Sato on return to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing: 'It feels like home'

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SEBRING, Florida – Pit road was Takuma Sato’s recent work history splayed out in air hoses and nose pieces at Sebring International Raceway during a recent team test. On the far side of the chunky white concrete barriers was AJ Foyt Racing’s testing encampment, where the 41-year-old raced from 2013 to 2016, winning his first Verizon IndyCar Series race at Long Beach that first season.

On the near side was Andretti Autosport, with whom Sato won the Indianapolis 500 for the first time last May. And tucked at the end of a gray strip of asphalt at pit out was Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, where Sato raced in 2012 and returned this season.

With the sun dimming beyond the course and his first day of testing the new universal aero kit over, Sato grinned like a man having come full circle, not moving in reverse. The 41-year-old Sato returns to RLL for his ninth Verizon IndyCar Series season, driving for the team co-owned by Bobby Rahal and forming a two-car Honda effort alongside Graham Rahal.

“It feels like home,” he said, inserting ear pieces into a carrying case. “There’s quite a few guys that were here in 2012. Bobby has been very supportive all the time. There are lots of new faces, new guys since I left, but it’s great, great team. I really love it. We’ve gotten on really well already. Graham and I are working very close together, so, happy place.”

Sato’s inclusion gives RLL two full-time cars for the first time since 2013 and the prospect of using veteran race winners to more quickly grasp the nuances of the universal body kit that all teams will use in competition for the first time this season.

“It's great to have Takuma. I think Takuma, maybe other than Helio Castroneves, he's probably the happiest man alive,” Graham Rahal said. “To have him join us is phenomenal. I think he had a great experience with the team back in 2012. Obviously coming off the year he had, it's tremendous to have him with us.

“I think he is very uplifting to our team and to our guys that work so hard. I think he'll be a great partner for us.”

And at this point in his career, a better partner. Sato has two wins, seven poles and six podium finishes in 135 series starts over eight seasons, the first two coming with now-defunct KV Racing Technology. Once a crash-prone driver most known for his spin attempting to pass Dario Franchitti for the lead on the final lap of the 2012 Indianapolis 500, Sato finished a career-best eighth in the final standings last season.

He left RLL after 2012, the same time that Graham joined from Chip Ganassi Racing. The organization, Sato said, wasn’t prepared to field two cars, although it added James Jakes full time a month after his departure. Sato’s departure from Foyt after 2016 was precipitated by the team switching engines from Honda (a longtime Sato backer) to Chevrolet. Andretti Autosport’s dalliance with switching to Chevy for 2018 forced Sato’s management to seek contingencies and was “part of the reason,” Sato said, he was led back to Rahal – even though Andretti eventually remained with Honda.

Legendary team owner A.J. Foyt recalls his time with Sato fondly, noting how Sato came to celebrate with his former team last year after winning the Indy 500, a race Foyt claimed as a driver a record-tying four times. Team owner Michael Andretti said he also maintains a cordiality with Sato and wishes he could have retained him.

“I was really disappointed about that,” Andretti said. “Unfortunately, his manager had other ideas and he wanted to go back to Rahal. We loved having Takuma on the team. I think he really liked being on the team. But we didn’t even get a chance, really, to try to keep him.”

Andretti announced on Aug. 31 that his team was remaining with Honda, but Sato had agreed in private by then to leave. Andretti said concern over a switch to Chevrolet should not have been a factor in Sato’s decision.

“We always told him, if he was going to be here, we were going to be (with) Honda,” Andretti said. “That would have made my decision (to stay with Honda) easy.”

Sato’s move to RLL was formally announced in September, following the final race of the 2017 season.

“We needed to take some actions,” Sato said. “(Andretti) had options and we had options and it wasn’t concrete on the date we set for them to make a decision. We were very fortunate that we joined Andretti Autosport and obviously that was the best move at the time and, of course, without the team, obviously, I wouldn’t have been able to win the 500.

“That was an absolute team effort. But we couldn’t have the same situation, obviously, with (a possible change of) engine manufacturers. But Bobby has always wanted me back with the team.

“We had to separate in 2013 where I was, of course, very happy to drive the (No.) 14 car with A.J. and that was a superb memory. But at that time Bobby wanted me to stay with the team and the team just didn’t have the capacity for two cars. But now is the time, he said. So, it has now come together.”

Verizon IndyCar Series teams will gather at ISM Raceway (formerly Phoenix Raceway) later this week for testing on the 1.022-mile oval. Rookie drivers get track time on Thursday, with the track open to all entries on Friday and Saturday. A total of 23 cars are expected.

The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg opens the 2018 season on March 11 (12:30 p.m. ET, ABC and Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network).

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