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IndyCar 2017 driver review: Takuma Sato

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MotorSportsTalk continues its annual review of the Verizon IndyCar Series drivers that raced in 2017. Takuma Sato won the year’s Indianapolis 500, and that stood out as the pinnacle moment of the season among a year of happiness for the perpetually happy Japanese driver.

Takuma Sato, No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda

  • 2016: 17th Place, Best Finish 5th, Best Start 3rd, 2 Top-5, 5 Top-10, 0 Laps Led, 14.1 Avg. Start, 13.7 Avg. Finish
  • 2017: 8th Place, 1 Win, 2 Poles, 4 Top-5, 6 Top-10, 41 Laps Led, 8.6 Avg. Start, 12.4 Avg. Finish

One of the Verizon IndyCar Series’ more likable and genuinely fun to watch drivers, Takuma Sato, finally had his breakout season with Andretti Autosport after eight years and more than 100 starts elsewhere. Sadly for Sato, a year that saw him in semi-realistic title contention most of the summer post-his famous Indianapolis 500 victory faded as the year drew to its conclusion.

Reunited with engineer Garrett Mothershead, who he’d worked with at KV Racing Technology, Sato was immediately on pace in his new environment and with a Firestone Fast Six in qualifying and fourth place in the race at St. Petersburg, promising signs were there.

His Indianapolis 500 performance all month was simply outstanding. Similar to Alexander Rossi last year, Sato flew under the radar but was fast all month. When the opportunity to attack late in the race came, Sato lived up to his eternal “no attack, no chance” mantra to deliver the victory – and vault to a top-three position in points in the process. The win was fully deserved and was huge for Honda both in America and Japan, as well as the Andretti team with several of its other six cars having issues in the race. It was one of the year’s most popular wins.

Perhaps equally as impressive if not more so was his run the following weekend at Detroit, a track he’s thrived on in the past. Finishes of eighth and fourth, including a pole in race two, were the best results for an Indianapolis 500 champion in the Detroit doubleheader and seemed to indicate at long last, Sato had turned the corner to becoming a consistent finisher.

And then… Texas. Small contact there late in the race with Scott Dixon cost them both potential top-five finishes and for poor Sato, sent him into a tail-spin of results the rest of the way.

He had to battle through a neck injury at Road America, and ended 19th. A further onslaught of bad luck, be it waste gate or other mechanical issues, occasional spins and a generally lingering black cloud often through no fault of his own, limited Sato to finishes of 16th or worse in five of the final seven races, and dropped him to eighth in the points standings.

It was still his career-best by five spots, but could have been even better, as it was just slaughtered by the final eight races. He led the field in the two double points races with 157 points scored but ranked only 10th in the single-points races. Through Texas, the first nine races of the year, he scored 312 of his 441 points, and was third in the standings just 14 markers off the lead. With only 129 points scored in the final eight races, Sato fell 201 points behind eventual champion Josef Newgarden.

Even more disappointing about his end of the year was how well Sato had qualified. He showcased his bravery with his pole run at Pocono, coming just one car after Ryan Hunter-Reay’s heavy accident. And he qualified in the top six in six of the last seven races, enough to bring his average grid spot for the year to 8.6 – tied for fifth best in the field. The pace was there while the lack of consistency bit yet again; alas, with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing next year, Sato should have a good reunion. Even better, in the first few months since winning Indianapolis, Sato has already proven a more than worthy ‘500 champion and excellent ambassador for the race and the sport.

MRTI: Keith Donegan earns Mazda Shootout Scholarship

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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Dublin, Ireland’s Keith Donegan claimed a $200K scholarship from Mazda after emerging victorious at the second annual Mazda Road to Indy Shootout. The 20-year-old Donegan earned an at-large nomination for the scholarship based on his performance at this year’s Formula Ford Festival, in which he finished second in the final, and emerged from a pack of 17 drivers from across the globe to claim the scholarship.

“It really hasn’t hit me yet,” said an emotional Donegan, who earlier in his career actually spent two years away from racing as he focused on academics. “The weekend was really good and I enjoyed it. I have to say a huge thanks to Mazda and Cooper Tires and everyone at the Mazda Road to Indy. I enjoyed every moment. Throughout the weekend we were consistent and I kept the small things in check. I didn’t make any stupid mistakes and kept my head cool and that really paid off in the end.”

The two-day shootout was held at the Bondurant Racing School in Arizona and saw the nominated drivers tackle the school’s 1.6-mile circuit in Formula Mazda race cars before facing on and off-track assessments. Donegan was selected by a panel of judges that included former driver and current Verizon IndyCar Series TV analyst Scott Goodyear, Mazda drivers Tom Long, Andrew Carbonell, and Jonathan Bomarito, as well as Victor Franzoni – the current champion of the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires – and Oliver Askew, the current champion of the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda.

Donegan was humbled to be in the presence of drivers who have won scholarships and championships previously, and added that he is grateful to have the opportunity to continue his racing career.

“You see all these champions here today that will go on to great things in the future and I’m sure the names you see here today aren’t going to disappear,” Donegan added. “They will be back up there and I’m sure I will be racing them again some day. It is an unbelievable opportunity to be given and for Mazda to provide that for any young driver. It just gives that bit of motivation that you need because the [U.S.] is where you need to go to become a professional these days. It is such a boost to my career.”

Donegan is now slated to join the 2018 USF2000 championship, with further announcements regarding the team with whom he’ll be racing to come in the future.

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