Sebring 2014 may take some getting used to with new changes

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This weekend marks three major international motorsport events. Formula One kicks off its 2014 campaign with the Australian Grand Prix; NASCAR gets its first short-track racing on at Bristol Motor Speedway.

And in the former airfield of Sebring, Florida, the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship will run its second race of its 2014 season, the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring.

This one’s going to be a weird one, because it will mark the first “former American Le Mans Series” race in the merged championship. Daytona was all well and good overall, but it was a past GRAND-AM affair, and what was good in the past was taken and amplified by the ALMS additions.

Sebring may well be the opposite. Gone, for the first time in 15 years, are the majestic marvels of technology – the LMP1 cars.

Although the full-season LMP1 grid in North America was less than subscribed over the last four to five years of the ALMS run, Sebring always featured a full LMP1 grid count.

Audi and Peugeot waged some epic bouts over a five-year span; the relative underdog Acura and Rebellion teams could always pull a surprise; and the Muscle Milk and Dyson teams had their chance to go against the world’s best, which for a handful of years included a bumper crop of extras from Europe (either of the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup or FIA World Endurance Championship).

There was fan footage captured of the new-for-2014 LMP1-H prototypes from Audi and Porsche testing at Sebring last week. Yet for the first time in 15 years, the German manufacturers won’t be sticking around a couple weeks later to grind it out on the notoriously punishing circuit over 12 hours. Well, not with an LMP1 anyway; there’s plenty of representation in the GT classes.

That’s going to be something we’ll miss.

There’s also the lack of official practice for the TUDOR Championship until Thursday, although some teams have participated in private tests over the weekend. In recent years, ALMS on-track activity ran from Monday through Wednesday before official festivities kicked off Thursday. Now, not.

What Sebring does have going for it this year is a back to almost full field, with 66 cars projected to race on Saturday. The 2009, 2010 and 2013 editions of the race were down years, owing to the lack of a secondary major championship to produce a full field. But the 2011 and 2012 races, with an ILMC, then WEC presence, were something to behold.

The 2011 race saw the Hughes de Chaunac-led ORECA Peugeot team score the overall upset, ahead of Highcroft Racing in a one-off start of an HPD ARX-01e (the only time a new-for-2011 HPD LMP1 car raced). In 2012, a colossal scrap between Joey Hand’s BMW and Olivier Beretta’s Ferrari ended in favor of the American for top GT honors.

The potential for a surprise overall winner does exist, which is something that has, as mentioned above, only happened a couple of times in the past. The ORECA Peugeot’s 2011 triumph and the Penske LMP2 class Porsche RS Spyder overall win in 2008 were the only non-factory Audi or factory Peugeot wins at Sebring since 2000.

Live TV coverage is limited to just the first three hours, although the balance will be live streamed on IMSA.com. A mixed bag for sure, considering the race’s prestige, history and place within the Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup.

But for the first time in nearly 20 years, Sebring will follow Daytona on the same schedule, and that just feels right.

In total, really, this year’s Sebring will be a radical departure from recent years past, but should offer much of the same good action we’ve been accustomed to in years past.

Just with different cars fighting for the overall win, and a different way of watching if you’re not at the track.

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.