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Takuma Sato ready to defend Indy 500 victory with new team

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The fans lined up one by one in the most orderly fashion, waiting for their chance to take a photograph or snag an autograph from the first Japanese winner of the Indianapolis 500.

Good thing they were patient, too.

Takuma Sato spent time chatting with every single one of them.

The meet-and-greet came during a triumphant tour of Japan late last year, which included stops at the Twin Ring Motegi racetrack, Mt. Fuji and the Tokyo headquarters of Honda. Along for the ride was the massive Borg-Warner Trophy, with the face of Sato now molded into it alongside the rest of the Indy 500 champions, as it left the United States for the very first time.

“The fans were overwhelming,” recalled Scott Gallett, a vice president at BorgWarner Inc., who was on the trip as the trophy’s caretaker. “We had people that came to multiple events. They’d just follow us around. And it was something to see such an appreciation for Takuma and what he’d accomplished.”

The 41-year-old Sato may not carry the name recognition of Unser or Andretti even after winning last year’s race for Andretti Autosport. But with a quick smile, easy laugh and ebullient personality, he was nonetheless a popular champion, so much so that nobody seemed to care a whole lot that he denied perpetual fan-favorite Helio Castroneves from joining the hallowed club of four-time winners.

That was just in America, too. Sato was positively revered in Japan, where he first shot to stardom years ago driving in Formula One, far and away its most popular motorsports series.

When he first returned home last June to celebrate his win, hundreds of fans and media were on hand to greet him at Narita Airport. And during a four-day victory tour in the Japanese capital, he visited the world-famous Shibuya Cross intersection – Tokyo’s version of New York City’s Times Square – where the finish of the Indy 500 was shown on a giant video screen.

The love affair continued into this season, too.

Sato threw out ceremonial first pitches for Cubs and Angels games. He got to spend some time with baseball sensation Shohei Ohtani, bringing two of Japan’s most popular sports stars together.

“I’ve had so many different things and people I’ve met – Olympians, baseball plays. Yes, Shotani,” Sato said last week, shortly before surviving bump day to make the 33-car field for Sunday’s race.

“Baseball, you know, I like it but I never played in my life, so I never thought I’d get to throw out a first pitch,” he said. “Motor racing is big but baseball is the national sport.”

There are a few reasons why Sato has been in such high demand.

For one thing, he has a go-for-broke style that resonates among auto racing fans regardless of nationality. He’s willing to push the limit, even if it means crashing out in search of the win.

That was the case in 2012, when he challenged Dario Franchitti for the lead on the final lap. Sato was pushed low, lost control and the two cars clipped tires, sending him into the wall. Franchitti held on to win the race while Sato, despite his disappointment, was gracious in defeat.

That’s the other big reason he’s in demand: His personality is magnetic. He’s the kind of driver that fans can’t help but cheer for, and he returns their love for him in kind.

“Sometimes it’s tiring,” he said of the constant adoration, “but I really appreciate it.”

The Indy 500 victory was without question the biggest moment of Sato’s career. He’d only won one other IndyCar race, back in 2013, and managed one podium finish in 44 races in Formula One. Yet it showed once more how much different winning can be at the Brickyard.

There are no victory tours for winning elsewhere, no photo ops at Mt. Fuji, and Honda officials are less inclined to fete you at world headquarters.

Now the trick is to back up that victory.

Sato is driving for his third team in three years in Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, and recently ran in the top 10 at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. He’s now teammates with Graham Rahal and Oriol Servia with team owner and former Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal serving as his strategist when the green flag flies on Sunday.

“I think we’ve got as strong a group as any team out there,” Bobby Rahal said. “I think with the group we have, we have three pretty strong prospects for the 500, and I’m pretty excited about that.”

Who knows? Maybe the slight-as-a-pixie Sato can become the first repeat winner since Castroneves more than a decade ago, and embark on another triumphant tour of Japan.

One thing is certain: The fans would surely show up.

“He’s always been so fantastic to work with. Very humble, doesn’t ever think he deserves it,” Gallett said. “Of course, he does. He deserves everything he’s gotten.”

F1 Preview – 2018 French Grand Prix

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It’s hard to believe that the French Grand Prix, the oldest grand prix event on the planet, as it dates back to June of 1906, was ever removed from the Formula 1 calendar.

Alas, not since 2008 at Magny-Cours has Formula 1 held a race on French soil. Yet, that all changes this weekend, as Formula 1 visits the Circuit Paul Ricard for its first French race in a decade.

Formula 1 teams are not strangers to Paul Ricard. It has been a popular testing facility for years, as evidenced by the below photo from 2016, featuring Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari in a wet tire test.

LE CASTELLET, FRANCE – JANUARY 26: Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Scuderia Ferrari drives during wet weather tire testing at Circuit Paul Ricard on January 26, 2016 in Le Castellet, France. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

However, in terms of racing, Paul Ricard has also been absent from the calendar for quite a long time – the last time Formula 1 race at Paul Ricard was in 1990. Alain Prost won for Ferrari that day.

1990: Alain Prost of France punches the air in celebration after passing the chequered flag in his Scuderia Ferrari to win the French Grand Prix at the Paul Ricard circuit in Le Beausset, France. Mandatory Credit: Pascal Rondeau/Allsport

As such, despite being a known quantity as a testing facility, how a race weekend will shake out is anybody’s guess.

And what’s more, it marks the beginning of three consecutive race weekends – The French Grand Prix, The Austrian Grand Prix, and The British Grand Prix – which F1 teams and drivers are calling “the triple header.”

Talking points ahead of the French Grand Prix are below.

A Journey Into the Unknown?

Like all new venues, or resurrected and refurbished ones in this case, the Circuit Paul Ricard represents somewhat of an unknown, as there’s no available race data to make predictions off of.

And the 3.61-mile, 15-turn track itself represents a range of challenges. It has fast corners, like Turns 1 and 2 (S de la Verrerie), a technical section between Turns 3 and 7 (Virage de l’Hotel through the Mistral Straight Start), and a 1.1-mile straightaway in the Mistral Straight, though it is separated by a chicane (Turns 8 and 9).

Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff discussed the challenge of the circuit, highlighting the lack of data to build off of as well the tough three-race stretch ahead as especially challenging, in a preview on Formula 1’s website.

“France should be an interesting race. We don’t often get to race on a track where we have little to no historical data. It makes preparing for the weekend a bit trickier than usual, but that element of the unknown also adds to the challenge. The French Grand Prix marks the first race of the triple header, which will test all F1 teams to their limits, but also offers the chance to score a lot of points over the course of three weeks – which is precisely what we’re setting out to do,” said Wolff.

That element of the unknown makes Paul Ricard one of the biggest wildcards on the 2018 F1 calendar, and a championship shake up could be in the cards as a result.

Ferrari, Mercedes Continue Their Back and Forth

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – MARCH 25: Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF71H leads Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes WO9 on track during the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park on March 25, 2018 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Ferrari and Mercedes have traded jabs throughout the 2018 season, with neither able to pull away from the other so far through seven races.

Sebastian Vettel enters the French Grand Prix with a one-point lead over Lewis Hamilton, and holds a slight edge in victories – three to Hamilton’s two – and comes off a thorough domination of the Canadian Grand Prix.

Vettel led every lap at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on his way to victory, while Valtteri Bottas had to carry the Mercedes flag in finishing second. Hamilton languished in fifth, a surprising and disappointing result given his previous success there.

The aforementioned Toto Wolff described it as a “wake up call,” though Mercedes will roll out a power unit upgrade this weekend – Ferrari and Renault, which also powers Red Bull Racing, rolled out upgrades of their own in Canada.

With four long straightaways present at Paul Ricard, power will certainly be at a premium, so such upgrades will be vital in giving Mercedes a chance to make amends after Canada’s disappointment.

Trio of French Drivers Look to Impress on Home Soil

It comes hardly as a surprise that the three French drivers – Romain Grosjean, Pierre Gasly, and Esteban Ocon – are keen to make an impression at their home race.

And all three could certainly use a boost. Gasly has only one finish inside the points (seventh in the Monaco Grand Prix) since his stellar fourth place effort in the Bahrain Grand Prix. Ocon is coming off back-to-back points finishes (sixth in Monaco, ninth in Canada), but he has only one other finish inside the points this year (tenth, in Bahrain). And Grosjean, despite showing the speed to finish in the points, is yet to score any in 2018.

As such, all three are hoping for big things in their home race this weekend.

“I want to get a good weekend, have some luck, get my first points of the season, and get a lot of support from the fans,” said Grosjean. “I think we should be in a nice place at Paul Ricard. I’m always looking forward to jumping back in the car. I just love driving an F1 car.”

Ocon, who has raced and won at Paul Ricard in the past, expects his prior experience could be a big help.

“I did race at Paul Ricard early in my career – it was actually where I had my first victory in single seaters in 2013 so I have some fantastic memories of the place,” Ocon described. “I hope we can add some more success this weekend. Having been there in the junior categories makes getting used to a new track in a Formula One car much easier. I think I will find my rhythm quite quickly.”

Gasly’s excitement level obviously matches that of his French compatriots, with the added bonus that the return coincides with his rookie F1 effort.

“For me it will be absolutely incredible that my first full season of Formula 1 coincides with the return of a French Grand Prix to the calendar for the first time in 10 years,” said Gasly. “That has to be a reason for me to be very happy and I’m really excited to be racing in my home country. I can tell it will be a special feeling going out on track and actually, I have spoken to Jean Alesi and Alain Prost about it and they both told me that it will feel really special and something that you really have to experience as a Frenchman racing in France.”

Qualifying for The French Grand Prix begins at 9:55 a.m. ET on Saturday, with Sunday’s race at 9:30 a.m. ET.

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