Greater consistency the goal for Sato in year two with Foyt

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Takuma Sato made more strides in his fourth IndyCar season, as he shifted to A.J. Foyt Racing and the No. 14 ABC Supply Co. Honda.

A seriously competitive first half included a front-row start in St. Petersburg, his first win at Long Beach and runner-up finish at Brazil, as he led the points entering the month of May at Indianapolis.

However the consistency tailed off in the second half, with only a seventh at Milwaukee (after leading a race-high 109 laps) and a pole at Houston Race 1 as major highlights.

There was enough achieved to provide hope and optimism for a better 2014. For Sato, he’ll have the comfort of entering a second season with the same team, an opportunity he’s only had once previously in his IndyCar career.

“We had a little up and down. There was some unfortunate things. Like you said, first half the season was really competitive, going everything well up until May,” Sato said at IndyCar media day in Orlando.

“I think this year obviously we’re trying to be competitive on as many circuits as possible and try to keep up all the points. That’s our target.”

The last time Sato stayed with the same team, with KV Racing from 2010 into 2011, he emerged with his best season yet in IndyCar.

That year, Sato scored his first two series poles, posted three top-five finishes and improved from 21st to 13th in the season points standings. He also improved his finishing record, going from seven of 17 races finished in 2010 to 14 of 17 in 2011, which remains the highest percentage he’s achieved thus far.

Sato was only running at the end of nine of 19 races in 2013. You figure if he can get to the flag of 14 or 15 of 18 races, he should be able to improve on his 17th place in points to the edge of the top-10.

And he does have the confidence knowing he has the outright pace to be in contention, as he enters another year working with engineer Don Halliday and the rest of the Larry Foyt-led crew.

“We know we can win the race,” Sato said. “We’ve learned a lot. It’s continually working. From first year to second year, it’s always better. I’m definitely looking forward to coming to the second season for A.J. Foyt Racing.”

Sato started the year off nicely, qualifying second at St. Petersburg last year. He and the team got an early handle on Firestone’s then-new-for-2013 compounds, and likes the opening round of the series.

“The previous year to last year, so 2012 to ’13, was the Firestone new tires made it dramatically balance, for example.  A lot of people come with a clean sheet of white paper and have to read the setup,” he explained. “Qualifying was quite exciting, getting front row.  Start of the season was fantastic.

“I like St. Pete. (It’s a good) combination of high-speed section, then going into Turn 1. The back of the track is very, very complex. Very narrow. So it’s a good combination.  Obviously St. Petersburg, I think it’s a great place to start the season. I always enjoyed it.”

Sato admitted that teams caught up rather quickly as they dialed in their setups with the new Firestones, and that negated the early pace edge.

“I think a lot of teams started catching up as the season went along. We weren’t maybe as fast as we could have been. That was a tough part of our first year. This year we continue working, should be better.”

Then, there was Long Beach, and all that the win meant for Sato, for ABC Supply, and for his home country of Japan.

“Not just my first major win in a major series, but also for the long time waiting for ABC, too.  It was a really perfect race for us,” he said. “Long Beach is one of the biggest events as a street course event, has the long history.

“The impact was just enormous, from the sponsors, fans, the people who cheering us. I immediately flew back to Japan after that and had a winning press conference at Tokyo. No, it definitely is one of the best days of my racing career.”

For as long as Sato has been in either Formula One or IndyCar, he’s been with Honda. So it should come as no surprise that he’d be one of the best drivers to know how to gauge the change the manufacturer makes from a single-turbo to a twin-turbo specification.

“The initial thought on the twin turbo, it’s very simple. It’s just the pickup. Very, very quick,” Sato said. “In turbine, instead of having a big single turbine, you have huge inertia to spin the turbine itself. Mechanically you pick up the good response.

“So from the transition from the front to the back of the car, it’s very naturally the torque coming through nicely. We all liked it. They’re working on peak power for the engine.  It seems to be we made a good step.”

After seasons getting acclimated to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and Foyt’s teams, respectively, in the last two years, look for Sato to improve on the moments of brilliance he achieved in 2013, as he seeks a cleaner and more consistent 2014.

Miguel Oliveira wins MotoGP Thai Grand Prix, Bagnaia closes to two points in championship

MotoGP Thai Grand Prix
Mirco Lazzari / Getty Images
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Miguel Oliveira mastered mixed conditions on the Chang International Circuit in Buriram, Thailand to win the MotoGP Thai Grand Prix. Oliveira showed the adaptability as he navigated a race that began in wet conditions and turned dry over the course of the race. Oliveira won the Indonesian GP in similar conditions.

“It was a long race, but I can’t complain,” Oliveira said on CNBC. “Every time we get to ride in the wet, I’m always super-fast. When it started raining, I had flashbacks of Indonesia. I tried to keep my feet on the ground, make a good start and not make mistakes and carry the bike to the end.”

All eyes were on the championship, however. Francesco Bagnaia got a great start to slot into second in Turn 1.

Meanwhile Fabio Quartararo had a disastrous first lap. He lost five positions in the first couple of turns and then rode over the rumble strips and fell back to 17th. At the end of the first lap, Bagnaia had the points’ lead by two. A win would have added to the gain and for a moment, it appeared Bagnaia might assume the lead.

Early leader Marco Bezzecchi was penalized for exceeding track limits, but before that happened, Jack Miller got around Bagnaia and pushed him back to third. Oliveira was not far behind.

After throwing away ninth-place and seven points on the last lap of the Japanese GP last week, Bagnaia did not allow the competition to press him into a mistake. He fell back as far as fourth before retaking the final position on the podium.

“It’s like a win for me, this podium,” Bagnaia. “My first podium in the wet and then there was a mix of conditions, so I’m very happy. I want to thank Jack Miller. Before the race, he gave me a motivational chat.”

Miller led the first half of the Thai Grand Prix before giving up the top spot to Oliveira and then held on to finish second. Coupled with his Japanese GP win, Miller is now fully in the MotoGP championship battle with a 40-point deficit, but he will need a string of results like Bagnaia has put together in recent weeks – and he needs Bagnaia to lose momentum.

Miller’s home Grand Prix in Australia is next up on the calendar in two weeks.

Bagnaia entered the race 18 points behind Quartararo after he failed to score any in Japan. The balance of power has rapidly shifted, however, with Quartararo now failing to earn points in two of the last three rounds. Bagnaia won four consecutive races and finished second in the five races leading up to Japan. His third-place finish in Thailand is now his sixth MotoGP podium in the last seven rounds.

Aleix Espargaro entered the race third in the standings with a 25-point deficit to Quartararo, but was able to close the gap by only five after getting hit with a long-lap penalty for aggressive riding when he pushed Darryn Binder off course during a pass for position. Espargaro finished 11th.

Rain mixed up the Moto2 running order in the MotoGP Thai Grand Prix as well. Starting on a wet track, Somkiat Chantra led the opening lap in his home Grand Prix. He could not hold onto it and crashed one circuit later, but still gave his countrymen a moment of pride by winning the pole.

Half points were awarded as the race went only eight laps before Tony Arbolino crossed under the checkers first with Filip Salac and Aron Canet rounding out the podium.

American Joe Roberts earned another top-10 in eighth with Sean Dylan Kelly finishing just outside the top 10 in 11th.