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Sato, RLL top opening test session; A.J. Foyt Racing also shines at ISM Raceway

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The opening session of Verizon IndyCar Series’ open test at ISM Raceway in Phoenix saw a surprise near the top of the leaderboard as Takuma Sato, in the final minutes of the opening session, went to the top of the leaderboard.

Sato, on his return to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing – he raced with them during the 2012 season – turned an average speed of 187.022 mph, the only lap above 187 mph during the opening session, in his No. 30 Mijack Honda.

“It was a good first session, getting the feel of the car the new aero (kit),” Sato said in a video that Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing shared on their twitter page. “It’s obviously very, very light on downforce. You have to really work and the car is moving a lot. But, we’re working step by step with (teammate Graham Rahal) and I think he had a very good baseline, so I was able to do a good lap time in the end.”

Teammate Graham Rahal raved about the performance of the new aero kit, asserting a great amount of confidence in the car’s potential.

“It’s the most fun I’ve had on a short oval in years,” he said on the team’s twitter page. “I think you guys are going to love it. The car doesn’t obviously corner as quick, but it accelerates down the straightaways a lot better.”

Behind Sato, Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud put his No. 22 Menards Chevrolet in second, while the A.J. Foyt Racing duo of Tony Kanaan and Matheus Leist put in somewhat surprising performances to end up third and fourth early on.

In fact, prior to the final minutes, Kanaan led much of the session, despite turning his best lap relatively early on – he did so on his eighth lap of running.

Team owner A.J. Foyt spoke with a sense of optimism about his team’s outlook.

“We’ve made a lot of changes, a lot of team changes, driver (changes). I don’t like running tenth. I had good drivers last year and a good crew. But we’re just trying to move our operation up. So far everything’s looking pretty good,” he told Katie Hargitt during the streaming coverage for the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.

Sebastien Bourdais rounded out the top 5 in his No. 19 Dale Coyne Racing Honda.

Results can be found here. The second session of the day begins at 8:00 p.m. ET later tonight and will be streamed live on IndyCar’s website.

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Mario Andretti says Colton Herta could be next American star in F1

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Mario Andretti’s last Formula One victory is also the last by an American driver in more than 42 years on the international open-wheel road racing series.

If you had told Andretti that while he was celebrating on the Grand Prix of the Netherlands podium on Aug. 27, 1978 at the Vandzoort circuit, he wouldn’t have believed it.

“Absolutely not,” Andretti told Kyle Petty during the most recent “Coffee With Kyle” episode (video above). “It’s a shame. Somehow we have so much talent here, and either there’s no invitation or something there. But I think it’s time to give some of this young talent that, in my opinion, is absolutely capable.”

The Dutch GP was the last of Andretti’s 12 victories in F1 and came during his championship season. No one since has come close to matching his success in F1.

Mario Andretti drives his Lotus-Ford to victory in the 1978 Grand Prix of the Netherlands (Bernard Cahier/Getty Images).

Andretti’s son, Michael, took a full-time ride with McLaren in 1993 but left with three races remaining in a season marred by crashes and mechanical problems.

Scott Speed was the last American to run a full F1 season in 2006, and Alexander Rossi made the most recent F1 start by a U.S. driver in 2015. Rossi has said he has no desire to return to racing in Europe after winning the 2016 Indianapolis 500 and becoming an IndyCar championship contender.

But Mario Andretti believes Andretti Autosport has another rising star with F1-caliber ability.

“Colton Herta is one that comes to mind,” Mario Andretti said. “As a young lad, his dad sent him to Europe, he was doing Formula 3, and he knows most of the circuits there. He’s trained. He’s showed in his rookie season and won some premium races at COTA (and Laguna Seca), beat two of the very best Indy has to offer (in) Will Power and Scott Dixon.

“This is one kid I’d love to see him get a break over there to fly the U.S. colors again.”

Herta, 20, seems interested in exploring an F1 leap over the next few years. After winning Sept. 13 at Mid-Ohio from the pole position (his third career victory in the NTT IndyCar Series), the No. 88 Dallara-Honda driver is ranked fourth in the standings in his sophomore year and regarded as one of the series’ top prospects.

Herta recently told RACER.com “I’d love to give Formula 1 a crack” but said he also would be happy driving in IndyCar and IMSA.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who told Petty about spending several years with his family in an Italian refugee camp before coming to America, Mario Andretti said F1 brought an enormous sense of patriotic pride.

“Formula One is like the Olympics in a sense,” he said. “You’re in a different country, a different continent. When you earn that highest step of the podium, they play your national anthem. That’s when you take nothing for granted. You feel like I’m representing my country, and the proudest moments are those.

“I’d just like to see some other American drivers experience that. It’s time.”

Mario Andretti with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton before the Nov. 22, 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).

During the “Coffee With Kyle” conversation, Andretti also discussed:

–His versatility as a winner in IndyCar, sports cars, NASCAR and Formula One;

–His 1967 Daytona 500 victory and how he enjoyed racing with crew chief Jake Elder at the famed Holman-Moody team;

Mario Andretti Colton Herta
Mario Andretti and Kyle Petty saluted “The King” by wearing their Richard Petty-style hats during the latest “Coffee With Kyle” (NBCSN).

–Why he delayed his entry to F1 for a few years because of his earnings power in IndyCar. “I always say I’d race for free, but at the same time, you’re thinking of family and the future,” he said. “It was in the back of your mind that you can’t give up the earning power of IndyCar. That kept me from going full time in Formula One, but I always said that sometime in my career, I’d have to devote a period to Formula One.”

–On what it was like racing in an era when driver deaths were more prevalent. “If you’re going to do this, you’re not going to dwell on those negatives,” Andretti said. “There’s no way. You knew it was present. Especially in the ‘60s at the beginning of the season at the drivers meetings, you couldn’t help but look around and say, ‘I wonder who is not going to be here at the end of the season.’ We’d lose four to five guys. In ’64, we lost six guys.

“It’s something if you dwell on that, you’re going to take on a different profession. It’s a desire and love to want to drive that overcame all that and then the confidence it’s not going to happen to me. And then you pray.”

Watch the full “Coffee With Kyle” episode in the video above or by clicking here.

Mario Andretti looks on before the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26, 2019 (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).