Nico Rosberg tops Day 1 of Bahrain in-season test

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Three days after his near-miss in the Bahrain Grand Prix, Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg led the way Tuesday as the first of four Formula One in-season tests got underway at the Bahrain International Circuit.

Rosberg, who won the season opener last month in Australia, not only set the pace with a time of 1 minute, 35.697 seconds, but also turned the most laps on the 3.36-mile course with 121 circuits.

“Our main aim today was to try different directions with set-up and to get to know the tyres a bit better,” Rosberg said in a release.

“You never stop learning how to get the best out of the tires, so it has been a productive day from that perspective. We also did a bit of work on the brakes as this is an area I’m not one hundred percent happy with at the moment.”

“We’ve had a good few weeks on track but you are never at the maximum level of performance. There is always more to be found and we are constantly pushing to improve the car and ourselves as drivers.

“Having said that, the team is doing a fantastic job with this car from every perspective. Reliability, car performance, power unit performance: It’s all there and it’s a pleasure to be a part of a team with such positive momentum.”

Considering that Force India was ‘best of the rest’ in last weekend’s Grand Prix with Sergio Perez hitting the podium, it was fitting that the Silverstone squad tailed Merc again today with Nico Hulkenberg setting a P2 time of 1 minute, 36.064 seconds.

Hulkenberg logged 69 laps as the team’s focus progressed from short runs in the morning to longer stints in the afternoon. Perez will take over the VJM07 tomorrow in the desert.

Third on the time sheets belonged to Fernando Alonso of Ferrari (1 minute, 36.626 seconds), which struggled mightily last weekend with Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen coming home ninth and 10th.

The Spaniard also logged his own set of 69 laps as the Scuderia worked through various electronic and aero-measuring projects on their F14 T, whose reliability has been undone so far by a markedly slower pace compared to its rivals.

McLaren rookie Kevin Magnussen was the only other driver to break the 100-lap mark Tuesday, turning 102 laps and posting the fourth-fastest time of the day at 1 minute, 36.634 seconds.

Behind K-Mags was Williams pilot Valtteri Bottas, who was P5 on the day (1 minute, 37.305 seconds) despite running just 28 laps.

“Overall it was a good day as we managed to complete the program as planned,” Bottas said. “We then worked on set-up and we were quite experimental, so hopefully that will help in the next few races.”

Several other young guns also got in a good share of laps today in Bahrain. Russia’s Sergey Sirotkin logged 76 laps for Sauber, while Caterham’s Robin Frijns netted 63 before a hydraulic system leak ended his day early.

The toughest outing of the day belonged to Lotus and Pastor Maldonado, who could only grab 16 laps on the track before a pair of power unit-related issues stopped his progress.

“This is what testing is for, even though we would have preferred to have been able to complete more laps today,” said Maldonado. “I hope that Romain [Grosjean] can continue to work on our testing program tomorrow and hopefully have a more positive day.”

FORMULA ONE IN-SEASON TESTING – BAHRAIN, DAY 1
Unofficial Times
1. Nico Rosberg, Mercedes – 1 minute, 35.697 seconds, 121 laps
2. Nico Hulkenberg, Force India – 1 minute, 36.064 seconds, 69 laps
3. Fernando Alonso, Ferrari – 1 minute, 36.626s, 69 laps
4. Kevin Magnussen, McLaren – 1 minute, 36.634 seconds, 102 laps
5. Valtteri Bottas, Williams – 1 minute, 37.305 seconds, 28 laps
6. Max Chilton, Marussia – 1 minute, 37.678 seconds, 60 laps
7. Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull – 1 minute, 38.326 seconds, 91 laps
8. Sergey Sirotkin, Sauber – 1 minute, 39.023 seconds, 76 laps
9. Robin Frijns, Caterham – 1 minute, 40.027 seconds, 63 laps
10. Pastor Maldonado, Lotus – 1 minute, 40.183 seconds, 16 laps
11. Daniil Kvyat, Toro Rosso – 1 minute, 40.452 seconds, 67 laps

Sato back with Rahal Letterman Lanigan in 2020

INDYCAR Photo by Chris Owens
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MONTEREY, California – Team owner Bobby Rahal has solidified his 2020 NTT IndyCar Series lineup by announcing a contract extension with 101stIndianapolis 500 winner Takuma Sato for another season at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.

Rahal also told NBC Sports.com in an exclusive interview that as each day passes, it is becoming more unlikely that he will be able to expand to a three-driver team next season.

“With each passing day, the reality becomes less that we will have one,” Rahal told NBC Sports.com. “I don’t think it’s a dead issue at this stage, but if something is going to happen, it has to happen pretty quickly.

“We would like to, but only if it is right. I’m not interested in having a third car, just to say we have a third car.”

Sato has won three races with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in the last two seasons, including wins in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park in April and the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 at WeatherTech Raceway at Gateway in August.

He is a five-time IndyCar Series winner.

“He has developed a good relationship with engineer Eddie Jones, and they have had some pretty good races this year,” Rahal said. “They’ve had some that couple have been better but that is like anything in racing. Takuma is a very committed guy. There is some good chemistry between he and Eddie, and the team and it has produced some results.”

Sato will once again team up with fellow driver Graham Rahal.

“The challenge we face for both Graham and Takuma is to be more consistent,” Bobby Rahal explained. “We seem to be hot and cold. One weekend we are hot and the next weekend we are cold. If you look at Team Penske or Chip Ganassi Racing, they are pretty consistent. We need to figure out how to be that kind of a team. Our processes need to be better and that is our commitment to each other over the offseason, how to generate that consistency to fight for wins every race in the championship.”

At 42, Sato is one of the oldest drivers in the series, but he continues to get better. When he first arrived in the IndyCar Series in 2010, Sato had blazing speed, but often drove over the edge.

Simply put, he crashed a lot.

In recent years, Sato has been able harness that speed and it has helped him excel. He has a better understanding of the race-craft.

“He is making a lot fewer mistakes than he used to make,” Rahal said. “Some of that is having confidence in the car and the team. People forget, I retired when I was 45 and as still finishing on the podium. Takuma still has some good years left to win races and get on the podium.

“He works very hard off track. Sometimes, I think too hard to be honest because he is a very busy guy. We like him being on the team and having him as part of the team.”

Sato splits his time between his home in Tokyo with his family and his racing family in the United States. That makes him the most well-traveled driver in the series.

“Takuma was fundamental in NTT becoming the sponsor of the series,” Rahal said. “A lot of people don’t know that. He spends a lot of time in Japan taking care of his sponsors and it is demanding for sure.

“I think he travels too much. But, he’s not afraid to do it.”

He is also very popular with the sponsors on the team.

“Everybody likes Takuma,” Rahal said. “It’s fun to be around him.”

Sato first joined the team in 2012 and returned in 2018.  He has earned five wins in the series to date, three of which coming with the team.  The 2020 season will be his third consecutive with RLL, and fourth overall.

“I am very happy to continue our path together again after this season,” Sato said. “Every single member of the team is extremely loyal and have given me unbelievable support. I truly feel at home here and I am so proud of the team. We have had another great season this year and even had some tough times, but it only made our relationship stronger. I can’t thank Bobby, Mike (Lanigan), David (Letterman) and the entire team enough and I am looking forward to finishing the season strong and also looking forward to 2020.”

Sato has made 168 starts in the IndyCar Series since his rookie season in 2010.  His Indy car highlights include wins in the 2017 Indianapolis 500, 2013 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, 2018 Portland Grand Prix, 2019 Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama and Bommarito 500 at WWT Raceway, with three of the five coming with RLL.  Of his 12 podium finishes to date, eight have come with RLL and he has earned nine Indy car poles, two of which are with RLL.  Prior to joining the IndyCar Series, he competed in 90 Formula One races between 2002-2008 with his highest finish of third at the 2004 United States Grand Prix.