Signing with AJ Foyt’s ABC Supply Racing team for a fourth season, Takuma Sato becomes the longest-tenured full-time driver in the history of the team since its legendary owner retired from driving the No. 14 Indy car in 1993.
“First of all, I’m delighted to be with AJ Foyt Racing for the fourth straight year,” said No. 14 ABC Supply Honda pilot. “Continuity of working together is very important especially since we achieved a victory in our first year in 2013 so that we all know we can do it. I trust we’ve made a strong relationship so confidence was never in doubt. Although we had a few tough seasons, we did show our potential and achieved strong results under the circumstances. So I have absolutely no problem to keep motivated and our team is always making progress. I feel it’s getting better all the time and this year will be even better. I am very excited.”
This season the Verizon IndyCar Series will visit three distinct tracks as part of their 16-race season. Phoenix International Raceway is a one-mile paved oval, Road America, a four-mile long permanent road course in the Wisconsin Dells, and a street course in Boston’s seaport District. The challenge of figuring out the new tracks appeals to Sato.
“New tracks are always exciting,” said Sato who will be seeing each of these tracks for the first time even though some of his competitors raced on them in the early part of the century. “It’s starting from a clean sheet of paper so everyone has a great chance to succeed. Experience counts for something but not everything, so doing our homework and having a good preparation is absolutely essential. I always enjoy going to a new place. You just need to learn fast and find a good setup. The race will be quite challenging as no one knows what it will be like and I find that fun.”
By his own definition, Sato considers himself a risk-taker when it comes to his driving style. “I’m an attacker. A risk-taker too. So basically, my driving style is ‘Never give up.’ I’m strongly passionate about the racing but I love the scientific approach of analyzing the driving and the car data too. I believe I’m strong at late braking, and also in high-speed cornering and wet conditions!
Adding with a smile, he concluded, “I like the aggressive style rather than the conservative, but hopefully with the experience I have now, I can judge well in risk management.”
Sato didn’t take long to use his driving style to impress his tempestuous team owner: the Tokyo native qualified on the front row in his very first start for Foyt’s team at St. Petersburg in March of 2013. He scored his first win in the Verizon IndyCar Series at Long Beach, Calif. in April and followed up with second place in Brazil two weeks later.
“It was one of the greatest days of my racing career,” said Sato of his Long Beach win. He became the first Japanese driver to win an IndyCar race. “It was an unforgettable day and so special a moment, and it gave me a great motivation and confidence.”
Sato stands in stark contrast to the burly and sometimes brusque Foyt. Slighter in stature at 5’4” and 130 lbs., Sato is soft-spoken and tactful. 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.
For Sato, the journey from his dream of becoming a professional race driver to the reality of competing in Formula 1 was fast by any measure. The story of his meteoric rise began in Japan.
Sato saw his first Formula 1 race in Suzuka in 1987 at the age of 10. He was enchanted.
“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 and 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. He won the All Japan National Championship, but he yearned to race cars. He began karting while attending university. After several months, he convinced his parents that he wanted to trade his academic study for entrance into the Suzuka Circuit Racing School.
Learning that he was among 70 applicants for just seven seats, the 20-year-old was fast approaching the age eligibility cut-off of 21! Since students were being judged on their past racing exploits, Sato implored the judges to interview him. The judges decided to interview everyone.
On the strength of his interview, he won a coveted seat; he was the oldest, least experienced student in the class. A quick study, he won the scholarship and its prize of a fully-funded ride in the 1998 All-Japan Formula 3 Championship.
Knowing that 70% of the Formula 1 teams were based in the United Kingdom, Sato planned 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.”
Sato moved in with a British family in the U.K. and enrolled in language school. He spent two seasons in lower formulas and moved to the British Formula 3 series in 2000. “I went to Formula 3 with a great team--Carlin Motorsports,” he said. “It was 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.”
He 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. However, the following year, he won the championship in dominant fashion: winning 12 races, the Marlboro Masters Invitational at Zandvoort and the Macau Grand Prix.
“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 following year he joined the elite ranks of Formula 1 drivers and drove for Eddie Jordan. Sato scored his first points in Formula 1 with a fifth place finish at Suzuka. In 2003, he moved to the British American Racing (BAR) Honda team as the third driver. Again at Suzuka, he rose to the occasion – this time subbing for former F-1 champion Jacques Villeneuve. Sato finished sixth 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 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 three years were fraught with challenges, and after the 2008 world financial crisis triggered sponsorship setbacks, Sato turned his sights towards IndyCar. 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. That was very impressive.”
Befriended by Jimmy Vasser, Sato made an agreement to drive for the KV Racing Technology team in 2010.
“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.”
As a rookie, 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. He earned his first pole position at Iowa Speedway, a fast high-banked, 7/8-mile oval in 2011. He followed up with another pole-winning run at Edmonton, the northern Canadian airport circuit. His best finish of fourth came at Mid-Ohio.
In 2012, Sato moved to the Rahal Letterman Lanigan team but struggled in the single car team. His best start (third) and finish (second) came at Edmonton. One of his most memorable performances 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. On the final lap, he attempted an inside pass on race leader Dario Franchitti going into Turn 1 but Franchitti slammed the door, forcing Sato low onto the transition pavement. Sato spun and hit the outside SAFER barrier hard. He emerged uninjured. Franchitti sailed on to his third 500 victory.
t 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 one of his most memorable, Sato said, “That 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.”
When asked about competing in the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500, Sato replied, “I am very thankful that I can be part of a race that is such a special moment in Indy 500 history. It means a lot to me and I appreciate it so much.”
Perhaps the greatest factor in Sato’s success is not his quickness behind the wheel as much as it is his tenacity when confronted with adversity. Those are qualities he shares with Foyt whose career is distinguished as much by the comebacks as it is by the victories.
For all of their differences, Sato and Foyt share the determination it takes to succeed and this year they will do it together.