McLaren the team to watch on driver front for 2015 lineup and beyond

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McLaren’s racing director Eric Boullier said Wednesday all options are on the table in terms of the team’s driver lineup for next year. Which is a nice way of saying, “We’re not not satisfied with our current pair, but we need to see how the driver market evolves.”

In a conference call with reporters Wednesday, Boullier didn’t commit one way or another to either its current lineup of Jenson Button and Kevin Magnussen.

“We are lucky to have two drivers who want to commit to us for the future. We have some contractual options we can pick up, so we are not in a rush to decide our future driver line-up,” he said, via the official Formula One website. “We are evaluating and assessing every strategy for the future.”

They may not be in a rush, but they do need to be thinking about maneuvering with the traditional start of F1’s silly season occurring next month in July.

There’s three more Grands Prix – the British, German and Hungarian rounds – in the month of July before the annual summer break.

It is in those three weekends that a clearer picture of McLaren’s 2015 lineup could emerge, depending on their current drivers’ performance output and whether anyone else’s dissatisfaction with their current lot would see them want to move to McLaren.

It’s a fluid situation and one where NBC Sports Group’s F1 insider and pit reporter Will Buxton attempts to analyze the situation on his own blog site.

Of Sebastian Vettel, whose reign of dominance at Red Bull has ended with the new regulations and a car he feels less at ease with, the move to McLaren could be tempting. Less so, according to Buxton, would be a return for Fernando Alonso to the team … not because of his troubled 2007 campaign there, but more because he’s still committed to continuing the drive of pushing Ferrari forward, and Ferrari at Le Mans could well be an attractive prospect down the road.

Of Button, though, Buxton thinks he may be on the way out:

As for Jenson Button, to be honest I’m just not sure he’s enjoying it anymore. This will be one of the hardest seasons Jenson has ever had to endure. The car is not as competitive as he would like, and whereas in years gone-by he and his beloved Dad would shrug their shoulders and look to the future, dear Papa Smurf is sadly no longer here to be the voice of solace and reason. Part of me thinks the joy is quickly fading for Jenson, and if he walks away at the end of the season I would not be at all surprised. Even with Honda coming back, I just don’t know if Jenson will.

Magnussen, who was only brought in at the start of this year, needs time to develop and grow within the team – the same time not afforded to his predecessor Sergio Perez last year. Whether Magnussen would continue with Button or a more lucrative, attractive free agent remains to be seen.

Button, at 34, is the second oldest and most experienced driver on the grid. He’s not quite in a Mark Webber “leave before you’re pushed” situation, but he may get there soon enough.

This seems to be the team to watch this year, because at the moment, the likelihood is greater of an open seat here than at Red Bull or Ferrari. Stay tuned.

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.