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F1’s global expansion continues with Azerbaijan and Mexico

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The Formula 1 circus could be coming to a town near you soon, that is, if it isn’t already. Despite failed expeditions to India, Korea and Valencia in Spain, the sport just keeps going global.

The latest additions to the set list? Azerbaijan and Mexico. Two countries with contrasting reputations in motorsport, and they have subsequently met very different responses from the F1 community following their confirmation over the past three days.

The Mexican Grand Prix is an event that will be welcomed back with open arms next November, most probably going back-to-back with the United States Grand Prix at the Circuit of the Americas. The race was last held back in 1992 at Mexico City’s Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez – named after legendary drivers Ricardo and Pedro Rodriguez – but was dropped for 1993.

Like we’ve seen in the United States, Formula 1 has enjoyed a revival in Mexico over the past few years. Much of this has been down to the success of Sergio Perez and Esteban Gutierrez, who currently race for Force India and Sauber. Unsurprisingly, they were pretty pleased with the news when speaking to the press earlier this week, with Gutierrez calling it a “dream come true”. Many of the team principals in F1 are also pleased with the news.

“It’s great to be going back to Mexico,” said Red Bull team principal Christian Horner. “Certainly my memories of Mexico were Nigel Mansell’s move on the outside of Gerhard Berger into the last turn; I just hope that corner is left intact. I think it’s fantastic for Formula 1 to be going back to Mexico.”

“The more the Formula 1 canvas expands across the world, the better it is for the sport and the teams and the sponsors,” Force India owner Vijay Mallya explained. “As far as new countries are concerned, like Mexico and Azerbaijan, fantastic news.”

Azerbaijan is more of a puzzler, given that it is a nation with very little motorsport heritage. The Grand Prix of Europe will be hosted in the capital, Baku, at a street circuit around the city, but this will not be its first major racing event. In fact, the city has hosted the Baku World Challenge, an event for GT cars, in 2012 and 2013. However, this is still very new territory for Formula 1.

If there isn’t a great legacy for racing there, why not create one? “If there’s no history of motorsport in Azerbaijan, one can always hope to create interest in Formula 1 with its attendant benefits,” Mallya said.

So we’re off to Baku in 2016, but might not be going to Monza the year after? Is it really right for the sport to be cutting classic circuits in favor of new venues?

“I think it’s all about balance,” Horner explained. “It’s about keeping the historical events and also bringing new events. I think Formula 1 has done a good job of that over the past few years. If there isn’t any interest in Formula 1, like we saw last weekend [in Germany], then why not go to a new market that is crying out for Formula 1?”

Is Azerbaijan really crying out for Formula 1, though? Hockenheim was slated last weekend for only bringing 52,000 fans through its gates for the German Grand Prix, but would Baku better that figure?

Some new races have unquestionably been a huge success, with Singapore being the best example. Baku seems a little more obscure and uncertain, though. Similar words of gold were spouted about the races in India (2011-2013) and Korea (2010-2013), which have since dropped off the calendar. The marketing and organization for the Baku race must learn from past mistakes.

There is a great focus in F1 at the moment about ‘fan engagement’, and how it can be achieved. There is a very simple trade-off: fan engagement versus profits. Want to fill the grandstands? Make the tickets cheap, but you’ll lose revenue.

There are some venues that are affected less than others. As Christian Horner pointed out, the three races before Germany – Canada, Austria, Great Britain – were all sell-outs and huge successes. It is likely that Mexico would join this group. For a show-run in Mexico City a few years ago, 200,000 fans turned out. It is this kind of market that F1 is right to be targeting.

As things stand for 2015, we’ll have a twenty race calendar featuring the existing nineteen plus Mexico. For 2016, the figure may rise to 21, or even 22 if New Jersey can get its act together. Some races may drop off the schedule, too. There is indeed a very fine balance between the old circuits and the new.

As the Austrian Grand Prix proved, it is sometimes possible to revisit old ideas to make progress. Mexico is another example of this, and the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez is set to play host to a great event next year. Baku will most probably fall into the same category as the other new-fangled races – Abu Dhabi, China, Bahrain, Singapore – that lack the charm and appeal of others, but instead revolve around lavish settings and facilities.

Azerbaijan may sound like an odd place to go to now, but so did Abu Dhabi; so did Singapore; so did Bahrain. Baku could yet prove to be a hit in Formula 1, but if it does indeed come at the cost of a legendary event such as the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, it would only be to the detriment of the sport.

Otmar Szafnauer confident new F1 rules will create ‘uncertainty’

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 22:  Sergio Perez (L) of Mexico and Sahara Force India and Esteban Ocon of France and Sahara Force India unveil the VJM10 car during the Sahara Force India Formula One team launch at Silverstone on February 22, 2017 in Northampton, England.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Force India chief operating officer Otmar Szafnauer is confident that Formula 1’s new technical regulations will create uncertainty and allow teams to move up the pecking order.

Force India enjoyed its best season in F1 last year, finishing the year fourth in the constructors’ championship behind only Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari.

For 2017, new technical regulations are set to make the cars significantly quicker over a single lap, prompting teams to place great focus on preparing for the upcoming campaign.

Speaking following the launch of Force India’s new car, the VJM10, Szafnauer was positive about the chances that the new rules would bring for both the tam and the sport.

“Whenever you mix up the rules it’s bound to introduce some uncertainty. There’s the opportunity for teams to achieve or underachieve and if that happens it will disrupt the status quo,” Szafnauer said.

“Will the new rules create better racing? Only time will tell. The cars will be significantly faster – not down the straights, but through the corners – but the braking zones will be reduced and that won’t necessarily have a positive impact on overtaking opportunities.

“I certainly like the aesthetics of the new cars because they remind me of the racing cars of old. I’m sure they will look spectacular on the track too.”

When asked about Force India’s objectives for the year ahead, Szafnauer remained coy, but said that the early signs within the team were positive.

“As a team we have some internal objectives, but it’s very hard for me to verbalize those ambitions because it’s impossible to know what our competitors could achieve given such a huge change of regulations,” Szafnauer said.

“What I can say is that we have met our internal targets for the car – for example in terms of the aero numbers we set as the goal for the launch car. How those targets compare to our competitors is impossible to say until we hit the track.”

Force India will enjoy its first public run with the VJM10 car in Barcelona on Monday at the start of collective pre-season testing.

Fernando Alonso finds Lewis Hamilton’s data sharing comments ‘strange’

SUZUKA, JAPAN - OCTOBER 06:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP  in the Drivers Press Conference with Fernando Alonso of Spain and McLaren Honda and Jolyon Palmer of Great Britain and Renault Sport F1  during previews ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Japan at Suzuka Circuit on October 6, 2016 in Suzuka.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Fernando Alonso has joked that Lewis Hamilton could have benefited from using more of Mercedes Formula 1 teammate Nico Rosberg’s data through 2016.

Hamilton said in a recent interview that he was uneasy about having to share data with teammates, instead preferring the raw experience found in go-karting where any on-track advantage was kept secret.

Speaking at the launch of McLaren’s new F1 car, the MCL32, on Friday, Alonso jested that Hamilton may have won the championship in 2016 had he used Rosberg’s data more.

Hamilton fell five points short of Rosberg in the race for the title last year, ending his two-year reign as F1 world champion.

“He’s said many times that he was learning from the data. Mercedes also is one of the teams using more of the data, more with the engineers, to help the drivers,” Alonso said, as quoted by crash.net.

“So I think it is a little bit strange to hear from him. If he was watching more data from Rosberg last year, maybe he would have won the championship?”

Alonso enters the new season looking to build on an encouraging 2016 campaign for McLaren that saw it move up the field following a period of struggle with engine partner Honda.

“I think there’s a lot to admire about what we’ve achieved over the past 12 months. Sure, the results haven’t really showcased it, but we’ve really made progress, and I think the whole team has gelled together through those difficult times,” Alonso said.

“Now, at a moment of significant regulatory change, we need to capitalize on that period of uncertainty to push forwards – and I’m confident that we’ve got the expertise to do just that.

“What I’ve seen of the MCL32 appears to be really promising – the new regulations seem to be well thought-out, and the cars look fast and aggressive.

“The look of the car makes me really want to get in the cockpit – I’ve lost none of that all-important hunger every Formula 1 driver needs. Training over the winter has gone well – I worked really hard – and I can’t wait to get going in the car as I say.

“We still think the start of the season will be a challenge – we can’t ignore the fact that we’re still coming from a significant step behind the current front-runners – but I’d like to think we can target the second half of the year as a time when we’ll really be able to start making useful performance steps.

“The aim is to look respectable this year – and I’d like to think we can achieve that.”

Faster cars set for track in Barcelona ahead of new season

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 23:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP drives during the launch of the Mercedes formula one team's 2017 car, the W08, at Silverstone Circuit on February 23, 2017 in Northampton, England.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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MADRID (AP) Formula One returns to action next week with a test session ahead of a highly anticipated season featuring wider and faster cars to make the series more exciting.

The revamped cars will be on the track in Barcelona on Monday when teams and drivers will get their first real look at what 2017 is going to be like.

“Next week is when we really get to unleash it,” Lewis Hamilton said after Mercedes unveiled its car on Friday.

A second four-day test session will take place in Barcelona from March 7-10.

The first race is the Australian GP on March 26.

The season arrives with regulation changes that significantly altered car design and performance in an attempt to attract more fans and increase track attendance and television audiences.

New aerodynamic and tire rules have given the 2017 cars a meaner look, making them wider and boosting downforce and grip. That translates into faster speeds and, hopefully, more overtaking maneuvers on the track. The rear wings are lower and many of the cars will use a “shark fin” wing on top of the engine.

“The car is wider, tires are bigger, we have a lot more downforce,” Hamilton said. “It’s like taking a small propeller plane and comparing it to a Boeing 737. It’s got so much more performance on it.”

The bigger and quicker cars are also likely to be harder to drive, putting more emphasis on the drivers’ skills and physical conditioning.

Teams are expecting lap times to be three to five seconds faster compared to last year.

“Let’s wait and see,” McLaren veteran Fernando Alonso said. “I think there is some hope that with these regulations we will improve the show. Next week we will have some answers in Barcelona. But definitely it’s a good change for Formula One, something that we probably needed, to have fast and good looking cars.”

The new season will begin without defending champion Nico Rosberg , who retired after winning his first title. Former champion Jenson Button also left, and the Manor team ended, leaving the grid with 20 cars.

Bernie Ecclestone is gone after nearly four decades as F1’s boss. In charge now is U.S. sports and entertainment firm Liberty Media, which took over to try to win back dissatisfied fans and make the series thrilling again.

Here are other things to watch for this season:

MERCEDES’ DOMINANCE

The changes in regulation could help teams cut the gap on Mercedes, which won both the driver and team championships the last three seasons.

The first test session could give an indication of whether teams such as Ferrari and Red Bull will be able to pose a bigger challenge than in 2016. Williams, McLaren and Force India will be hoping to take advantage of the new rules to challenge at the front. Toro Rosso, Renault, Hass and Sauber will try to be near the front more often.

“Maybe we are not going to win 50 races in three years. Maybe we are going to win a couple of races, hopefully a championship. Maybe not, maybe somebody else has done a better job,” Mercedes executive director Toto Wolff said. “It’s all back to square one.”

DRIVER CHANGES

Red Bull, Ferrari and Toro Rosso are keeping the same driver lineup from last season. They’re very much the exception.

Valtteri Bottas got the grid’s most-desired seat at Mercedes, replacing the retiring Rosberg. Bottas’ departure from Williams prompted 35-year-old Felipe Massa to end his own retirement and return to the team.

Former Manor driver Pascal Wehrlein takes Felipe Nasr’s job at Sauber, while Kevin Magnussen left Renault to join American team Haas. Nico Hulkenberg replaced Magnussen at Renault after leaving Force India.

YOUNG TALENT

A few new drivers will be trying to emulate the success of Max Verstappen, who stunned F1 last season by becoming the youngest driver to win a race at age 18.

Lance Stroll, 18, will be replacing Bottas at Williams, while 24-year-old Stoffel Vandoorne comes in for Button at McLaren.

Esteban Ocon, 20, made nine starts with Manor last season and secured a ride with Force India for 2017.

The 22-year-old Wehrlein will not be able to test his new Sauber next week because he injured his back at a racing event last month.

MCLAREN DOUBTS

Going back to the orange livery from the 1960s, McLaren will be hoping to win its first race since 2012.

But there are doubts about whether the renewed partnership with Honda will finally start paying off after two disappointing seasons in which the team struggled to contend for victories or even podium finishes.

There was improvement a year ago, but the pressure for better results this season will increase.

Fresh reset on tap for Takuma Sato at Andretti Autosport

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For a driver you don’t think of as having been long a part of the Verizon IndyCar Series paddock, Takuma Sato is that and more as he prepares to enter his eighth full-time season in 2017.

Sato’s longevity is such that he did parts of seven years and 90 Grand Prix starts from 2002 through 2008, before a one-year gap prior to his arrival in IndyCar in 2010, where he’s now made 118 starts in seven years.

With KV Racing Technology, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and A.J. Foyt Enterprises, Sato was very much enigmatic. His speed and determination was never in question and he produced a number of edge-of-your-seat highlight reel moments; few will forget his daring attempt on Dario Franchitti to win the 2012 Indianapolis 500 with RLL, for example, and a year later he finally secured his first win with Foyt at Long Beach on a track he’s long excelled at.

But despite his undoubted pace, his “no attack, no chance” style sometimes got him into more trouble than he desired.

Sato’s presence in the paddock is a good one because his attitude is forthright, he’s very good with the media (both the American and Japanese media) and he has a seemingly eternal, effervescent smile on his face.

He doesn’t look a day over 32 years old, even though he turned 40 in January.

And with Andretti Autosport, Sato has his best team dynamic available yet as he moves into one of the generally considered “big three” teams for the first time in his career.

He’s been on a single-car team at both RLL and Foyt, a two-car team at Foyt and a three-car team at KV, but has not yet been part of a four-car effort as he will have at Andretti. He’s in the No. 26 Honda with teammates Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi and Marco Andretti.

“I’m very excited. Obviously you want to have more time in the car for the preseason. But there is a lot of progression to be done over the winter,” Sato told NBC Sports.

“I’m already having a good time together with the team.”

Sato will be reunited with engineer Garrett Mothershead, who he worked with at KV his first two years in the series. Together, Sato won his first two poles at Iowa and Edmonton.

Both Sato and Rossi suffered setbacks during the Phoenix test, both drivers losing the back end in Turn 2 and hitting the wall. Both were on qualifying simulations.

Despite that, Sato felt positive with the improvements made to the car on a short oval compared to last year. Foyt’s team struggled on the short ovals with the same Honda package, which is a bit down to Chevrolet on the short ovals, and Sato was able to denote the differences and enhancements Andretti’s team had made.

“In the end it was a qualifying simulation and balance was off. It was a shame and I hate it for the crew,” Sato said.

“Other than that, we made a car that was much better car. We made good progress with all four drivers working together, and our engineering is strong.”

One of the things Sato is renowned for is his ability on street courses. He’s been rather exciting to watch on those circuits over his career, and his setup and feedback work should help the team going forward on these tracks, starting with St. Petersburg.

One of Sato’s teammates, Hunter-Reay, called Sato “one of the fastest guys out there” and is “looking forward to hearing his perspective.”

Expectations aren’t the highest given the struggles of the Honda package compared to Chevrolet. And Sato’s career place in the standings hasn’t been higher than 13th in seven years – incidentally, in 2011 when he last worked with Mothershead.

Although the field is deep, Sato is hopeful of a couple steps forward results and points-wise this year. The Andretti Autosport team wants to be best in class among those with Hondas.

“I have good memories in St. Petersburg! So hopefully we’re competitive there,” Sato said.

“Hopefully we can win a race. Since it’s a frozen package this year, I don’t see a big difference compared to last year. But the personal situation is that I’m in a different team and environment, and that’s big. I’m looking forward to it.”