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Neuville leads Ogier midway through Monte Carlo Rally

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MONACO (AP) Belgian driver Thierry Neuville took a 45-second lead Friday over defending world rally champion Sebastien Ogier midway through the season-opening Monte Carlo Rally.

Overnight leader Neuville won three of Friday’s six special stages, while Ogier struggled early on before pegging Neuville back by winning the last two. Ott Tanak of Estonia is third.

Four-time champion Ogier is now driving for Ford M-Sport after switching from Volkswagen last month. The Frenchman was eight seconds behind Neuville’s Hyundai overnight and quickly under pressure.

Tanak, who also drives for M-Sport, won Friday’s first special stage – the third of 17 overall – ahead of Neuville, with Ogier in ninth.

Difficult morning conditions saw snow and sheet ice on the roads. With all the top drivers fitting studded winter tires, Ogier still went off into a ditch.

“It happened at a junction, it was very, very icy. I pulled the handbrake but the car never turned,” Ogier said. “I slipped into the ditch and became stuck.”

Neuville won the next three specials – with Ogier second on 4 and 5 – but Ogier finally found his best form to trim back the deficit from 1:12 to 45 seconds. He also overtook Tanak, who is a fraction of a second behind Ogier.

Conditions were slushy in the afternoon as the icy roads began melting.

“For me this was more tricky than this morning and difficult to know what rhythm to go,” Neuville said.

A spectator was killed on Thursday night after being hit by a car during the first stage.

Organizers said the spectator was struck by a car driven by New Zealand driver Hayden Paddon during the first of two night stages.

That stage was canceled but the second went ahead, with Neuville beating Ogier.

There are six specials Saturday with the race concluding Sunday lunchtime.

Last year, Ogier won by nearly two minutes ahead of then-teammate Andreas Mikkelsen of Norway.

Ogier announced last month that he was going to drive the Ford Fiesta for M-Sport this season. A fifth title would move him into outright second place on the all-time list behind countryman Sebastien Loeb, who won nine straight titles.

The 33-year-old Ogier, who has won 38 career races, is tied with Finnish drivers Tommi Makinen – who won four straight – and Juha Kankkunen.

The next event in the 13-race season is in Sweden in three weeks.

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.