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.

Abt quickest on final day of first Donington Formula E test

PUTRAJAYA, MALAYSIA - NOVEMBER 22: Daniel Abt of Germany and Audi Sport ABT Formula E Team prepares during the Formula E Championship race on November 22, 2014 in Putrajaya, Malaysia.  (Photo by Robertus Pudyanto/Getty Images)
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Daniel Abt made the most of drab conditions at Donington Park on Thursday to close out the first collective Formula E pre-season test at the top of the timesheets.

Overnight rain left the track damp at the start of the morning session, and although the skies remained overcast throughout the day, times were just a few tenths off the benchmark set on Wednesday by Jean-Eric Vergne.

Abt’s fastest lap of 1:30.073 from the morning session held out as the fastest time overall on Thursday despite a late flurry of full-power laps in the afternoon.

Nick Heidfeld finished the day second for Mahindra ahead of Nico Prost, while afternoon leader Vergne was fourth-fastest in the overall timesheets.

Jaguar Racing continued its driver evaluation by drafting in Ford WEC driver Harry Tincknell to partner Adam Carroll. Tincknell finished with a fastest lap of 1:33.927, good enough for P16 in the morning session.

Thursday also saw Indy Lights title contender Dean Stoneman make his first Formula E appearance, driving for NextEV in place of Oliver Turvey – en route to Japan for Super GT – and Nelson Piquet Jr. – who had to leave early to go to the Red Bull GRC event.

Collective Formula E testing resumes at Donington Park next month, with another three days of running scheduled from September 5-7.

Gateway confirmed to return to IndyCar schedule

MADISON, IL - AUGUST 10:  A general view of the race during the IRL (Indy Racing League) IndyCar Series Emerson Indy 250 on August 10, 2003 at the Gateway International Raceway in Madison, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
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Gateway Motorsports Park is back on the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule, adding another oval and another Midwest track to the 2017 slate.

Next year’s race, which will run August 26, will be the first North American open-wheel race at the facility located in Madison, Ill. outside St. Louis since 2003.

Track owner and CEO Curtis Francois joined Mark Miles, CEO of Hulman & Co. (INDYCAR parent company) for the announcement.

“Today is a monumental day for the people of the St. Louis region,” Francois said in an INDYCAR release. “I am proud of the progress we’ve made at my hometown track. I knew someday we’d be making an announcement like this because I have such confidence in the people of this region and their commitment to great sporting events.

“More than a dozen track operators around the country sought this INDYCAR race for their communities,” he added. “I firmly believe we came out on top because of the energy, loyalty and commitment to great sports that sports fans of all kinds demonstrate each day in this community.”

Added Helio Castroneves, who won the most recent race there in 2003, “I think it’s great that we’re going back to Gateway. Personally, I like it because I’ve had success there but also that I used to race for Hogan (a St. Louis-based Indy car team in 1999) which makes it a special place to me. I won there with Team Penske in 2003 and there was an all-Brazilian podium with Tony (Kanaan) and Gil (de Ferran).”

The Gateway return has been several years in the works. Ed Carpenter tested a couple years ago to re-establish the track as a possible testing venue for IndyCar. Track officials, meanwhile, made several visits to IndyCar races in the interim, including this year’s Indianapolis 500.

“I’ve always felt Gateway was a great place to host IndyCar. This has been on my mind since 2012,” Francois told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch before the formal announcement. “I reached out and we had some substantive conversations. But it took time, effort and a lot of discussions to make sure we had the right date, right fan participation and just the overall atmosphere to host the race.”

There were seven prior open-wheel races at Gateway from 1997 through 2003. CART ran on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend from 1997 to 1999 before the race moved to mid-September in 2000. Once the Indy Racing League took over in 2001, the race ran in late August.

There were seven different winners, and all are fairly big names: Paul Tracy, Alex Zanardi, Michael Andretti, Juan Pablo Montoya, Al Unser Jr., Gil de Ferran and Castroneves.

2017 Verizon IndyCar Series schedule released

FORT WORTH, TX - JUNE 10:  Helio Castroneves of Brazil, driver of the #3 AAA Insurance Team Penske Chevrolet, practices for the Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 10, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas.  (Photo by Matt Hazlett/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)
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The 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series schedule has been released on Thursday, which follows on from INDYCAR President of Competition and Operations Jay Frye’s thought process that the calendar would come out “sometime in August” and is definitively earlier than in recent years.

It also features a clear road map for the next two years with most dates and tracks pretty much established through 2018.

A number of tracks or series had already released 2017 IndyCar dates, so today’s release only produces a handful of extra announcements that weren’t already known inside the beltway.

Twelve dates and 13 races were already known either from tracks or other series that have released elements of their 2017 calendars. Additionally, start times for NBC Sports Group’s NASCAR races in the second half of this year gave an idea of what time IndyCar races could start as well.

Here’s the changes of note, then, for 2017:

  • Phoenix moves from the first weekend in April to the last weekend in April, owing primarily to the NCAA Final Four in Phoenix next April 1 and 3. Yes, this makes less logistical sense given that Long Beach is April 9, but you get the move from a TV and local hotel/fan awareness possibility.
  • Texas resumes in its usual June date, as it was intended to this year prior to the rain-delayed and postponed date in late August.
  • Gateway becomes the sixth oval to join the 2017 calendar, back on a North American open-wheel schedule for the first time since 2003 with a Saturday date of August 26. It will be one of two races in August, along with Pocono, which was confirmed for a two-year extension in August this year.
  • Watkins Glen is also confirmed to return as well in a multi-year agreement, this time with a whole year-plus of preparation as opposed to three months since being announced for this year in May as an eleventh hour replacement for Boston.

Otherwise, this is a pretty similar and pretty good schedule for IndyCar in 2017 – which fittingly, will have 17 races.

“The release of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series schedule continues to build upon the success INDYCAR has experienced the last three years and establishes continuity and consistency in our event calendar,” Mark Miles, CEO of INDYCAR parent company Hulman & Co., said in a release.

“As a series we are working diligently to create long-term relationships with our promoters to establish date equity and to provide them with the opportunity to initiate ticket renewals and event promotions earlier, which is pivotal to continuing the increase in attendance at our events.”

Per that release, INDYCAR has experienced a 38 percent growth in both television ratings and viewership from 2013 to 2015 and the same numbers are up this season by a total of 7 percent compared to this time last year. Attendance at INDYCAR events is also on the rise, with six events this season drawing crowds at or near record highs.

Broadcast times and start times will be finalized at a later time.

The Mazda Road to Indy will also be present on most of these weekends. But the Andersen Promotions-run and operated three series is yet to put out its full 2017 calendars.

2017 Verizon IndyCar Series dates, plus additional content

  • March 12, St. Petersburg (Pirelli World Challenge)
  • April 9, Long Beach (IMSA WeatherTech Championship, Pirelli World Challenge)
  • April 23, Barber (IMSA Porsche GT3 Cup, Prototype Challenge)
  • April 29, Phoenix
  • May 13, Grand Prix of Indianapolis
  • May 20-21, Indianapolis 500 qualifying
  • May 28, Indianapolis 500
  • June 3, Detroit Race 1 (IMSA WeatherTech Championship)
  • June 4, Detroit Race 2
  • June 10, Texas (NASCAR Camping World Truck Series)
  • June 25, Road America (Pirelli World Challenge)
  • July 9, Iowa
  • July 16, Toronto
  • July 30, Mid-Ohio (Pirelli World Challenge)
  • August 20, Pocono
  • August 26, Gateway
  • Sept. 3, Watkins Glen
  • Sept. 17, Sonoma (IMSA Porsche GT3 Cup)

In infographic form:

2017IndySchedule

F1 teams to use prototype Pirelli tires in Belgium practice

GP GERMANIA F1/2016 - HOCKENHEIM (GERMANIA) 31/07/2016
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Pirelli has confirmed that it will give all 11 Formula 1 teams two sets of prototype tires for use in practice for the Belgian Grand Prix this weekend.

Last year’s race at the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps saw Sebastian Vettel suffer a tire failure late in the race, while Nico Rosberg also suffered a problem in practice at almost 190 mph.

Over the Austrian Grand Prix weekend in June, further concerns were raised about the strength of the tires supplied by Pirelli after Vettel again suffered a tire failure.

The Italian company tweeted out on Thursday that it would be providing teams with unmarked prototype tires for practice to evaluate and help minimize the effect of external bodies such as debris and curbs.