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Q&A: Mark Miles on INDYCAR’s state of play for May, 2017

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INDIANAPOLIS – As practice occurs this week for the marquee race of the Verizon IndyCar Series season, the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, it provides a good opportunity to catch up with INDYCAR’s top man – Mark Miles, CEO of Hulman & Co. – about the health of the series and the hoopla about this year’s race.

Fernando Alonso’s participation has opened the doors from an international coverage and attention standpoint; however, with 32 other talented drivers in this year’s field of 33, ensuring the best of the best who compete here on a regular basis don’t get lost will be key to monitor.

We caught up with Miles after his trip to Europe to kick off this month, with stops in France, England, Italy and Spain. Oriol Servia, Dario Franchitti and Max Chilton were also with Miles at various points on the media tour.

Of note, regarding the 2018 schedule, rumors have persisted about the potential additions of a race in Mexico and/or a race in the Pacific Northwest, believed to be a return to Portland. All existing races for 2017 are confirmed for 2018 as part of existing contracts.

MST: So you’re just back from the European trip. How did it go compared to expectations and what was the trigger for it? 

Mark Miles: “It was much more successful than I imagined. We could take the interest created by Fernando’s entry and use that as an excuse to talk about INDYCAR and the Indianapolis 500 race. We got drawn into the Fernando discussion – mainly in Spain – but here’s the Verizon IndyCar Series of today, here’s what defines it and here’s what you need to know today about Indy 500.

“For me, having traveled around the world for an international sport in the past and who is from Indianapolis, they’d always go, ‘Vroom, vroom!’ From my experience – everyone knows about the 500. We have name ID, but we haven’t done enough to cultivate the following and fan engagement. When you tell the story, people are intrigued.

“When you think about the things that even the Liberty guys would say when they want to improve Formula 1, it tends to be things like cost, competitive and dynamic racing. You have to be in the front, or you won’t have much chance to win the race.

“We tell our story about how competitive our series is – how (Sebastien) Bourdais can start last and win St. Pete – how many different winners we have, how our last 11 titles have been decided at the final race in the last 11 years, and the fact that oh by the way, we’re fast.”

MST: There’s an occasional perception that the Indianapolis 500 supersedes the Verizon IndyCar Series as an entity in terms of importance and promotion. Is it a balancing act or does one get put above the other? 

MM: “I don’t think it’s a balancing act at all. We push all of it. I came from a tennis background, anything the grand slams can do to lift the circuit and series is a good thing. It’s the same here. There’s no identity difference between the 500 and INDYCAR. The 500 is our major; our crown jewel. The health of INDYCAR is important to it, and vice versa.

“You’ll notice that not too many years ago there weren’t too many INDYCAR logos around here. Now you do see them. Because when you go to the Super Bowl, you need to see the NFL shield. It’s very top of mind. It’s not balancing – it’s load them both up and make them inseparable.”

MST: That being said, the decision to stream Fernando’s test did put the Indy 500 more on a greater scale internationally. What was the process in that call?

MM: “So what happened was two things. One was, Oriol (Servia) calls me the day of the Alonso announcement, because when he got up in L.A., he had I believe 60 messages from Spanish journalists. That was, that day, ‘We’re going to Europe. We’re going to tell our story there instead of have them come to us.’

“At the same time, we started thinking about the test… and this was occurring in Phoenix where I talked with Robby Greene of IMS Productions and our marketing team. What does it cost to turn this into a show? Most of us said, this is a test, why should you do that? Because there’d be enormous interest. We had no idea how high was up. But we thought if we turned into a show, a fully produced stream, at least whoever saw it that was new to us would see us introduced in a quality way. It was more about that, than knowing the result.

“We had 2.2-plus (million) uniques, and being in Spain when they were getting it, and seeing the frenzy, was ‘stupendous.’ I’m really glad we put our best foot forward in that regard.”

MST: There’s more to note beyond 2017, though. What’s a rough timeframe to have the 2018 schedule out?

MM: “We’ve gone back and forth on what kind of deadline to set, but we can be flexible because the foundation of the schedule is done. It’s really just working with our broadcasters to make sure the precise schedule helps us avoid conflicts and provides the best (TV) windows, and among a few interested (parties/races) to look to get added, we work to give them every opportunity to be considered.”

MST: What’s the planning process about the next round of TV negotiations?

MM: “Yes, more specifically, we are planning to spend the rest of this year negotiating with respect to media licensees, linear, over-the-top, video on demand, everything we’ve got. It’ll be through this year before we really get a sense of where we are going to be.”

MST: And there’s a new car to premiere next year, too, with the common spec body kit coming…

MM: “It’s exciting; we’d hoped to show it in Europe. Jay’s thinking it’ll be out there (running) in July, and we’ll add another great, attractive story line to IndyCar racing.”

Haas F1 driver Romain Grosjean to launch cookbook

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Haas Formula 1 driver Romain Grosjean may be one of the sport’s most promising talents on-track, but he also has a burning passion off it: cooking.

Grosjean may have been spent a good part of this year cooking his brakes, but you’ll now be able to cook bakes instead…

F1’s resident foodie is set to release a cookbook alongside wife Marion Jolles in the coming weeks, as announced on his Facebook page.

Grosjean currently sits 13th in the F1 drivers’ championship with 18 points to his name, helping Haas to match the points total from its debut season after just 10 races in 2017.

Mercedes F1 engine chief warns against underestimating Honda

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Mercedes Formula 1 engine chief Andy Cowell has warned against underestimating the threat of Honda despite its ongoing power unit struggles, tipping the Japanese manufacturer to bounce back in the near future.

Honda returned to F1 as a manufacturer in 2015, supplying V6 turbo power units to the McLaren team, but has struggled for either performance or reliability through that period.

The struggles have led McLaren – currently sat bottom of the constructors’ championship – to consider cutting ties for 2018 given how far adrift compared to the other three engine suppliers Honda has been.

Mercedes has been the benchmark for engine performance since the change in regulation for 2014, but Cowell feels that Honda could make up ground quickly, with the removal of the token system for 2017 helping performance to converge through the field.

“I think collectively we’ve helped with convergence in Formula 1 in the opening season, performance development through the year,” Cowell said.

“But then the opportunity to do a big change with Honda coming in, we all agreed that Honda could have that same opportunity to change everything in the first year and then the request came from manufacturers in addition to Honda saying ‘please can we take this crazy token table away because it’s bad for the sport?’

“It’s bad if somebody can’t train to get better and so we agreed, yeah, take the table away because it’s better for the sport because it means that you can innovate, you can introduce whatever you like.

“I think none of us should underestimate the technical prowess of Honda and of McLaren and I think my money is on that combination coming good and coming good pretty quickly. No pressure…”

Williams happy to ‘hold off’ on 2018 F1 driver decision

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Williams is happy to “hold off” on making a decision on its Formula 1 driver line-up for 2018 as it focuses on improving its on-track displays after a tough start to the season.

Williams currently fields Felipe Massa and Lance Stroll, a mix of experience and youth, but has failed to keep up with midfield front-runner Force India through the first half of the year.

Force India sits fourth in the constructors’ championship with more than double the points of Williams, who leads a tight-knit group down to Renault in eighth place, 15 points adrift.

While Stroll looks set to continue with Williams and Massa has hinted he may look to continue through to 2018 despite initially planning to retire at the end of last season, deputy team boss Claire Williams has confirmed that no decision about next year’s line-up will come any time soon.

“There’s a lot of talk already isn’t there, about drivers across the paddock. For us, we’ve decided we’re going to hold off a bit on our driver decision,” Williams said.

“We’ve got a fight on our hands on the race track at the moment and to be distracted by those kinds of conversations isn’t something that we want to be happening at the moment.

“[Force India’s] got a nice points haul on us at the moment we need to focus on, rather than anything else.”

Nico Rosberg visits Stanford University, considering study options

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2016 Formula 1 world champion Nico Rosberg is considering study options at Stanford University after visiting the college earlier this week as part of his tour around California.

Rosberg sensationally announced his retirement from F1 just five days after winning his maiden world title last November, wanting to spend more time with his young family.

The German has been enjoying his retirement, recently embarking on a tour of Silicon Valley and California that saw him hold meetings with electric car giant Tesla, among other companies.

In a video posted to his Twitter account on Sunday, Rosberg spoke warmly about a visit to Stanford, revealing that he is considering some study options in the near future at the historic institution.

Rosberg was previously offered a scholarship to study engineering at Imperial College London when he was younger, only to turn it down in order to embark on a racing career. He also reportedly holds the highest ever score on Williams’ engineering aptitude test.

Should Nico sign up to a course at Stanford, we imagine he’d take things one class at a time…