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Takuma Sato enjoying return to Rahal, Letterman, Lanigan; already thinking of Indy 500 encore

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The countdown to the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500 has begun.

But for defending 500 winner Takuma Sato, the countdown began the day after he won the world’s biggest race last May, and has continued on during the offseason and into the new 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

“Every driver’s dream is to win the Indy 500, no matter who you are or where you are,” Sato told MotorSportsTalk recently. “You think of it a lot. Every month, there is some event for the 500 and I’ve really enjoyed promoting it. It was the biggest time in my life and I almost can’t believe it’s less than 60 days now for the 2018 Indy 500. It’s just an unbelievable thing.”

Sato won last year’s 500 with virtually no pressure on his shoulders coming into the race. As the checkered flag drew close, he wound up in the right place at the right time to become the first Japanese driver to win at the legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

But it’ll be a totally different feeling coming into this year’s race on May 27th.

“I’ve been in situations where there’s been a lot of pressure, and of course being an international driver, there’s a lot of pressure with that, too,” Sato said. “All in all, I think I enjoy it. But obviously, this year, the Indy 500 will be a completely different situation for me.

“Can you imagine 300,000 people coming to the track holding a ticket with your face on it? I just can’t imagine how it’s going to be like. And every time you go through Gate 2 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, there’s a massive picture of me promoting the race. That’s the biggest picture of me I’ve ever seen. It just makes me smile and makes me happy.

“I feel it’s going to be an incredible event, as usual, and for me personally, I think it’s an unbelievable experience and I just want to enjoy it.”

Sato is not with the same team he won last year’s Greatest Spectacle in Racing. He left Andretti Autosport after last season and has returned to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, who he raced one season for in 2012.

“Sure, even though the team expanded massively from the first time I was here, still the key persons are still there,” he said. “It feels very comfortable. The reason to go there was to have success for the new season. Everybody’s really pumped up and yeah, I feel really comfortable and happy.”

While there are still four other races (Phoenix, Long Beach, Birmingham and the Indy Grand Prix) before the 500, Sato is also looking forward to how RLL will fare together as an expanded team at Indianapolis.

“The team has such great engineering and now, working with Graham (Rahal) and my good friend Oriol Servia is joining the team (for the 500), the three of us working together, hopefully we have a competitive advantage and I’m certainly looking forward to it,” Sato said.

RLL got off to a strong start to 2018 with Rahal shaking off a last-place qualifying start to finish runner-up in the season-opening race at St. Petersburg on March 11. Sato, who qualified fifth, had an equally strong race as his teammate going until Scott Dixon went airborne late and punted Sato, who ultimately finished 12th.

“I was disappointed at St. Pete because it was just an unlucky race,” Sato said. “As a team, we really finishing strong with Graham, we learned tons of stuff and fans observed that it’s going to be an exciting season with the new package.

“It was a quite exciting race and for me to go through the incredibly busy and unbelievable off-season, getting used to the new team and doing winter tests and then St. Pete, really the last couple months were compressed, but I was really happy for everything. It’s fascinating to have a brand new car and I’m excited to make the car go fast.”

Speaking of the new car, it already is a big success among IndyCar drivers like Sato and fans.

“It looks so cool,” Sato said. “It looks so nice and low and wide. It’s kind of retro style, kind of like the old CART car. It’s just a great formula car and I love it.

“From the cockpit point of view, it doesn’t matter. Even last year’s package, like when we went to Road America, we ran a pretty low downforce package and that’s pretty much what we have with the new car, definitely less downforce than what we had last year.

“At St. Pete, we experienced it, cars really moving a lot and quite difficult to get good grip, but that’s the name of the sport and at least everybody’s in the same boat. We just try to make the best package from amongst the various things people are trying. From an engineering point of view, it’s a big challenge, but I really love racing this car.”

Next up for the series is back-to-back races, this Saturday night in Phoenix at ISM Raceway and on April 15 with the iconic Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, which Sato won in 2013.

“I had a really great race back in 2013 with A.J. (Foyt Racing),” Sato said. “Phoenix, honestly, I didn’t have necessarily a good record in history. Before, it wasn’t necessarily one of my favorite tracks, but we had a very successful test there in February.

“The last couple of years, we weren’t in the best of shape on short ovals, but at least with the new car and new package and everybody equal, it seems like we have quite a bit of good speed in testing. I’m very keen and excited to go back to Phoenix

“I’m really looking forward to having a good situation at Phoenix and of course Long Beach is one of the most iconic street courses in IndyCar. I hope we have a very strong race at both tracks this year.”

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IndyCar: Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama Recap

Photo: IndyCar
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After two days, with both featuring a lot of rain, the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama is finally in the books for the Verizon IndyCar Series.

With Mother Nature intervening with rain and fury over both days, it’s understandable if there’s a sense of relief that the weekend at Barber Motorsports Park is behind us.

Still, as is usually the case, Barber produced plenty of thrills, and a few spills, across the weekend of racing.

A recap of big stories to emerge from the weekend is below.

Rain Drops Keep Falling on My Head…

Mother Nature was ever present on Sunday and Monday, dropping a lot of rain on Barber Motorsports Park. Photo: IndyCar

Rain races can be very fun and entertaining…if they’re able to run. Sadly, that just wasn’t the case on Sunday.

The undulating and picturesque Barber Motorsports Park is one of the most striking road courses in the country, and often produces some of the best racing anywhere. But, the nature of the track and its dramatic elevation changes can make it susceptible to standing water in heavy rains.

And that’s the exact scenario that played out on Sunday, with heavy and persistent rain hitting the track late in the morning, and hanging around the entire day.

While INDYCAR officials and Barber track crews worked tirelessly on Sunday to disperse the standing water, the rainfall was simply too heavy for them to make any impact.

While very unfortunate, postponing the finish of the race to Monday was the right decision, as several drivers explained.

“It’s tough because we have so many people that come out here to watch us,” said eventual race winner Josef Newgarden following the Sunday postponement. “We want to put on a good race. We want to put on a show. So calling the race, running around behind the pace car not running, it’s tough, it’s tough to do that. But I think it was the right thing in the end. When we started the race, the conditions were OK. You could run at that level of rain. Then, it intensified right before that first caution. I think when the caution came out, it got to a point where it was just too much.”

Graham Rahal echoed Newgarden’s sentiments, also emphasizing poor visibility as a big factor in making the conditions too treacherous.

“It was a tough beginning, but when we kind of got going it was OK and kind of fun to challenge for a while, but visibility was a major issue (on Sunday), no doubt. I’m glad that the series postponed it. I would have like to get it in (on Sunday), but that’s life,” he explained.

Rest assured, Firestone makes a strong rain tire, and IndyCar teams, drivers, and track crews are more than equipped to handle a rain shower from Mother Nature. But, Sunday’s weather was simply too extreme.

Newgarden Shines in the Rain and the Sun

Josef Newgarden in Victory Lane at Barber Motorsports Park. Photo: IndyCar

About the only thing as powerful as Mother Nature during the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama was Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden.

Last year’s IndyCar champion was quickest at the end of Friday’s practices, scored the pole on Saturday, and led all but nine laps across Sunday and Monday.

And his leads were always decisive. He quickly gapped the field when racing started on Sunday, holding down a gap of as much seven seconds over teammate Will Power in the early laps. And on Monday, he gapped the field by as much as 27 seconds during the second half of the race.

Only outside circumstances could have prevented Newgarden from getting to Victory Lane…and that nearly happened. A late rain shower in the final minutes created split strategies across the field, with Newgarden among those opting for rain tires, while Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay and Dale Coyne Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais gambled by staying out on slicks.

Hunter-Reay, however, jumped into the pits soon after for rain tires, a move that helped him eventually finish second, while Coyne and Bourdais gambled that the track would not get wet enough to force them to pit.

Alas, with only a few minutes remaining and the rain getting heavier, conditions became too slick and Bourdais was forced to pit, handing the lead back to Newgarden and dropping Bourdais to fifth.

“More hectic than you would want at the end,” Newgarden quipped when asked about conditions at the end of the race. “It seemed like it was pretty straightforward all day. We weren’t having yellows. It was dry. Then that rain made it very nerve-racking.

Newgarden added that pitting for rain tires, and doing so early, was their best option, even though it opened the door for others to jump ahead.

“I think for us we did the only thing we could,” he said of their strategy. “We went to rains as soon as it intensified. We had to. I think it was the right thing to do, just because we’re in the lead, we have the most to lose by not putting on rains early.”

The victory, Newgarden’s second of 2018, moves him back into the championship lead with 158 points, 13 ahead of Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi.

Misc.

  • Ryan Hunter-Reay enjoyed a solid weekend following a troublesome day at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. The Andretti Autosport driver ranked in the Top 10 through practice, qualified a strong fourth, and ran a very clean race to finish second, his best finish of 2018, and he now sits only three points out of third place in the championship – he is currently sixth, with 113 points.
  • While teammate Robert Wickens has made more headlines, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ James Hinchcliffe is having one of the best early-season efforts of his IndyCar career. With finishes of fourth, sixth, ninth, and second to his name through four races, Hinch sits fifth in the standings on 118 points, and is keeping himself well within reach of the championship lead. A race win would do wonders for his championship standing, but the consistent start puts him in a good position heading into the month of May.
  • Conversely, four-time champion Scott Dixon has yet to finish on the podium in 2018 – his best finish is fourth at ISM Raceway. Still, at seventh in the standings with 107 points, Dixon is within striking distance despite the quiet start.
  • Elsewhere, Will Power and Simon Pagenaud have had comparatively disastrous starts to their seasons. Power has hit the wall in three of the first four races, while Pagenaud only has a best finish of ninth, coincidentally at Barber this weekend, through four races. Power sits tenth in the championship on 81 points, while Pagenaud languishes down in 15th on 66.
  • He made not have made many friends out there, but Zachary Claman De Melo gave viewers some thrills after the Monday restart, pushing his way through the field despite being two laps down. It also created one of the highlights of the race, with he and Spencer Pigot going for a slide through Turns 7 and 8 (video below). For his efforts, Claman De Melo recorded the fastest lap of the race on his way to finishing 19th.

The Verizon IndyCar Series now has two weeks before their next race, the INDYCAR Grand Prix on May 11-12. However, the series will be plenty busy, with testing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway kicking off next week.

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