Chicago Shimpo
Reigning Champion Takuma Sato Set to Return to Indy 500 to Defend Title

Racer Takuma Sato, readying himself to defend the title of 2017 Indianapolis 500 champion later this month, talked to the Chicago Shimpo on May 9 during a short visit to Chicago.

Q: Earlier this year, you left Andretti Autosport, your 2017 Indy 500 championship team, and moved to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. What made you decide on the move?

Sato: Actually, I was with Rahal in 2012, so it’s my old home. After Rahal, I was with A.J. Foyt for four years until I joined Andretti in 2017. During all those years, Rahal’s owner Bobby Rahal has always been my champion and wanting me to return to his team. Following last year’s win, he made me an ardent offer to join his team.
Considering the fact that cars in the race would change this year, and various other factors, I decided to sign the contract with Rahal, as part of the process of stepping up further in my career.

Q: I understand that cars racing in this year’s IndyCar Series are all equipped with new aerodynamic parts.

Sato: That’s the aero package, yes. In an auto race, the racing car runs at an extremely high speed, and aerodynamics has been closely studied to make high-performance racing cars that make the best use of it. An aircraft flies by using the uplifting forces of air. In contrast, a racing car needs to use air to push it down to the ground so that it can run fast without slipping around. This year, the aerodynamics are being changed dramatically.
All the participating teams are now driving vehicles equipped with a universal aero package, and that means anyone can win, no matter how small the team may be. That helps to attract more interests in the sport itself.

Q: During the IndyCar opening race in St. Petersburg back in March, you got hit from behind by Scott Dixon, who had lost control, and your car spun out. You ended up in 12th place, though you were supposed to do much better than that.
In the third race in Long Beach, you were forced into a pit stop after Ryan Hunter-Reay, who had also lost control, bumped into you. It was the race you could have won, but instead Alexander Rossi, who was running behind you, won and you were at the 21st. It’s been an unfortunate year for you so far.

Sato: Yes. I was doing pretty good in the qualifying in the opening – in the top 5 – but then got rear-ended and lost the advantage after that. There were other races that I felt good about, but I got some kind of accident each time. So it’s been pretty frustrating this season, but when I look at my actual time [for each race], I can see my time is coming along. So I’m hoping that I can change the flow of bad luck in the upcoming races this month.

Q: During the race that you won last year, with just five more laps to go, you passed Helio Castroneves and grabbed the lead. With only four more laps to go, the commentator said: “Sato is now feeling every vibration in that engine, every change of sound, anything different.” At the moment like that, do you really have a grip of everything that’s going on with your car?

Sato: Well, yes. It’s like feeling your fingertip is directly connected to the very groove of your tires. You can’t draw the highest level of performance out of your car unless you actually feel as though you and your car are becoming one. In the Indy race last year, everything was extraordinary – the team, the car, and the way the pit crew operated during the pit stop – everything was perfect for our team to win, and we took advantage of that to the max.
I’m proud of myself that I could battle with a great driver like Castroneves during those last five laps. It felt great to make it to the goal while maintaining the lead.

Q: Castroneves did try to steal the lead from you during the last three laps but he couldn’t. How did you defend against that move?

Sato: That’s the exciting part of racing. He overtook me only six or seven laps prior – so it’s physically possible to come back and overtake.
Of course we pass and get passed a lot in a race. But in the end, it’s your strategy, just like in a game of chess or shogi – that determines the outcome. You must be constantly thinking how you maneuver, what your next move will be. After securing the lead, what I tried to do was focus on everything that I had to take into consideration.

Q: What was it like after you won that race?

Sato: Oh my god, that was crazy. My voice went hoarse by night that day (laughs). It was around 4 p.m. that day when I took the checkered flag, and I couldn’t take off my racing suit for four hours after that. There was a press conference, then satellite interviews on a global channel and individual interviews . . . Finally I could change sometime past 8 p.m. I had been soaked in sweat, but it all dried by then.
It was 3 a.m. when I finally returned to my motorhome after a public appearance in downtown Indianapolis and the team’s celebration party.
I had to appear in a live TV program at 7 the following morning. Then I flew to New York the same day, followed by an 11-hour media tour. After that I had to go to Texas for a 10-hour media tour, followed by an event in Detroit. I really didn’t feel like myself.

Q: You have being living in Indianapolis. How did your neighbors react to your victory?

Sato: Everybody, including my manager’s family and friends, all got excited and congratulated me. They were all so happy for me. I’ve been receiving congratulations for the entire year now. I’m so fortunate to have the people who have supported me for all these years, and I truly appreciate it.

Q: Another Indy 500 race is almost upon us.

Sato: I can’t believe that it’s been a year already. This year I’m feeling both excited and nervous, but in any case, it’s a huge honor to be able to return to the race as a defending champion. It’s also a great challenge for me, and I’m looking forward to it.

Q: What’s your strategy for this year’s Indy 500?

Sato: There’s no way of knowing what kind of race it will be until you’re in it. What I want to do, for one thing, is to get used to the new car as quickly as I can, while remembering the lesson I learned from last year’s race. Also, I plan to make sure through the practices that our team will function at the highest possible level, and try to stay in the top ranks in the qualifying. That would help keep my car conditions high – then, with all that, I think it’s possible to shoot for a higher position, including winning the second championship in a row.

Q: Thank you very much.

Reigning Champion Takuma Sato