Sato shines again, but comes up short in Milwaukee

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A.J. Foyt wasn’t at the IZOD IndyCar Series’ Milwaukee IndyFest because of leg pain, per the Associated Press. So naturally, his driver Takuma Sato almost repeated his efforts in Long Beach where he won with “Super Tex” also in absentia.

The joke being made on Twitter during the race was asking who would tell A.J. to stay home for good, if in fact Sato brought home the bacon.

Sato started only 15th in the 24-car field but through a methodical march on the Milwaukee Mile, climbed into the top 10, then benefited as of a result of the third full course caution on lap 98.

He was one of nine cars to pit during the first caution on lap 22 for four tires and fuel, and like Helio Castroneves, looped around to the front of the field once the leaders made their sequence of stops on that third caution.

From there, though, Sato’s No. 14 ABC Supply Co. Honda was a rocketship. He led three times for a race-high 109 laps and really only lost his edge when he was stuck in traffic, particularly behind Ed Carpenter.

That’s ironic given the two were busy exchanging pleasantries earlier this week at a pre-race advance at the Miller Time Pub where the two and James Hinchcliffe served as celebrity bartenders, and the driver tips went to charity.

The killer, though, other than a huge moment through Turn 4, was the fourth caution. Sato pitted for fresh Firestones and fuel on lap 200, a lap after Ryan Hunter-Reay passed him for the lead. The yellow 12 laps later doomed his chances, as he was stuck a lap down and the leaders pitted without losing their track position.

We leave it to Sato to take it from here, after a frustrating seventh-place finish (his first top-10 since his runner-up finish at Brazil). He did move up to fourth in points after entering tied for fifth, now 76 points back of Helio Castroneves, but that’s hardly consolation.

“What an eventful and exciting race it was,” he said. “We slowly started to move up through the field and on every pit stop we adjusted on the car and then the car started working really well.

“By mid-race the ABC Supply car was beautiful and I was so enjoying driving it. The car was so strong in clean air and very strong in traffic as well. We were really happy with the whole balance of the car in the middle stint, but then unfortunately there was such a sudden loss of the rear grip towards the end of the race and I got high and lost track position.

“We thought there was an issue so we decided to pit as soon as our pit window opened and then try to charge back with fresh tires. We were confident we could do it. But then the yellow came out and that was very bad timing for us because it put us behind those who hadn’t pitted yet.

“They were able to pit and get ahead of us which is why we lined up in seventh. Then they had fresher tires too so it was really tough to pass them back. The boys did a great job with the pit stops all day long and I thought we could have brought a smile to A.J. and we nearly did. It was still a great race, but it was so disappointing in the end. Really a shame.”

Schmidt Peterson aiming high with Hinchcliffe, Wickens

Photo: IndyCar
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The new Schmidt Peterson Motorsports duo of James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens expressed a high amount of confidence during Wednesday’s confirmation of Hinchcliffe’s return and Wickens’ signing, as the pair looks to return the Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson co-owned team to prominent status within the Verizon IndyCar Series.

“We’re hoping to give Toronto and Ontario and Canadian sports fans in general something to cheer about over the next season,” Hinchcliffe quipped during a teleconference on Wednesday.

Granted, there are likely to be several challenges to overcome, notably for Wickens, who returns to single-seater competition for the first time since 2011, when he was a champion of the Formula Renault 3.5 series and served as test driver for the now defunct Manor Racing (then known as Marussia Virgin Racing).

Having spent every year since then in DTM, where he won a total of six races and finished as high as fourth in the championship (2016), Wickens knows returning to open wheel competition will be an adjustment. However, he explained that the history of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, specifically its Indy Lights history, speaks to their ability to help a driver adapt, and he rates the program they’re putting together very highly.

“I think Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have a fantastic driver development program. They showed that in their multiple Indy Lights championships along the way. I think we will have a strong program in place. I have a feeling that the simulator will be my new best friend,” Wickens said when asked about getting reacquainted with an open-wheel car.

Of course, having an experienced teammate like Hinchcliffe to lean on will undoubtedly help the transition, something Wickens readily admitted.

“I’m very fortunate that I have James as my teammate because he’s so experienced, I can learn off him. Because we already have such a good off-track relationship, I feel like you can just take his word, trust him, kind of move forward with it,” he revealed.

They’ve been teammates before, both in karting where they first met in 2001, and then in the now-defunct A1 Grand Prix series in 2007-2008, a series that pitted nations against each other in spec open-wheel cars. Funnily, that A1GP type of vibe returns as Schmidt Peterson Motorsports now has that with its “Team Canada” mantra while all four of Andretti Autosport’s full-season drivers are American.

For Hinchcliffe, Wickens’ background, even if it hasn’t been in the single-seater realm since 2011, was a big selling point in adding him to the team.

“In Robby, we have a proven winner at a very high level. The level of technical expertise that he comes with from his time in DTM is very impressive,” he said of Wickens’ technical background.

Hinchcliffe added that Wickens’ ability to analyze the car and its setup was evidenced in two outings: one at Sebing International Raceway in March, in part of a “ride swap” between the two longtime friends, and a second at Road America, when he subbed on Friday practice for Mikhail Aleshin.

Wickens sampled Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda earlier this year. Photo: IndyCar

Hinchcliffe revealed that Wickens’ feedback to the team and his ability to quickly adapt to the chassis took everyone somewhat by surprise.

“We did our ride swap. He had two hours in the car, hardly anything even resembling a test day, and his performance was pretty impressive. No doubt the time in Road America helped because that really gave us a better sense of his technical feedback, integrated with the team a little bit more. Everybody was happy to work with him on that day,” said Hinchcliffe.

Further still, Hinchcliffe is firm in his belief that the 2018 aero kit and its reduction in aerodynamic downforce will fall right into Wickens’ wheelhouse, based on Hinchcliffe’s own take after sampling Wickens’ DTM Mercedes earlier this year.

“In all honesty, I was saying earlier today, the 2018 car is probably better suited for him than the 2017 car because of the experience he’s had the last handful of series,” Hinchcliffe asserted.

“The (aero kit) was such high downforce, it would be a big change coming out of DTM. But with the loss of downforce that we’ve seen, the car is moving around a little bit more, brake zones, things like that, it won’t be as big a transition I think. Just based on the experience that I got in our ride swap, I think he’s going to adapt very quickly, be comfortable very quickly, and as a result be competitive very quickly. So it’s going to be exciting.”

As for expectations heading into next year, team co-owner Schmidt did not mince words and expects the team’s performance to resemble what they did in 2012, 2013, and 2014, when they won a total of four races (with driver Simon Pagenaud) and finished in the top five in the championship each year.

“We had a stint in ’12, ’13, ’14 where we finished fifth in the points (or better. I think we want to get back to that level of competition,” Schmidt added. “We felt like we were missing things in having two cars with equal funding and equal drivers and equal capabilities. We think this gets back there.”

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