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.

WATCH LIVE: Australian GP on NBCSN, NBC Sports app from 12am ET

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The new Formula 1 season kicks off this Sunday with the Australian Grand Prix (live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 12am ET) as a new era for the sport gets underway.

New rules, new drivers and even a new owner of the series all adds up to make 2017 a season of change, with the established status quo in recent years set to be challenged.

Mercedes faced a stringent test from Ferrari in qualifying on Saturday, but it was Lewis Hamilton who once again took pole position after fending off Sebastian Vettel in the final Q3 shootout.

It may have been a familiar result, being Mercedes’ 16th-straight pole, yet the stage is set for a closer fight on Sunday, with a number of storylines due to play out up and down the grid.

You can watch the Australian Grand Prix live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 12am ET. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.

You can also try out a new ‘Mosaic View’ for the race that includes the race simulcast, in-car cameras, driver tracker and pit lane cam. CLICK HERE to watch the Mosaic View live stream.

Leigh Diffey, David Hobbs and Steve Matchett will be on the call, with pit reporter Will Buxton on the ground at Albert Park providing updates and interviews throughout the race.

Also be sure to follow the @F1onNBCSports Twitter account for live updates throughout the race.

Ricciardo hit with five-spot grid penalty for gearbox change

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Daniel Ricciardo’s already tough Australian Grand Prix weekend has been dealt another blow, with the Red Bull Racing team confirming it would need to change the gearbox on his RB13 chassis.

As a result, Ricciardo’s 10th place grid position will now be 15th following the five-spot grid penalty that’s assessed for that change.

Coverage of the Australian Grand Prix begins at midnight ET on NBCSN with F1 Countdown. Lights out are at 1 a.m. ET.

Ricciardo was due to line up 10th anyway after his crash in qualifying yesterday, and repairs to the car have necessitated this gearbox change.

It makes the home race a little bit tougher for Ricciardo, but on the bright side, it should allow us to see what the “Honey Badger” is capable of passing or strategy-wise, and if overtaking will be possible given the new cars and from such a low grid position after a rare unforced error.

What to watch for: Australian Grand Prix (NBCSN, NBC Sports app from midnight ET)

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For all of changes that had taken place over the winter, qualifying for Formula 1’s season-opening Australian Grand Prix delivered a familiar result.

For the 16th race in a row, it was a Mercedes that captured pole position, with three-time champion Lewis Hamilton pulling clear in Q3. It marked his 62nd career pole and his sixth in Australia, where he made his F1 debut 10 years ago.

But the status quo from 2016 has been broken up, even if Mercedes took pole yet again. Ferrari put up a good fight courtesy of Sebastian Vettel, who split the Silver Arrows and scored his first front-row start since Singapore 2015.

Qualifying was filled with plenty of interesting storylines, leaving things finely poised for the opening round of the 2017 season.

It’s time to shake off the winter rust: Formula 1 is back.

You can watch the Australian Grand Prix live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from midnight ET on Sunday.

Here is what to watch for in tomorrow’s race.

2017 Australian Grand Prix – What to watch for

Hamilton, Vettel prepare for first act of title battle

Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel may have won six of the seven drivers’ titles since 2010, but we are yet to see the two go mano a mano for a championship. That may be all set to change this year.

Ferrari has made significant progress over the winter, proof of that being the disappointment felt by the team as Vettel was only second and not on pole. For a team that would have been happy with fifth at points last year, it marks a big, big step forward.

Hamilton certainly looks to be in the same kind of groove that delivered four straight race wins to close out 2016. He is upbeat, relaxed and looks very comfortable in himself – and when Hamilton is in this kind of shape, it adds another layer of strength to one of the finest grand prix racers in F1 history.

Having Hamilton and Vettel lock out the front row in Australia could be a nice bit of foreshadowing of the title race to come. Let’s hope we see them duke it out on Sunday, and finally make clear who holds the upper-hand in the Mercedes-Ferrari fight.

What can Bottas do on his Mercedes debut?

Valtteri Bottas was impressive in qualifying, finishing just three-tenths of a second shy of Hamilton on pole and securing third place on the grid for his Mercedes debut. For starters, it was really good going – yet the Finn was disappointed not to have made the front row or matched Hamilton.

For the race on Sunday, it is not out of the realm of possibility that Bottas could chalk up his maiden grand prix victory. His race pace in second practice on Friday was comparable to that of Hamilton, and easily clear of the Ferrari drivers. Naturally, fuel loads and engine modes need to be taken into account – but Bottas can certainly get in the mix.

The biggest thing for Bottas will be getting to grips with life at the sharp-end of the grid. Sure, he’s flirted with the front before during his time at Williams, but this is different. A podium finish is no longer the target; it’s the expectation. How he soaks up the pressure on debut tomorrow will be fascinating to see.

New start procedure set to spice things up

As part of F1’s push to increase the challenge posed to drivers, a revision of the start procedure and available aids will get its first official run-through tomorrow.

Stricter rules regarding clutch bite points and paddle placement are set to make the perfect start very, very hard to find, most likely creating greater position change off the line. The way Kevin Magnussen put it during testing was that before, so long as the drivers hit somewhere between 10 and 90 percent of their clutch bite point, they’d get a good getaway. Now the odds are much, much slimmer, making a good start down to luck as well as judgement.

Starts were a particular weakness of Lewis Hamilton through 2016, costing him the chance to fight for victory on numerous occasions, so it will be interesting to see how he reacts to the new rule. All of the drivers have been focusing on practice starts through testing and practice, yet none seem totally comfortable just yet…

Home hero Ricciardo looks for response after qualifying shunt

The home-race hoodoo for Australians in F1 continued on Saturday as Daniel Ricciardo crashed out of qualifying, resigning himself to 10th place on the grid and in need of quite the fightback on Sunday.

Ricciardo entered the weekend aiming to be the first Australian to finish on the podium at his home race in F1, with none making the top three since the event became a world championship round in 1985.

Red Bull has struggled for pace for much of the weekend, with setup issues leaving Ricciardo adrift in Friday practice. Teammate Max Verstappen also failed to impress in qualifying, finishing well off the Mercedes and Ferrari drivers at the front in P5.

For Ricciardo, starting P10 is hardly the end of the world. With the start offering a good opportunity to get ahead and the pace of the Red Bull RB13 clearly superior to that of many cars around him, he can certainly battle back into the top five – but that home podium may need to wait for another year…

Overtaking questions set to be answered

As exciting as the new regulations for 2017 have been, and as quick as the cars are for both the drivers to drive and the fans to watch, there is still a big question mark of whether or not the racing itself will improve.

The addition of downforce to the cars has allowed lap times to be slashed, yet it is also set to make following other drivers all the more difficult. If you can’t get close to the car ahead, you’ll struggle to overtake. That’s the thinking.

Sunday will be the first true test of that. The race will be much quicker than last year’s and certainly look more spectacular, yet with a fine line between one and two stops, and the possibility of a lack of movement once the start is done with, F1’s ‘brave new world’ could get a rude awakening.

2017 Australian Grand Prix – Starting Grid

1. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
2. Sebastian Vettel Ferrari
3. Valtteri Bottas Mercedes
4. Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari
5. Max Verstappen Red Bull
6. Romain Grosjean Haas
7. Felipe Massa Williams
8. Carlos Sainz Jr. Toro Rosso
9. Daniil Kvyat Toro Rosso
10. Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull
11. Sergio Perez Force India
12. Nico Hulkenberg Renault
13. Fernando Alonso McLaren
14. Esteban Ocon Force India
15. Marcus Ericsson Sauber
16. Antonio Giovinazzi Sauber
17. Kevin Magnussen Haas
18. Stoffel Vandoorne McLaren
19. Jolyon Palmer Renault
20. Lance Stroll Williams*

* Lance Stroll received a five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change following FP3.

You can watch the Australian Grand Prix live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from midnight ET on Sunday.

Maverick Vinales takes Qatar MotoGP pole as qualifying is rained off

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Maverick Viñales will make his Yamaha MotoGP debut from pole position after qualifying at Qatar’s Losail International Circuit was rained off on Saturday evening.

Viñales claimed his maiden MotoGP race win last year with Suzuki, prompting a move to Yamaha in place of three-time champion Jorge Lorenzo, who made a switch to Ducati.

After impressing throughout pre-season testing, Viñales laid down an early marker in Qatar by setting the pace in practice.

His performances would prove key as rain on Saturday in Qatar forced officials to cancel qualifying, leading them to combine the times from practice to form the grid.

Viñales’ time of 1:54.316 from FP1 handed him his first MotoGP pole by half a second from Suzuki replacement Andrea Iannone, while defending world champion Marc Marquez will start third for Honda.

2015 and 2016 Moto2 champion Johann Zarco will make his MotoGP debut from fourth on the grid, with Ducati’s Andrea Dovizioso fifth ahead of Scott Redding.

Nine-time world champion Valentino Rossi will begin his search for a 10th title from P10 on the grid, two places ahead of perennial rival Lorenzo, whose Ducati debut will come from P12.