(Getty Images)

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

Leave a comment

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.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Dean Wilson’s life as a privateer reconnects the rider to his roots

Leave a comment

One of the added benefits of subscribing to NBC Sports Gold is the in-depth interviews from each Saturday’s action. Last week between the first and second rounds of qualification for the Glendale Supercross race, a relaxed and confident Dean Wilson joined Race Day Live’s Daniel Blair and Jim Holley to review his fourth-place finish in the season opener and his mindset moving forward.

Losing factory support from Rockstar / Husqvarna at the end of 2018 was not exactly what Wilson had in mind, but after getting off to a great start in the first two races this season, it may well have been a blessing in disguise.

The life of a privateer is not exactly relaxed, but it affords a rider the opportunity to call his own shots. For Wilson, it is also a way to reconnect with the grassroots feel that attracted him to Supercross in the first place.

“I think that’s what I like,” Wilson said on Race Day Live. “I think that’s the environment and atmosphere I like – it’s just more low key. At Anaheim I, you would think I was local racing at Glen Helen. I had a Sprinter and I had another trailer just to chill in, do my spins. It was so cold I had a little propane heater to warm me up. But I like that. That’s what works for me.”

MORE: Dean Wilson’s Cinderella story at Anaheim 

The program Wilson was able to put together during the offseason produced back-to back top 10s – a much better start to the 2019 season than he experienced last year.

In 2018, Wilson did not score a top 10 until his fourth feature at San Diego. His first top five would not come until late March in Indianapolis.

This year Wilson got the hole shot and led 14 laps at Anaheim in the opener before finishing fourth. Last week in Glendale, he finished eighth.

“What was going through my head was ‘it’s about time; it’s about five years too late to lead some laps here,’ ” Wilson described his emotion as he led at Anaheim. “It was nice because I did a lot of work in the off-season and my starts were really good. The thing is I haven’t over-analyzed my starts and practice.”

At Anaheim I, Wilson struggled with visibility as his goggles began to get fouled by mud. A once comfortable lead was eroded by Justin Barcia. With pressure from behind, Wilson made a minor mistake that was then compounded by lapped traffic.

“I was leading my laps; I was just trying to hit my marks. I was doing really well until I made a couple of mistakes. I couldn’t hit that middle double, double … the rut was getting real chewed out, but I was already on the right side where you couldn’t double the middle part so you had to go roll, roll, roll – and Barcia was already on me.”

Wilson’s pair of top 10s was enough to keep him fifth in the standings, three points behind Glendale’s winner Blake Baggett.

For more, watch the video above.

Next Race: Anaheim II Jan. 19, 11 p.m., NBCSN

Follow Dan Beaver on Twitter