Carlos Sainz Jr. closes in on Formula Renault 3.5 title

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Carlos Sainz Jr. has taken a huge step towards winning the 2014 Formula Renault 3.5 championship after winning the first race of this weekend’s double-header at Circuit Paul Ricard in France.

The Renault-backed championship acts as a feeder series to Formula 1, but unlike GP2 is does not regularly appear on its undercard. In recent years, it has produced drivers such as Kevin Magnussen, Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne, and the class of 2014 also has many promising drivers.

Sainz has been vying for a seat in F1 for some time now, and was widely expected to join Toro Rosso until 16-year-old Max Verstappen was given a shock promotion.

However, he has continued to impress in Formula Renault 3.5, and took a big step towards the title by winning today’s race from pole position, leading every lap to win ahead of Pierre Gasly and Mathieu Vaxiviere.

As a result, Sainz can win the championship in the second race on Sunday if title rival Roberto Merhi fails to finish inside the top seven.

“It is an incredible day,” the Spaniard said after the race. “We needed this victory at this time of the season. Friday was a difficult day, but we did what we needed to do in qualifying, then kept the lead at the start and restart which wasn’t easy as I had opened a gap before the safety car. Then, we won the race!

“Pierre and I had similar pace, which meant I wasn’t allowed a mistake and I had to keep the lead above two seconds to keep him out of my tow!”

Merhi, who recently took part in F1 practice for Caterham at the Italian Grand Prix, could only finish fifth, allowing the gap to Sainz at the top to grow to 31 points.

If Sainz wins tomorrows race and Merhi fails to finish inside the top seven, he will win the Formula Renault 3.5 title with one round to spare.

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.