Driver moves, future expansion highlight start of F1 season [Austin American-Statesman]
(Austin American-Statesman (TX) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) March 10--The Formula One season roars to a start this week, in Australia. Eleven teams and 22 drivers will contest 19 races this year, finishing in Sao Paulo on Nov. 24, one week after Austin's second United States Grand Prix.
As usual, there should be just as much action off the F1 track as on it, as the sport's 82-year-old ringmaster, Bernie Ecclestone, figures to remain in the headlines. Some of the off-the-track issues that will swirl around Ecclestone this year could affect Austin's race down the road.
In recent years, the F1 season has gotten off to an acrimonious start with Ecclestone and various Australian politicians exchanging barbs about the value of Formula One to the area. But this year -- at least for the moment, anyway -- it's all sweetness and light.
Ecclestone recently said he'd like to keep an F1 race in Melbourne for the next 50 years, and attendance for this year's race looks like it will increase. At Albert Park, the premium Paddock Club for jet-setters is being expanded and a World Champion Grandstand honoring Sebastian Vettel is being added at turns 3, 4 and 5.
Vettel will start his run at a fourth straight drivers' championship after having to battle Ferrari's Fernando Alonso right down to the final race in Brazil last year. Vettel will once again have Mark Webber as a teammate while Felipe Massa will again be driving for Ferrari. To the chagrin of its many fans Ferrari -- the New York Yankees of Formula One racing -- is still chasing the energy drink team.
The most-watched team, however, will probably be McLaren, a traditional power that will have a new teammate for Jenson Button this season. Gone after a 14-year association with McLaren is Lewis Hamilton, the winner of Austin's inaugural F1 Grand Prix last year.
In a big career gamble, Hamilton will drive for Mercedes, along with Nico Rosberg. Hamilton, the 2008 world champion, is known for being talented and temperamental and is as close to a rock star as there is in F1. Observers expect him to make Mercedes a serious contender.
Replacing Hamilton at McLaren is 23-year-old Mexican driver Sergio Perez. Last year, Perez created a buzz by gaining three podium finishes for Sauber, a team not used to that kind of success. This year, he'll be be talked about if he doesn't take podiums for the storied McLaren team.
In an interview with Formula One's website, Perez said, "Of course when you are racing for McLaren you are expected to win -- and this is also my target: to win. Sure, there is the need to prove myself, but it is motivation rather than pressure that keeps me going. All the other guys that are in a top team have already proven themselves -- this is something that I still have ahead of me."
Sauber has replaced Perez with another Mexican with the backing of telecommunications giant Telmex, Esteban Gutierrez. He'll be one of five rookies in the field and has acknowledged he'll just be trying to finish his first F1 race.
If Perez has a good year, it could be look out Austin in November. Mexico sent the most international visitors to Austin last year for the race, and that number could swell dramatically if Perez gives Mexican fans something to cheer about.
The presence of Perez and Gutierrez on the grid is a big reason why there's a push to add Mexico City to the F1 calendar in 2014. Ecclestone has said that although F1 did not add a race this season, he would like to expand to 22 in 2014. That sounds ambitious, but Ecclestone appears confident about Mexico's efforts.
There, Tavo Hellmund, once a founding partner of Circuit of the Americas, is working with a group to stage a race in Mexico City's historic Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez. The group has decided it would be easier and faster to get that bumpy track up to F1 specification than to start from scratch in a resort.
Work would also have to be done in New Jersey this year if that site expects to be able to host a race in 2014 after being dropped from this year's calendar.
Either race could eventually impact attendance at Austin's Grand Prix.
As for the almost all-powerful Ecclestone, he is still awaiting word whether prosecutors in Munich will charge him with bribery in connection with $44 million he paid to a German banker in 2006-07. That alleged bribe was in conjunction with the sale of Formula One to CVC, a European venture capital firm.
CVC, meanwhile, has been looking to take Formula One public on a stock market, and that could finally happen this year.
There will also be action on whether the sport, as planned, will switch to a turbo-charged V-6 engine after this year, a move that Ecclestone has opposed. If the change does take place, this will be the final season for fans to hear the distinctive scream of the 2.4 liter V-8s.
(c)2013 Austin American-Statesman, Texas
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