Sato: Indy win “not revenge on Ganassi, just pure satisfaction”

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Sato: Indy win “not revenge on Ganassi, just pure satisfaction”
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Takuma Sato says his second Indianapolis 500 win was not about avenging his defeat by Ganassi in 2012, but satisfaction in delivering victory for his current team owners.

In the 2012 Indy 500, Rahal Letterman Lanigan-Honda driver Sato famously tried and failed to wrest the lead away from Chip Ganassi Racing’s Dario Franchitti at the start of the final lap, and crashed – an incident he described eloquently to Motorsport.com a few days before his 2017 Indy triumph for Andretti Autosport.

 

Photo by: Scott R LePage / Motorsport Images

In this year’s 500, Sato – who returned to RLL in 2018 – passed Scott Dixon’s Ganassi car with 15 laps to go and retained his lead until the final five-lap caution period under which the race ended. It was only the second Speedway triumph for the Bobby Rahal/David Letterman/Mike Lanigan-owned team, the first coming 16 years earlier thanks to Buddy Rice, and before Lanigan’s involvement.

The veteran Japanese driver said that this second triumph at the Brickyard was especially meaningful not because he had defeated the legendary Ganassi team, but because he delivered for team owners that had suffered the agony of such a near-miss eight years earlier.

“No, never – not revenge on Ganassi!” he laughed. “It was just pure satisfaction, imagining how the team and owners felt in the pits, compared with what happened after Lap 199 in 2012. That year Bobby hugged me and said he was so proud of me, and Mike said he absolutely loved that we were challenging Ganassi for the win. In fact, everyone on the team was supportive, but… in the end, I couldn’t make it. I didn’t win. That was a definite fact. So I could imagine how disappointed they were in the seconds and minutes after we lost.

“This time, with another opportunity to drive in their car and fight for the Indy 500 win, and succeed – I could imagine how fantastic they felt. Totally different. And I was just so, so happy to do that, and come to Victory Circle and celebrate with them and with all the team. Pure satisfaction.”

Making the decisive move

Sato with William Behrends, who has been sculptor of the Borg-Warner Trophy's likenesses since 1990.

Sato with William Behrends, who has been sculptor of the Borg-Warner Trophy's likenesses since 1990.

Photo by: Scott R LePage / Motorsport Images

This year at the Brickyard, Sato led 27 laps – 10 more than he had on his way to victory in ’17 – but it’s a figure dwarfed by the 111 laps led by Dixon. And in the immediate aftermath of this year’s race, there was a major what-might-have-been question, since the Ganassi driver had made his final pitstop one lap later than the RLL driver. That meant Dixon had one more lap’s worth of fuel – more opportunity to run his fuel mixture at full rich for maximum power – so had the race run green all the way to the end, there are many who suspect the five-time IndyCar champion would have won, 12 years after his first and so far only Indy 500 win.

But when Sato made his crucial pass for the lead down the front straight on Lap 185 of the 200, it was done without ambivalence, and without worrying about increasing his fuel consumption by now being the lead car.

“We’re not stupid!” chuckled Sato, who stoutly defended his lead into Turn 1 on the two occasions when Dixon truly probed his defenses over the remaining green-flag laps. “We knew we had to take the opportunity when we can to get in front because you don’t know what’s going to happen.

“And yes, it was tight on fuel, for sure. Everyone was tight. You need to save the fuel over a 30-lap stint – 31 in Dixie’s case, 32 for me. But you’ve done it for the previous 170 laps, you’ve measured what fuel [consumption] number you need to hit and you work out what you can risk doing.

Sato's Rahal Letterman Lanigan Honda passes Scott Dixon (Chip Ganassi Racing Honda) for the lead on Lap 185.

Sato's Rahal Letterman Lanigan Honda passes Scott Dixon (Chip Ganassi Racing Honda) for the lead on Lap 185.

Photo by: Barry Cantrell / Motorsport Images

“If we had short-fueled in that final stop, for sure I wouldn’t have passed Dixie when I did. I’d have sat behind him, saved fuel and nailed it when I needed to. But the stint before the last, I had all the numbers I needed and I knew I could make it.

“So for people who say we’d have been short on fuel – yes, it was tight, but I had enough fuel that on the last three laps I could have gone to the power-best, full rich. Immediately at the start of the last stint, I was saving fuel. Then I went to power-best to get past Scott but I then immediately went to fuel save again.

“And there’s lots of other ways to save fuel, too. For example, in traffic, that was helping me too. So all in all, yes we had the fuel. So even if the last laps weren’t going to go yellow and it was going to be a shoot-out in the last three laps, I don’t care: I had enough fuel to race hard with Dixie to the very, very end.”

Qualifying a good indicator for the race

For Sato in 2020, a spot on the outside of the front row in qualifying was a snapshot of his raceday potential.

For Sato in 2020, a spot on the outside of the front row in qualifying was a snapshot of his raceday potential.

Photo by: Gavin Baker / Motorsport Images

Qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 does not usually produce a useful form guide for the race, other than to see which of the two engine manufacturers has won the power war. For example, this year’s polesitter Marco Andretti lost the lead on the opening lap and never looked like a threat for victory.

However, Sato believes that for the #30 RLL-Honda, the Pole Day run this year provided a useful insight for his team regarding the race. While not the absolute fastest, Sato did qualify on the front row, beaten only by Andretti and Dixon, and he had the most consistent run of all front-runners in terms of minimal drop-off in speeds across the four laps.

Although well aware that the variables that the Indianapolis 500 throws in across its 200 laps meant there were no guarantees of success, Sato admits that he was very confident heading into the race.

“It was very important to know that we had a consistent car, which was indicated in qualification,” he remarks. “Now of course in qualification, it’s only about speed, pure speed, and I think we were… a little bit disappointed because you always want to be fastest, you know? We simply couldn’t find the ultimate peak speeds of Marco [Andretti] and Scott.

“But when you can’t find that big speed, then you have to shift to a different way to compete, and that was with consistency. I went out in the practice session before that to get a feel for wind direction and what gears and what settings we would need for qualifying, and what we learned I think is why we were strong enough to be on the front row and beat the other cars from Andretti and Ganassi. Before that, we thought second row was maximum so that was pure satisfaction to think and strategize how to make the most of what speed we have and end up on the front row.

“I think to see my car was consistent over those four laps was key to me knowing I had a strong car for the race. Instead of the tire drop-off that we see on other cars from first lap to fourth lap in qualifying, my car – my tires – were staying strong for longer.”

Reception at track and at home

 

Photo by: Scott R LePage / Motorsport Images

The most marked contrast between Sato’s first and second Indy wins, in terms of appearance, was the absence of fans in this pandemic-afflicted IndyCar season.

“It does feel different,” confirmed Sato. “It feels lonely and sad. The thing about big days in sport is the atmosphere and energy of the people, and it’s well known that the 500 is the biggest sporting event in the world. There’s nothing like it – not in racing, not in any other sport. So to not have any spectators is massively sad.

“But, on the other hand, we all know the situation and how difficult the circumstance is. So maybe even more we should appreciate Indy, we should be happy that we were able to race in this current challenging time. Many athletes in the world today don’t have an opportunity to perform because they don’t have a place to do it. So big thank you to IndyCar and Roger Penske because although there were no spectators, we were still able to race.

“So it was the same emotional happiness I felt for my second win as for my first win, but the environment was yes, of course, very different.”

The reaction in Japan, by contrast, was even greater than in 2017, when Sato became the first Japanese driver to conquer the Brickyard in 101 editions of the race.

“After my first win, I think people in Japan – even people who don’t know a lot about racing – recognized how big it was to win the Indy 500 so more people watched the race on TV,” he commented. “But also I think during this pandemic there is less sport so it became even bigger news to score a historic second win.

“So there was massive, massive support. There were billboards in downtown Tokyo, congratulations posters, and that was fantastic to hear.”

The 2020 Olympics, to be held in Tokyo, were pushed back to 2021 due to the pandemic, and it seems natural that Sato would be a special guest, maybe the one to carry the famous torch into the main stadium during the opening ceremony. Sato giggled modestly at the thought, before stating: “Actually, I was going to be one of the people to carry the Olympic flame this year anyway, but sure, that would be a great honor.

“But I do send my best wishes to everyone working to make the Olympic Games happen in 2021 in Tokyo. We’ll need to see what is possible with the schedule, and the travel restrictions that might still be happening. We don’t know yet. But it would be nice to be part of the ceremony, of course.”

Sato’s second face on the Borg-Warner Trophy

William Behrends and Takuma Sato

William Behrends and Takuma Sato

Photo by: Scott R LePage / Motorsport Images

Sato’s 2020 image will be the 31st face that sculptor William Behrends has produced for the magnificent 5’5”, 110lbs Borg-Warner Trophy, which will then carry 107 bas-relief faces from the 104 Indy 500s. This seemingly anomalous figure accounts for shared rides and one non-driver on the trophy. That exception is a 24-carat gold likeness of late Speedway owner and president Anton "Tony" Hulman, Jr., which was added in 1988 in recognition of his rejuvenation of the track and revival of the race after four lost years during World War II.

Behrends told Motorsport.com that as with all the drivers he’s had to sculpt more than once – Arie Luyendyk, Al Unser Jr., Juan Pablo Montoya, Helio Castroneves, Dario Franchitti, Dan Wheldon – it’s important to make each ‘edition’ of the face distinctive.

“I want to make each one unique, a different take on the person’s image,” he said. “Helio was particularly difficult when he won in consecutive years!

“This one isn’t, though. Obviously Takuma was here in 2017 and I did my life-size clay study of him, and I have that and the last five up on a high shelf in my studio. But I didn’t even take down the previous one of Takuma and look at it closely. I just started a new one as if I’d never done him before.

“At some point I’ll put them side by side and see how I did, but I was just eager to start from scratch.”

Behrends admitted that while he watches the Indy 500 he finds himself rooting for certain drivers according to whether they have a distinctive face that would look good in silver on the Borg-Warner Trophy.

“I do have thoughts of that kind – but not about Takuma!” he said. “He has a great face, and such a wonderful smile that he’s a treat to sculpt. So I was just ecstatic that he won this year and we had an opportunity to do all this again.

“I didn’t ask him whether he wanted his [anti-Covid] face mask on or off, but I just assumed that he didn’t. It would be easy to do, but it would hide so much that’s appealing about his face.”

Behrends says there is one aspect of producing the likenesses for the Trophy that has gotten better since he began in 1990.

He said: “Something that’s improved over the years both for me and the jeweler, a friend of mine who does the actual casting of the silver, is that from year to year we remember the finer points of what we did the previous year. We used to have to make notes for ourselves because we did it once a year and then 11-and-a-half months later we had forgotten exactly what we did. Now, by repetition over three decades, we remember it.

“And I have to say I’m enjoying it more every year I do it. There is a challenge because I want this one to be a little bit better than the one last year or the one three years ago, so I keep pushing myself to do better, but I enjoy it; it’s a lot of fun for me.

“I work from photographs to put the study together, but they can’t tell you everything. So having the driver in the studio is very important; I can immediately see things that didn’t come across in a photo. It’s invaluable to me to have the driver right here to work with and engage with.”

 

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

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About this article

Series IndyCar
Event Indy 500
Drivers Takuma Sato
Teams Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing
Author David Malsher-Lopez