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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Starting lineup grid for IMSA Petit Le Mans: Tom Blomqvist puts MSR on pole position

Petit Le Mans lineup
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IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar championship contender Tom Blomqvist put the Meyer Shank Racing Acura at the front of the starting lineup for the Motul Petit Le Mans at Michelin Road Atlanta.

Blomqvist turned a 1-minute, 8.55-second lap on the 2.54-mile circuit Friday to capture his third pole position for MSR this season. Earl Bamber qualified second in the No. 02 Cadillac for Chip Ganassi Racing.

Ricky Taylor was third in the No. 10 Acura of Wayne Taylor Racing, which enters Saturday’s season finale with a 19-point lead over the No. 60 of Blomqvist and Oliver Jarvis (who will be joined by Helio Castroneves) for the 10-hour race.

PETIT LE MANS STARTING GRID: Click here for the starting lineup l Lineup by car number

PETIT LE MANS: Info on how to watch

With the pole, MSR sliced the deficit to 14 points behind WTR, which will field the trio of Taylor, Filipe Albuquerque and Brendon Hartley in Saturday’s race.

“We really needed to put the car in this kind of position,” Blomqvist said. “It makes our life a little less stressful tomorrow. It would have given the No. 10 a bit more breathing space. It’s going to be a proper dogfight tomorrow. The guys gave me such a great car. It’s been fantastic this week so far, and it really came alive. I’m hugely thankful to the boys and girls at MSR for giving me the wagon today to execute my job.

“That was a big effort from me. I knew how important it was. It’s just awesome for the guys to give them some sort of reward as well. It’s always nice to be quick. If you do the pole, you know you’ve got a quick car.”

Though WTR has a series-leading four victories with the No. 10, MSR won the Rolex 24 at Daytona and has five runner-up finishes along with its three poles.

The strong performances of the ARX-05s ensure that an Acura will win the final championship in IMSA’s premier Daytona Prototype international (DPi) division, which is being rebranded as Grand Touring Prototype in the move to LMDh cars next season.

Taylor qualified third despite sliding into the Turn 5 gravel during the closing minutes of qualifying while pushing to gain points.

“Qualifying was important for points,” Taylor said. “Going into it, if we outqualified the No. 60 Meyer Shank Acura, they had a lot to lose in terms of championship points. So, we were trying to increase the gap over 20 points which would’ve made a big difference for tomorrow. We would have loved to get the pole and qualify ahead of the No. 60, but in the scheme of the points, it didn’t change a whole lot. I’m feeling good since it’s such a long race, and the No. 10 Konica Minolta Acura team does such a good job strategizing and putting us in a good position.

“I’m very confident in our lineup and our team compared to them over the course of 10 hours. I’d put my two teammates up against those guys any day. I think we are all feeling optimistic and strong for tomorrow.”

In other divisions, PR1 Mathiasen Motorsports (LMP2), Riley Motorsports (LMP3), VasserSullivan (GTD Pro) and Paul Miller Racing (GTD) captured pole positions.

The broadcast of the 10-hour race will begin Saturday at 12:10 p.m. ET on NBC, moving at 3 p.m. to USA Network.


QUALIFYING

Results

Results by class

Fastest lap by driver

Fastest lap by driver after qualifying

Fastest lap by driver and class after qualifying

Fastest lap sequence in qualifying

Best sector times in qualifying

Time cards in qualifying

PRACTICE RESULTS: Session I l Session II l Session III