Jacques Villeneuve pleasantly surprised at how his former Williams F1 team performed in 2014, especially Bottas

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Hard as it may seem to believe, it’s been nearly two decades since Jacques Villeneuve won the Formula Championship for Williams in 1997.

Villeneuve was critical of his former team in 2013, telling Portuguese magazine Revista Warmup that Williams’ hiring of Pastor Maldonado and Valtteri Bottas, “When a team is reduced to hiring pay-drivers, it’s over.”

But the way Williams-Mercedes performed in 2014, particularly with Bottas behind the wheel and the team managed by co-owner Toto Wolff, Villeneuve is much more bullish on the team’s future, according to a a story on PaddockTalk.com.

Bottas finished fourth in Formula One in the 2014 season and teammate Felipe Massa finished seventh, while Williams finished third in the constructor’s championship. Those strong finishes prompted Villeneuve to do a complete 180-degree turn in his opinion of both Bottas as a driver and Williams as an organization from 2013 to 2014

“Bottas is a young driver, not really a pay-driver,” Villeneuve said recently to Revista Warmup. “Even with Felipe Massa they got some money from Brazil. “But he is also a professional driver with a past, a career, and they (Williams) knew well how to use the money.”

Wolff has already called Williams perhaps the “most dangerous rival” to the overall Mercedes program in 2015, a comment that Villeneuve agrees with.

“Williams does not have a big budget,” said Villeneuve, “yet they managed to turn the tide. But it is not completed yet.

“(2014) was the first season that they went well, so we will have to see if it continues the same way.”

Villeneuve, now 43, won seven races for Williams in the 1997 championship season. He admitted he did not expect his old team to be good “but not that good.”

And when they finished as high as they did, Villeneuve admitted his pleasant surprise at them doing so.

“I expected them to be better (in 2014 than 2013), but they exceeded expectations,” Villeneuve said.

As for Wolff, he admits there’s strong interest in the 25-year-old Bottas, a native of Finland, from other teams.

Among the most mentioned scenarios is Bottas as a potential teammate at Ferrari with Fernando Alonso if a vacancy were to occur in the near future.

“They (Ferrari) do not have a lot of options when the contract of (Kimi) Raikkonen expires,” Wolff told Italy’s La Gazzetta dello Sport. “From my side, there are certain conditions in the event that his (Bottas’) future sits outside of Mercedes.”

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American Flat Track puts emphasis on fans in building 2020 schedule

American Flat Track
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American Flat Track put an emphasis on fans and feedback from other series while also acknowledging everything is tentative while hammering out its schedule for the 2020 season.

The 18-race schedule over nine weekends will begin July 17-18 at Volusia Speedway Park in Barberville, Florida, about 20 miles from AFT’s headquarters in Daytona Beach, Florida.

The dirt track motorcycle racing series, which is sanctioned by AMA Pro Racing, shares a campus with its sister company, NASCAR, and American Flat Track CEO Michael Lock said the series closely observed how it’s handled races in its return during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and also built AFT’s procedures from NASCAR’s post-pandemic playbook of more than 30 pages.

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“I speak personally to the committee within NASCAR that has been put together for the restart, regularly talking to the communications people, general counsel and other relevant operations departments,” Lock told NBCSports.com. “So we’ve derived for Flat Track from NASCAR’s protocols, which I think are entirely consistent with all the other pro sports leagues that are attempting to return.

“Obviously with NASCAR the scale of the business is completely different. There were some times more people involved in the paddock and the race operations for NASCAR than the numbers of people at flat track. Our scale is much smaller, and our venues are generally smaller. So we can get our hands around all of the logistics. I think we’re very confident on that.”

While NASCAR has had just under 1,000 on site for each of its races without fans, Lock said American Flat Track will have between 400 to 500 people, including racers, crews, officials and traveling staff.

But another important difference from NASCAR (which will run at least its first eight races without crowds) is that American Flat Track intends to have fans at its events, though it still is working with public health experts and government officials to determine how many will be allowed and the ways in which they will be positioned (e.g., buffer zones in the grandstands).

Lock said capacity could will be limited to 30-50 percent at some venues.

American Flat Track will suspend its fan track walk, rider autograph sessions for the rest of the season, distribute masks at the gates and also ban paper tickets and cash for concessions and merchandise. Some of the best practices were built with input from a “Safe to Race Task Force” that includes members from various motorcycle racing sanctioning bodies (including Supercross and motocross).

There also will be limitations on corporate hospitality and VIP access and movement.

“I think everything the fans will see will be unusual,” Lock said. “Everything at the moment is unusual. We will roll out processes that are entirely consistent with the social distancing guidelines that will be in place at the time of the event. So we’re planning for a worst-case scenario. And if things are easier or better by the time we go to a venue, it’s a bonus.”

Lock said the restrictions are worth it because (unlike other racing series) AFT must have fans (even a limited number) for financial viability.

“We took a decision fairly early on in this process that it was neither desirable nor economically viable to run events without fans,” Lock said. “I can think of some big sports like NFL or like NASCAR where a huge chunk of that revenue is derived from broadcast, which means that your decision making as to how you run an event, where you can run an event has a different view than a sport like ours, or even like baseball, for example, that needs fans. Because the business model is so different.”

Broadcast coverage is important to American Flat Track, which added seven annual races over the past five years and can draw as many as 15,000 to its biggest events.

Lock said AFT ended the 2019 season with more than 50,000 viewers for each live event, making it the No. 1 property on FansChoice.TV. This year, the series has moved to TrackPass on NBC Sports Gold. “We’re expecting a really strong audience from Day 1, particularly with all this pent-up demand,” Lock said.

NBCSN also will broadcast a one-hour wrap-up of each race (covering heat races and main events).

Because the season is starting three months late, the doubleheader weekends will allow AFT to maintain its schedule length despite losing several venues. And there could be more, Lock said, noting that there still are three TBA tracks.

“There may still be some surprises to come from one venue or another of delay or cancellation,” he said. “But we are intending to run as full a season as possible.”

Here is the American Flat Track schedule for 2020:

July 17-18 (Friday-Saturday): Volusia Speedway Park, Barberville, Florida

July 31-Aug. 1 (Friday-Saturday):  Allen County Fairgrounds, Lima, Ohio

Aug. 28-29 (Friday-Saturday): TBA, Northeast United States

Sept. 5-6 (Saturday-Sunday): Illinois State Fairgrounds, Springfield, Illinois

Sept. 11-12 (Friday-Saturday): Williams Grove Speedway, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania

Sept. 25-26 (Friday-Saturday): TBA, Texas

Oct. 2-3 (Friday-Saturday): Dixie Speedway, Woodstock, Georgia

Oct. 9-10 (Friday-Saturday): TBA, North Carolina

Oct. 15-16 (Thursday-Friday): AFT season finale, Daytona Beach, Florida