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.

INDYCAR Preview – KOHLER Grand Prix

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One of the great road courses in the United States, Road America, plays host to the next round of the Verizon IndyCar Series – the KOHLER Grand Prix (Sunday June 24, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

A staple of IndyCar between 1982 and 2007, IndyCar returned to Road America amidst great fanfare in 2016. And the two visits since its return have not disappointed.

Will Power held off a hard-charging Tony Kanaan to win in 2016, while Graham Rahal survived a thrilling battle for third to round out the podium. And last year, Scott Dixon made an outstanding outside pass on Josef Newgarden in Turn 1 to take the lead on a late-race restart, and he held on to win from there – it was also his only victory of 2017.

And if the previous road and street courses are any indication, Sunday’s race could be another thriller on the 4.048-mile road course.

Major talking points ahead of the KOHLER Grand Prix are below.

The Rise of Dixon

Scott Dixon celebrates victory in the DXC Technology 600. Photo: IndyCar

The 2018 IndyCar season is beginning look a lot like a Scott Dixon year.

After a somewhat slow start to his season, Dixon caught fire in the month of May. He finished second at the INDYCAR Grand Prix, then third at the Indianapolis 500.

He followed that up with a ferocious first two weeks of June, winning Race 1 of the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit and finishing fourth in Race 2. He followed that up by dominating the second half of the DXC Technology 600 at Texas Motor Speedway to take his second win of the season, and his second in three races.

That stretch has put Dixon into the championship lead for the first time this season. And he is also the defending winner of the KOHLER Grand Prix, after passing then leader Josef Newgarden on a late-race restart, so he likely enters the weekend as the favorite.

“Obviously I’m happy with where the team has been running these past few weekends, but we’ve been there the whole season. We just haven’t shown the results for one reason or another,” Dixon explained. “While most had the weekend off, we had the opportunity to compete again at Le Mans, which is a very special deal. So now we’re back, and after a few short days at home, it’s Road America. We had a great car here last year picking up the win for the No. 9 team, and I’m hoping we can do it again this weekend with the PNC Bank car.”

Dixon won’t go nearly as far as to talk anything championship-related at the moment, but a fifth championship is most certainly possible.

Road America Could Become Very Tire-some

Tire strategy will likely be at the forefront in Road America. Photo: IndyCar

The primary “black” and alternate “red” Firestone tires have created genuinely intriguing racing in recent weeks.

The difference in grip levels between them saw Will Power and Robert Wickens engage in a fantastic and tactical mid-race duel at the INDYCAR Grand Prix, and it created a lot of drama across both races in Belle Isle, culminating in Ryan Hunter-Reay’s charge to victory in Race 2.

And last year’s KOHLER Grand Prix ultimately came down to tire strategy. The aforementioned Dixon passed Newgarden because he was on the alternate “red” tires, while Newgarden was on the primary “blacks” – Newgarden also took the lead earlier in the race using the same tactic, getting onto reds when other leaders were on blacks, which helped him pass Helio Castroneves for the lead.

It’s within reason to think this weekend at Road America will be more of the same.

Newgarden’s Season Slipping Away?

Josef Newgarden. Photo: IndyCar

Josef Newgarden entered the month of May on a hot streak, having won two of the opening four races to lead the championship as the series headed to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The wheels have metaphorically come off a bit since then. He finished 11th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix after spinning late in the race, eighth at the Indy 500, ninth and 15th in Detroit, and 13th at Texas Motor Speedway.

That stretch has dropped him from the championship lead to fifth in the standings, 68 points off Dixon for the title lead.

If he is to get himself back into title contention, he’ll need to get back on the podium this weekend. And fortunately for Newgarden, the Road America circuit ranks at the top of his personal favorites.

“I’m not shy on saying that Road America is probably my favorite track. I really love racing there. It’s a fun road course with a lot of great INDYCAR fans, so what’s not to love?” Newgarden asserted. “These cars with the new aero kit have been super exciting on road courses and this weekend will be no different. The entire No. 1 Verizon Chevy team and I are pumped to get on track there. I thought we were strong at Texas after not living up to our standards at Detroit, but we just ran out of luck. Myself and the entire team are ready to really come back strong to gain more points to continue our hunt for another championship.”

Misc.

  • Ryan Hunter-Reay is quietly beginning to put together a title-contending year. Outside of a 20th at Long Beach, and 18th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix, Hunter-Reay’s worst finish is fifth (three times), and he three podiums to his name, including his Detroit Race 2 victory. He sits 49 points behind Dixon, well within striking distance. This is about the time of the year when he started his title run back in 2012, which culminated in a series championship for him, and 2018 could be headed in that direction.
  • Graham Rahal sits sixth in the standings, 107 points back. His crash in Detroit Race 1 undoubtedly hurt his title chances, but he has been incredibly consistent outside of that, finishing inside the Top 10 at every other race. However, he’ll need some victories later in the year if he is to put himself back in the title picture.
  • Juncos Racing returns to the grid, with Alfonso Celis making his IndyCar debut. A standout and race winner in World Series Formula V8 3.5, he previously raced with Juncos in Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires at Barber Motorsports Park, where he finished seventh and eighth.

The Final Word…

From Robert Wickens, who made his IndyCar debut in Friday practice last year at Road America – he subbed for Mikhail Aleshin, who was delayed in arriving at Road America following the 24 Hours of Le Mans:

“I’m really looking forward to Road America. I think, in the last few races, we’ve shown our potential. We’ve shown that we’re quick. Now we need to try to get back on the podium. Road America is always a fun track, and it’s where I got my first taste of INDYCAR with SPM so I can’t wait to actually race the Lucas Oil car here.”

Here’s the IndyCar weekend schedule:

At-track schedule (all times local):

Friday, June 22
11:00-11:45 a.m. (12:00-12:45 p.m. ET) – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #1, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
3:15-4:15 p.m. (4:15-5:15 p.m. ET) – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #2, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)

Saturday, June 23
11:00-11:45 a.m. (12:00-12:45 p.m. ET) – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #3, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
3:00 p.m. (4:00 p.m. ET) – Qualifying for the Verizon P1 Award (three rounds of knockout qualifying), NBCSN (5:30 p.m. same-day delay)

Sunday, June 24
11:30 a.m. (12:30 p.m. ET) – NBCSN on-air
12:05 p.m. (1:05 p.m. ET) – KOHLER Grand Prix (55 laps/220.77 miles), NBCSN (Live)

Here’s last year’s Top 10:

1. Scott Dixon
2. Josef Newgarden
3. Helio Castroneves
4. Simon Pagenaud
5. Will Power
6. Charlie Kimball
7. Ed Jones
8. Graham Rahal
9. Max Chilton
10. Mikhail Aleshin

Here’s last year’s Firestone Fast Six:

1. Helio Castroneves
2. Will Power
3. Josef Newgarden
4. Simon Pagenaud
5. Scott Dixon
6. Graham Rahal

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