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Close calls force Indy 500 drivers to learn lessons, coping skills

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Takuma Sato learned a tough, painful lesson from his spectacular final lap crash at the 2012 Indianapolis 500.

Eventually, it paid dividends.

The Japanese driver believes he might not be the defending Indy winner heading into Sunday’s race had it not been for the ill-fated passing attempt that sent him spinning hard into the first-turn wall and gave Dario Franchitti his third and final race win six years ago.

“It helped me a lot mentally, physically and technically,” Sato said. “You don’t understand the challenge of winning unless you are there. Last year, I attacked it (passing Helio Castroneves) in a very different way from how I tried to pass Dario.”

Not all drivers are as fortunate as Sato, and for them the continual stories, constant questions and countless replays never seem to go away.

Michael Andretti has held the distinction of leading more laps at Indianapolis than any non-winner of the race for years. His father, Mario, kept coming close after his 1969 win but never got a second 500 win. Michael’s son, Marco, was actually in position to end the Andretti curse in 2006 – until Sam Hornish Jr. passed him in the front straightaway and won in the third-closest finish in race history.

Scott Goodyear had three chances in the 1990s and all ended in frustration.

In 1992, he started last and finished second to Al Unser Jr. in the race’s closest finish (0.043 seconds). In 1995, he had the lead with 10 laps to go when officials ruled Goodyear passed the pace car on a restart and assessed a penalty. When he refused to stop, he was black-flagged and finished 14th. Two years later, Goodyear was passed by teammate Arie Luyendyk with six laps to go and missed again on an even later restart because the flagman waved the green while the yellow lights remained on.

Perhaps nobody has reflected more on his close call than JR Hildebrand, who crashed on the final turn of the 2011 race while trying to avoid a slower car and skidded across the finish line in second place. He was named the race’s rookie of the year, not much of a consolation prize.

Since then, the 29-year-old from California has started six more 500s, led just six laps and never finished higher than sixth. Each year he returns and the reminders are all around. Hildebrand has learned how to cope.

He doesn’t watch the replays much. He clears his head, and when the questions begin, he answers every one honestly, as does Marco Andretti .

“I think the next year, I was so bound and determined because I was focused on winning this thing as soon as possible,” Hildebrand said before qualifying 27th for Dreyer & Reinbold. “That’s still probably the wrong attitude to have but what I’ve learned is that you really have to focus on all the little things.”

Even for winners, like Sato, the thought of the one that got away tends to linger longer than a victory celebration.

Just ask Castroneves, who won his first two races on Indy’s 2.5-mile oval in 2001 and 2002 before finishing second to teammate Gil de Ferran in 2003.

Over his next 14 starts here, the Brazilian for Team Penske has five top-five finishes – one win and three seconds, including last year to Sato. He is starting eighth Sunday as he again tries to become the fourth member of the four-time winners club.

“It sucks, that’s the feeling because so few people are able to win the race,” Castroneves said, referring to second place. “When you’re that close for 500 miles and when you’re so close to winning it, it just sucks.”

Somehow Sato managed to parlay the agony and frustration of losing such a big race on such a grand stage into becoming a better driver.

And on Sunday, Castroneves, Hildebrand and Marco Andretti will be among the many trying to duplicate what Sato managed to do last year while the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver tries to become the first back-to-back winner since Castroneves.

“Looking back on it, at least you know what you really needed to do to win the Indy 500,” Sato said. “You just have to believe that you can make it back again and that’s why you come back with hopes and dreams.”

Formula One: Haas fighting for ‘best of the rest’ in Year 3

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AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The third season for Haas F1 has been its best, even if it’s been a bit bizarre.

Formula One’s only U.S.-based team has scored the most points in its young history and overcome some serious bumbles early to compete with – and beat – some of the legacy team names in F1.

Haas heads into this week’s U.S. Grand Prix in a tough season-ending fight with Renault for the “best of the rest” title among the teams outside of the Big Three of Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull.

“It’s the best battle of the field. It’s very tight. It’s going to go to the last lap of the race in Abu Dhabi, while I think the world championship is probably going to go this weekend,” said Haas’ French driver Romain Grosjean, who signed with the team before their first season.

“To rise as quickly as we’ve done hasn’t been seen in Formula One, I don’t think,” said his Danish teammate Kevin Magnussen.

Haas launched with a surprise in 2016 and has been rising ever since.

Haas scored points in its first race in 2016, and in 2017 had both cars finish in the top 10 for the first time at Monte Carlo, the biggest race on the annual calendar. A strong run over the last 10 races of this season has Haas just eight points behind Renault in the race for fourth place with four races left.

The 2018 season looks to finish better than it started.

After Haas scored the team’s best-ever qualifying at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix, neither car finished the race. Magnussen and Grosjean both left pit stops on consecutive laps with unsecured wheels and had to stop. The team was fined for sending the cars out in unsafe conditions.

“That was extremely, extremely disappointing” Magnussen said “We are still showing signs of immaturity at certain moments.”

Other problems followed. A month later in Azerbaijan, Grosjean fought his way from the back row into sixth before he drove straight into the wall while following a safety car. Grosjean felt horrible, but blamed one of the season’s most bizarre incidents on an errant flip of a steering wheel switch that he said upset the car’s brake balance and sent him spinning into the barrier.

More valuable points were lost in Italy when the floor of Grosjean’s car was deemed illegal and he was disqualified from sixth place. Haas appealed and is awaiting a decision on points that would close the gap with Renault with a stroke of a pen. Despite the gaffes, Grosjean has finished in the top 10 four times in the last seven races.

“I got eight points stolen in Monza,” Grosjean said. “The results are coming with the kind of performance Haas signed me for in the first place.”

After the problems, Grosjean admitted it was a relief to extend his contract with Haas for 2019. He and Magnussen will be teammates again.

“When I joined, I didn’t know what Haas was going to be. I think they gave me some credit for that when I had a tough time earlier this year and turned things around, Grosjean said.

Haas Team Principal Guenther Steiner said he and team owner Gene Haas saw value in staying with drivers who knew the Haas cars.

“Just to change a driver for the same level of skill, you go backward,” Steiner said. “There’s not a lot of better drivers out there, so why should we change them? Stay the same and mature quicker.”

The question now is how high can Haas go?

The Haas business model – which has drawn complaints from its middle-of-the-pack rivals – has it buying parts and engines, most notably from Ferrari. It keeps costs down but creates a performance ceiling that Haas is unlikely to break through.

“We are not developing parts for our car,” Grosjean said. “So far it hasn’t been a problem. If one day we start to beat Ferrari, it’s not going to work.”

Steiner said a top three finish isn’t realistic, not against teams with much bigger budgets, development and staff.

“The first year we didn’t finish last, the second year we didn’t finish last and now we are fighting for fourth. We must be doing something right,” Steiner said. “How do we get to that next step? Where do we go from here? Right now, there is no answer.”

That can be the frustrating part of an otherwise very good season.

A taste of success begs for more. For the 26-year-old Magnussen, he can be good with Haas, maybe even the “best of the rest.” But that’s a career definition no driver wants.

“It’s been six years since I won a race in motorsport,” Magnussen said. “I miss winning. Badly.”