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Takuma Sato seems to get better with age.
“It’s like fine wine, or in his case, fine sake,” Sato’s team owner, Bobby Rahal, told NTT INDYCAR Mobile about his driver from Japan.
At 42, Sato is the second-oldest driver in the NTT IndyCar Series that drives the full season. Tony Kanaan is the oldest at 44.
When Sato first arrived in IndyCar in 2010 following a long career as Honda’s driver in Formula One, he was fast, fearless and often reckless. He crashed out of nine of the 17 races he competed in his rookie season, including the first two contests in Sao Paulo and St. Petersburg for KV Racing Technology.
Rahal saw promise and potential in Sato and after his two-year contract at KV was up, he hired him to drive at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in 2012. Rahal believes it’s easier to “detune a guy than speed him up.” Sato’s crashes dropped to four races, including a last-lap effort to win the Indianapolis 500 when he dove low underneath leader Dario Franchitti in Turn 1 on the final lap. Sato was unable to pull off that move and crashed into the wall as Franchitti went on to win the final race of his NTT IndyCar Series career.
In 2013, Sato joined team owner A.J. Foyt and the rough-and-tough IndyCar legend from Houston meshed with the driver from Japan to put the famed No. 14 back in victory lane. That came in the 2013 Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach when Sato became the first driver from Japan to win in NTT IndyCar Series.
The key to Sato’s success was to slow down instead of speeding up. He was already fast, nearly too fast at times. When he joined Andretti Autosport in 2017 for one season, Sato had discovered how to harness his blazing speed and combine it with skillful experience. That was on full display at the 101st Indianapolis 500 in 2017 when he became the first driver from Japan to win the world’s most famous race in a thrilling duel with three-time Indy 500 winning driver Helio Castroneves.
In 2018, Sato returned to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and had a solid season. Although he crashed three times in the 17 races, he was magnificent in the Portland Grand Prix when he started 20th, nailed the fuel strategy perfectly and won the race.
The improvement has carried over to 2019 as Sato won the pole and the race at the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama on April 7. He finished third in the 103rd Indy 500 and third the following week in the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix Race No. 1. After those two races, Sato was fourth in points.
With his 10th-place finish at Road America on June 23, Sato remains a legitimate contender for the NTT IndyCar Series championship and is sixth in the standings heading to the Honda Indy Toronto (July 12-14, NBCSN, Advance Auto Parts Radio Network).
“Takuma has a good relationship with Eddie Jones, his engineer,” Rahal explained. “I think our team, as a whole, has elevated its performance level. We are giving him good cars.
“Takuma is a guy that is always pushing. He is not a guy that is going to cruise around and just get to the end; he wants to win. Sometimes, that bites him when he tries too hard. If you don’t feel you have the team behind you and the confidence in the setup, you reach too far and try to make things happen that you can’t make happen. The only thing you can do is hit something and go off track.
“He is 42 years old. With all of these things in place, it gives him the confidence and security and knowing he doesn’t have to drive like that to win races and compete.”
Rahal called Sato’s Indy 500 this year “brilliant” by rallying from one-lap down earlier in the race to be in contention to win the race before finishing third.
“For a second, I thought we could win this thing,” Rahal recalled. “Unlike the previous Sato, he brought it home third and showed great judgement. At Barber, he drove a flawless weekend, other than an off at the end, which was the old Takuma, but he kept it under control.
“I think he recognizes that he doesn’t have to reach beyond what is possible. Last year he won at Portland and this year is a better season already and all of those things start feeding on themselves and as a driver, you understand there are a lot of people behind you helping you get to where you want to go.”
Rahal believes if Sato can remain in the top three every race, he can win the championship.
Success has come late in Sato’s career and the 66-year-old Rahal is happy to go along for the ride.
“People still love him from the way he was before,” Rahal said. “You never have to worry about him giving you 100 percent because he is trying to give you 105 percent.
“When he arrives at a race every weekend, no matter where we are, he is prepared to go. There aren’t many guys out there like that, frankly.”