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For most F1 teams, 4th place is as good as it gets

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SHANGHAI (AP) — A week ago, Toro Rosso driver Pierre Gasly came from nowhere to finish in fourth place in the Bahrain Grand Prix.

He and his team treated it like a victory.

“I must say, it’s been amazing,” Gasly said of his “success” as he prepares for Sunday’s Chinese Grand Prix, the third race of the season.

Toro Rosso team principal Franz Tost was just as thrilled, and credited engine maker Honda.

“I expected a place between eight and 10,” Tost said Friday in Shanghai. “And in the end it was fourth place. It was a big, positive surprise and I’m very happy.”

For seven of the 10 teams in Formula One, getting one of their drivers to finish in fourth place is about all they can hope for. Forget about first, second or third.

Three teams and their six drivers monopolize the top spots in Formula One almost every race. Last season, five different drivers won races, all from the top three teams: Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull. Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel has won both races so far this season.

It was much the same in practice Friday ahead of Saturday’s qualifying for the Chinese GP.

Defending champion Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes was quickest in both sessions, and Ferrari driver Kimi Raikkonen was second quickest each time. Hamilton’s teammate, Valtteri Bottas, was third in both sessions, which stayed dry until a light rain began to fall in the final minutes of the second practice.

Hamilton will try to win his sixth race in China, and will be after his seventh pole position.

Rain is forecast for Saturday qualifying with a dry day predicted for Sunday.

“The battle for that fourth place in the championship is going to be extremely interesting through the year,” said Robert Fernley, the deputy team principal of Force India.

Last season, Force India finished fourth in the team standings, but light years behind the top three.

New series owner Liberty Media, which took over last season from long-time Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone, hopes to give the small teams a chance to be more competitive when the current rules – called the Concorde Agreement – expire after the 2020 season.

The new owners are looking to cut costs and cap spending, but the richest teams, Mercedes and Ferrari, will have to agree – or cut a deal.

The smaller teams seem mostly on board.

“I support all the points that Liberty Media presented, and I hope that they will realize it,” said Tost, the Toro Rosso principal.

Though it runs in cycles, Formula One has traditionally been dominated by a few teams and drivers. The “also-ran” teams have taken to calling themselves “the midfield,” where competition is close for the spots behind the top three. But the gap is large.

Fernley, the Force India No. 2, was asked if he had ever seen the pack in the middle this tight.

“Not in recent years, no,” he replied. “I think it’s tremendous. The battle for that fourth place in the championship is going to be extremely interesting through the year.”

Sauber driver Marcus Ericsson was ninth in Bahrain, and just as excited as Gasly – the fourth-place winner.

Ninth place in Formula One is worth two points in the season standings, far behind the 25 the winner gets. But at least it’s something.

“It was a great race for us,” said the Swede, who praised the team’s new main sponsor, Alfa Romeo. “We’re coming from two very difficult years where we’ve been always at the back as a team. I was super happy to be back in the points. It’s been a long time.”

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.