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Andretti’s Indy pole quest comes up short for Rossi, RHR, and more

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INDIANAPOLIS – Andretti Autosport entered Sunday with four bullets in the gun to fire for pole position ahead of the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. All four came up just short, and a fifth had a qualifying speed which would be good enough to start higher, but never had the opportunity.

Nonetheless, Sunday at Indy was still a great day for the Andretti team, even without the glory of pole position.

Before the running on track even got going there was proper drama in the garage, as it was determined to make a precautionary engine change on Fernando Alonso’s No. 29 McLaren Honda Andretti entry after issues found near the end of pre-qualifying practice.

What followed next was a tour de force by the Andretti crew to get the engine changed in just over an hour to ensure Alonso hit the 4:15 p.m. tech line to be out for the Fast Nine shootout.

Alonso promptly laughed off the concern of a pre-qualifying engine change, given his regular ailments with Honda’s Formula 1 engine at McLaren there.

“As soon as we decided to change the engine, I saw like 20 people around my car changing parts. That was a truly good thing to experience today, how the teamwork plays here. I was extremely proud and happy of them,” Alonso said.

On track, the runs started first when the Michael Shank Racing with Andretti Autosport entry, rookie Jack Harvey in the No. 50 Honda, had a hairy run. Harvey tattooed the wall exiting Turn 2 but kept his foot in it, and completed his run with a four-lap average of 225.742. He’ll start 27th.

After Harvey, the next Andretti driver to run was Ryan Hunter-Reay, who would have had a shot at the pole purely on speed. In fact, his four-lap average of 231.442 mph was the fourth fastest of the day during Sunday qualifying, with only Scott Dixon, Ed Carpenter, and Alexander Rossi eclipsing his No. 28 DHL Honda.

However, struggles during Saturday qualifying meant he wasn’t quick enough to make the Fast Nine shootout (he was 13th fastest on Saturday). As a result, he could do no better than tenth on Sunday qualifying, despite the dramatic increase in speed, and he will start from the inside of the fourth row on May 28.

However, Hunter-Reay has proven he can win from deep in the field. His 2014 triumph came after he started 19th, and he cracked the top ten in the first stint that year.

Hunter-Reay, therefore, is well-versed in working his way through traffic, and is confident he can do the same thing on race day.

“It was a wild ride. Testament to the team that put a good car together; it’s been that way for a good week and one-half. We just had a bad draw in qualifying, going early when the sun was out yesterday compared to a lot of guys who made it into the Fast Nine later in the day with the clouds came out,” he said. “We did our homework on that one. It was close. That was not a nice four laps; it was on edge. Big time, white knuckle, I’m just catching my breath now.”

It then came time for the quartet of Andretti drivers in the Fast Nine. Marco Andretti was unable to break out of eighth place, but it still sets him up decently in the No. 27 United Fiber & Data Honda entry on Sunday.

Next up was Alonso, with the fresh motor. He went out at over 231 mph for his run, and was pleased – but ultimately fell to fifth.

Rossi followed with an even better run, which eclipsed Alonso’s best time. He’ll start third next Sunday as he prepares to defend his shock win of a year ago. While this is the best career start for the driver of the No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Honda in IndyCar – his previous best was fifth at Long Beach earlier this year – it still feels like a slightly missed chance for the native of Nevada City, Calif.

“I’m always disappointed if you’re not in front, but I think it’s a good effort from the team. Seeing Scott’s speed is pretty impressive,” he said. “I know we couldn’t have done that. We’ve got to be content with the front row. It was something that really bothered me last year and for a year actually that we didn’t make the Fast Nine, so yesterday was a pretty big relief, and today was just about trying to go as high up as possible.

“Front row is good. You can win this race from anywhere, so it’s a good place to be, no dirty air, and we’ll just get the race off to a strong start and see where it goes.”

Lastly Takuma Sato, who was second on Saturday, was then second-to-last out on Sunday in the No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda. He nearly hit the wall a couple times on the run but still ended in fourth place, courtesy of his “no attack, no chance” style that sees him with a best Indianapolis 500 starting position to date. His previous best, also achieved with current engineer Garrett Mothershead, came in 2011 with KV Racing Technology when he started 10th.

“We were pushing so hard – Lap 3 and 4 were so on edge and I brushed the wall, but held on. I’m very happy to be in the second row, obviously, the front row would be nicer but this was a great team effort. I am very happy with where we are starting.”

Great qualifying positions are nice to write about but they haven’t even been a complete precursor for Andretti’s four ‘500 wins.

Rossi started 11th last year, Hunter-Reay 19th in 2014, Dario Franchitti 3rd in 2007 and Dan Wheldon 16th in 2005.

With spots of third, fourth, fifth, eighth, 10th and 27th on the grid, Andretti will look for more success next Sunday with its six-pack of drivers – even if a pole evaded them today.

Kyle Lavigne assisted on report of this story

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.