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Takuma Sato enjoying return to Rahal, Letterman, Lanigan; already thinking of Indy 500 encore

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The countdown to the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500 has begun.

But for defending 500 winner Takuma Sato, the countdown began the day after he won the world’s biggest race last May, and has continued on during the offseason and into the new 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

“Every driver’s dream is to win the Indy 500, no matter who you are or where you are,” Sato told MotorSportsTalk recently. “You think of it a lot. Every month, there is some event for the 500 and I’ve really enjoyed promoting it. It was the biggest time in my life and I almost can’t believe it’s less than 60 days now for the 2018 Indy 500. It’s just an unbelievable thing.”

Sato won last year’s 500 with virtually no pressure on his shoulders coming into the race. As the checkered flag drew close, he wound up in the right place at the right time to become the first Japanese driver to win at the legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

But it’ll be a totally different feeling coming into this year’s race on May 27th.

“I’ve been in situations where there’s been a lot of pressure, and of course being an international driver, there’s a lot of pressure with that, too,” Sato said. “All in all, I think I enjoy it. But obviously, this year, the Indy 500 will be a completely different situation for me.

“Can you imagine 300,000 people coming to the track holding a ticket with your face on it? I just can’t imagine how it’s going to be like. And every time you go through Gate 2 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, there’s a massive picture of me promoting the race. That’s the biggest picture of me I’ve ever seen. It just makes me smile and makes me happy.

“I feel it’s going to be an incredible event, as usual, and for me personally, I think it’s an unbelievable experience and I just want to enjoy it.”

Sato is not with the same team he won last year’s Greatest Spectacle in Racing. He left Andretti Autosport after last season and has returned to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, who he raced one season for in 2012.

“Sure, even though the team expanded massively from the first time I was here, still the key persons are still there,” he said. “It feels very comfortable. The reason to go there was to have success for the new season. Everybody’s really pumped up and yeah, I feel really comfortable and happy.”

While there are still four other races (Phoenix, Long Beach, Birmingham and the Indy Grand Prix) before the 500, Sato is also looking forward to how RLL will fare together as an expanded team at Indianapolis.

“The team has such great engineering and now, working with Graham (Rahal) and my good friend Oriol Servia is joining the team (for the 500), the three of us working together, hopefully we have a competitive advantage and I’m certainly looking forward to it,” Sato said.

RLL got off to a strong start to 2018 with Rahal shaking off a last-place qualifying start to finish runner-up in the season-opening race at St. Petersburg on March 11. Sato, who qualified fifth, had an equally strong race as his teammate going until Scott Dixon went airborne late and punted Sato, who ultimately finished 12th.

“I was disappointed at St. Pete because it was just an unlucky race,” Sato said. “As a team, we really finishing strong with Graham, we learned tons of stuff and fans observed that it’s going to be an exciting season with the new package.

“It was a quite exciting race and for me to go through the incredibly busy and unbelievable off-season, getting used to the new team and doing winter tests and then St. Pete, really the last couple months were compressed, but I was really happy for everything. It’s fascinating to have a brand new car and I’m excited to make the car go fast.”

Speaking of the new car, it already is a big success among IndyCar drivers like Sato and fans.

“It looks so cool,” Sato said. “It looks so nice and low and wide. It’s kind of retro style, kind of like the old CART car. It’s just a great formula car and I love it.

“From the cockpit point of view, it doesn’t matter. Even last year’s package, like when we went to Road America, we ran a pretty low downforce package and that’s pretty much what we have with the new car, definitely less downforce than what we had last year.

“At St. Pete, we experienced it, cars really moving a lot and quite difficult to get good grip, but that’s the name of the sport and at least everybody’s in the same boat. We just try to make the best package from amongst the various things people are trying. From an engineering point of view, it’s a big challenge, but I really love racing this car.”

Next up for the series is back-to-back races, this Saturday night in Phoenix at ISM Raceway and on April 15 with the iconic Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, which Sato won in 2013.

“I had a really great race back in 2013 with A.J. (Foyt Racing),” Sato said. “Phoenix, honestly, I didn’t have necessarily a good record in history. Before, it wasn’t necessarily one of my favorite tracks, but we had a very successful test there in February.

“The last couple of years, we weren’t in the best of shape on short ovals, but at least with the new car and new package and everybody equal, it seems like we have quite a bit of good speed in testing. I’m very keen and excited to go back to Phoenix

“I’m really looking forward to having a good situation at Phoenix and of course Long Beach is one of the most iconic street courses in IndyCar. I hope we have a very strong race at both tracks this year.”

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F1 Preview: 2018 German Grand Prix

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The German Grand Prix continues its biennial presence on the Formula 1 calendar – it’s hosted F1 events in even numbered years since 2014 – as Formula 1 returns to the Hockenheimring this weekend.

The German fans will undoubtedly be joyful in Sebastian Vettel entering his home race in the championship lead, by nine points over Lewis Hamilton. Yet, somewhat surprisingly, Vettel despite being one of the most successful and decorated drivers of his generation, Vettel has won in Germany only once (2013, at the Nurburgring) and he has never won at Hockenheim.

Conversely, Hamilton has won in Germany three times, including twice at Hockenheim (2008 and 2016).

As such, Vettel will hope to add to his points lead over Hamilton with a win on home soil, though Hamilton may be equally as motivated after watching Vettel his own home race at Silverstone two weeks ago.

Nevertheless, their 2018 championship duel will most certainly continue to be closely fought.

Talking points ahead of the German Grand Prix are below.

A Different World in 2018 vs. 2016

Nico Rosberg during the Formula One Grand Prix of Germany at Hockenheimring on July 31, 2016 in Hockenheim, Germany. Photo: Getty Images

The Formula 1 landscape looked completely different back in 2016, the last time Formula 1 visited the Hockenheimring. Bernie Ecclestone was still the chief executive of Formula 1.

Nico Rosberg was partnering Lewis Hamilton in the Mercedes team, and was on his way to a driver’s championship that year.

Vettel and teammate Kimi Raikkonen were in the midst of a slump as Ferrari went winless in 2016.

The world was still getting to know a then 18-year-old Max Verstappen, the young Dutchman having won the Spanish Grand Prix in May that year.

And the cars looked completely different, with skinnier and taller rear wings and taller rear tires highlighting the appearance differences.

In 2018, Vettel and Ferrari might be the strongest combination. Rosberg is long from Mercedes, and Valtteri Bottas is doing his best to shine in the wake of Hamilton’s enormous shadow.

Verstappen is still a rising star, though he has come under fire at times for overly aggressive driving and his Red Bull teammate Daniel Ricciardo has garnered more headlines this year, with a pair of race wins alongside his status as an F1 free agent after 2018.

In short, the Formula 1 landscape is hardly recognizable from what it was back in 2016. And even though Hamilton won that year, followed by Ricciardo and Verstappen in second and third, very little will carry over from that race two years ago.

Hamilton, Mercedes Look to Take Back Momentum from Vettel, Ferrari

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND – JULY 08: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes WO9 leads Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF71H on track during the Formula One Grand Prix of Great Britain at Silverstone on July 8, 2018 in Northampton, England. (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)

The seesaw championship fight has tilted back in the favor of Ferrari, with Vettel leading Hamilton after finishes of third and first in Austria and England. Hamilton, meanwhile, DNF’ed in Austria and came home second in England after spinning on Lap 1.

Hamilton trails by nine points, but this is hardly an unfamiliar position for Hamilton in 2018 – he started the year trailing Vettel until he took the championship lead for the first time after the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

Both teams have had multiple swings of momentum this year – Vettel won the opening two races before finishes of eighth in China (he spun after contact with Verstappen) and a pair of fourth place efforts in Azerbaijan and Spain before getting two more wins in Canada and England.

Hamilton, meanwhile stumbled out of the gates somewhat with finishes of second and third before taking a fortuitous win in Azerbaijan and two dominant wins in Spain and France before the misfortune in Austria.

All told the ebb and flow of the 2018 season seems to change with every race, and while Vettel now leads Hamilton again, things could change this weekend.

Raikkonen Trying to Fend off Ricciardo, Bottas

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND – JULY 06: Kimi Raikkonen of Finland driving the (7) Scuderia Ferrari SF71H on track during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Great Britain at Silverstone on July 6, 2018 in Northampton, England. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Kimi Raikkonen is somewhat of a forgotten man this Formula 1 season, but he does rank third in the championship at the moment, 10 points ahead of Ricciardo and 12 points ahead of Bottas.

However, both Ricciardo and Bottas are likely thought to have had better seasons – Ricciardo has the aforementioned wins (at China and Monaco) and the only thing that has kept Bottas from the top step of the podium is a string of horrendous luck.

However, Raikkonen, to his credit, has picked up the pieces whenever others around him have faltered, and he has six podium finishes through 10 races.

However, in order to fully silence any critics, and maybe even keep his Ferrari drive, Raikkonen would do well to get a win in 2018.

Misc.

  • The driver challenging Raikkonen’s position within Ferrari is Sauber’s Charles Leclerc. The Ferrari junior driver has five points finishes, and that could have been six if not for a pit stop error at Silverstone that caused him to leave his pit stall with a loose wheel – it forced him to retire. Leclerc’s star is on the rise, and he could shine again in Germany.
  • Nico Hulkenberg is the “other” German driver on the grid. And though he has a 24 Hours of Le Mans win to his name, he is yet to finish on the podium in an F1 race. The Renault package may not be a podium threat in usual circumstances, but if he stays clean and others falter, he could sneak in there…and doing so in his home race would make that overdue podium even sweeter.
  • After a pair of eighth place finishes, Fernando Alonso has helped McLaren at least stop the bleeding after a dismal stretch of races from Monaco through France in which the team scored zero points. However, the team still has a long way to go, and Germany could be another weekend of struggles.

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