It is amazing what one race can do for a driver. At least, that is what Takuma Sato hopes will happen after his fourth-place run at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin.
After all, 2017’s Road America race proved to be a turning point in his season.
“We had a fast car,” Sato said after the race. “It’s a shame that we missed the podium, but we need to find a little more speed.”
It is the kind of thing said after pretty much any race, but this time his podium near-miss could be a precursor of better results on the horizon.
Coming on the heels of a seventh-place finish at Texas Motor Speedway, this is Sato’s best back-to-back pairing all season. He had consecutive top-10s at Barber Motorsports Park and in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Grand Prix, but those were an eighth and 10th respectively. Sato has one other top-five for the season, but his fifth at the Raceway at Belle Isle was bracketed by an accident in the Indy 500 and a 17th in the second Belle Isle race.
Last year’s turnabout was not favorable. Road America marked only the third time that he finished outside the top 15 and the juxtaposition of his 19th in 2017 to his fourth this year adds to the feeling of success this time around.
“We struggled at the beginning of the season and lost too much ground, but Graham (Rahal) and I are working close with the engineering side and shared a lot of stuff and picked up speed,” Sato said.
Through the first eight races of 2018 compared to 2017, Sato had an average finish of 14.5 versus 9.1. With his current back-to-back top-10s credited to 2018, the average shrinks to 12.7 versus 10.2. And if one mentally subtracts his Indy 500 crash, Sato’s 2018 average of 10.6 is virtually the same this year as last.
Last year, Sato was fourth in the points standings at this juncture. In 2018, he languishes in 13th.
Sato needs to guard against what happened in 2017 in the final stretch. His 19th-place finish at Road America was one of six times that he finished outside the top 15 in the closing eight races. Two of these (an accident at Gateway Motorsports Park and an engine failure at Sonoma Raceway) were DNFs.
The end to his season was made even more frustrating by the fact that he qualified 10th or better in all but one of the final eight races – including a pole at Pocono Raceway.
Based on his qualification results, Sato found the speed he was looking for in 2017.
Now, he needs some good fortune to go with it.