Austrian GP Paddock Notebook – Saturday

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Just two weeks after Mercedes’ hopes of a perfect season went up in smoke, its aspirations for a clean sweep of poles in 2014 have also evaporated after Felipe Massa sprung a surprise to claim his sixteenth career pole position.

The result was in fact Massa’s first pole in over five years, with his last coming at the 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix. Since then, his career has seen some huge ups and downs, but today he was the star as he capitalized on the Silver Arrows’ problems in the final part of qualifying.

Unlike the political psychodrama that developed yesterday in Austria, today it was all about the on-track action. Here’s MotorSportsTalk’s round-up of Saturday at the Red Bull Ring.

SESSION REPORTS

  • The first signs of a Williams charge came in FP3, where Valtteri Bottas finished fastest ahead of Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa.
  • However, in qualifying, it was Massa who claimed the spoils after Bottas, Hamilton and Nico Rosberg all failed to improve their times on their final runs.

NEWS FROM THE PADDOCK

THOUGHTS FROM THE TRACK

As I touched upon in the introduction to this piece, it is good that the focus has moved back onto the on-track action. Just when you thought that the Mercedes cars were invincible, both came unstuck during Q3 to give Williams a memorable front row lock-out.

Eleven years after Frank Williams’ cars last lined up on the front row together, Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas delivered when it mattered. It was a result that was extremely well received in the paddock, with everyone but the boys in silver pleased to see the team return to the front of the field, even if it is just for one day.

For Massa, the result is a particularly emotional one. After missing out on the 2008 world championship in agonizing fashion and then suffering a horrific head injury in 2009, there were doubts as to whether the Brazilian would ever re-find his form. Ferrari was also unsure, and dropped him at the end of last season in favor of re-signing Kimi Raikkonen.

Since joining Williams though, he has been in fine fettle. The Brazilian driver has been desperately unlucky in 2014, and still maintains that he could have won the Canadian Grand Prix had it not been for a problem at his pit stop. Today, he proved that he still has what it takes to light up the timesheets: P1 in qualifying. Congratulations, Felipe.

And also a hearty well done to Valtteri Bottas. His charge to second place on the grid was a fine result, all things considered. He was unfortunate not to secure his first ever pole, given that Massa beat him by less than one-tenth of a second.

All the while, we must remember that Mercedes is still the dominant force in the sport. Nico Rosberg will know that, from third place on the grid, he is still in with a great chance of winning for the third time this season. Hamilton, down in ninth, faces a fight. It should give us some great action in the race, though, seeing him fight through.

Today was all about Williams, though. There is no guarantee that Massa and Bottas will be able to win the race tomorrow, nor will they be assured of a podium finish. However, the first Austrian Grand Prix since 2003 should be a fascinating spectacle.

You can watch the race live on NBCSN and Live Extra from 7:30am ET tomorrow.

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.