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

(Getty Images)
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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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Lessons learned in three rounds of Extreme E pay huge dividends in the Copper X Prix for Tanner Foust

Foust Copper X Prix
McLaren Racing
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To paraphrase the Grateful Dead, what a long, unique trip it’s been for Tanner Foust in his first season with the Extreme E series as he took his early season lessons to Chile to compete in the Copper X Prix. And he’s learned his lessons well.

In February, McLaren announced they would expand their motorsports program with an Extreme E entry. They signed two talented rally drivers in Foust and Emma Gilmour – and paired them for the opening round in Neom, Saudi Arabia with just a few days of testing under their belts. Baked by the Arabian desert sun, it was trial by fire.

The duo performed well in their debut, advancing into the final round and finishing fifth. As Extreme E headed to another desert halfway across the globe for Round 4, it was a good time to catch up with Foust and ask about McLaren’s progress. The Copper X Prix was held this past weekend in one of the most extreme regions in the world: the Atacama Desert.

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“The shock going into the first race was the speed,” Foust told NBC Sports. “It was much higher than we had tested. We spent a lot of time around 100 miles per hour [in race trim] and our testing speeds were more in the 60 to 70-mile range. Then, once we sort of got around that, the car got updated so you can drive it even faster.”

In rally racing, some incidents are out of a driver’s control. Even peeking around another car can be dangerous because of potholes that have recently been gouged in the ground or large bushes that seem to sprout up between laps. A couple of rollovers brought Foust back to earth – but the pace was there and that was important.

“We had some challenges this season,” Foust said prior to the Copper X Prix. “We had a good start; made the final, which is a difficult thing to do in this series. I had two rolls in the first three events, but I have improved each time. Now we come into Round 4 in Chile in a pretty strong position. We have competitive times as a team. We are communicating really well and have our heads around this Odyssey vehicle.”

Foust’s words proved to be prophetic.

He won the Crazy Race – Extreme E’s version of a Last Chance Qualifier – and did so after passing the field. It was the same manner in which he qualified for Saudi Arabia’s finale, but this time things would be better. There were those hard-earned lessons on which to lean – and Foust had reps under his belt. He was not going to be caught off guard by any random obstacles.

Tanner Foust passed Sebastien Loeb heading to the Switch Zone in the Copper X Prix. (Photo by Sam Bagnall / LAT Images)

In the Copper X Prix finale, he pressured one of the best rally drivers in the history of the sport.

Pitching sideways through a tight left-hander late in his stint, Foust put his McLaren Extreme E Odyssey at the head of the pack in front of Sebastien Loeb as they headed to the Switch Zone. There, he would turn the car over to his co-driver Gilmour.

The Extreme E series pairs male and female drivers with both taking a turn behind the wheel.

After the driver change, Gilmour lost the lead momentarily to Loeb’s teammate Cristina Gutierrez, but as they charged toward the finish line, she surged ahead and crossed under the checkers first.

“What an improvement for the team over this year,” Foust said after the race. “We have struggled through some of the events, being in our first year in competition. We showed true pace this weekend; overtaking Sebastien Loeb was a highlight.

“Emma put in a great run in the Final. I was fortunate to go from last to first in the Crazy Race and then first in the Final but with some flag penalties, we had 20 seconds added to our time, which put us into fifth. It was a great feeling crossing the line first, I love this wide style track and the NEOM McLaren Odyssey was fantastic here.

“Hopefully we can continue that momentum into Uruguay.”

Loeb and Gutierrez were elevated to the top of the podium, but no one can take away the feeling of crossing under the checkers first.


Racing Responsibly

Since cars were first invented, racing has played a socially responsible role by improving safety. As Earth reaches a tipping point with climate change, racing needs to adapt to these new needs and requirements, which is where Extreme E’s unique strategy becomes increasingly important.

The Extreme E experience is more than simple racing. Each race is accompanied by a legacy program designed to offset damage done by climate change and to erase the footprint caused by the events.

Foust, a biology major from the University of Colorado, was given the chance to rekindle his interest and give back to the environment ahead of the Copper X Prix.

The Atacama is the oldest desert in the world at 150 million years. It is the driest place on earth and has the highest degree of ultraviolet light. And yet somehow life perseveres through underground rivers with oases dating back to Incan times. Foust participated in preparing a local habitat for the reintroduction of a critically endangered water frog to Chile’s longest river, the Loa, which snakes its way through the desert.

“I’m loving the experience,” Foust said. “I’m putting on a lot of Chapstick, a lot of sunscreen. What a fascinating part of the world. I never would have come here otherwise.

“I honestly am very honored to be a part of this sport. I am a huge believer in the fact that motorsports has done us good in the last 100 years. I think we benefit every single time we put our seatbelts on and drive down the road to the lessons learned in racing since the turn of the century. And I really hope motorsports continues that tradition.

“I think that motorsports like [Extreme E] does it in a responsible way, a gender-neutral way and a carbon-neutral way.”