Hildebrand beats Panther in ‘messy’ race; Luhr comes up short of debut finish

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A subplot of the Sonoma weekend was the unofficial “JR Hildebrand vs. Panther Racing” battle that was taking place, even though Hildebrand downplayed it during his media availability on Friday.

To make things awkward, due to the order they had qualified with previous drivers Oriol Servia (Panther) and Luca Filippi (Barracuda Racing) at Mid-Ohio, the two teams were set up directly next to each other all weekend in the paddock and pit lane.

Hildebrand took the edge in both battles – he beat Panther’s Ryan Briscoe in qualifying, 18th to 22nd, and also in the race 16th to 17th. Not that either of those results is anything worth celebrating.

Hildebrand ran as high as 11th but was spun by Tony Kanaan on Lap 21 at Turn 7, and Kanaan was given a drive-through penalty for avoidable contact. Hildebrand recovered but had later contact with Graham Rahal, which dropped him back to 21st, before he made up five more positions by the flag.

“It was just a messy day out there,” Hildebrand said. “With that many yellows, it ends up being kind of a lottery where you actually end up on restarts because the risk/reward factor is quite high.”

Elsewhere, IndyCar debutante Lucas Luhr came up a few laps shy of a finish in the No. 97 RW/Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing Honda. The first German to start an IndyCar race since Andreas Wirth in a Champ Car race at Australia in 2006, Luhr climbed from 24th place to 17th before an engine fire ended his race on Lap 81.

“It was a shame that we couldn’t finish the race because I think we had a possible top 14 or 15 finish in us,” Luhr said. “Toward the end of the race I was getting quicker. I think we were more competitive in the race than we have been all weekend long, and that to me shows that the learning curve is going in the right direction.”

Next up for these three: Barracuda and Panther see Filippi and Servia back for Baltimore, with Hildebrand returning for Barracuda at Fontana. Luhr resumes in his usual Muscle Milk Pickett Racing HPD ARX-03c P1 car in the American Le Mans Series race in Baltimore. Briscoe is back for Level 5 there, as well.

Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato welcomes ‘Baby Borg’ to the family

Photos: Michael L. Leavitt
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Takuma Sato cast a big shadow on the world of IndyCar racing last May when he became the first Japanese driver to win the Indianapolis 500.

But there was another shadow of sorts cast along with Sato’s Indy 500 win: he and the prestigious Borg-Warner Trophy, given to each year’s winner of the Greatest Spectacle In Racing, are virtually identical in size.

The Trophy is the same height as Sato, 5 feet, 5 ¾ inches tall. And the respective weight of both the Trophy and Sato are the same: approximately 113 pounds.

Try putting that on a mantle in your house.

2018 BorgWarner Baby Borg Presentation to 2017 Indianapolis 500 winner Takuma Sato and team owner Michael Andretti. 17 January, 2018, Detroit, Michigan, USA.
©2018, Michael L. Levitt

That’s why Sato was so happy to receive the Baby Borg Trophy — a miniature version of the Borg-Warner Trophy — Wednesday night in Detroit. It’s much more manageable for the mantle in his house: 18 inches tall and five pounds.

“It’s such an honor to win the Baby Borg finally, eight months after the race, it’s been an unbelievable journey,” Sato told NBC Sports. “It’s an unbelievable feeling to win the 500 and it has just gone on and on. It’s just a significant moment in my life. It’s been fantastic.

“Right now, I haven’t really decided yet (where he’ll put the coveted Baby Borg). It’s going to my home in Indiana right now. But of course, everybody wants to see it. After that, I haven’t decided, but I’m sure it’ll get a special place.”

Even though the Baby Borg is a pint-sized version of the real trophy that was presented to Sato in victory lane in Indianapolis last May, it also has the same meaning as the big trophy and served to get Sato’s excitement pumping to where he’s already counting down the days to the 2018 Indy 500.

And even more important, it will be the first time he returns to Indianapolis as the defending champion.

“(Winning the 500) has changed my life,” Sato told NBC Sports. “But what I do is exactly the same, to try and be as fast as possible when racing.

“But all the environment, the people, all the cheering and being called an Indy 500 champion, I never imagined how deep and how far it goes, just the power and energy that the Indy 500 had.

“I just never realized how much the tradition and the prestigiousness of it. It’s been fantastic and I’m sure when I go back there to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in four months as the defending champion, it’ll be a whole other dimension. I’m sure it’s going to be a whole lot of pressure, but I’m sure to enjoy the moment.”

Sato, who turns 41 on January 28, will return to the 500 this year, but with a new team. He left Andretti Autosport after last season and returned to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, for whom he previously raced for in 2012.

Now that he’s won one Indy 500, Sato wants to make it two in a row.

“It’s a huge, another task and a new dream,” he said. “I’m excited for the new season and to go for another 500 (win), it’s another completely new dimension. Like Michael (Andretti, who he drove for last season) said, obviously, we’ll be competing against each other in the new season, but tonight we celebrated together. I think it’s going to be a real good season for me. I’d love to get another win there, of course.”

2018 BorgWarner Baby Borg Presentation to 2017 Indianapolis 500 winner Takuma Sato and team owner Michael Andretti. 17 January, 2018, Detroit, Michigan, USA.
Michael Andretti celebrates his 5 Indy 500 wins as a team owner, and Takuma Sato celebrates his first Indy 500 win
©2018, Michael L. Levitt

But not if Andretti has anything to say about it.

“He’s not allowed to win again,” Andretti laughed while also speaking to NBC Sports.

Sato enjoyed a victory lap of another sort last month when he accompanied the Borg-Warner Trophy to his native Japan for a two-plus week tour of the nation.

It marked the first time in the Trophy’s 82-year existence that it has ever been outside the U.S.

Everywhere Sato and the Trophy went drew large crowds, from Honda Racing “Thanks Day” at the Twin Rings track at Motegi to a visit to Mount Fuji, a meeting with 850 members of Sato’s fan club, and also included a two-day run in the atrium of Honda’s World Headquarters in Tokyo that had fans lined up for hours to see the Trophy and take photos of it and Sato.

“The reaction was just massive,” Sato said. “For myself, it was a dream come true, but at the same time, for a country with that history, it was an unbelievable moment, particularly the first time when Hiro Matsushita did it (drove in the Indy 500 in the 1990s) so many years ago.

“So many Japanese drivers have tried to win such a historic race, I was just so proud to be part of it. The people were really excited. The passion, I’m really particularly happy to bring it to Japan.

“To go to Japan was a massive commitment by from Borg Warner and Honda. So many Japanese fans were able to see it physically and now they’re really looking forward to this year’s Indy 500 again. It was a great moment to us.”