IndyCar’s ‘Dr. Data’ – how Takuma Sato has been using his time wisely during lockdown

Takuma Sato might be one of the veteran drivers in the NTT IndyCar Series, but there is little doubting his dedication and enthusiasm for racing. For the 43-year old Japanese racer, getting back behind the wheel after the Covid-19 virus interrupted the 2020 season cannot come soon enough.

When the opening race in St Petersburg was cancelled because of the virus fears on Friday’s first practice day in March, Rahal Letterman Laningan’s Takuma had been planning on returning to Japan. But with good foresight, he decided to stay at his home in Indianapolis.

“I could have gone back to Japan, but things were so just uncertain. I wasn’t sure if testing was allowed or even happening. In that case if I’d gone back to Japan I didn’t know whether I could come back to the States. We were unsure.

“Then there was the thought of 14 days in quarantine…. If the team needed me, I couldn’t be sure I could be available immediately. So, I decided to stay in the States. At that time nobody could have predicted or expected this worldwide ‘situation’ to become what it has.

“I stayed here and have been in America for the past two months, and yes, I’ve been home doing a lot of things that have been outstanding – cleaning up and more! And I have enjoyed having a go at Esports, which is great fun and is keeping fans entertained, although it’s a very different discipline and one I have yet to master, so I have a lot of respect for the professional gamers.”

Sato is a five-time IndyCar winner, including the jewel in the crown, the Indy 500 in 2017, but staying home has not dimmed his desire to compete at the front, and on June 6 Takuma will be back behind the wheel to race at Texas with the rest of the IndyCar Series. In between household chores and DIY, he had stayed focused on the job in hand. Racing.

“I am absolutely excited. It’s a really great job that the IndyCar Series has done to allow us to go back racing, and I appreciate that. This time is still very critical, and I know there are a lot of people suffering, specifically the hospitals, the medical people and those who are involved who are working flat out. We are thinking of them.

“But I know people are waiting to see some excitement, and therefore as a professional athlete we feel really fortunate to be able to get back.”

Takuma and his RLL team-mate Graham Rahal have both used the lockdown wisely, and stayed in almost daily contact with the team and especially the engineers to analyse data collected by team partner Acronis. Data is something that Takuma enjoys, and absorbs, and he loves the relationship the team has with Acronis. He also admits that his previous years in Formula 1 taught him a lot.

“It definitely helped me to understand situations quicker, talking particularly with engineers. In fact, funnily enough while racing in America a lot of the engineers I have worked with in IndyCar have not been American! I’ve had an Irish engineer, a British engineer…. Even one from New Zealand, all in the United States! So, for me, the environment is very similar, and I have always had a lot of fun to digest the data with the engineers.

Acronis plays an important role in the Rahal Letterman Lanigan operation

“In F1 you have hundreds of engineers involved, and probably only five percent of the data the driver probably needs to know. The other data is just a completely different planet. But IndyCar, you can totally understand and we can access that data now too, and that is more than enough data. My interest level is that I’m keen to know.

“A driver will want all the details,” Takuma continues. “But sometimes it’s best speaking to the engineer, and we have had good conference calls over the past months to try to be prepared. We look at last year’s overlays, the set up and handling notes. But now we have had a little bit of extra time, and instead of all the engineers in one place in an engineering office and then driving home…. We all start at home!”

In a day and age where people are now more comfortable working from home, once at the track it will be different. Until then, the competitors have adjusted to a new way of thinking…

“It’s a little bit weird and strange,” agrees Sato. “Then there are the same things. And that is going through the data. And that is good with today’s technology. I now appreciate that today and engineer can work, even at home, looking at our live telemetry data as well as our intercom conversations from last year as well while we are at home.”

No stone left unturned.

Andy Hallbery