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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.

Mario Andretti says Colton Herta could be next American star in F1

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Mario Andretti’s last Formula One victory is also the last by an American driver in more than 42 years on the international open-wheel road racing series.

If you had told Andretti that while he was celebrating on the Grand Prix of the Netherlands podium on Aug. 27, 1978 at the Vandzoort circuit, he wouldn’t have believed it.

“Absolutely not,” Andretti told Kyle Petty during the most recent “Coffee With Kyle” episode (video above). “It’s a shame. Somehow we have so much talent here, and either there’s no invitation or something there. But I think it’s time to give some of this young talent that, in my opinion, is absolutely capable.”

The Dutch GP was the last of Andretti’s 12 victories in F1 and came during his championship season. No one since has come close to matching his success in F1.

Mario Andretti drives his Lotus-Ford to victory in the 1978 Grand Prix of the Netherlands (Bernard Cahier/Getty Images).

Andretti’s son, Michael, took a full-time ride with McLaren in 1993 but left with three races remaining in a season marred by crashes and mechanical problems.

Scott Speed was the last American to run a full F1 season in 2006, and Alexander Rossi made the most recent F1 start by a U.S. driver in 2015. Rossi has said he has no desire to return to racing in Europe after winning the 2016 Indianapolis 500 and becoming an IndyCar championship contender.

But Mario Andretti believes Andretti Autosport has another rising star with F1-caliber ability.

“Colton Herta is one that comes to mind,” Mario Andretti said. “As a young lad, his dad sent him to Europe, he was doing Formula 3, and he knows most of the circuits there. He’s trained. He’s showed in his rookie season and won some premium races at COTA (and Laguna Seca), beat two of the very best Indy has to offer (in) Will Power and Scott Dixon.

“This is one kid I’d love to see him get a break over there to fly the U.S. colors again.”

Herta, 20, seems interested in exploring an F1 leap over the next few years. After winning Sept. 13 at Mid-Ohio from the pole position (his third career victory in the NTT IndyCar Series), the No. 88 Dallara-Honda driver is ranked fourth in the standings in his sophomore year and regarded as one of the series’ top prospects.

Herta recently told RACER.com “I’d love to give Formula 1 a crack” but said he also would be happy driving in IndyCar and IMSA.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who told Petty about spending several years with his family in an Italian refugee camp before coming to America, Mario Andretti said F1 brought an enormous sense of patriotic pride.

“Formula One is like the Olympics in a sense,” he said. “You’re in a different country, a different continent. When you earn that highest step of the podium, they play your national anthem. That’s when you take nothing for granted. You feel like I’m representing my country, and the proudest moments are those.

“I’d just like to see some other American drivers experience that. It’s time.”

Mario Andretti with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton before the Nov. 22, 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).

During the “Coffee With Kyle” conversation, Andretti also discussed:

–His versatility as a winner in IndyCar, sports cars, NASCAR and Formula One;

–His 1967 Daytona 500 victory and how he enjoyed racing with crew chief Jake Elder at the famed Holman-Moody team;

Mario Andretti Colton Herta
Mario Andretti and Kyle Petty saluted “The King” by wearing their Richard Petty-style hats during the latest “Coffee With Kyle” (NBCSN).

–Why he delayed his entry to F1 for a few years because of his earnings power in IndyCar. “I always say I’d race for free, but at the same time, you’re thinking of family and the future,” he said. “It was in the back of your mind that you can’t give up the earning power of IndyCar. That kept me from going full time in Formula One, but I always said that sometime in my career, I’d have to devote a period to Formula One.”

–On what it was like racing in an era when driver deaths were more prevalent. “If you’re going to do this, you’re not going to dwell on those negatives,” Andretti said. “There’s no way. You knew it was present. Especially in the ‘60s at the beginning of the season at the drivers meetings, you couldn’t help but look around and say, ‘I wonder who is not going to be here at the end of the season.’ We’d lose four to five guys. In ’64, we lost six guys.

“It’s something if you dwell on that, you’re going to take on a different profession. It’s a desire and love to want to drive that overcame all that and then the confidence it’s not going to happen to me. And then you pray.”

Watch the full “Coffee With Kyle” episode in the video above or by clicking here.

Mario Andretti looks on before the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26, 2019 (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).