At least three of IndyCar’s “usual suspects” and three surprises created a compelling mix of drivers in the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Firestone Fast Six.
Will Power (eight times), Helio Castroneves (four) and James Hinchcliffe (five) made regular trips to the top six a year ago. Power, unsurprisingly, secured his fourth straight pole in St. Petersburg.
But Takuma Sato, Simona de Silvestro and Tristan Vautier (right) had a combined one Firestone Fast Six appearance between them – Sato’s fourth place qualifying run at Edmonton a year ago – so were no doubt the big surprises of the day.
Sato and de Silvestro have each shown pace and an immediate gelling with their new teams, A.J. Foyt Racing and KV Racing Technology, this weekend, while IndyCar rookie Vautier has already taken like a duck to water on debut.
“It’s very cool, and it’s a lot of fun now,” said Vautier. “But I was a little nervous going in. The work I’ve done with Allen McDonald (engineer) and the whole team has been great.”
Sato and Vautier defended Honda’s performance, as Honda has been frequently down on the time charts this weekend although the collective nature of the field is close.
“I don’t think we, as Honda, have issues,” said Sato. “We have a good balance and a good chassis. I know Honda has been working really hard.”
For de Silvestro, making her first ever Firestone Fast Six appearance in four seasons (her prior best start was seventh at Edmonton, 2010), the ability to maximize her innate speed is something she has had to prove this weekend.
“To be honest, this winter I had a lot of doubts,” she admitted. “I wondered if I could still be fast? But it has been a big relief to be up front.”
De Silvestro and Vautier each outqualified their more heralded teammates; Tony Kanaan will start 11th, Simon Pagenaud 19th.
Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato welcomes ‘Baby Borg’ to the family
Takuma Sato cast a big shadow on the world of IndyCar racing last May when he became the first Japanese driver to win the Indianapolis 500.
But there was another shadow of sorts cast along with Sato’s Indy 500 win: he and the prestigious Borg-Warner Trophy, given to each year’s winner of the Greatest Spectacle In Racing, are virtually identical in size.
The Trophy is the same height as Sato, 5 feet, 5 ¾ inches tall. And the respective weight of both the Trophy and Sato are the same: approximately 113 pounds.
Try putting that on a mantle in your house.
That’s why Sato was so happy to receive the Baby Borg Trophy — a miniature version of the Borg-Warner Trophy — Wednesday night in Detroit. It’s much more manageable for the mantle in his house: 18 inches tall and five pounds.
“It’s such an honor to win the Baby Borg finally, eight months after the race, it’s been an unbelievable journey,” Sato told NBC Sports. “It’s an unbelievable feeling to win the 500 and it has just gone on and on. It’s just a significant moment in my life. It’s been fantastic.
“Right now, I haven’t really decided yet (where he’ll put the coveted Baby Borg). It’s going to my home in Indiana right now. But of course, everybody wants to see it. After that, I haven’t decided, but I’m sure it’ll get a special place.”
Even though the Baby Borg is a pint-sized version of the real trophy that was presented to Sato in victory lane in Indianapolis last May, it also has the same meaning as the big trophy and served to get Sato’s excitement pumping to where he’s already counting down the days to the 2018 Indy 500.
And even more important, it will be the first time he returns to Indianapolis as the defending champion.
“(Winning the 500) has changed my life,” Sato told NBC Sports. “But what I do is exactly the same, to try and be as fast as possible when racing.
“But all the environment, the people, all the cheering and being called an Indy 500 champion, I never imagined how deep and how far it goes, just the power and energy that the Indy 500 had.
“I just never realized how much the tradition and the prestigiousness of it. It’s been fantastic and I’m sure when I go back there to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in four months as the defending champion, it’ll be a whole other dimension. I’m sure it’s going to be a whole lot of pressure, but I’m sure to enjoy the moment.”
Sato, who turns 41 on January 28, will return to the 500 this year, but with a new team. He left Andretti Autosport after last season and returned to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, for whom he previously raced for in 2012.
Now that he’s won one Indy 500, Sato wants to make it two in a row.
“It’s a huge, another task and a new dream,” he said. “I’m excited for the new season and to go for another 500 (win), it’s another completely new dimension. Like Michael (Andretti, who he drove for last season) said, obviously, we’ll be competing against each other in the new season, but tonight we celebrated together. I think it’s going to be a real good season for me. I’d love to get another win there, of course.”
But not if Andretti has anything to say about it.
“He’s not allowed to win again,” Andretti laughed while also speaking to NBC Sports.
Sato enjoyed a victory lap of another sort last month when he accompanied the Borg-Warner Trophy to his native Japan for a two-plus week tour of the nation.
It marked the first time in the Trophy’s 82-year existence that it has ever been outside the U.S.
Everywhere Sato and the Trophy went drew large crowds, from Honda Racing “Thanks Day” at the Twin Rings track at Motegi to a visit to Mount Fuji, a meeting with 850 members of Sato’s fan club, and also included a two-day run in the atrium of Honda’s World Headquarters in Tokyo that had fans lined up for hours to see the Trophy and take photos of it and Sato.
“The reaction was just massive,” Sato said. “For myself, it was a dream come true, but at the same time, for a country with that history, it was an unbelievable moment, particularly the first time when Hiro Matsushita did it (drove in the Indy 500 in the 1990s) so many years ago.
“So many Japanese drivers have tried to win such a historic race, I was just so proud to be part of it. The people were really excited. The passion, I’m really particularly happy to bring it to Japan.
“To go to Japan was a massive commitment by from Borg Warner and Honda. So many Japanese fans were able to see it physically and now they’re really looking forward to this year’s Indy 500 again. It was a great moment to us.”