Takuma Sato had tried to temper expectations heading into his first NTT INDYCAR SERIES race with Chip Ganassi Racing, but who was the veteran driver fooling? The dude knows only one gear, and that’s attack, attack, attack.
Thus, to no one’s surprise, Sato’s first lap since last September was full on the gas, clocked in excess of 216 mph in Saturday’s first practice at Texas Motor Speedway. Who needs to ease into it?
“Well, it didn’t take long, did it?” Sato later said, laughing.
Actually, it took a bit more time than that to reunite with this series and this track. Sato said he was briefly caught off guard by the high G-force loads in Turn 1, so much so that he had to back off the throttle after a couple of times through it.
“The first two laps got me,” he said. “I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh.’
“Other than that, I felt pretty positive.”
Although this weekend’s PPG 375 is the second race of the season, it is the first for Sato after agreeing to share Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 11 car with rookie Marcus Armstrong this year. Sato has secured at least the first two oval races, including next month’s Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge, with the last three still to be determined. Armstrong is signed for the road courses and street circuits that comprise 12 of the season’s 17 races.
Sato is certainly a worthy complement to the team fielding former series champions Scott Dixon and Alex Palou, plus Marcus Ericsson, the winner of last year’s “500.” Sato won “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2017 and 2020, and he has made a career of transitioning from team to team with ease.
CGR is the sixth NTT INDYCAR SERIES team that Sato has driven for, and he has had two stints with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. He has won races with AJ Foyt Racing, Andretti Autosport and RLL, and there is every reason to believe he will challenge for a win this year with Chip Ganassi’s team.
Sato will start Sunday’s 250-lap race (noon ET, NBC, Peacock, INDYCAR Radio Network) from the sixth position, second-highest among Honda-powered drivers. Dixon will roll off from the second spot in the No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda, and Sato thought he should have been third or fourth, at a minimum. He backed that up by posting the third-fastest lap in Saturday’s post-qualifying practice.
“We were out of balance on the first lap (of qualifying),” said Sato, whose two-lap average speed in the No. 11 Niterra Honda was 219.508 mph.
Felix Rosenqvist (No. 6 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet) earned his second consecutive NTT P1 Award at this track at 220.264 mph.
This will be Sato’s 15th chance to race at this 1.5-mile superspeedway. He didn’t start the 2020 race after his team couldn’t get the car ready following his Turn 1 accident in qualifying. His resume at this track isn’t without blemishes, but he has finished fifth in 2011, seventh in 2018 and ninth in 2021. He also won the pole in 2019, leading 60 laps before incurring a mishap on pit road, and he qualified third for last year’s race.
One of Sato’s Texas incidents, in 2017, involved Dixon, and the six-time series champion acknowledged he still doesn’t know Sato very well. But they’ve made a lot of headway as teammates in a short period of time, and Dixon expects strong performances from Sato.
“He’s a super talented guy, super intense,” Dixon said. “I think his knowledge and what he does – just is approach, too, from what I’ve already seen – he’s pretty full on. I think that attention to detail, the experience that he has from other teams but also at this circuit, I think is going to be really good.
“I’d like to think that he’s going to do extremely well, man.”
Sato also has an oval-track win in 2019 at World Wide Technology Raceway and top-three finishes at three oval tracks (IMS, World Wide Technology Raceway and Iowa Speedway). He is one of five drivers to have led a lap in five of the past nine oval races across the past two seasons, the others being Dixon, Pato O’Ward, Josef Newgarden and Will Power.
But again, Sato is realistic about what happens this weekend.
“Texas Motor Speedway is an iconic, ultra-high-speed track with such a high banking that provides us with unbelievably intense racing all the time,” he said. “In terms of preparation, it’s very limited, and certainly there is a lot to learn in a short time. In limited time, I have gotten very comfortable and confident with my new environment.
“I know the crew well now and (have) spent a good amount of time with our engineers as I experienced in (St. Petersburg, where Armstrong finished 11th in the car).”
Now, it’s time to attack, something Sato has made a career doing.