Pirelli World Challenge begins 25th anniversary season this weekend

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WEEKEND SCHEDULE

Qualifying:
 Saturday, 8 a.m. ET
Race 1 (50 minutes): Saturday, 3:25 p.m. ET
Race 2 (50 minutes): Sunday, 11:25 a.m. ET

BROADCAST SCHEDULE

Live Broadcasts on World-ChallengeTV.com: Saturday, 3:10 p.m. ET and Sunday, 11:05 a.m. ET.
NBCSN Broadcast: Sunday, Apr. 6, 5:30 p.m. ET

CLASS BREAKDOWN: GT: 13 cars, GT-A: 12 cars, GTS: 28 cars.

FULL ENTRY LIST

DEFENDING ST. PETERSBURG CHAMPIONS: GT — Alex Figge/James Sofronas, GTS: Jack Baldwin.

DEFENDING SERIES CHAMPIONS: GT — Johnny O’Connell, GTS — Lawson Aschenbach.

TOURING CAR/TCA/TCB SEASON OPENER: April 25-27, Barber Motorsports Park, Birmingham, Ala.

KEY STORYLINES

Variety is the spice of life

The Pirelli World Challenge grid was already a diverse one, but with the inclusion of new FIA GT3-spec cars, the list of machines competing in this fast-paced sprint series has grown even further. Among the new cars on the PWC grid are the McLaren 12C, Lamborghini Gallardo FL2, BMW Z4, Ferrari 458 Italia, and Porsche GT3R.

At this point, it’s probably best to make a list of cars/manufacturers that isn’t involved in this series.

The class of extraordinary gentlemen

This year, the PWC has created a special subcategory, GT-A, which will serve to recognize the series’ gentlemen drivers in GT-spec entries. St. Pete will mark the debut for GT-A, but half of the 12 drivers listed for this weekend have past experience in the PWC. Sofronas’ GMG team will have the most GT-A representation in St. Pete with three machines.

The usual suspects

After a successful GT title defense, Johnny O’Connell is on the hunt for a three-peat in his familiar No. 3 Cadillac. But his title rival of one year ago, James Sofronas, is also back in his No. 14 GMG Racing Audi. Other notable names in GT include Anthony Lazzaro (No. 61 Remo Ferri Group Ferrari), Dane Cameron (No. 94 Turner Motorsport BMW), Peter Cunningham (RealTime Racing Acura) and Alex Figge (No. 9 K-Pax McLaren).

The GTS category also sees its top three drivers from 2013 returning to action: Class champ Lawson Aschenbach (No. 1 Blackdog Speed Shop Chevy), Jack Baldwin (No. 73 GTSport Racing/Goldcrest Porsche), and Mark Wilkins (No. 38 Kia Optima). But keep an eye on 16-year-old wunderkind Ernie Francis, Jr., who won seven times last year in Touring Car B-Spec but now goes to GTS in the No. 98 Breathless Performance Chevy.

James Hinchcliffe on Andretti: ‘It’s certainly the place I want to be’

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Since before the start of the 2020 NTT IndyCar Series season, James Hinchcliffe tirelessly has worked to ensure the future would include a full-time return in 2021.

And with an opportunity to run the final three races this season with Andretti Autosport, there seems a surefire (albeit unlikely) path.

“If I go out and win all three,” Hinchcliffe joked with IndyCar on NBC announcer Leigh Diffey in an interview Friday (watch the video above), “it would be hard for them to say no, right?”

Regardless of whether he can go unbeaten at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course next weekend or the Oct. 25 season finale at St. Petersburg, Florida (where he earned his first career win in 2013), Hinchcliffe will have the chance to improve his stock with the team that he knows well and now has an opening among its five cars for 2021.

All three of Hinchcliffe’s starts this season — the June 6 season opener at Texas Motor Speedway, July 4 at the IMS road course and the Indianapolis 500 — were with Andretti, where he ran full time in IndyCar from 2012-14.

“Obviously, the plan from January 2020 was already working on ’21 and trying to be in a full-time program,” he said. “I’ve really enjoyed being reunited with Andretti Autosport, and everybody there has been so supportive. It’s been a very fun year for me on track. It’s been kind of a breath of fresh air in a lot of ways.

“It’s certainly the place I want to be moving forward. We’ve been working on that, working on those conversations. Genesys has been an incredible partner in my three races. We’ll be representing Gainbridge primarily, but Genesys will still have a position on our car in the last three.”

Gainbridge is the primary sponsor of the No. 26 Dallara-Honda that was vacated by Zach Veach, who left the team after it was determined he wouldn’t return in 2021. Hinchcliffe can empathize having lost his ride with Arrow McLaren SP after last season with a year left on his deal.

“You never want to earn a ride at the expense of somebody else in the sense that has happened here with Zach,” Hinchcliffe said. “I feel bad that he’s not able to see out the last three races of his season. I’ve got a lot of respect for him off track. He’s been a teammate this year, a colleague for years before that and honestly a friend for years before that. I’ve got a lot of time for him and his family. I understand a little bit of what it’s like in that position and what he’s going through.”

Hinchcliffe is ready to seize the moment, though, starting with the Oct. 2-3 doubleheader race weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He had been hoping to add the Harvest Indy Grand Prix to his schedule and had been working out for the possibility.

“Then last week I had given up hope (and) was resigned that wasn’t happening,” he said. “I told my trainer, ‘I think we’re done for this year.’ Three days later, this call comes. I’m glad we didn’t make that decision too early. I feel great physically.

“I look at it as a great opportunity to continue to show I’ve still got what it takes and should be there hopefully full time next year on the grid.”

Watch Hinchliffe’s video with Leigh Diffey above or by clicking here.