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Jean-Eric Vergne surges to Formula E pole in Berlin

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BERLIN, Germany – Jean-Eric Vergne will start Saturday’s Berlin ePrix from pole position after edging out championship contender Sebastien Buemi in the final stage of qualifying.

Vergne finished second to Buemi in the first leg of qualifying around the streets of Berlin, and despite going slower in the Super Pole shootout, the Frenchman’s lap of 57.811s proved to be enough for his first pole position since the Moscow ePrix almost one year ago.

Buemi posted the fastest time in practice and the first stage of qualifying, and when championship rival Lucas di Grassi was made to pay for a minor error on his 200kW lap and ended up 10th overall, the Renault e.dams driver appeared to have a golden opportunity to cut the points gap by taking pole.

However, his final qualifying effort was one-hundredth of a second slower than Vergne’s lap, meaning he was forced to settle for P2 on the grid.

“It’s good. I didn’t think the lap was going to be good enough, but in the end everyone went slower,” Vergne said.

“Everything is going well at the moment, hopefully we can put on a good show. The e.dams are really strong in the race, they were stronger than us in Paris.

“It’s going to be really difficult, but I’m going to give it my best. I’ve got nothing to lose.”

Behind Vergne and Buemi, Daniel Abt qualified as the top German on home soil in third place, with the Mahindra Racing duo of Bruno Senna and Nick Heidfeld following in P4 and P5.

In the sister DS Virgin Racing car, Sam Bird qualified sixth ahead of Nelson Piquet Jr., who impressed for NextEV TCR. Teammate Oliver Tuvey also reached the top 10, finishing ninth behind Nicolas Prost and ahead of di Grassi.

Dragon Racing’s recent struggles continued as Loic Duval and Jerome d’Ambrosio finished 11th and 12th respectively ahead of Simona de Silvestro. Venturi also had a qualifying to forget with Mike Conway and Stephane Sarrazin finishing 14th and 15th, while Robin Frijns struggled to 16th for Andretti.

Team Aguri will occupy the final row of the grid as Rene Rast outqualified Ma Qinghua on his Formula E debut and with his first full power lap in the car.

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