Takuma Sato joins A.J. Foyt’s ABC Supply team for what seems to be a most unlikely pairing of the two men. However, after Sato drove the No. 14 ABC Supply Honda to victory lane this year at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach to score his first career IndyCar triumph and the team’s first win in a decade, this could be, to quote a line from Casablanca, “the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
The victory, which came in Sato’s third race driving for Foyt and the 52nd of his IZOD IndyCar career, was a dominant one as he stretched his lead to four seconds over the field. It was a team victory in every sense of the word because the engineers gave Sato a great car, and the pit crew and Sato were “on their game” in the words of Team Director Larry Foyt.
“It was one of the greatest days of my racing career,” said Sato, who became the first Japanese driver to win an IndyCar race.
The popular victory surprised everyone in the paddock because no one expected the deliberate, ex-Formula 1 driver to get along with his tempestuous Texan owner.
Indeed, Sato stands in stark contrast to the burly Foyt, not only because of the slight stature – Sato is 5’4” and weighs 117 lbs--but also due to his soft-spoken, British-tinged accent and accommodating nature. Despite their differences, they share at least one common fact: each man followed his childhood dream and rose to compete at the pinnacle of their respective motorsport.
Following a dream. For Takuma Sato, the journey from his dream of becoming a professional race driver to the reality of competing at the top levels of motorsport in both Formula 1 and IndyCar was fast by any measure. The story of Sato’s meteoric rise began in his native Japan.
A family friend took 10-year-old Sato and his father to the first F- 1 race in Suzuka, Japan in 1987. Takuma never forgot the excitement of that first race.
“It got me straight away,” he recalled. “I stood the whole time because it was so exciting. I became a huge motor racing fan. Then I went back to school but that was it—I didn’t have any chance to become a driver but I always had a big dream and passion about racing.”
Without any ties to motorsports, Sato turned his competitive drive to bicycle racing which he did as a teenager. He showed a talent for it and aimed at competing in the All Japan National Championship but learned that he had to enter through his high school which at the time didn’t have a cycle club.
Undeterred, he formed one with the aid of a teacher and entered the event. Then he won the event!
Despite that achievement, the yearning to race cars pulled at him and he began karting while attending university. After running the kart locally several months, he applied to the Suzuka Circuit Racing School which he read about in an auto racing magazine.
He convinced his parents that he wanted to trade his academic study for entrance into the racing school. After overcoming that hurdle, he learned that he was among 70 applicants for just seven seats. Adding to his challenge was his ticking biological clock because at age 20, he was fast approaching the eligibility cut-off age of 21 years old!
At the meeting for the prospective students, Sato learned that the students were being judged on their past racing exploits. Given his slim experience, Sato implored the judges to interview him. After some consideration, they granted his request and decided to interview everyone!
On the strength of his interview, he won one of the coveted seats and was the oldest, least experienced student in the class. He then went on to prove to be a very quick study in the eight month program, emerging as the winner of Honda's Suzuka Racing School Scholarship! The prize was a fully-paid drive in the 1998 All-Japan Formula 3 Championship.
Noting that 70% of the Formula 1 teams were based in the United Kingdom, Sato started planning his next move.
“My dream was to become a Formula 1 driver and I knew I had to have English because it’s an international sport,” Sato explained. “I never had lived outside of Japan and I didn’t know much English. My hero was Ayrton Senna and he came from Brazil to go to Britain to do Formula Ford, British Formula 3 and then F-1. So I really wanted to go to England to race as well. Plus I needed English. I asked Honda about transferring my scholarship. The school was funded by Suzuka and Suzuka is 100% Honda. Lots of partners were supporting but the main one was Honda. I was lucky they let me use the scholarship to go to the UK and race over there.”
Some would say it was just another sign of Sato’s creativity and vision when it came to his career.
Once in the UK, Sato settled in with a British family and immediately enrolled in language school. He started racing Formula Vauxhall that summer and spent the next year in Formula Opel to hone his race craft. By the time he reached the ultra-competitive British Formula 3 Series, he had a good command of English and a solid foundation in working with race engineers.
He proved quick straightaway but had trouble finishing races. “I went to Formula 3 with a great team--Carlin Motorsports. It was a young team at the time, only a couple years old, but it had so much potential--we got along very well. We won quite a few pole positions but I would either not finish or win the race.”
Sato explained his lack of finishes that first year as a result of his eagerness to find that fine line between success and disaster. Although he won five races and finished third in the series, there were times he crossed that line.
“To be in Formula 1, everyone is talented and everyone is fast but I showed a lot of ease in overtaking others,” Sato explained. “In fact, on many, many an occasion in British Formula 3 that ability to overtake was the thing that made it happen for me in Formula 1. I’m not the guy happy to be sitting behind in second, I always wanted to win.
“I had to try harder because I needed to catch up to the others because I had so little actual race experience compared to them,” Sato revealed. “I went to F-1 with just five years of experience so I had to learn twice as much as the other drivers did in half the time. I would try, and sometimes I would go over the limit and fail, but I learned from that. I was challenging and attacking all the time so that’s why my philosophy is No Attack, No Chance--and it has been for a long time. I try to challenge all the time because I want to win, I really want to win.”
The philosophy paid off as did the lessons learned because the following year he dominated Formula 3, winning the series championship. He won 12 races plus the Marlboro Masters of F3 at Zandvoort (an invitational extended to the top contenders in the European regional F-3 series) and the prestigious Macau Grand Prix which capped his brilliant season.
The following year he joined the elite ranks of Formula 1 drivers and teamed with Eddie Jordan. Although the Jordan team had a rocky season, Sato scored his first points in Formula 1 with a fifth place finish at Suzuka—a fitting performance since that track was so integral to his success.
He moved to the British American Racing (BAR) Honda team as the third driver in 2003. It was at Suzuka again that he rose to the occasion as a last minute sub for regular driver and former F-1 champion Jacques Villeneuve. Sato finished sixth in that race and secured his full-time seat with the team in 2004.
That season turned out to be his most productive in his F-1 career. He finished eighth in the points and also contributed to BAR Honda’s second-place finish in the manufacturers’ championship along with teammate Jenson Button. Highlights included Sato qualifying alongside pole winner Michael Schumacher in the European Grand Prix at the Nürburgring in the reigning champion’s home country of Germany! Two races later, Sato scored his first podium finish – third- in the U.S. Grand Prix at Indianapolis.
The following year found the team saddled with a new car that wasn’t nearly as competitive but in spite of that, and a penalty for technical infraction which caused a two-race suspension, Sato qualified in the top 10 in seven races, finished fifth at Imola and posted top-10 finishes at Hungaroring and Istanbul.
In 2006 he joined the brand new Super Aguri team powered by Honda. The team was using a modified Arrows chassis from 2002. They debuted a new chassis late in the year and finished 10th in the Brazilian Grand Prix. In 2007’s season-opening event, Sato made it into the third round of qualifying with the new car, which caused some to be surprised.
That season yielded several more strong performances including an eighth place finish in Spain which gave Honda its first manufacturer’s points of the season. In the Canadian Grand Prix later that season, Sato’s brilliant pass of Fernando Alonso for sixth place earned him “Overtake of the Year” award from F1 Racing Magazine.
In 2008, a major funding setback triggered by the world financial crisis resulted in the Super Aguri team closing its doors before midseason, leaving Sato without a ride. He considered his options carefully and passed up some driving opportunities that were offered.
In 2009 he visited the Indianapolis 500 on Bump Day.
“I was shocked!” Sato recalled. “It was just amazing to see the cars screaming, coming at you at 225 mph into Turn 1, and the car was sliding and you can see the driver was correcting in the cockpit. At first I thought I couldn’t do it. (laughs) That was very impressive.”
He met quite a few owners that trip (although Foyt was not among them). However, Jimmy Vasser struck up a friendship with Sato and they stayed in touch throughout that summer. Eventually they reached an agreement and in 2010, Sato made his IndyCar debut with the KV Racing Technology team.
“I was happy that Jimmy gave me an opportunity to race Indycar in 2010. It was a fresh, new challenge and I was very excited,” Sato said. “Immediately I liked Indycar – there’s so much action going on! Indycar is very different from Formula 1. The car is a spec car but that means you can win actually.
“In F-1, you have to be with the right team and only a couple teams have a chance to go to the podium. Of course in Indycar there are teams that always win but at least everyone has a chance. From the cockpit, that is the most important thing.”
Once again, Sato would put his ability as a ‘quick study’ to the test at his first oval track race in Kansas. He had a half day test reserved for the rookies before all of the cars took to the track.
“It was amazing because the speed was so fast and the sensation of going through the banking, it was great by yourself, but when you were racing with other drivers in a pack, it was just so different,” Sato said. “I had to figure out how to set up going into the corner because, depending on my position, I would get so many different feelings because of the turbulence from other cars. So I had to learn and figure out how to do it. I did a little bit in practice but not a lot. I really learned in the race but it was good, really good—I enjoyed it.”
Working with the KV team turned out to be a great intro to oval racing for Sato.
“The car was good and my engineer Garrett gave me a car that was not as much an oval car,” Sato explained. “Usually with an oval setup, the car tends to turn in by itself but that means the driver has to really know how to drive on an oval. Because I didn’t have that experience, my car’s setup needed me to turn in like I was driving a road course in a high speed corner. So it wasn’t necessarily the quickest physically (optimal setup) but it was a great way for me to learn how to race on an oval and to learn how the car is working on an oval. So KV was a perfect team for me to learn the whole process. I actually enjoyed my first oval race which was very important.”
Sato learned quickly that first year. He made it to the Firestone Fast Six final qualifying round three times with a best start of third at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. His best finish was ninth at Edmonton, the Canadian circuit at which he would excel.
In 2011, Sato earned his first pole position with the KV team at Iowa Speedway, a fast high-banked oval which measures only 7/8 mile. It was an incredible performance given his limited experience in oval track racing. He followed up with another pole-winning run at Edmonton, the northern Canadian airport circuit. However, his best finish of fourth that year came at Mid-Ohio, the picturesque road course in central Ohio. He had proven himself capable and comfortable on three distinctly different circuits. Sato finished 13th in the points after posting three top-five finishes and seven top-10s in 17 starts.
Sato moved to the Rahal Letterman Lanigan team in 2012. In the single car team, he struggled a bit more, making it to the Firestone Fast Six only twice—but he did qualify third at Edmonton which is also where he notched his best finish of second. Unfortunately for Sato, the track is not on the 2013 schedule.
However, his most memorable performance came in the Indianapolis 500. Running seventh with six laps to go, Sato had moved into third in three laps and passed Scott Dixon for second the next lap. He set his sights on Dixon’s teammate and race leader Dario Franchitti. On the final lap, Sato attempted to make an inside pass going into Turn 1 when Franchitti slammed the door, forcing Sato low onto the transition pavement. The loss of grip caused Sato to spin and hit the outside SAFER barrier hard. Fortunately, he emerged uninjured. Franchitti sailed on to his third 500 victory.
At the awards dinner the following evening, Sato broke up the audience when he remarked, “I know I am small Dario but I need just a little bit more room.”
Recalling that race, which he lists as his most memorable, Sato said, “Last year’s 500 is unforgettable—I was going to win. We started 19th and we moved up quickly. Just past halfway we were starting to lead. That was an amazing feeling--an amazing experience to actually be leading the 500! Yes, the 2012 Indy 500 was an
unforgettable race-especially the last five laps. It was great.”
Perhaps the greatest factor in Sato’s success is not his quickness behind the wheel as much as it is his optimism, tenacity and perseverance which enables him to bounce back after adversity. Those are qualities he shares with his team owner A.J. Foyt whose career is distinguished as much by the comebacks as it is by the victories.
Asked about choosing Sato, Foyt responded, “I think we’re going to get along great. I like his commitment, he puts racing first and he wants to win, so that’s a good combination for success.”
An unlikely pairing? Maybe not after all.