Sato focused on returning Rahal team to championship conversation

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Near the end of a frustrating 2018 NTT IndyCar Series season, Takuma Sato provided Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing with its only win in the penultimate race at Portland International Raceway.

Much like his teammate Graham Rahal, Sato had hoped for more in his return to RLL, for whom he raced in 2012. But the team struggled with loose-handling cars for much of the year, and that showed in race results.

Sato eventually made progress in the second half of the year, not just with his third career NTT IndyCar Series victory in the No. 30 Honda, but with a third-place finish at Iowa, fourth at Road America and seventh at Texas. He finished 12th in the points while Rahal, winless in a season for the first time since 2014, ended up eighth.

They return as teammates in 2019 with a shared focus to boost RLL back into the championship conversation.

Sato, who celebrated a career accomplishment with a victory in the 2017 Indianapolis 500 while driving for Andretti Autosport, exudes confidence that he can achieve anything. Since that win, he’s reiterated the goal of wanting to be a more consistent driver who factors into the championship. His best series finish was eighth in 2017.

“That’s the ultimate goal for me,” Sato said of vying for a series title. “It’s going to be challenging, for sure, but I think nothing is impossible. That’s what I’m trying (for) this season, more consistent in races, more consistent in finishes.”

At 42, Sato reminds he got a late start in racing at 20. But he thinks the experience of driving in Formula One and then coming to the NTT IndyCar Series has helped him handle being smooth while driving a car on the edge.

Rahal, who has shuffled through his share of teammates, is glad to have Sato back in 2019.

“We get along well,” Rahal said. “He’s a good guy. Other than Helio (Castroneves), he’s probably the happiest guy on the planet. He fits in well with our organization. We try to pride ourselves on this family sort of environment and he fits in really well with that. We need to do a better job for him as a team. He won a race last year, but obviously we can both do a lot better to help him be successful in the (No.) 30 car.”

They’ve come a long way together from when they first raced against each other. Two motivated drivers with a penchant for being aggressive were bound to run into each other at some point.

But Sato agrees with Rahal in acknowledging how they’ve bonded as teammates.

“Graham is Graham,” Sato said. “He loves the cars and he loves racing. We talk about a lot of stuff, on track, off track. We have a lot of common hobbies. Graham is a really mature guy. He might have been too aggressive and too young when I first came to the States. Graham and I had a little bit of history on track, but we get along really well now. We understand each other. We share the view. Our interest is getting this team stronger. I think that’s why we talk in the same language.”

Sato admits there will come a time when age catches up with every driver, but he doesn’t think he’s close to that just yet. He trains rigorously to stay in excellent shape and considers each season a new learning experience.

“At some point, I’m going to be degradating, for sure,” he said. “In motor racing that’s one of the great things, it’s not just physical strength, it’s coordination and also your experience.

“I still feel like I’m learning and developing. It’s a good thing. Of course, it’s quite a few years to come where I have to decide to make the next move or next decision. While I still have an opportunity, I want to consider racing.”

Sato laments last year but doesn’t dwell on it. He’s quick to mention his passion for racing, how he’s still as motivated as ever.

“Now I know how to manage a whole race and experience definitely made me a better, smarter driver,” he said. “That’s why I’m still doing it. If I’m behind, then I will retire. Experience is more than anything, but also my passion says I want to race again. I want to demand for the win and be the fastest. That sort of thing has given me great motivation.

“Last year was really unfortunate. We couldn’t really hook up the speed initially. If you see the second half of the season, we got better and better and better. This momentum definitely we can carry into 2019. The team is still growing.”

The 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season opens this week with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Practice sessions begin Friday and will stream live on INDYCAR Pass on NBC Sports Gold. Qualifying airs live at 2:30 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN. The 110-lap race on the 1.8-mile temporary street course also airs live on NBCSN, starting at 12:30 p.m. Sunday.

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