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IndyCar 2017 driver review: Takuma Sato

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MotorSportsTalk continues its annual review of the Verizon IndyCar Series drivers that raced in 2017. Takuma Sato won the year’s Indianapolis 500, and that stood out as the pinnacle moment of the season among a year of happiness for the perpetually happy Japanese driver.

Takuma Sato, No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda

  • 2016: 17th Place, Best Finish 5th, Best Start 3rd, 2 Top-5, 5 Top-10, 0 Laps Led, 14.1 Avg. Start, 13.7 Avg. Finish
  • 2017: 8th Place, 1 Win, 2 Poles, 4 Top-5, 6 Top-10, 41 Laps Led, 8.6 Avg. Start, 12.4 Avg. Finish

One of the Verizon IndyCar Series’ more likable and genuinely fun to watch drivers, Takuma Sato, finally had his breakout season with Andretti Autosport after eight years and more than 100 starts elsewhere. Sadly for Sato, a year that saw him in semi-realistic title contention most of the summer post-his famous Indianapolis 500 victory faded as the year drew to its conclusion.

Reunited with engineer Garrett Mothershead, who he’d worked with at KV Racing Technology, Sato was immediately on pace in his new environment and with a Firestone Fast Six in qualifying and fourth place in the race at St. Petersburg, promising signs were there.

His Indianapolis 500 performance all month was simply outstanding. Similar to Alexander Rossi last year, Sato flew under the radar but was fast all month. When the opportunity to attack late in the race came, Sato lived up to his eternal “no attack, no chance” mantra to deliver the victory – and vault to a top-three position in points in the process. The win was fully deserved and was huge for Honda both in America and Japan, as well as the Andretti team with several of its other six cars having issues in the race. It was one of the year’s most popular wins.

Perhaps equally as impressive if not more so was his run the following weekend at Detroit, a track he’s thrived on in the past. Finishes of eighth and fourth, including a pole in race two, were the best results for an Indianapolis 500 champion in the Detroit doubleheader and seemed to indicate at long last, Sato had turned the corner to becoming a consistent finisher.

And then… Texas. Small contact there late in the race with Scott Dixon cost them both potential top-five finishes and for poor Sato, sent him into a tail-spin of results the rest of the way.

He had to battle through a neck injury at Road America, and ended 19th. A further onslaught of bad luck, be it waste gate or other mechanical issues, occasional spins and a generally lingering black cloud often through no fault of his own, limited Sato to finishes of 16th or worse in five of the final seven races, and dropped him to eighth in the points standings.

It was still his career-best by five spots, but could have been even better, as it was just slaughtered by the final eight races. He led the field in the two double points races with 157 points scored but ranked only 10th in the single-points races. Through Texas, the first nine races of the year, he scored 312 of his 441 points, and was third in the standings just 14 markers off the lead. With only 129 points scored in the final eight races, Sato fell 201 points behind eventual champion Josef Newgarden.

Even more disappointing about his end of the year was how well Sato had qualified. He showcased his bravery with his pole run at Pocono, coming just one car after Ryan Hunter-Reay’s heavy accident. And he qualified in the top six in six of the last seven races, enough to bring his average grid spot for the year to 8.6 – tied for fifth best in the field. The pace was there while the lack of consistency bit yet again; alas, with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing next year, Sato should have a good reunion. Even better, in the first few months since winning Indianapolis, Sato has already proven a more than worthy ‘500 champion and excellent ambassador for the race and the sport.

F1 Preview: 2018 Australian Grand Prix

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Save for two occasions, in 2006, and 2010, the Australian Grand Prix has served as the season-opening event for the FIA Formula 1 World Championship since 1996, and this weekend’s event will be the 21st time that the city of Melbourne has kicked off the Formula 1 campaign.

The 2018 season is the fifth one of the current hybrid power unit era, the second season of the current aero regulations, and the second under Liberty Media’s guidance.

Last year saw titans Mercedes AMG Petronas and Scuderia Ferrari duel for supremacy for most of the season before Mercedes distanced Ferrari late in the season to take the constructor’s title and the driver’s title, with Lewis Hamilton, who is now tied with Sebastian Vettel on four world championships apiece.

Four drivers on the grid have Formula 1 world championships to their name: Hamilton, Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen, and Fernando Alonso. Scuderia Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley also has a world championship to his name as a two-time titlist in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

So, what can viewers expect from the 2018 curtain-raiser in Australia? A handful of things to watch are below?

2018 Australian Grand Prix – Talking Points

Does Anyone Have Anything for Mercedes?

Only on one day during pre-season testing did a Mercedes driver lead the way – Lewis Hamilton was fastest on the final day of Week 1 at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.

However, all indications were that was by design, with the team focusing the majority of the second week, if not the entire second week, on long runs with their W09 EQ Power+ chassis.

Such a decision is an ominous one, in that it indicates the team is very comfortable with the amount of speed in the car and did not see a need, or desire, to show their hand during testing.

With that in mind, the Mercedes duo of Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas may yet again have the best and fastest cars, and the team looks poised to potentially make it five constructor’s and driver’s championships in a row.

Ferrari and Red Bull Look to End Mercedes Reign

The biggest threats to Mercedes are undoubtedly Ferrari and Red Bull, the only other teams to win in 2017.

And both teams displayed a lot of pace during testing, particularly in the “one-lap speed” category. Ricciardo set a lap record around the Catalunya circuit during the second week, only for Vettel to supplant that mark later in the week. Teammate Kimi Raikkonen led the way during the final day of testing.

It is unknown how that pace will translate over the course of a race distance. Mercedes appeared to have an edge on both Ferrari and Red Bull over long runs and race simulations, but there is also a theory that neither Ferrari nor Red Bull had their true long-run form on display.

Still, if a team is going to knock off Mercedes, it will likely be either Ferrari or Red Bull.

McLaren on the Rebound?

Put simply, the previous three seasons for McLaren F1 Team were a bit of a disaster. Their partnership with Honda yielded point totals of 27 (2015), 76 (2016), and 30 (2017) in a three-year venture that was defined by poor reliability and underwhelming power.

The relationship hit a boiling point last year and both entities parted ways ahead of the 2018 season, with McLaren signing a new power unit deal with Renault.

Testing went better than in previous years, though the team continued to battle reliability problems. However, all issues appeared to be minor, needling issues rather than more significant, foundational problems, as the other Renault teams (Red Bull and Renault Sport F1 Team) had solid runs with few reliability issues.

The car does appear to have speed in it, so if the reliability problems are behind them, McLaren could be in for a rebound season.

Stuck in the Midfield Again

Formula 1’s battle amongst the midfield is set to be as fierce as ever as a host of a several teams have a chance at being “best of the rest.”

Sahara Force India has been the frontrunner from the the midfield teams each of the last two years, finishing fourth in the constructor’s title in both 2016 and 2017, though if the steady conflict between drivers Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez continues through 2018, it could hamper their efforts significantly.

Renault Sport F1 Team and Haas F1 Team look to improve on their 2017 form, while Toro Rosso is in a new partnership with Honda power units…and has experienced a surprisingly smooth pre-season as Honda’s 2018 platform looks significantly better, with the team enjoying a solid run of testing with few, if any, reliability problems.

Williams Martini Racing and Alfa Romeo Sauber appear to be at the back of the pack entering the season, but both could battle for points finishes if those ahead of them falter.