Takuma Sato on the rise as ’500′ looms

Japanese pilot notches first IndyCar podium at Sao Paulo

One figures that a bit of relief came over Takuma Sato as he raced across the Sambadromo and past the checkered flag in Sunday’s Sao Paulo Indy 300.

Two weeks after losing out on his first podium finish in the IZOD IndyCar Series thanks to a last-lap incident with Ryan Hunter-Reay, the former Formula One standout was staring at a long race in Sao Paulo when he was forced to start 25th due to an engine change that forced him out of Saturday qualifying. And with the notorious Brazilian rains somehow managing to stay away from Anhembi Park, Sato would have to make up all those spots without the help of Mother Nature’s great equalizer.

But the Rahal Letterman Lanigan pilot was more than up to the challenge. Thanks to a gutsy inside pass of Dario Franchitti on a restart with eight laps to go, Sato put the finishing touches on an awesome run from the back to P3 at the finish.

After 37 starts, “Taku” finally had hit the podium in America’s top open-wheel series.

“Finally, after a difficult weekend, it is a relief to get this result and I am really pleased to bring the team a third place and see the first checkered flag of the season,” said Sato, who now sits in a tie for seventh in the championship with J.R. Hildebrand and Ryan Briscoe. “It was a great day.”

Sato moved through the field from the drop of the green flag, but encountered trouble when he was tagged with a drive-through penalty for speeding on pit road after his first stop on Lap 11. That put him at the rear of the field again, but the Japanese pilot went back to peeling off positions one-by-one until Lap 26, when he leaped from 19th to 11th as drivers scrambled in the wake of Dario Franchitti’s spin at the S of Samba.

He took his second stop of the day under another caution period at Lap 31, but his good pace continued. That plus green flag stops from the leaders helped Sato rise as high as second before relinquishing that spot for his third and final stop under green on Lap 54.

The final stint played out largely the same way and on the restart with eight laps remaining, Sato found himself behind Franchitti and Helio Castroneves in fourth. Careening toward the S of Samba, a narrow left-right combo of chicanes that has shown to cause mayhem quite easily, he decided to go for it and made the move that made everyone else hold their breath.

“There is always opportunity on a restart, but you never know until you hit the brake because there is no plan basically,” Sato said. “When Helio and Dario were in front of me, two wide, initially, I thought there was no chance, but when I saw their braking point was earlier than I expected, I saw a little opportunity to dive inside.

“I was confident that I would make the corner, so I was very excited.”

Later on, his engineer, Gerry Hughes, dubbed the move “classic Takuma.”

“I think he was absolutely and utterly on the limit going into Turn 1, but he made it stick, so fair play to him,” said Hughes.

Right after Sato managed to pull off the pass on the inside of Franchitti, the aforementioned mayhem came as Mike Conway hit the wall coming out of the S and caused a massive traffic jam that ruined the days of multiple drivers. That triggered a final restart with four laps to go, but Sato held his own in P3 all the way to the finish.

Now comes the hunt for the biggest prize of all.

Sato finished 20th in his first Indy 500 in 2010, then was the first man out in last season’s event after an early crash. But with a podium finish now in his pocket, he’s feeling confident about he and RLL’s chances to add another Baby Borg to the team’s mantle alongside the one they earned in 2004 with Buddy Rice — not to mention the one that his boss, team owner Bobby Rahal, won as a driver in 1986.

“To be honest, the team didn’t have as much of the experience in the last races on street and the road course, but we showed good speed and we showed some potential,” Sato said, referring to the initial four rounds of the season. “…So I’m sure our engineer and the preparation for the car will be much stronger than the last four races, and certainly, I’ll try my best to go for the achievement we want in the Indy 500.”

Quotes/materials taken from INDYCAR and team press releases were used in the making of this article.