Five great moments from Indianapolis 500 winner Takuma Sato’s F1 career

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They came to see if an F1 driver could win at Indianapolis driver. And one did – though perhaps not the one everyone expected.

Takuma Sato’s Indianapolis 500 victory on Sunday easily ranks as the greatest achievement of his career. However after a seven-year spell in F1 he also became one of just three Japanese drivers to stand on a grand prix podium.

Here are some of the best moments from his time in F1.

2002 Japanese Grand Prix

Sato grabbed a vital points finish in his final start for Jordan
Sato arrived in Formula One with Jordan thanks in part to his connection with their engine supplier. He honed his craft at Honda’s Suzuka Racing School and was powered by them during his hugely successful 2001 Formula Three campaign, which included victories in the British championship plus the Macau Grand Prix and F3 Masters.

He struggled initially on his debut with the struggling team alongside the competitive Giancarlo Fisichella. There were several wild moments but his biggest crash, at the A1-Ring, was caused by an out-of-control Nick Heidfeld.

Despite growing questions over his future, when Sato arrived at his home race he stuck the Jordan on the fourth row ahead of Fisichella. Sato then produced a flawless drive in the race, keeping his team mate behind and collecting a fully deserved fifth place for his first two points. The home crowd celebrated as if he’d won, and it seemed his career was saved.

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2003 Japanese Grand Prix

Sato returned, and delivered, at Suzuka
Honda pulled their support for Jordan to focus solely on the BAR squad for 2003 which meant there was no room for Sato. Then on the Thursday before the Japanese Grand Prix Jacques Villeneuve announced he wouldn’t be driving for the team and Sato got his call-up to return, 12 months on from his last race.

Despite a somewhat scruffy lap he qualified within two tenths of a second of new team mate Jenson Button. Come the race the 005s were in terrific shape, buoyed by a typically timely Honda upgrade. Button worked his way to the front and led while Sato backed him up. The pair came home fourth and sixth, the point ensuring BAR came out ahead in a tight three-way battle with Sauber and Jaguar for fifth in the championship.

2004 United States Grand Prix

Fittingly, Sato took his only F1 podium at Indianapolis
In only his second full season of F1, Sato enjoyed a breakthrough campaign in 2004. There were still signs of inconsistency, but he performed well with BAR’s much-improved car. He was cruelly denied in Monaco, where he jumped from seventh to fourth at the start only for his engine to failed on the third lap.

It finally came right at Indianapolis. None of the Michelin-shod drivers had a prayer against the all-conquering Ferraris, but Sato emerged as their closest contender. He beat Button to third on the grid and finished there too, despite losing out at the start to a flying getaway by Fernando Alonso.

At the time this made Sato only the second Japanese driver to stand on a Formula One podium. It remains a feat achieved by just three drivers: Sato plus Aguri Suzuka and Kamui Kobayashi.

2006 Brazilian Grand Prix

Difficult 2006 campaign with Super Aguri ended well
After the high of 2004, the following year was a disaster for BAR and Sato. Illness, disqualification and technical problems marred the beginning of the season, and in the second half of the year the rash, careless Sato was too much in evidence. It cost him his place at the team.

But Honda recognised the value of having a Japanese driver in F1, so they found Sato a place at a new team run by Suzuki. Super Aguri began the season with outdated equipment and Sato was thrust into the difficult role of team leader. He knuckled down and got on with, but while he regularly brought the car home there was little he could do about being several laps off the pace.

It was only at the Interlagos season finale that the team suddenly became competitive. In the final ‘tyre war’ grand prix Super Aguri’s supplier Bridgestone produced clearly superior race rubber to rivals Michelin. From 19th on the grid today Sato finished 10th (good for a point today but not in 2006), surprisingly beating both Toro Rossos and even a Red Bull. And it got better for Super Aguri in 2007.

2007 Canadian Grand Prix

Sato passed Alonso with three laps to go
Now using a much more competitive year-old ex-Honda chassis, Super Aguri became points contenders in 2007. The tiny team caused red faces at the factory outfit which toiled with its disastrously uncompetitive, Earthdreams-liveried RA107.

Savvy strategy helped Sato to a season-best sixth at Montreal. By far the most remarkable aspect of this was the driver who finished behind him: his future Andretti team mate Alonso. Sato thrilled the Canadian crowd by passing the McLaren driver at the chicane, Sato’s elbows-out driving aided by a tyre compound advantage.

Sato had already scalped Ralf Schumacher’s Toyota when he arrived on Alonso’s tail. “I thought, ‘OK, a great moment is coming’,” he said afterwards. “I was much stronger under braking and was committed enough to overtake on the outside into the chicane. That was so exciting! The mechanics holding the pit board were very excited too and I could see the whole grandstand cheering – just like Suzuka!”

Sadly, 12 months later Super Aguri was no more. With financial markets taking a downward turn Honda began scaling back its F1 effort – a move which took both its teams out of F1 by the end of 2008. Sato had a speculative test with Toro Rosso but his F1 career was over.

Sato’s IndyCar career

Sato won the Indy 500 at his eighth attempt
As in F1, Sato has enjoyed the backing of Honda throughout his IndyCar career and has started all of his races using their engines. His first season at KV was distinguished by several incidents but two pole positions the following year demonstrated his pace.

A move to Rahal Letterman Lanigan for 2012, which coincided with the arrival of the Dallara DW12 chassis, gave Sato a crack at Indianapolis 500 glory. In a characteristic win-or-bust move, he dived down the inside of Dario Franchitti in an attempt to take the lead at the beginning of the final lap, but crashed out.

For 2013 he joined IndyCar hero AJ Foyt’s team. The partnership began well as Sato won his third start with them at Long Beach. But no more wins followed and the team slumped over the following years.

A move to top team Andretti in 2017 has turned Sato’s IndyCar career around. They came good on pre-race expectations of their form at the Indianapolis 500, and Sato qualified ahead of Alonso on the second run. While his famous team mate dropped out with engine failure Sato’s car kept going until the end, and a late pass on Helio Castroneves made him the first Japanese driver to win this prestigious race.

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Sato has now joined the Indianapolis 500 greats

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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17 comments on “Five great moments from Indianapolis 500 winner Takuma Sato’s F1 career”

  1. Way to go, Sato-san.

  2. I don’t think there is a single fan of motorsport who wasn’t delighted by this result. Proof that nice guys can finish first!

    1. Absolutely right @geemac

    2. Agree totally. @geemac (love your avatar btw!)

  3. his future Andretti team mate Alonso. Sato thrilled the Canadian crowd by passing the McLaren drive

    team Enstone @keithcollantine ?

    1. Alonso drove for McLaren in 2007.

    2. @davidnotcoulthard Alonso was at McLaren at the time.

    3. @telvee32 @mashiat oh yeah. Somehow I read that as the 2006 Canadian go. My bad (and yes I’d forgotten that Alonsobdrove for a year at McLaren)

  4. I have better memories of sato in f1 than just 1 podium, he could have had so much more achievement. But this indy 500 win is incredible, and a huge redrmption after the 2012 race…. a career low point, now a career high point.

  5. To this day, I actually never found out, did Alonso have a problem in Canada 2007? I seem to remember him going wide in 4 or 5 times in the race, which isn’t typical of him. Back then I never followed F1 outside of just the races.

    1. Alonso (and Rosberg) was slapped with a stop and go penalty for pitting too early under the safety car, I’m so glad they changed the rule as was really unfair, especially during the refuelling era.

      1. Yeah I remember that, but I was talking about some sort of brake problem maybe, because it is uncharacteristic of Alonso to make so many major mistakes.

    2. He had a mental meltdown, plain and simple. The previous grand prix in Monaco and the following media frenzy about Hamilton being “forbidden” to fight him had gotten under his skin. Fernando believed that he, as a two-time defending World Champion, deserves preferential treatment over a rookie, and when Hamilton placed in onto pole in Canada he wanted to make a point by overtaking him on the start. Hamilton gave him no quarter and pushed him wide causing him to lose several places. From then on he was overdriving trying to catch up with Hamilton, which caused him to destroy his tires and make even more mistakes. This was also the beginning of the end for his relationship with McLaren because he convinced himself that Hamilton is being given unfair advantage. This continued the next race at Indianapolis and finally culminated in Hungary when the relationship completely broke down. Of course, Hamilton wasn’t an innocent party in all this, he was playing mind games and stirring up stuff the whole time, but i was really disappointed at Alonso that he fell for it. This continued for years, Alonso always getting especially upset at Hamilton’s on-track antics more so than with any other driver. It seems they might’ve finally buried the hatchet these past few years, but it might be just because they’re not really running in the same race anymore – with Hamilton sitting in an absolutely dominant Mercedes car, and Alonso having to pedal around in a McLaren-Honda.

      1. From then on he was overdriving trying to catch up with Hamilton, which caused him to destroy his tires and make even more mistakes.

        When he ran off at turn 1 he actually damaged the floor & lost some aero bits from around the barge boards so was missing some downforce which in turn created an aero in-balance.
        The loss of downforce/imbalance was causing the car to slide around more which not only caused increased wear to the tyres but also was the reason he made further little errors. He slid off track again at one point which caused further damage to the floor which just made his issues worse.

        Something similar occurred at turn 1 at the Spanish Gp where he got pushed off by Massa which caused damage to some of the aero bits.

        I think lewis had something similar after he was pushed over the kurb at the 1st corner in spa which caused a bit of damage to the floor that cost him pace during the race.

  6. My boy!

  7. I still remember the 2007 Canadian Grand Prix. Granted Alonso had several problems on and off track, but no one thought it would be enough for a Super Aguri to beat a Mclaren. Sato was also on a strong form then. He picked 2-3 cars before Alonso with good clean aggressive passes if I remember right. And that move on Alonso was not a highway-pass like the DRS passes of today, it was completed under braking (and not by top speed), partly helped by an extra-cautious Alonso.

    That was also a race where I first time felt that Alonso vs Hamilton would not be straight-forward. Just one year back at the same track, Alonso had won for the 6th time in 9 races. It had been a flawless performance by Alonso against an in-form Schumacher no less then. But one year later, the situation was completely reversed. He was behind his teammate on points, missing braking points several times during the race and getting overtaken by back-markers. Both Kimi and Fernando (established top drivers then) were behind their teammates on points. It really was an exciting time in Formula One (as is today).

  8. Always loved Sato. The onboard of his qualifying lap at Suzuka 2002 is one of my favourite F1 moments

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