Veteran NTT INDYCAR SERIES driver Takuma Sato had much to consider while pursuing rides for the 2023 season. Did he want to be full time or big time?
He chose the latter.
In being confirmed to a partial-season role with Chip Ganassi Racing, Sato landed with arguably his best chance to win the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge. Only Team Penske has won the “500” more often than Chip Ganassi’s organization, and the chance to join the 14-time INDYCAR SERIES champion was too good to pass up.
“Very exciting, an incredible opportunity,” two-time “500” winner Sato said.
The downside is, Sato will only drive CGR’s No. 11 Honda in the series’ five oval races as newcomer Marcus Armstrong has the seat for the road courses and street circuits. Sato will make his season debut April 2 in the race at Texas Motor Speedway.
While racing at Texas, Iowa Speedway and World Wide Technology Raceway are important to Sato, returning to Indianapolis Motor Speedway with last year’s dominant team is the prize. CGR will field three former Indy winners – Sato, Scott Dixon and reigning champion Marcus Ericsson – plus 2021 series champion Alex Palou.
Dixon, a six-time series champion for CGR, and Palou qualified first and second in last year’s “500,” combining to lead 142 of the 200 laps. With Ericsson leading another 13 laps, Ganassi drivers were on point for 77.5 percent of the race, a fact that made being part time acceptable for Sato, who turns 46 on Jan. 28.
“It’s something I need to get used to,” Sato said of his new limited role. “I still don’t know exactly how I feel -- everyone would be delighted to be full season, of course … (but) going to Indianapolis Motor Speedway with Chip Ganassi Racing is attractive enough to overcome what the part-time duties are, I believe.
“Being in this series for 13 years, I have fantastic memories in a full-time (ride), and I think I’m very fortunate to still be racing. Initially I wasn’t fully happy not going to the full season, but now I feel such an encouragement, such a positive feeling. That’s why I don’t mind anymore.”
This will be the sixth NTT INDYCAR SERIES team for which Sato has driven. Sato won Indy in 2017 with Andretti Autosport and in 2020 with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. He also finished third in 2019, giving him one of the most impressive six-year runs in event history.
Sato said he couldn’t have imagined being in this situation. Throughout last year’s first season with Dale Coyne Racing with Rick Ware Racing, Sato worked toward constructing a sponsorship package that would have given him a second year with the team, but it wasn’t meant to be. Meantime, talks with Mike Hull, CGR’s managing director, seemed to suggest there could be an opportunity to work together, if Sato was willing to accept a part-time role.
In the end, he was, and they found common ground.
“It worked out for both of us in a perfect way,” Sato said. “I’m extremely happy with the outcome.”
Ironically, Sato will work to win this “500” with the former driver he was challenging for the lead on the last lap of the 2012 race. Sato lost control of his car in Turn 1 that day, and Dario Franchitti didn’t and won for the third time. Since retiring, Franchitti has been CGR’s driver consultant.
Dixon finished second in the 2012 “500,” avoiding Sato’s spinning car. Sato laughed at the thought of joining his combatants from that fateful moment.
“Yes, it is funny, isn’t it?” he said. “I think it’s extremely interesting, physically and mentally, for it to be happening after all these years. I’m certainly very much looking forward to working with the entire (Ganassi) team, as well as working with Dario, indirectly maybe, and Dixie.
“But to be honest, I just can’t wait to get started. Working with teammates who have won championships and the Indy 500, I know from a starting point we are only going for the whole goal, which is winning the ‘500.’ That’s ultimately the team’s main target.”
Sato said he will have Eric Cowdin, who won the “500” in 2013 with Tony Kanaan driving the KV Racing Technology entry, as his engineer. Sato can only pinch himself.
“I never pictured myself with Chip Ganassi Racing going to the Indy 500 – ever,” he said. “But it is happening. This is one of the most exciting moments in INDYCAR in my career.”