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Bottas debuts, McLaren and Red Bull struggle in F1 testing

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MONTMELO, Spain (AP) Valtteri Bottas impressed in his debut drive for world champion Mercedes on Monday as the new Formula One pre-season got under way.

Bottas outworked the rest of the field with 79 laps during the morning session at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya. That total surpasses the 66 laps of the Spanish Grand Prix held at the same venue each season.

The 27-year-old Finn also owned the fastest time until Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel bettered Bottas’ best effort by 0.378 seconds.

Bottas, formerly of Williams, inherited the driver’s seat at Mercedes from world champion Nico Rosberg, who retired in December five days after clinching the title.

Bottas’ teammate and three-time former champion Lewis Hamilton will take over driving for the Silver Arrows during Monday’s afternoon session.

While Bottas and Vettel took turns churning out the laps under sunny and dry conditions, McLaren and Red Bull endured inauspicious starts to the new campaign.

Fernando Alonso’s McLaren was stuck in the garage following a sole trip around the track as its technicians reportedly tried to repair an oil-related problem with its Honda motor.

Red Bull driver Daniel Ricciardo didn’t do much better, getting through just four laps before his new RB13 car ground to a halt near Turn 4 because of what the team called “a sensor issue.” The stranded Australian was ferried back to the boxes under a red flag.

Neither Ricciardo nor Alonso got back behind the wheel before the end of the four-hour opening session.

The opening test will continue later Monday and run through Thursday.

Teams are trying out their cars after a rulebook overhaul produced new aerodynamic and tire regulations. The designs have led to wider vehicles, which increases downforce and grip with the goal of boosting speeds.

Mercedes’ rivals are hoping the changes will help them make up ground on a team that has won 51 of the last 59 races en route to three consecutive driver and constructor titles.

To compare with times on the same track from last year, Vettel’s fastest effort of 1 minute, 22.791 seconds on Monday marks an improvement on his own leading time of 1:22.810 he set over the four days of last year’s opening test.

The track near Barcelona will host a second round of testing from March 7-10 before the season starts at the Australian Grand Prix on March 26.

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.