Bobby Rahal moved one step closer to his full-time return to the IndyCar Series on Friday when Takuma Sato became the lead driver for his team for the 2012 season.
Sato was formally introduced as driver for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing by Honda at an event in Tokyo.
Back in Indianapolis, team co-owner Rahal viewed it as just another piece in the months' long process to get back into the series after a three-year absence.
"We've been working on this for more than six months, and getting the driver named is just another check in a box into where we are headed," Rahal said in a phone interview.
And where does Rahal want to be?
"Our goal is to be a major force in the series," he said.
Rahal's last full-time entry in IndyCar was the 2008 season, when Ryan Hunter-Reay finished seventh in the final series standings. It marked the 11th consecutive year an RLL driver finished in the top 10 in points.
But Rahal said Friday he had grown "frankly, somewhat disenchanted" with IndyCar, and moved his focus to the American Le Mans Series. RLL still entered some IndyCar events, including the oval races last season, but Rahal had no overwhelming desire to return to his roots.
Rahal won three open-wheel championships in the CART Series, and the 1986 Indianapolis 500. As a team owner, he won the 2004 Indy 500 with driver Buddy Rice.
Although he's content and successful in the ALMS Series — his teams have won the last two championships — he saw progress in IndyCar after Randy Bernard became the CEO in 2010. He cited Bernard, who is entering his third season at the helm of the Izod IndyCar Series, as the main reason RLL is returning this year.
"With Randy coming on board, if we were to come back into the series, I felt there was going to be potential to see the series grow into what it once was or even better," Rahal said. "Much of our history has been based in IndyCar and I just didn't feel like there was any more room for growth. Now, with Randy, he gave me a sense of faith that the right moves would be made and we'd have new opportunities ahead in the series.
"I've been in meetings with Randy with major automobile companies and associates, and it's clear they are only there because of their business relationships with Randy. There's a level of respect people have for Randy that is going to get IndyCar racing into places it's never been, and in front of audiences it's never been before."
So Rahal, along with partners David Letterman and Mike Lanigan, made the decision to get back into the series and set up shop in Indianapolis as a means to attract the top talent. IndyCar veteran Tom Anderson became the president of racing operations late last year. The ALMS team is still based in Ohio.
Now the team has Sato, who spent seven seasons in Formula One before moving to IndyCar in 2010. He drove for two seasons with KV Racing Technology, and although he was winless, he won poles last year at Edmonton and Iowa — proving he was versatile and fast.
"I'm very proud, motivated and excited to be chosen by Bobby to join his big project," Sato said. "This team I feel has got huge potential. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing has got a great history and record of winning so my motivation is ever so high and I am extremely thrilled to start the new season. With a new car for everybody, I am confident that we'll be up to speed very quickly."
Sato was able to test the new Dallara DW12 in December, but was not part of the well-attended test session this week at Sebring.
Rahal said he hopes Sato will be able to test at Barber in Alabama in February, and the team will be at the open test in early March at Sebring. Rahal also plans to have a second full-time driver announced very soon, and was adamant RLL will have two full-time entries in 2012 with engine support from Honda.
Rahal also said sponsorship is moving along on both cars.
The biggest challenge now is getting RLL's car out front, and maybe even back to the winner's circle at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He said both Letterman and Lanigan are eager to return to the series.
"David Letterman, he is a huge IndyCar fan, and I know he's really pleased," Rahal said. "For Mike Lanigan, he makes it very clear he wants to taste the milk, which both David and I have tasted. So there's a lot of enthusiasm and excitement about what's going on. We're all in agreement that our goal is to be a major force in the series. We're going all out to make that happen."