The inaugural GP of Indy weekend was weird, but worth it for fans, IMS

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I’m not entirely sure how it played out on TV, but from the ground the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis was a decent success.

Once you got the “this is weird” notion out of the way, that allowed you to set into a mindset that there’s some potential here, and this race joins the annals of Indianapolis Motor Speedway lore.

It also could have been the start of a new tradition.

Was it the cleanest Verizon IndyCar Series race ever? Nope.

But give most of the field credit for avoiding stranded polesitter Sebastian Saavedra, who bogged down either due to a stall or a potential ECU issue; the KV/AFS team needs to look at the date to provide official confirmation. It was only when Carlos Munoz made a quick, jerky reaction from the inside to the outside and hit Saavedra that the wreck occurred.

Then, just like a litany of other road or street course races in the past, the race had an early and late rhythm interrupted by a cacophony of carnage, chaos and cautions mid-race (think Long Beach this year or Baltimore last year, for instance).

But the crescendo was an enticing finish, with varying strategies emerging and Simon Pagenaud – usually a speed demon – needing to throttle back and save fuel to score the win. Pagenaud starred in both dry and wet conditions over the weekend and was a deserving winner for Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports.

As for the weekend itself, the track and staff deserve plaudits for their efforts to configure a racy, smooth track that provided enough passing and enough spectator areas to make the race feel like an event.

The spectator mounds – I stood in ones at Turns 1, 2 and 7 for instance – were definitely populated and probably better places to watch than the grandstands. You could pick your favorite from watching the Mazda Road to Indy races earlier in the day, and at $25 for GA, it was a great value for fans.

Perhaps the thing I liked most about the weekend, like a lot of IndyCar weekends, was the unpredictability.

Five of the six MRTI races had first-time winners. The IndyCar front row featured a guy who’d never qualified better than ninth on a road or street course and a guy in his fourth series start.

The weather shifted from being partly sunny to partly cloudy, to rainy, to torrential downpours, to light rain, to cloudy, and then to rainy again. And that was just on Friday.

Then – with projections hoping to top 40,000 fans, and I think it’s fair to estimate from the ground the number was near the 45,000 range – you couldn’t have really predicted that many fans would attend an IndyCar road course race at IMS.

For those who’ve decried the decline of “tradition” at IMS, that cry ended 20 years ago when NASCAR ran the first Brickyard 400 at the track. Nothing’s been sacred from there, and traditional “tradition” at IMS has slowly eroded ever since.

But what has propped up in the time since 1994 has been a slow series of new traditions.

And those who were at this year’s Grand Prix of Indianapolis can discuss the lore of a crazy start line crash, the Mayor getting hit with debris, the awesome viewing points, and one of the series’ best drivers breaking through to score the victory.

It was a weird weekend, but one that was certainly worth it for the fans, and for IMS.

Now the “proper” rest of the month continues with Indianapolis 500 practice now underway.

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.