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Buemi shaping up as best candidate for Toro Rosso F1 seat at COTA

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Sebastien Buemi is shaping up as the leading candidate to race for Toro Rosso in next weekend’s United States Grand Prix as the Formula 1 team searches for a driver to replace Pierre Gasly.

Toro Rosso announced last week that Gasly would be joined by the returning Daniil Kvyat for the remaining four races of the season following Carlos Sainz Jr.’s early move to Renault.

Gasly made his F1 debut with Toro Rosso in Malaysia after Daniil Kvyat was dropped due to poor form, but uncertainty quickly arose surrounding his participation at the Circuit of The Americas due to the clash with the Super Formula finale at Suzuka on October 22, where the Frenchman is Honda’s sole title contender.

Red Bull team advisor Helmut Marko said last weekend the announcement was a “mistake”, with reports from multiple outlets emerging on Thursday claiming that Gasly would not be featuring in Austin.

Toro Rosso is short on options for a replacement given FIA Super Licence requirements, leading to Toyota LMP1 and Renault Formula E driver Buemi entering the mix.

Buemi raced in F1 for Toro Rosso between 2009 and 2011 before being dropped to make way for Daniel Ricciardo and Jean-Eric Vergne, prompting the Swiss driver to link up with Toyota in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

Buemi won the WEC title in 2014 and became Formula E champion in 2016 with Renault, giving him more than triple the required 40 Super Licence points to race in F1.

Despite losing his Toro Rosso seat at the end of 2011, Buemi retained his links to Red Bull, and recently completed running in its 2017-spec F1 car in a Pirelli tire test.

Asked directly at Suzuka if Buemi could return, Marko remained coy, saying: “With Red Bull, anything is possible.”

Besides Buemi, Toro Rosso is short on options for drivers to replace Gasly, with no other racers inside the Red Bull family meeting the required Super Licence criteria to step in.

Porsche WEC racer Brendon Hartley was linked to the seat by multiple sources to NBC Sports, with the New Zealander still boasting ties to Red Bull despite being dropped from its junior program at the end of 2010.

Hartley has raced with Porsche since 2014 and claimed the WEC drivers’ championship in 2015 to give him the 40 points required for a Super Licence.

Hartley won this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans and is expected to return to single-seaters next year in the Verizon IndyCar Series with Chip Ganassi Racing upon the closure of Porsche’s LMP1 program.

However, Hartley does not fulfill the Super Licence criteria as he has not completed 300 km in an F1 car from the past four seasons, with his last F1 test coming back in 2012 with Mercedes.

Hartley’s travel schedule also is problematic. He won last weekend in Atlanta at Motul Petit Le Mans in a Nissan Onroak DPi on Saturday, and would then have needed to travel shortly thereafter to the WEC event in Fuji this weekend.

So unless a narrow window appears to complete a private test to rack up the required mileage between now and the start of on-track running at COTA, he is not an option.

Red Bull has not hired a driver from outside of its own umbrella since signing four-time Champ Car champion Sebastien Bourdais to Toro Rosso back in 2008, making a change in approach now seem unlikely.

However, the team may have no choice but to if it is keen on finding a driver to evaluate for a 2018 F1 seat, potentially to partner Gasly and replace the struggling Kvyat.

The 2016 Indianapolis 500 winner Alexander Rossi is a favorite son of Honda, who will become Toro Rosso’s F1 engine supplier next year, and would be a popular fan option for the U.S. race, as he was in 2015 when he last competed with Manor. However, the American is currently out of the country, believed to be filming TV show The Amazing Race.

Another Honda-linked driver is Formula 2’s Nobuharu Matsushita, but the Japanese youngster falls way short of having the required Super Licence points to be a viable option.

As noted in a report by Auto Motor und Sport, Renault youngster Sergey Sirotkin could be a candidate as he has the required Super Licence points and could offer financial backing from the Russian SMP Racing program.

Renault has already confirmed Nico Hulkenberg and Carlos Sainz Jr. for 2018, cutting off Sirotkin’s most obvious route into F1, but Toro Rosso could yet become an alternative were deal to be struck.

Regardless of who steps in for the Austin F1 race, Toro Rosso will be unable to use any additional drivers this year due to the FIA-imposed limit of four per season.

Buemi has no clashes between now and the end of the F1 season, with upcoming WEC races in Shanghai and Bahrain falling between the grands prix in Mexico, Brazil and Abu Dhabi.

Gasly is set to return following his appearance in the Super Formula finale for the final three races of the season as he makes a case for a full-time drive with Toro Rosso in 2018.

As per the previously cited report from Auto Motor und Sport, a decision will be taken by Red Bull and Toro Rosso on Tuesday.

An IndyCar iRacing Challenge at Talladega? Drivers have discussed it

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If Dale Earnhardt Jr. is interested in an IndyCar iRacing event on an oval, he might like the latest idea being kicked around by NTT Series drivers.

“I personally would want to run at Talladega, but I don’t think that’s an option,” Arrow McLaren SP driver rookie Oliver Askew told NBCSports.com in a Friday interview about his simulation work for the second round of the IndyCar iRacing Challenge. “IndyCar drivers have a group chat with iRacing, and someone had the idea of running at Talladega, and I thought it was brilliant.”

It actually would be a throwback of sorts as a USAC-sanctioned race with Indy cars at Talladega nearly happened 40 years ago.

The IndyCar iRacing Challenge will be running its second consecutive road course Saturday at Barber Motorsports Park (2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN or streaming here).

Of the four remaining races in the six-race series, there’s a chance that three of them could be ovals: A Drivers’ Choice track April 11; a “Random Draw” April 18 and a non-IndyCar “Dream” track May 2 (the April 25 race will be at Circuit of the Americas).

ENTRY LIST: Who will be racing at Barber

SPOTTER GUIDE: All 29 of this weekend’s paint schemes

IndyCar drivers are voting on next week’s track, and the options include high-speed ovals such as Texas Motor Speedway and Michigan Speedway.

A multicar crash at Talladega last October. (Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Talladega apparently isn’t on the list for next week, but surely it could be considered for a future race if it meant having Earnhardt in the field. The 15-time NASCAR Most Popular Driver is a six-time winner at Talladega, and the NASCAR on NBC analyst’s family is synonymous with the 2.66-mile oval where his late seven-time champion father won a record 10 times.

“I hope he can make that happen,” Askew said of racing against Earnhardt. “I hope IndyCar can grant his wish on that.”

The addition of Earnhardt would fit well with an IndyCar iRacing Challenge that already features champions from NASCAR (Jimmie Johnson) and Supercars (Scott McLaughlin).

Will Power would like to see more of that.

“I think that would be great if we can get big-name drivers from other series,” Power said. “Getting a couple guys from Europe would be cool.”