After narrow loss, Sato looks ahead to Indy 500

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Despite losing a heart-pounding battle with James Hinchcliffe in the Sao Paulo Indy 300, runner-up Takuma Sato still had a great day on multiple fronts and proved that his victory two weeks ago at Long Beach was no fluke.

Sato vigorously defended his lead during the final laps and his moves against both Hinchcliffe and eventual fifth-place finisher Josef Newgarden raised some eyebrows. Nonetheless, he stayed ahead on a set of tires that were almost 40 laps old until the very last corner, where Hinchcliffe got by him on the inside and went on to take the win.

“I had the same tire [for the] last 35, 37 laps — really much longer than we predicted,” Sato said. “I was really struggling on the grip the last laps.  I really had to deal with a lot of things.

“The last few laps was great fun from a driver’s point of view.  It’s a real pity that I lost it on the final lap of the race on the final corner. But that shows how we are competitive…A win would be great, but otherwise, I really fought hard on the track today and I’m really proud of the whole team. The guys did a great job.”

With Helio Castroneves’ down day on the track this afternoon, Sato’s runner-up finish has put him on top of the IZOD IndyCar Series championship by 13 points over Marco Andretti going into the Indianapolis 500. He also earned his second consecutive podium in Brazil, having finished third for Rahal Letterman Lanigan there last year.

Sato crashed on the final lap of last year’s “500” while attempting a pass at Turn 1 for the lead on Dario Franchitti. Even so, his recent success has him believing that he can be a threat once again at the Brickyard.

“The team [has spent] a long time [preparing] from the wintertime to get to Indianapolis,” he said. “So does everyone else, so we will see. We [will] see how we build up for the month of May. I have great confidence of the team doing a great job at the ‘500’.”

Cadillac, Acura battle for top speed as cars back on track for Rolex 24 at Daytona practice

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The new hybrid prototypes of Cadillac and Acura battled atop the speed chart as practice resumed Thursday for the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Chip Ganassi Racing driver Richard Westbrook was fastest Thursday afternoon in the No. 02 Cadillac V-LMDh with a 1-minute, 35.185-second lap around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course at Daytona International Speedway.

That pace topped Ricky Taylor’s 1:35.366 lap that topped the Thursday morning session that marked the first time the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship was back on track since qualifying Sunday afternoon that concluded the four-day Roar Before The Rolex 24 test.

In a final session Thursday night, Matt Campbell was fastest (1:35.802) in the No. 7 Porsche Penske Motorsports Porsche 963 but still was off the times set by Westbrook and Taylor.

Punctuated by Tom Blomqvist’s pole position for defending race winner Meyer Shank Racing, the Acura ARX-06s had been fastest for much of the Roar and led four consecutive practice sessions.

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But the times have been extremely tight in the new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) category that has brought hybrid engines to IMSA’s premier class. Only 0.9 seconds separated the nine LMDh cars in GTP in qualifying, and though the spread slightly widened to 1.378 seconds in Thursday’s practices with teams on varying strategies and preparation, Westbrook still pooh-poohed the importance of speeds.

“It’s always nice to be at the top, but I don’t think it means too much or read too much into it” Westbrook said. “Big fuel tanks in the GTP class this year, so you have no idea what fuel levels people are running. We had a good run, and the car is really enjoyable to drive now. I definitely wasn’t saying that a month ago.

“It really does feel good now. We are working on performance and definitely unlocking some potential, and it just gives us more confidence going into the race. It’s going to be super tight. Everyone’s got the same power, everyone has the same downforce, everyone has the same drag levels and let’s just go race.”

Because teams have put such a premium on reliability, handling mostly has suffered in the GTPs, but Westbrook said the tide had turned Thursday.

“These cars are so competitive, and you were just running it for the sake of running it in the beginning, and there’s so much going on, you don’t really have time to work on performance,” he said. “A lot of emphasis was on durability in the beginning, and rightly so, but now finally we can work on performance, and that’s the same for other manufacturers as well. But we’re worrying about ourselves and improving every run, and I think everybody’s pretty happy with their Cadillac right now.”

Mike Shank, co-owner of Blomqvist’s No. 60 on the pole, said his team still was facing reliability problems despite its speed.

“We address them literally every hour,” Shank said. “We’re addressing some little thing we’re doing better to try to make it last. And also we’re talking about how we race the race, which will be different from years past.

“Just think about every system in the car, I’m not going to say which ones we’re working on, but there are systems in the car that ORECA and HPD are continually trying to improve. By the way, sometimes we put them on the car and take them off before it even goes out on the track because something didn’t work with electronics. There’s so much programming. So many departments have to talk to each other. That bridge gets broken from a code not being totally correct, and the car won’t run. Or the power steering turns off.”

Former Rolex 24 winner Renger van der Zande of Ganassi said it still is a waiting game until the 24-hour race begins Saturday shortly after 1:30 p.m.

“I think the performance of the car is good,” van der Zande said. “No drama. We’re chipping away on setup step by step and the team is in control. It’s crazy out there what people do on the track at the moment. It’s about staying cool and peak at the right moment, and it’s not the right moment yet for that. We’ll keep digging.”


PRACTICE RESULTS:

Click here for Session I (by class)

Click here for Session II (by class)

Click here for Session III (by class)

Combined speeds