Takuma Sato is looking forward to the final three races of the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series with as much enthusiasm as he had in 2010 when he made his IndyCar debut.
The Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver has, by his own admission, not had the greatest of seasons, equally it has been one of the most competitive championships on record with nine different winners from the 13 races so far.
The Covid-19 pandemic meant that the series didn’t visit the West Coast of America at all in 2020, and the prestigious April Long Beach race was postponed this year to become the series finale, following races at Portland and Laguna Seca in consecutive weekends. Of the three events, which is two-time Indy 500 winner Sato looking forward to most?
“To be honest, all of them! All three have good memories,” he says. “Each race is very special. For me in particular Portland. There are two reasons that Portland is special for me as it was my first win for me with Team Rahal in 2018, so that is a very special memory. It’s also such a great venue, and I simply like it a lot!
“Laguna Seca…. What can you say? There’s no doubt about it, it’s just one of the best tracks in the world. Everybody is looking forward to that, including ourselves too.
“Then of course Long Beach. We missed the West Coast races last year because of Covid-19, and Long Beach is one of the iconic events. And I also have a special memory back in 2013 winning with AJ Foyt. I always enjoy it there, great atmosphere, lots of restaurants, so many Japanese communities and fans who are loyal. We all love to go back to the West Coast.”
The final three races, two road courses and the streets of Long Beach come after a three-week gap from the oval race at St Louis. However, the three-week gap is never time off for team nor driver, as they check data protected by Acronis, and make plans to arrive with set-ups ready for each track. But it can also be a time to relax and recharge. Sato agrees.
“Probably ‘relaxing’ is the more appropriate word. You can only look at data for so long! But seriously we have been discussing with engineers the best possible specs and details. I think we are looking positive.
“I wouldn’t say they will be easy races at all, in fact quite the opposite I think, as those tracks are each challenging. But we are getting better in performance and those special winning memories for me always help in extra motivation, and hopefully we will have a good package.”
What exactly is downtime for Sato in a three-week break? “For us as drivers, during the pandemic, home simulator sales went up thousands of percent! Nowadays we all have it. In some ways, it’s still gaming, but the platforms they are producing now are pretty much what the state of the art simulator was 10 years ago or so in a professional way.
“It is definitely getting similar. You can certainly feel the taste of the racing as well. For learning a new track is one way where it is very, very good. But to properly do set-up you need to have a proper basic tyre model and vehicle dynamics model with proper data from the wind tunnels and all those things, which you don’t have at home.
“Probably the best way to stay fresh and keep training is the karting. I haven’t done that in the last two weeks but when I’m back in Japan I do go regularly. That is probably the best way to sharpen your health.”
This year’s NTT IndyCar Series has been incredibly competitive, with a lot of new talent at the front battling for wins. Then there have been the debut seasons of ‘rookies’ Romain Grosjean from Formula 1, three-time Australian Supercar champion Scott McLaughlin, and seven time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson. Sato, now aged 44, recognises the challenge these guys represent.
“It’s all good for the sport to be honest,” says Takuma. “We’ve known they are very competitive guys, and it’s nice to see such a competitive and tough field in IndyCar, not even for them to be able to succeed straight away.
“I think they are finding a very attractive, competitive, tough field. And that is a good thing, whether it’s the younger generation or the more experienced drivers, like Grosjean, Helio (Castroneves) is the same way, and myself included as an experienced driver in the mixture. I think it’s the most attractive type of racing because there is so much overtaking and in a good way, it’s a little bit unpredictable as to who is going to win the race. I think it’s great.”
Sato isn’t in any mood to stop either…. “I’d like to have a little bit more challenge, and certainly I don’t feel any degradation from my side. So yes, I’m looking forward to the last races, finishing the season on a high, and hopefully we can challenge in the new season next year.”
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Takuma Sato, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda