” were used to describe the first United States Grand Prix at Austin’s Circuit of the Americas in 2012. That’s the goal again this weekend for NBC Sports at the 2013 USGP.

The viewing details first: free practice two will air live on NBCSN at 2 p.m. ET on Friday, with qualifying at 1 p.m. ET on CNBC on Saturday, and a one-hour pre-race on NBC at 1 p.m. ET on Sunday leading up to lights out immediately after at 2 p.m. ET. All sessions will also be live streamed via NBC Sports Live Extra.

Austin will mark the third of four Grands Prix aired on NBC this season, after Monaco and Canada earlier this year. More than 1.5 million viewers watched Monaco earlier this year, making it the most-watched Formula One race in the U.S. in six years.

And for this, the second USGP in Austin, the goal is to highlight how incredible Sebastian Vettel has been this year, and how much buzz there is in Texas, and the U.S. as a whole, for Formula One.

“Last year’s F1 race at Austin was the first I’d been to,” NBC Sports Group motorsports producer Rich O’Connor said on today’s media teleconference. “When I walked away from it, it was incredible to me what a great race it was and great event the weekend was. I’ve been to Super Bowls, Olympics, Final Fours and Kentucky Derbies, and the continuous weekend-long electricity and activity at the track was just incredible. For the entire weekend, you know you’d been to a great event.

“In planning for this event, we knew what we wanted to do was make this as a big event as a big race,” he added. “We’ll be doing – especially on Sunday in our one hour pre-race show – conveying certain aspects of what Austin’s doing through the weekend.”

Ron Howard, director of the critically acclaimed Universal Studios picture “Rush,” has voiced the open for the Sunday show. NBC’s “Tonight Show” host Jay Leno drove some hot laps at the track in October, which have been filmed and will be showcased. Lead broadcaster Leigh Diffey has an extended sit-down interview set with Vettel, and racing’s foremost essayist and former driver Sam Posey will have an essay on Vettel’s rein of dominance and where he stacks not just among the F1 greats, but the sports greats as a whole at age 26.

“This is our Super Bowl,” Diffey said. “In athletic terms, we’re gearing up for the biggest game of our year. There’s quite a bit of anticipation to bring the best show we can.”

As ever, David Hobbs and Steve Matchett join Diffey in the broadcast booth for analysis. Will Buxton, NBC’s F1 insider, will join the trio on the ground in Austin for reports from pit lane and the paddock.

Hobbs first called a USGP in 1976, and welcomed the opportunity to call this year’s on site in Austin. Matchett, a former Benetton mechanic when Michael Schumacher won his first two of a record seven World Championships, is in awe of Vettel’s performance this year.

“When I joined NBC, I was very proud to be asked, and I’ve been knocked over by the incredible effort that’s gone into all the Formula One shows,” Hobbs said. “The studio layout, the group of people, has been absolutely outstanding. It’s among the best over the last 30 years.”

“It’s going to be a great event for several reasons,” Matchett added. “Everyone’s in awe of what (Vettel) is doing. To be able to go and see this kid in action, in 5-10 years from now you’ll look back and say ‘Wow.’ This is likely to be the one race U.S. fans can attend. It’s a phenomenal event. I know everyone at NBC can’t wait, and to meet the enthusiasts, to meet the people in the paddock will be great.”

Buxton – who will also host the second annual “Buxton’s Big Time Bash” Thursday night – has already arrived in Austin and spoke of the fever already there.

“It’s amazing. The city is still embracing F1 this year, banners and flags all over the place,” Buxton said. “This is one of their only opportunities to experience it in the flesh. This is where we can take people off the couch and put them in the paddock. I can’t wait to see all the fans.”

We’ll have extensive Austin coverage here on MotorSportsTalk over the next several days and on the ground in Austin, as well.

Street race in Vietnam could lead Formula One’s Asia expansion

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TOKYO (AP) — Formula One is expected to add more races in Asia, including a street circuit in the capital of Vietnam, a country with little auto racing history that is on the verge of getting a marquee event.

“We think Hanoi could come on in the next couple of years, and we’re working with the Hanoi government to that end,” Sean Bratches, Formula One’s managing director of commercial operations, told the Associated Press.

There is even speculation it could be on the schedule next season, which Bratches rebuffed.

Vietnam would join countries like Azerbaijan, Russia and Bahrain, which have Grand Prix races, little history in the sport, and authoritarian governments with deep pockets that serve F1 as it tries to expand into new markets.

“This (Hanoi) is a street race where we can go downtown, where we can activate a large fan base,” Bratches said. “And you have extraordinary iconography from a television standpoint.”

A second race in China is also likely and would join Shanghai on the F1 calendar. Bratches said deciding where to stage the GP will “be left to local Chinese partners” – Beijing is a strong candidate.

Bratches runs the commercial side of Formula One, which was acquired last year by U.S.-based Liberty Media from long-time operator Bernie Ecclestone.

Formula One’s long-term goal is to have 24-25 races – up from the present 21 – and arrange them in three geographical segments: Asia, Europe and the Americas. Bratches said the Europe-based races would stay in middle of the calendar, with Asia or the Americas opening or ending the season.

He said their positioning had not been decided, and getting this done will be slowed by current contracts that mandate specific places on the calendar for several races. This means eventually that all the races in Asia would be run together, as would races in Europe and the Americas.

The F1 schedule is now an inefficient jumble, allowing Bratches to take a good-natured poke at how the sport was run under Ecclestone.

“We’ve acquired an undermanaged asset that’s 67-years-old, but effectively a start-up,” Bratches said.

Early-season races in Australia and China this year were conducted either side of a trip to Bahrain in the Middle East. Late in the season Formula One returns to Asia with races in Japan and Singapore.

The Canadian GP this season is run in the middle of the European swing, separated by four months from the other races in the Americas – the United States, Mexico and Brazil. These three are followed by the season-ending race in Abu Dhabi, which means another trip across the globe.

“With the right economics, with the right structure and cadence of events across territories, 24 or 25 is probably where we’d like to be from a longer-term standpoint,” Bratches said.

Big changes are not likely to happen until the 2020 season ends. This is when many current rules and contracts expire as F1’s new owners try to redistribute some income to allow smaller teams to compete.

“There’s more interest than we have capacity in the schedule,” Bratches said, firing off Berlin, Paris or London as potentially attractive venues. “We want to be very selective.”

“Those cites from an economic impact standpoint would find us value, as do others around the world,” Bratches added. “It’s very important for us as we move forward to go to locations that are a credit to the Formula One brand.”

An expanded schedule would have to be approved by the teams, which will be stretched by the travel and the wear-and-tear on their crews. The burden will fall on the smaller teams, which have significantly smaller revenue compared with Ferrari, Mercedes or Red Bull.

Bratches also envisions another race in the U.S., joining the United States Grand Prix held annually in Austin, Texas. A street race in Miami is a strong candidate, as are possible venues like Las Vegas or New York.

“We see the United States and China as countries that could support two races,” he said.

Liberty Media has reported Formula One’s total annual revenue at $1.8 billion, generated by fees paid by promoters, broadcast rights, advertising and sponsorship. Race promotion fees also tend to be higher in Asia, which makes the area attractive – along with a largely untapped fan base.

In a four-year cycle, F1 generates more revenue than FIFA or the International Olympic Committee, which rely almost entirely on one-time showcase events.

Reports suggest Vietnamese promoters may pay between $50-60 million annually as a race fee, with those fees paid by the government. Bratches said 19 of 21 Formula One races are supported by government payments.

“The race promotion fee being derived from the government … is a model that has worked historically,” Bratches said.