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Hinchcliffe, Aleshin upbeat following Phoenix test

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The individual session time sheets of the Verizon IndyCar Series Prix View from Phoenix International Raceway did not appear kind to the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports duo of James Hinchcliffe and Mikhail Aleshin. In each session, they ranked 19th (Aleshin) and 20th (Hinchcliffe), 18th (Hinchcliffe) and 23rd (Aleshin), sixth (Aleshin) and tenth (Hinchcliffe), and 13th (Hinchcliffe) and 19th (Aleshin).

However, a look beyond the laps times shows that the team demonstrated progress throughout the weekend. In the opening session, neither driver averaged more than 180 mph on his fastest lap. But, their speeds gradually increased, with both drivers turning individual laps above 190 mph in the third session. Aleshin was quicker, doing a lap at 19.25 seconds at an average of 191.079 mph, while Hinchcliffe clocked in at 19.35 seconds at an average of 190.184 mph. Those speeds were their quickest of the weekend and placed them sixth (Aleshin) and tenth (Hinchcliffe) overall for the two-day test.

All told, it seemed to be a productive outing, though the lack of outright speed, especially in the early sessions, might been a red flag to some viewing from afar. But, as Hinchcliffe, indicated, there was not need to hit the panic button.

“We, like everybody, have a test plan, and we’re trying very hard to stick to that. It’s easy to get lost in the timesheets and try and tune at 4:00 in the afternoon on February 10th, which isn’t when we go racing,” he said following the opening session. He added, “We’re getting through some basic stuff now. We’re trying to stay focused on our program.”

Aleshin echoed his teammate’s sentiments and emphasized that the test would be secondary in importance to the race weekend. Both drivers struggled at Phoenix in 2016, finishing 17th (Aleshin) and 18th (Hinchcliffe) during the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix. “(What’s) really important will be when we’re going to come back here for the racing. That’s when we need to be at the top,” said Aleshin.

For the 29-year-old native of Russia, perhaps the most important aspect of the test was simply returning to the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team. Long assumed to be in the team’s 2017 lineup, Aleshin was not officially confirmed until February 1, just over a week before the Phoenix test. “It’s very nice to be back in the series,” he detailed. “Very nice to be back in my home team of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. Obviously very nice to be back in the car, you know.”

AVONDALE, AZ – APRIL 01: Mikhail Aleshin of Russia, driver of the #7 Schmidt Peterson Motorsport IndyCar prepares for qualifying to the Phoenix Grand Prix at Phoenix International Raceway on April 1, 2016 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Getty Images)

Crucially, Aleshin’s return allows him to build on his success from 2016. While inconsistent, he demonstrated tremendous speed, qualifying seventh for the Indianapolis 500 and contending for the win at both the Honda Indy 200 at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, and the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway.

“Obviously it is very important,” he said of his return, the first time he’ll compete full-time in the same series, let alone the same team, in consecutive years since his days in the Formula Renault 3.5 Championship with Carlin. “And I hope it’s going to be good for results, because last year was good progress, I think, from my side and from the team’s side during all the season. The start of the season was difficult, but then the progress was very good.”

The duo ended the 2016 season in 13th (Hinchcliffe) and 15th (Aleshin) in the overall championship and will look to improve their standing in 2017.

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.