Takuma Sato looking forward to start of season, return of A.J. Foyt to track

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There’s something about the street course for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg that seems to bring out the best in Takuma Sato.

In the six years he’s raced on the temporary street circuit, Sato has had more success than bad luck. In 2011, he finished a then-career-best fifth (since bettered by his win at Long Beach in 2013).

In 2013, he started second and finished eighth. The following year, he started from the pole and finished seventh.

And now, with team owner A.J. Foyt to make his first appearance at a race since last July (and first appearance at St. Pete since 2014 when health issues kept him sidelined for the first four races in 2015), Sato has plenty of inspiration to do well in Sunday’s 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season opener.

“It’s in Florida! Who could complain about that?” Sato said when asked about this weekend’s event, via the team’s pre-race release. “I think St. Pete is a great venue for opening the season.

“The fans are very enthusiastic, the restaurants have great food, and normally it’s warm good weather. Also, the racing is very exciting, the street course is unique, technical, and has a few places with great overtaking opportunities.”

Getting to the front has proven difficult at times for Sato, although he did lead 11 laps in the 2012 race and 33 in 2014.

“As with all street circuits, their bumpy nature requires the car to be compliant, and it increases the amount of importance on tire contact patch,” Sato said. “We have a good idea of what to expect and will aim to develop and fine tune throughout the weekend to optimize the car setup for both qualifying and the race.”

Some strong results in recent testing at Sebring have the Japanese driver even more optimistic about a strong finish this Sunday.

“We had an extremely successful test in Sebring,” Sato said. “The ABC Supply crew did a fantastic job with the car preparation and we had a problem-free day.

“This allowed us to work methodically through our test plan and we discovered some useful information heading into the 2016 season. The pace of the car came easy and for the first time we were able to accomplish everything we set out to do during the day.

“We were able to manage a number of good test items and successfully gathered very valuable data. I felt good about the car but it was equally important to work closely together with all of the engineers as we are now a larger, new group. It felt very positive so I am happy.”

While Sebring is a closed course, it is still a track that is comparable to St. Petersburg in terms of setup and preparation.

“Sebring is a good track for us because it is the closest circuit we run where we can replicate a street-course in terms of bumpiness and a couple of tight corners,” Sato said. “However, Sebring’s grip level can be too high compared to a street-course so we have to be a little careful that we don’t chase the track too much.

“Also another important point is that Firestone provided street-course tires for this test which is a different construction and compound from road-course tires, so we can evaluate the car properly. Testing in Sebring is a good preparation for St. Pete.”

It was also a good venue to try out the new aero kit package for Honda in 2016.

The car feels more stable aerodynamically, so the new aero kit gives better consistency,” Sato said.

“Ultimately, the performance gain looks to come from the new engine.

“It’s a lot more powerful than last year’s engine, and it has improved a lot in its drivability.”

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Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
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Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed their new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with US-based Ford Motors in a press event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Team Principle Christian Horner. They are the only Formula 1 team to launch in the United States, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen had already wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

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Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
(Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Verstappen’s thoughts will inevitably turn to establishing a dynasty – and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his principle rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.