Takuma Sato made more strides in his fourth IndyCar season, as he shifted to A.J. Foyt Racing and the No. 14 ABC Supply Co. Honda.
A seriously competitive first half included a front-row start in St. Petersburg, his first win at Long Beach and runner-up finish at Brazil, as he led the points entering the month of May at Indianapolis.
However the consistency tailed off in the second half, with only a seventh at Milwaukee (after leading a race-high 109 laps) and a pole at Houston Race 1 as major highlights.
There was enough achieved to provide hope and optimism for a better 2014. For Sato, he’ll have the comfort of entering a second season with the same team, an opportunity he’s only had once previously in his IndyCar career.
“We had a little up and down. There was some unfortunate things. Like you said, first half the season was really competitive, going everything well up until May,” Sato said at IndyCar media day in Orlando.
“I think this year obviously we’re trying to be competitive on as many circuits as possible and try to keep up all the points. That’s our target.”
The last time Sato stayed with the same team, with KV Racing from 2010 into 2011, he emerged with his best season yet in IndyCar.
That year, Sato scored his first two series poles, posted three top-five finishes and improved from 21st to 13th in the season points standings. He also improved his finishing record, going from seven of 17 races finished in 2010 to 14 of 17 in 2011, which remains the highest percentage he’s achieved thus far.
Sato was only running at the end of nine of 19 races in 2013. You figure if he can get to the flag of 14 or 15 of 18 races, he should be able to improve on his 17th place in points to the edge of the top-10.
And he does have the confidence knowing he has the outright pace to be in contention, as he enters another year working with engineer Don Halliday and the rest of the Larry Foyt-led crew.
“We know we can win the race,” Sato said. “We’ve learned a lot. It’s continually working. From first year to second year, it’s always better. I’m definitely looking forward to coming to the second season for A.J. Foyt Racing.”
Sato started the year off nicely, qualifying second at St. Petersburg last year. He and the team got an early handle on Firestone’s then-new-for-2013 compounds, and likes the opening round of the series.
“The previous year to last year, so 2012 to ’13, was the Firestone new tires made it dramatically balance, for example. A lot of people come with a clean sheet of white paper and have to read the setup,” he explained. “Qualifying was quite exciting, getting front row. Start of the season was fantastic.
“I like St. Pete. (It’s a good) combination of high-speed section, then going into Turn 1. The back of the track is very, very complex. Very narrow. So it’s a good combination. Obviously St. Petersburg, I think it’s a great place to start the season. I always enjoyed it.”
Sato admitted that teams caught up rather quickly as they dialed in their setups with the new Firestones, and that negated the early pace edge.
“I think a lot of teams started catching up as the season went along. We weren’t maybe as fast as we could have been. That was a tough part of our first year. This year we continue working, should be better.”
Then, there was Long Beach, and all that the win meant for Sato, for ABC Supply, and for his home country of Japan.
“Not just my first major win in a major series, but also for the long time waiting for ABC, too. It was a really perfect race for us,” he said. “Long Beach is one of the biggest events as a street course event, has the long history.
“The impact was just enormous, from the sponsors, fans, the people who cheering us. I immediately flew back to Japan after that and had a winning press conference at Tokyo. No, it definitely is one of the best days of my racing career.”
For as long as Sato has been in either Formula One or IndyCar, he’s been with Honda. So it should come as no surprise that he’d be one of the best drivers to know how to gauge the change the manufacturer makes from a single-turbo to a twin-turbo specification.
“The initial thought on the twin turbo, it’s very simple. It’s just the pickup. Very, very quick,” Sato said. “In turbine, instead of having a big single turbine, you have huge inertia to spin the turbine itself. Mechanically you pick up the good response.
“So from the transition from the front to the back of the car, it’s very naturally the torque coming through nicely. We all liked it. They’re working on peak power for the engine. It seems to be we made a good step.”
After seasons getting acclimated to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and Foyt’s teams, respectively, in the last two years, look for Sato to improve on the moments of brilliance he achieved in 2013, as he seeks a cleaner and more consistent 2014.