The Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix Presented by Lear weekend has traditionally not been kind to the Indianapolis 500 champion since the next weekend after Indianapolis in each Verizon IndyCar Series season moved to a doubleheader format in 2013.
Between Tony Kanaan, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Juan Pablo Montoya and Alexander Rossi, none of them had finished better than 10th in eight combined starts.
This serves as background to say that what Takuma Sato pulled off this weekend in Detroit was not only statistically the best set of results since that format was introduced, but it was a statement weekend of his intent to fight for the championship the rest of the way. He ended eighth and fourth in the two races.
Setting aside the crazy week of media that Sato embarked on since winning the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil last Sunday in the No. 26 Ruoff Home Mortgage Honda, Sato had reason to be optimistic anyway heading to Detroit.
The Andretti Autosport street course package has been improved this year under the direction of new technical director Eric Bretzman and despite not posting a result better than fifth, Sato was determined to focus on a big result.
“The team had a good race last year and we’ve been so strong on the streets this year, at St. Petersburg and Long Beach,” Sato told NBC Sports heading into the weekend. “Yeah we had a mechanical issue at Long Beach, but performance wise we’ve been quite high.
“Physically this is one of the most demanding tracks, with two races to begin with and all the bumps. You have to fight the car all 14 corners. It’s intense.”
Not that it seemed to phase Sato, who had a huge weekend to follow-up his Indianapolis win with two key results.
Race one saw him start a season-best third and finish eighth. It got better in race two, as Sato snatched the pole near the end of the qualifying session and then finished the race in fourth. He was unlucky to have not scored a podium in the second race, jumped by Will Power at the final pit stop for third.
“I don’t know how close I was, but I kind of went out and did everything I could to stay ahead of him. Obviously gave me that position,” Power said of the move.
“But, yeah, that first pit stall is great under yellow, not so good for out-laps because the other guy is already at 50 when they let off that button, so they get a good exit. That’s the difference.
“But, yeah, it was good enough to get Sato.”
Sato lamented the lost podium, but was otherwise thrilled with his weekend.
“It was a solid result. I think the team did a great job,” he said.
“We did everything we could and made no mistakes, but we just didn’t quite have the speed today. I’m proud of getting on the front row in qualifying and we will work hard the rest of the season.
“I think we kept ourselves in championship contention by finishing P4 and getting points. We need to find out why we lost the speed for the race but we will look at all the data. It was a good day.”
It’s been a good month for Sato, who won one for the nice guys at the ‘500. After the INDYCAR Grand Prix, he sat 10th in points with only 97 points accumulated this season.
But with fourth on the grid and the win in the Indianapolis 500, Sato promptly scored 40 more points just in one race event – 137 – than he had all season to that point. That vaulted him from 10th into a three-way tie for second on 234 points with Scott Dixon and Simon Pagenaud, 11 behind Helio Castroneves at 245.
After Detroit, Sato sits third in the standings with 292 points, still 11 behind the leader, which is now Dixon at 303 points.
Sato’s best championship finish in seven seasons is 13th in 2011 with KV Racing Technology, but barring a colossal collapse in the second half of the year, he’s poised to finish significantly better than that in 2017 in what’s quickly become the best season of his IndyCar career.