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Sato impresses on return to Rahal Letterman Lanigan in Phoenix test

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Takuma Sato’s original tenure with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in 2012 showed promise, the combination scoring two podiums together that year, but was marred by several crashes, most infamously a last-lap crash at the Indianapolis 500 as Sato battled for the win with Dario Franchitti.

Sato’s return to RLL may also prove to be memorable, but if the Verizon IndyCar Series’ open test at ISM Raceway at Phoenix is any indication, it may be memorable for much better reasons.

Put simply, Sato was in dominant form during testing, going fastest in three of four sessions completed between Friday and Saturday, along with turning the fastest lap of the weekend at an average speed of 189.855 mph.

While acknowledging there remains a lot to learn, Sato was very upbeat about his debut performance with the team.

“The open test was very successful, I would say,” Sato revealed. “There were a lot of things to do, and lots of things to be tried. I think over the course of two days we learned a lot. The new car is great, definitely more exercise for the drivers, definitely busier with low downforce. We did qualifying simulations and race traffic runs. I think the Rahal Letterman Lanigan team is really strong, so I’m really looking forward to two more road course tests and hopefully we’ll be ready for (the season opener) in St. Petersburg.”

Teammate Graham Rahal, who was also very quick and was fastest during the Friday night session, was equally upbeat about Sato’s performance, especially as it relates to improving the entire program.

“I think it’s already helping,” Rahal asserted in an interview with NBCSN pit reporter Katie Hargitt during streaming coverage for the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network. “Our comments are very similar to one another, which is good. He’s got Eddie Jones over there, who’s been my engineer the last few years and Eddie’s an amazing guy and a great engineer and I think he’s really going to help Takuma a lot, as he did (with) me.”

Rahal added that Sato has remained close with the Rahals even after departing the team in 2012, and that close relationship has helped them immediately gel back together.

“My Dad and Takuma always had a very close relationship. And even when he left, even before last year when he went to Andretti Autosport, he was trying to put a deal together to come back to Dad. So, they’ve been very, very close. Steve Fusek, who manages Taku, he’s a great friends of ours. It was the right fit for us.”

Further, Rahal asserted that Sato’s positive spirit is a perfect fit within the team and adds to the strong working relationship that already exists within the team.

“Takuma is such a happy spirit, he’s a guy who’s always smiling, a guy that I think can really rally the troops around him. And that’s important for the fit of our team,” Rahal finished. “Our guys are all really relaxed. Everybody has fun here. I think that’s why we’ve had success. And whoever slotted into that second car needed to fit that mold. And I think we’ve been fortunate that it has worked.”

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing has two more tests, at Barber Motorsports Park and Sebring International Raceway, before the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 11.

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Tequila Patron to end ESM and IMSA partnerships after 2018 season

Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Earlier on Monday, Tequila Patron, a long-time sponsor in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, both at the team level – they have a long standing partnership with Tequila Patron ESM – and the series level, announced that they will be ending their sponsorships at the end of the 2018 season.

After sponsoring Highcroft Racing in 2008 and 2009 in the American Le Mans Series, Tequila Patron and ESM formed a partnership in 2010 to launch their own team. Since then, they have scored overall wins in the Rolex 24 at Daytona, Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring, and the Petit Le Mans. They have also competed internationally, in both Prototype and GT categories.

“On behalf of the entire Extreme Speed Motorsports organization, it has been an honor to represent such an amazing brand for the past 13 years,” said team co-owner Scott Sharp via a team release.

“I have the deepest gratitude for all of (Patron CEO and ESM co-founder) Ed Brown’s support. Together we have tackled various challenges, won races at each step, and built ESM into such an incredible team. Simultaneously, it has been thrilling to watch Ed and his team build the Patrón brand in a meteoric fashion and along the way become an icon in the motorsports world! We will miss not carrying the now infamous green and black livery, but the same passion for excellence will remain!”

IMSA President Scott Atherton also expressed gratitude toward Patron for their long-time involvement.

“IMSA and Patron Spirits have enjoyed a fantastic partnership for more than a decade. Tequila Patron rose through the IMSA ranks, from a high-profile team sponsor with Patron Highcroft Racing beginning in 2008, through its entitlement sponsorship of the Patron GT3 Challenge starting in 2009, and its presenting sponsorship of the American Le Mans Series beginning in 2010,” Atherton detailed.

He continued, “Tequila Patron continued in a prominent position as the American Le Mans Series merged with GRAND-AM to create the new IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and has been our entitlement partner for the Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup since 2014 in addition to its longstanding support of the Tequila Patron ESM race team and its pair of Nissan DPi race cars.

“All associated with IMSA – competitors, promoter partners, series officials and fans – will miss the iconic Tequila Patrón brand next year. On behalf of IMSA, we thank CEO Ed Brown and Tequila Patron for all they have done over the many years to help us grow IMSA and the sport as a whole. We’re more proud than words can express to have counted Tequila Patron among our family of premium brand partners.”

Team co-owner Scott Sharp, in a story posted on SportsCar365, asserted that the ESM team has every intention of continuing in 2019.

“We’re working on a number of options,” Sharp said. “Obviously I think we’ve singly got the best team we’ve ever had, personnel-wise. Having been refining over the years and making selected additions, we’ve gotten ourselves to be super strong. The goal is keeping everyone together. We’re working through a few different options that will hopefully allow us to do that.”

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