F1 Spotlight - Takuma Sato
Today, we look at one of Japan's best Racing Drivers.
Takuma Sato was born 28th January 1977 in Tokyo, Japan. Nicknamed "Taku", he is a Japanese professional racing driver, former Formula One race driver as well as a two-time winner of the Indianapolis 500. But how did he get here? Let’s take a look, shall we?
While still at school, Takuma became a national cycling champion – a sport he still uses as part of his physical training for his racing career – and therefore only began karting in Japan at the age of 19 - quite late by European standards. For comparison, Max Verstappen made his Formula 1 debut when he was 17 years old.
After winning the national karting title in 1997, Takuma moved to Europe with backing from Honda, where he briefly raced in both the Vauxhall Junior and Formula Opel Championships, before debuting in Class B of the British Formula 3 Championship mid-way through 1999. He moved on to the top class of the championship with Carlin Motorsport in 2000, taking four wins and third place in the championship by the end of the season. Then, in 2001, he went on to win 12 out of the 26 races to take a dominant championship win - the first ever for a Japanese driver in the series. Also in 2001,Takuma won the prestigious Macau Grand Prix and Masters of Formula 3 non-championship F3 races. It’s not surprising then, that after this awesome success, he got the attention of some of the people in Formula 1.
In 2002, he graduated to Formula One with the Honda-powered Jordan team, where he was partnered with Giancarlo Fisichella. He was involved in a big crash at the the sixth round of the season in Austria when Nick Heidfeld lost control of his Sauber under braking, hitting the side of Sato's car and punching a hole in the side of the cockpit. Luckily, he was able to keep racing following the shunt. Throughout the season, Takuma showed a lot of potential, especially with his raw speed and bold driving. This racing style was rewarded at the final race of the year in Japan where he brought the Jordan home in fifth place – his best result of the season.
When Honda decided to concentrate their efforts solely on the British American Racing (BAR) team for 2003, Sato left Jordan and joined the Brackley-based outfit initially as a test driver. For the final round of the season in Japan however, Sato replaced Jacques Villeneuve and scored the second points finish of his career with sixth place, after a battle with Michael Schumacher. He was signed to race full-time in 2004. There is something to be said about a home advantage during a race.
During the 2004 season, Sato qualified in the top-three four times, including a front row start and an overall lap record at the European Grand Prix. Sato's continued aggressive driving style brought the team some reward at the United States Grand Prix, where, after choosing not to pit under the safety car as others had, Takuma fought through the pack to score his first podium finish - the first for a Japanese driver since Aguri Suzuki in 1990.
Unfortunately, reliability issues caused him to retire six times over the course of the 2004 season, but of the 11 races Takuma did complete, he scored points in nine of them, finishing eighth in the championship with 34 points overall, the best-ever result for a Japanese driver in Formula One. Takuma beat the likes of Mark Webber, David Coulthard and Felipe Massa that year as a result. His efforts also helped BAR-Honda to finish second in the Constructors' Championship.
Sato stayed with the BAR-Honda team for 2005 but their 2005 car was not as competitive as the 2004 car. There was more bad news as illness meant that Takuma was forced to miss the Malaysian Grand Prix. Later on in the season, both drivers were then disqualified from the San Marino Grand Prix and the entire team banned from the two subsequent races for fuel infringements. Across the season, Sato's only points finish was an eighth-place at the Hungarian Grand Prix, though he had qualified in the top ten seven times. It was a disheartening year for a driver that had been steadily on the rise until this point. Despite Honda taking full control of the team, he was not retained for 2006.
Takuma decided to join the new Super Aguri F1 team for 2006, run by Japanese former driver Aguri Suzuki. Being the last two Japanese drivers to have stood on an F1 podium, you can see the appeal for him. The new outfit was effectively a Honda B-team but ran the first half of the season with a modified version of a 2002 Arrows A23 chassis. With the introduction of their new SA06 at the German Grand Prix, Sato was able to outpace both cars of the Midland F1 team. At the season finale in Brazil, Sato finished tenth just two places short of a points finish and comfortably ahead of both Toro Rossos and the Spyker MF1’s.
For 2007, Super Aguri, further enforcing their role as the Honda ‘B’ team, ran a reworked version of the previous year's Honda RA106. With this car the teams’ performance improved considerably and Sato made it through to Q3 at the first race of the season in Australia. Takuma then scored the first point for the team at the Spanish Grand Prix three rounds later. In Canada he finished sixth after moving up from his starting point in the middle of the grid to a one time high of fifth, having passed the Ferrari of Kimi Räikkönen, before a pit-stop error dropped him back to eleventh place. He made up five places in the last 15 laps, including an overtake on lap 67 on the McLaren-Mercedes of Fernando Alonso which was met with cheers around the track and also earned him the "Overtake of the Year" award from F1 Racing magazine. No attack, no chance. That sixth place finish in Montreal would prove to be his best finish that season.
Financial problems began to affect the team during the off-season and they only just made it to the Australian Grand Prix for the start of the 2008 season. That year, they used a modified Honda RA107 chassis, though a transmission issue in Australia ended an opportunity to score points in a race where many others suffered issues of their own. 13th place in Spain turned out to be Sato's best result of the season and then, due to their financial struggles, Super Aguri withdrew from Formula One after the Spanish Grand Prix, leaving Sato without a drive after just four races of the 2008 season.
In late 2008, Sato took part in F1 tests at Jerez with Scuderia Toro Rosso in the hope of becoming a candidate to fill the seat vacated by Sebastian Vettel as he ascended to Red Bull. He was up against both of the former Toro Rosso drivers of Sébastien Bourdais and Red Bull Racing test and reserve driver Sébastien Buemi (part of the Red Bull period of only employing people called Sebastian) for one of the two race seats. He first drove for them on the 18th September, a little over four months after Super Aguri's withdrawal, before testing again with the team for another two days in November. On the first of these tests, Takuma was faster by 3 tenths of a second ahead of Buemi before posting the second-fastest time on the second day. It would not be until March 2009 that it was announced that Sato would not be the reserve driver for the Red Bull team.
Takuma then visited the Indianapolis 500 in May 2009. With his F1 career not looking great, he signed with KV Racing Technology to drive in the 2010 IndyCar Series season, finishing the season in 21st place. He remained with the team for 2011, scoring three top 5 finishes and two pole positions to end his second season in a much improved 13th place.
He then drove for Rahal Letterman Lanigan racing in the 2012 Indianapolis 500. Takuma chased down race leader Dario Franchitti throughout the race and, at the first turn of the last lap, made his move for the lead and the race win. Though the move was unsuccessful Sato did gain the respect of the Indianapolis 500 fans for "going for it."
On 14 June 2012, Team Mugen announced that Sato would race with the team in the last three rounds of the 2012 Formula Nippon season (single seater racing in Japan). He also raced with Team Mugen in the opening round of the renamed 2013 Super Formula season, returning to the team later on in the year to compete in the last three races of the season where he scored his first points with an eighth-place finish in the season finale.
For 2013, Sato joined A. J. Foyt's team for the Indy 500 Series. Then, in only the third race of the season at Long Beach, Takuma scored his first IndyCar win – becoming the first Japanese driver to win an IndyCar race. He went on to score six top five finishes, including two podiums and two pole positions before he left the Foyt team at the end of 2016.
In November 2013, Takuma then became a test and development driver for the FIA Formula E Championship before, in September 2014, joining his former Formula One team Amlin Aguri to race in the first-ever Formula E race, the 2014 Beijing ePrix, replacing the team's regular driver Antonio Félix da Costa. Sato scored two points after he set the fastest lap of the race with a time of 1:45.101, though he later retired from the race with mechanical issues. As it was Sato's only Formula E race, he became the only driver in the series' history with a 100% fastest lap record. Noice.
Takuma then went back to the USA and joined Andretti Autosport for the 2017 Indy 500 season and went on to become the first Japanese driver to win the Indianapolis 500. He then took two more pole positions across the rest of the season.
On 26th August 2017, it was reported that in 2018, Sato would rejoin RLL. The beginning of the season was rough, which included an early crash in the Indianapolis 500 but things improved as the season went on.
Then in 2019, Takuma started the season with a win at the third round in Alabama and he picked up another victory later in the season at the World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway.
2020 hasn’t gone to plan for a lot of people, Takuma included. But he has focused himself on winning races like Indianapolis - his favourite race – as well as finally securing a title in the 2020 IndyCar Series season championship. Despite his two Indy victories, a season title has so far eluded him after 11 seasons in the sport.
On August 23, 2020, Sato won the 104th running of the Indianapolis 500, taking the flag for the second time despite spending the final laps being concerned that his Honda-powered racer was going to run out of fuel before the race ran out of laps. Luckily, it didn’t. Speaking after winning the race, he revealed he had spent much of the year sleeping on the floor at a friend’s house in Indianapolis because of the pandemic and not being able to get home to Japan. He hopes that he can get back there long before the rescheduled Olympics next summer without affecting his demanding travel schedule as a driver, though there are health-based restrictions on where competitors in the IndyCar Series can go and no guarantee that travel restrictions will ease in the immediate future.
An all round great driver, it's a shame he didn't get to spend more time in Formula 1 and have some more success there. But with a couple of Indy 500 wins under his belt, it's not all doom and gloom - winning the Indy 500 is still one thing Alonso hasn't been able to do for example. Hopefully he'll act as a good role model for the next generation of Japanese drivers as he's definitely living proof that no matter the obstacle, you can overcome it and win.
What are your thoughts on Takuma? Let me know in the comments below.