What to watch for: IndyCar’s Grand Prix of Indianapolis

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THE START

Today’s inaugural running of the Grand Prix of Indianapolis (3:30 p.m. ET, check local listings) will begin with a standing start.

After the first such start of the year at Long Beach went off clean, you hope that today’s start will go the same way.

But it will be interesting to see if front-row starters Sebastian Saavedra (No. 17 KV/AFS Chevrolet) and rookie Jack Hawksworth (No. 98 Integrity Energee/Bryan Herta Autosport Honda) are able to hold their positions going into the hard right-hander at Turn 1 or if the pack of veterans behind them (led by Ryan Hunter-Reay and Simon Pagenaud in Row 2) will gobble them up in the rush.

TRACK OF OPPORTUNITY

The revamped 2.4-mile road course at Indianapolis Motor Speedway has garnered high marks, and it certainly feels like sincere praise instead of public relations.

There’s lots of grip everywhere and there’s three prominent passing zones: The aforementioned Turn 1 coming off the long front-stretch, the left-hand Turn 7 that comes off of the Hulman Boulevard straight, and Turn 12, which may see some incidents in addition to passing; as our man on the ground Tony DiZinno noted this morning, the entry to 12 can be tricky.

BRICKYARD BREAKTHROUGH?

Several drivers have shown lots of pace through the early stages of the Verizon IndyCar Series season, but haven’t been able to get the results they’ve deserved.

Most prominent in this group are Sebastien Bourdais (No. 11 Mistic/KVSH Racing Chevrolet) and Josef Newgarden (No. 67 Klipsch Audio/Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing Honda).

But with the IMS road course’s ample passing zones and long straights that works well for drafting, they’ve got an opportunity to finally break through; Bourdais starts seventh, while Newgarden is farther back in 16th.

NEW TRADITION

As the New York Times put it going into the weekend, there’s never been an IndyCar race quite like this one at the world’s greatest race course.

While some have not agreed with the series’ decision to have the Grand Prix kick off the Month of May activities, this honestly beats the heck out of a largely quiet Opening Day of practice.

Speedway president Doug Boles is hopeful for a crowd of 40,000 this afternoon, and while the gargantuan IMS will dwarf such a number, that would still be solid for this inaugural race.

Don’t look at the grandstands as much as the infield – if there’s a decent turnout in the latter, then IMS should feel good.

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.