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Alonso: ‘Indianapolis weeks the highlight of the year for me’

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Fernando Alonso’s week of diversity has taken him to Bahrain, testing a Toyota TS050 Hybrid, his native Spain, testing a United Autosports Ligier JS P217 Gibson at Motorland Aragon, and finally back to Abu Dhabi this week for the Formula 1 season finale with the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in his McLaren Honda.

But it was the fourth car he drove this year, the McLaren Honda Andretti Dallara DW12 IndyCar in May, that Alonso ultimately called his season highlight of his abnormal but surreal 2017 campaign.

The two-time Formula 1 World Champion’s bow at the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil was the shock announcement of the spring, and the month and a half whirlwind that followed made for one of the international racing stories of the year, if not the decade.

Alonso quickly adapted to IndyCar and oval racing, making his impact during the race after qualifying fifth, leading 27 laps and being in contention right until his Honda engine failed him with just over 20 laps remaining in the 200-lap race.

Speaking to NBCSN Friday in the Abu Dhabi pre-race edition of “Paddock Pass,” Alonso reflected back on all he’s driven this year and immediately hailed the Indianapolis adventure as his season highlight. Alonso’s portion starts below at 6:13 in the clip, following a look at Pirelli’s range of 2018 compounds.

“I’m quite happy with this year,” he told NBCSN’s Will Buxton.

“As I’ve said before, the Indianapolis weeks were definitely the highlight of the year for me. I did really enjoy participating there, and discovering the event. I will not be next year but I will be in the future again. Overall I will remember 2017 with a smile.”

As for Alonso’s hectic last week-plus, he didn’t mention either the Toyota or United drives by name (from a Toyota standpoint, he can’t per his McLaren Honda contract through the end of the year – nor could the Toyota team officially refer to Alonso in its social media postings, as my colleague Luke Smith explains here) but did say the variety posed a wealth of different challenges.

“I did enjoy it,” he said. “Obviously every car was quite different, quite different driving styles an quite different performance on it. It’s part of the challenge. It’s part of being a better driver, and learning from the drivers that have that machine every day of their life. It was interesting, and I’m looking forward to the next chapter.”

Ever the renaissance man, Thursday also saw Alonso announce an eSports racing team called FA Racing-G2 esports team, supported by LogitechG, details of which he shared below on Twitter.

And on Friday, Kimoa announced it would become the official surfwear of McLaren – Kimoa is Alonso’s sports clothing line.

As for his day job – and it says something about his F1 season that we come this far in this post before getting to it – Alonso has a chance to score points for the third straight race for the first time this season this weekend.

A 10th in Mexico and 8th in Brazil has lifted his season total to 15 points scored, now two clear of McLaren Honda teammate Stoffel Vandoorne for 15th in the driver’s standings. This is the final weekend of the McLaren Honda package before Renault power units come on board from 2018.

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.