Baku 2

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.

IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Ryan Hunter-Reay

Ryan Hunter-Reay
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MotorSportsTalk continues its look through the Verizon IndyCar Series field. Finishing sixth in 2015 after a late rally was Ryan Hunter-Reay, the 2012 series champion and 2014 Indianapolis 500 winner.

Ryan Hunter-Reay, No. 28 Andretti Autosport Honda

  • 2014: 6th Place, 3 Wins, 1 Pole, 6 Podiums, 6 Top-5, 9 Top-10, 195 Laps Led, 10.2 Avg. Start, 10.9 Avg. Finish
  • 2015: 6th Place, 2 Wins, Best Start 3rd, 3 Podiums, 4 Top-5, 7 Top-10, 71 Laps Led, 12.2 Avg. Start, 10.4 Avg. Finish

The old adage “it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish” would probably be the best way to sum up Ryan Hunter-Reay’s 2015 season, which until the final quarter of season could best be described as a forgettable nightmare.

The first three races seemed somewhat OK, with eighth, seventh and fourth place grid spots. But none of the three produced a result of note; Hunter-Reay was also caught up in the three-car, late race accident at NOLA Motorsports Park and didn’t bank any good finish until a fifth place at Barber the end of April.

A tailspin followed. Hunter-Reay started between 14th and 21st every race between the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and Milwaukee – a stretch of eight races – and only had one top-10 finish in that stint, eighth at the rain-affected lottery that was Detroit race two. Some seasons are just ones you want to end and by Milwaukee it was obvious that Hunter-Reay was racing just to get to the end of the year, without things getting any worse.

Things finally came good with a typically good drive at Iowa and arguably one of the drives of his career, two races later at Pocono, to end with two wins and extend his streak of winning a race in each of his six seasons at Andretti Autosport. It was no coincidence, either, that Hunter-Reay’s uptick in form came with the return of the late Justin Wilson’s presence in a fourth car.

After Pocono, Hunter-Reay also drove well to finish second at Sonoma, and by that point he’d completed an incredible late-season turnaround to jump from 14th to sixth in points. But if asked, he’d probably admit this was his toughest season yet at Andretti and arguably his toughest overall since his 2009 season, when he was in-between full-time rides and saw out the year with Vision Racing and A.J. Foyt Enterprises.

IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Helio Castroneves

Helio Castroneves
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MotorSportsTalk continues its look through the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series field with fifth-placed Helio Castroneves.

Helio Castroneves, No. 3 Team Penske Chevrolet

  • 2014: 2nd Place, 1 Win, 3 Poles, 6 Podiums, 7 Top-5, 10 Top-10, 282 Laps Led, 5.7 Avg. Start, 9.3 Avg. Finish
  • 2015: 5th Place, Best Finish 2nd, 4 Poles, 5 Podiums, 6 Top-5, 9 Top-10, 198 Laps Led, 4.9 Avg. Start, 9.3 Avg. Finish

Much as you’d write about his fellow countryman and longtime friend and rival Tony Kanaan, age hasn’t slowed Helio Castroneves, but it’s instead fueled continued success. And while Castroneves went winless for only the second time (2011) in his illustrious 16-year career with Team Penske, he wasn’t down on performance.

Now 40, Castroneves continued to have several shining moments in 2015, which was particularly important to do to stand out against defending champion Will Power, this year’s primary title contender Juan Pablo Montoya and new driver Simon Pagenaud.

Castroneves scored four pole positions and boasted a 4.9 averaging starting position, second in the field to Power, which was very impressive to note. His run of form from Texas through Milwaukee, capturing three podiums in four races, was his best race stretch this season. Additional highlights included back-to-back runner-up results in the NOLA lottery and then on pure pace at Long Beach.

The month of May must though be viewed as a disappointment. Castroneves played a role in the first corner mess at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and got a points penalty (although the number was dropped) as a result. Then he endured another Indianapolis 500 where he was not the out-and-out fastest car in the Penske brigade. While Montoya and Power were dueling for the win and Pagenaud had speed to burn all month, Castroneves’ lone moment of note came with his accident in practice, which mercifully he emerged unscathed from.

As ever though, fifth in this field owed to his consistency and dogged determination to succeed. Castroneves has ended top-five in seven of the last eight seasons since the IRL/Champ Car merger in 2008 and if it wasn’t for Dixon’s top-three run hogging the headlines, we’d probably appreciate Castroneves even more so. As long as he’s continually competitive, he’s still worthy at Team Penske.