Before the end of this year’s Indianapolis 500, the most obvious association between Andretti Autosport driver Takuma Sato and the ‘racing capital of the world’ was the massive dive-bomb and spin at the end of the 2012 Indy 500. This year, Sato and the six-car Andretti team proved that a well-prepped race car and plenty of patience behind the wheel are ingredients for a winning recipe.
Five years ago, Sato had just passed Tony Kanaan for second place as Dario Franchitti was coming to the white flag and well on his way to a third Indy 500 victory.
Seeing his chance to snatch the lead, Sato dove to the inside of Franchitti as the two sailed into Turn 1 on the last lap. The ill-timed attempt resulted in a spinning No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda spin into the wall, ending the race under yellow with a red No. 50 Chip Ganassi Racing machine in victory lane. It was this kind of risk-taking, mechanically abusive reputation that would continue to follow the Japanese driver.
Five years later, not many would say much has changed. The 40-year old former Formula One driver has spent seven years in the Verizon IndyCar Series and has only one victory to his name with 45 DNF’s in his 123-race career. That’s nearly a 37-percent DNF rate!
But at Indy things are different. Where most tracks require equal parts preparation, driver skill and luck, the 2.5-mile oval arguably requires much more of the final component in that list. Throw in a little patience to time passes perfectly and a well-prepared set up from the crew and the results is almost always positive.
Michael Andretti’s team knows how to win on super speedways. Despite the illustrious win always escaping Mr. Andretti’s grasp when he was behind the wheel, his team has scored an impressive five Indy 500 wins, including three of the last four with Sato’s victory.
Sato’s strategist, Paul Harcus, knew they were looking good as early as Friday’s final practice.”I think the biggest thing there is we had good cars which were prepared,” he said. “We were confident on Carb Day, with the car, we adjusted there.”
Having their Honda’s setup settled by race day meant in-race adjustments would only be minor. Harcus said the team adjusted the wing one click at a time and only had to adjust the tire pressures minimally.
After luck, however, the second most important part of Sato’s winning strategy this year was his ability to be patient in the harry situations.
A badly-executed pit stop on lap 82 dropped the No. 26 Honda down from fifth to 16th by halfway, not long after Sato spent some 11 laps at the front of the field. Without panic, the Japanese driver was able to methodically begin to pick his way through the field.
One of the most hair raising moments of the race occurred in the closing laps when Sato had a huge run on the battling duo of Helio Castroneves and rookie Ed Jones. Looking for a way around, Sato looked poised to attempt a split between the two leading drivers, but backed off just before contact.
“Helio is the guy, he can go for really hard, with respect,” commented Sato after his victory. “I can trust him, as well. On track or off, we got on really well. Having battle with him is always good.”
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The same driver would not have slowed down five years earlier. Sato’s display of being able to wait for the right moment was exactly the opposite displayed in 2012, and could have been the most important aspect to his win of the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500 today.
But for Andretti, it never hurts to have six in the chamber.
“The difficult part of having multiple cars is not everybody is going to be happy,” he said. “There’s some other cars that were very, very strong today that we had that ran into bad luck, but that’s why we have six bullets in the gun.”