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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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Three in position to capture World Rally Championship title at Rally Australia

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COFFS HARBOUR, Australia (AP) Defending champion Sebastien Ogier goes into this weekend’s Rally Australia with a chance to clinch his sixth World Rally Championship in a row. Thierry Neuville, a runner-up four times but never a champion, hopes to change the world order.

Neuville led the series for much of the season but Ogier’s win in Britain and a second place in Spain has given the Frenchman 204 points, three ahead of Neuville, heading into the final rally of the championship.

“We are not the best friends but we are rivals and respect each other for our performances,” Neuville said Wednesday. “I’ve been second many times in the championship now, we are so close to the main goal.”

“If we need to take more risks because we need to pass Sebastien we’re going to try,” the Belgian driver added, “we’ll take the maximum risks.”

Ogier says the feeling is mutual when it comes to his main rival.

“We are different, definitely, but most important we’re in a great fight together and respect each other for that,” Ogier said. “It’s about trying to beat each other and do it with respect.”

Ott Tanak of Estonia sits 23 points behind and with 30 points for a win in Australia, and other results going his way, he could also capture the world title.

Ogier will be hoping for some Friday morning rain to settle the dust and gravel before he sets off first on what will be more than 300 kilometers (180 miles) of timed racing through forests on the New South Wales state’s north coast, about 530 kilometers (325 miles) north of Sydney.

More AP sports: https://apnews.com/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports