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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.”

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.”