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Extra testing helped prepare JR Hildebrand for 2017 full-time return

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One of the standout drivers of this weekend’s Verizon IndyCar Series Prix View test at Phoenix International Raceway was JR Hildebrand, driver of the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet for Ed Carpenter Racing.

Despite an incident at the end of the fourth and final session on Saturday, Hildebrand posted the unofficial fastest lap in PIR history earlier in the day at 19.0401 seconds and 193.234 mph around the 1.022-mile oval.

Hildebrand is back in a full-time seat for the first time in five years, since racing with Panther Racing in 2012, but despite the gap in full-time years, Hildebrand has still been part of the ECR and IndyCar fabric for the last three years.

Last year’s midseason testing, where Hildebrand was called upon as an injury fill-in for Josef Newgarden at Road America, Iowa and Mid-Ohio, not only kept him race ready but gave him a good variety of circuits to know what to expect with this year’s aero kit. It also positioned him as a logical replacement if Newgarden left ECR, which he did.

“Yeah, it helped a lot for me, both the diversion at this of tracks and situations that were a part of that,” Hildebrand told NBC Sports.

“I’d been used to running at the (INDYCAR) GP and obviously on the Speedway, but running at Iowa, running at Road America and then again at Mid-Ohio, you definitely — those are all places where you’re doing something fairly different.

“So for me to have that added familiarity with the types of things, particularly, that Josef was looking for in the race car, somebody who clearly had been finding what he was looking for, knew what he was looking for and was making good on that on the track, you know, that was really valuable for me, actually, to be coming into this year and have a little bit more of a sense of what’s fast, what’s not, what do I need for the car to be able to do and have started that process ahead of time.

“Definitely one of the more significant differences between now and when I was racing full time last is just that we’re in the full aero kit program now. I think that that definitely helped me, and I think will continue to be something that helps going forward.”

Newgarden, now with Team Penske, thinks Hildebrand will be an intriguing driver to watch this season.

“I think JR is going to do a great job. I’m actually really interested to see how JR does,” Newgarden said. “I’m really happy for him that he’s back in the series. I think he worked really hard to get another shot with a great team like ECR, so you’re going to see much of the same from them. They’re going to be a very challenging opponent for us.”

The excitement for Hildebrand is coming with the fact he knows this test this week, as well as an upcoming test at his hometown track of Sonoma Raceway on Tuesday, is in full preparation for the rest of the season.

“It starts to hit you like this time of year that it’s like, oh, we’re going to St. Pete and I’m going to race! It’s like, we’re not just going to hang out,” he laughed.

Carpenter, himself, said Hildebrand’s stability in the past is what’s made the transition less difficult for 2017.

“In a lot of ways, I don’t really feel like it’s that much change, because JR has been a part of this team the past three years,” Carpenter said.

“Even though he hasn’t been in the car as much as we wanted, he was still kind of in tune with what we were doing all the time, communicating with myself, Josef, the engineers. So it’s not your typical like new driver coming into a team.

“He’s pretty familiar with how we operate, and with most of the key people. We’ve had couple changes in engineering, so that’s really where the biggest change is at is getting those relationships built and familiarity with the car and driver.”

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.