Takuma Sato is a driver who has seen many race tracks and competed against many racing drivers. From the highest motorsport in the world, Formula 1, to the newly defined electric-powered Formula E series and currently the Verizon IndyCar Series with AJ Foyt Racing, Sato is full of good memories.
The 37-year-old Japanese driver spent five full-time†years in F1 – starting 90 grand prix with a best result coming at the U.S. Grand Prix in 2004, finishing third behind the then-dominant†Ferrari duo. Since his departure from the sport, Sato has now exceeded six years and†100 starts in IndyCar – one of which ended in one of the most prestigious victory lanes in racing, the Long Beach Grand Prix in 2013.
Rubbings Racing sat down with the driver currently 14th in driver points, Saturday at Pocono Raceway, to talk about his career in F1, favorite drivers growing up and if he has ever made AJ Foyt try sushi.
Zach Catanzareti, Rubbings Racing: After years of F1, what was your expectations when you first joined IndyCar?
Takuma Sato: I had to learn so much. I know IndyCar is a very exciting series – not only driving another car but the whole variety of track and the differences. A lot of street course. In fact, when I was in F1 – 2000 to 2008 – there was only one street course and that was Monte Carlo.
It’s a new series. youíre always always very excited to go to a new series, new track. Not only in driving a different car, but also the variety of track difference. In F1, I only drove a street course at Monte Carlo. We didnít have a Singapore and things like that when I was driving. Mostly road course. In [IndyCar] the ratio-wise in street course is a lot of street course. And then it gets to the oval – youíre talking about superspeedways, short oval, high banking, flat oval. It’s just so exciting. Every single weekend, it was very†different.
Obviously, I want to be very competitive. But at the same time, Iím so excited to learn something new. The first few seasons with KV, that was extremely great experience. I really appreciate Jimmy [Vasser, team owner] to give me a great opportunity for that.
ZC: You got your first win at Long Beach a few years ago. It was the first win for a Japanese driver, it was the first win for AJ Foyt in 10 years. To this day, what do you take most from that victory?
TS: That was a really beautiful day. Everything come together. I just joined AJ Foyt Racing and over the course of the week – the practice session, should I say winter testing – we went through various different things where the team built over the course of two seasons. And I join it with, maybe, a few different approach. We got together and it was rapidly we move up a good pace. We knew we could be very competitive straight out the first race.
We had a few issues in the first few race but when we arrived at†Long Beach – yes, we felt everything really come together. The car was great. Pit stop was very fast. And I was able to commit a lot in every restart safely but it could be really challenging. Then, finally, we won.
That was a day that dreams come true. You finally grabbed a win. We couldíve won maybe earlier but this is motor racing, so many things happen. That was a fantastic day for the whole team.
ZC: Did that solidify your move to IndyCar when you finally won? Did that tell you that the move was perfect?
TS: Sure. I would say I already enjoyed it by that time. But the more you enjoy – how can I say – wanted more to succeed. When I joined AJ Foyt Racing, I had done three seasons in IndyCar and I was ready to really win a race. Now I gain enough experience in ovals and street course and I start enjoying the whole environment.
ZC: Iím going back and forth but I mentioned F1. Can you go back to your debut in Formula 1 in 2002 – what it was like to get to that big of stage for the first time?
TS: Well, that was special moment, of course. Anyone driving in a racing car to go to Formula 1 is such a special moment. I only started racing when I was 20 to go to the race school and get a scholarship. Only after five years, I reached F1. That was very good. In fact, British Formula 3 really made it happen to go there with Eddie Jordan. It was perfect team to debut in in F1. It was tough season, actually.
The EJ12, which was the car, has got potential but also it was very difficult to drive. My teammate Giancarlo Fisichella has a lot of experience but he struggled, too. We were a very, very difficult season but in the end, Jordan team had such strong engineering that we climb up, and up, and up. And in the end in Suzuka, I finish in fifth and that was very dramatic season finish. That was a great season.
ZC: Traveling all over the planet for those years in F1, what was your favorite place to race? Was it Suzuka or somewhere different?
TS: Yeah, Suzuka. Not only because I am Japanese, but Suzuka, if you ask all the Formula 1 drivers, Suzuka will become one of those top three. It’s such a naturally challenging, all-type of track. Very narrow, very high-speed, lots of great continuous corners. Flows at high speed. That was superb.
Beside, of course, Monte Carlo, Spa Francorchamps – those two. I actually do enjoy driving in Hungary. A lot of people are surprised – Hungary? Where does that come from? But, actually, if you ask other†drivers, Hungary is quite popular. I donít know why. Again, it was just a rhythm, going through the Esses. You have such a satisfaction when you done everything, perfect lap in Hungary. Pretty tough track to get it right.
ZC: A really bright year for you in F1 was in 2004. You had a lot of top-5 finishes but can you talk about standing on the podium at Indianapolis next to the Ferrari drivers?
TS: I never forget that day. Obviously we had a very competitive team at that time and we only really focusing to beat the Ferrari. At that time, Ferrari dominated that season. But then we had a very good strategy and good qualify actually in third. Third, then finishing third doesnít really sound exciting but you donít forget I was dropped in 11th because with a big accident with Ralf Schumacher when safety car comes in and lots of people taking advantage of pit stop. Which we dint because we only two-stopper where everyone else was a three- or four-stopper. So we had a slight advantage on that one.
I can remember every time I overtook a car, I was chanting on the radio, ‘blue flag, blue flag!’ Because I thought the car coming in the front was a back marker. I overtook, overtook and finally fifth and fourth and when I overtook the Renault, Jarno Trulli, that was great feeling because youíre now on the podium.
Being back in third and trying to catch the two Ferraris which we never reached, but we had a very fast car. It was very special. I never forgot the scenery from the podium. That was actually at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The whole crowd was waving, with a lot of energy.
And having shared the time with Michael Schumacher at the podium was something I would remember. Very good memories.
ZC: The F1 circuit is racing at Spa this weekend. How daunting really was the lead up to the Eau Rouge corner?
TS: Itís special. The sensation and feeling of the speed – not only for the lateral g force but for the full three-dimension g force. Youíre squashing down in the bottom of the hill. You pull, like, two g’s on the vertically and then on the top of the hill, you have negative – minus 1.5 g’s on the top of the hill.†Without wing, obviously, we would be flying.
Actually, you can feel the whole body †is up in the air†[describing with his hands and chest]. Without seatbelt, we would be straight to the jump. That kind of sensation, with the two g’s lateral.†It’s a fantastic corner.
Nowadays, now that Formula 1 has got the law of downforce and technologies, you can go flat relatively easy in the dry condition. Still, you have a great†sensation. But I do expect the drivers who drove in the 80’s and 90’s where the car would never be able to flat in qualifying special situation. Those days, it must have be a hell of a corner. Even today I get excited but today, I would say, is quite easy flat.
ZC: You just completed your 100th IndyCar race. Did you ever think you’d have more IndyCar starts than F1 starts?
TS: You never imagine. You never even know the future. But when I came to the States, I wanted to be competitive, I wanted to be at the right drives as long as I had the motivation. You look at, about, the last five seasons, it just becomes really rapidly. I just didnít realize youíre reaching 100th race where in F1 I did, probably, 91 starts. Thatís great.
I think it’s just appreciation more than anything because health, first of all, that you didnít get injured. You got a lot of support – You cant do it by yourself. You have a lot of support from the people to get it your way and make it happen. Sponsors, families and teams, of course. I would like clock in 150’s and hopefully – I donít know – 200 sounds a tad too long! Maybe. Nothing is impossible.
ZC: Changing topics to Formula E and that Beijing opener that you were in. Marco Andretti said the biggest difference with the Formula E car was the sound and how shifting was difficult. What was the biggest difference for you with that car?
TS: It’s just all about energy management. Of course, there is no engine noise but you can hear the noise come from the motor – which is a little bit weird feeling. And also, youíre† increasing the wind speed — It’s still just very quiet. But also, you do have gear shift, yes. It’s a different way of driving, but at the end of the day it’s still four wheels and how you manage the entire performance. From Formula Ford, Formula 3, F1, IndyCar, Formula E, it’s exactly the same. Of course, driving style can be a little bit different.
The most difficult things, or different things, in Formula E was the very limited amount of energy you can use. Whether you use it now or a little bit later. [It’s a] bit like our mixture to go on the lean mixture to try and stretch the window for the pit stop. [In Formula E] it’s much more severe. If you do a real fast lap, fast two laps, you’ll be out of energy. You have to be very conservative. So thatís another engineering challenge. [Beijing] was a very fast race. Nobody really figured out what was best. Unfortunately we had a bit of technical issues so we had to stop the race. We got the fastest lap of the race, that was something.
The team was ex of my team in the F1 days, the Super Aguri Team. So lots of old friends. That was good memory. Iím sure Formula E, now couple months from the second season, will be updated with more power. I sure that was just a born baby series thatís going to be growing for the next future things.
ZC: Something very unique about Formula E is the car changes during pit stops.
TS: I guess you have 300 kilogram battery cells behind you. You cant do the change battery quickly enough. So we have to swap the car. Safety is the first so you have a minimum stopping time which is safe enough to job into the other car which was OK. But I think in the future, once battery cells become more big energy and the motors more efficient, we’ll be able to do the whole race with one car. Then, I guess, you donít have to change a car.
Thatís a time, maybe a couple years time maybe coming. But right now, yes, this is part of the game. In fact you can choose two different car which is interesting because you have two different setup of the car you can try. Thatís made the race a little more exciting.
ZC: How would you recap your season so far here with AJ Foyt Racing with two races remaining?
TS: This year is very exciting. They launched a new aero package and from an engineering point of view, there is a lot of change, a lot of work. In fact, we expand from single-car team to two-cars team for a whole season which is a big job. For that, I think the team’s done a great job, great preparation. Unfortunately, the result from the paper point of view we didnít achieved fully what we wanted.
We still achieve the second place for the podium at Detroit, but we wanted a win. We couldíve won some race. But it was a very difficult, tough season. But we still fight with two races to go and hopefully one of them we can be the center of the podium.
ZC: How has working with Jack Hawksworth, your teammate, how has he helped the organization and what have you been learning from him or what have you been teaching him?
TS: Jack and I are something a little common that I obviously graduated from British Formula 3 and he was English so we have some little history together. But we got on really well. Heís obviously very fast, heís very technically-minded, too. We can speak a lot of details. He can read all the data pieces and talk about numbers with engineers. That’s really helped. Jack and I – let’s put it this way – his driving style and my driving style are obviously slightly different but at the end of the day if you categorized, I think we are the same group.
So we both very similar. It helps the way we push each other very well. So† we try to lay the limit of our ability – thatís really a help for the engineers to lay the whole energy and hopefully that that’ll continue to work well together.
ZC: Working with AJ Foyt, have you ever made him try sushi?
TS: For Him?
ZC: Yeah, has he tried sushi because of you?
TS: I donít actually know (laughter). We havenít made him to eat sushi, but we have lots of great dinner together. We went to great steakhouse and he always looked at me, ‘I cant believe this small guy eating a lot.’
I just love to listen to his stories. All the time. Very†interesting. It’s just a lot of wow factors. We miss him a lot. He had a very difficult winter last year and now he has another surgery – which was successful but he cant come out in†a couple months. We missing him at the track and hopefully he be watching on TV and that we can make him smile.
ZC: Final question, who was your favorite drivers growing up?
TS: Ayrton Senna. I saw him, his racing, when I was 10 at Suzuka – my very first attempt for any racing event – that was Formula 1 in Japanese Grand Prix. And I remember he started from seventh position, he driving for the Camel yellow Lotus Honda. And we just moving up, and up, and up and eventually he finish in second. From my eye, of course races happening a lot, but he was the only one climbing up. Whoever in front of him, the very next lap, he overtook.
That was just great sensation for me to watch the Formula 1 and watch him be like that. After I follow him big time, and I see him winning races and winning a championship, I never met him in person, I was not old enough to get inside. And then when I start racing, he passed away. Heís still my hero, his driving, absolutely speeding, especially for the wet conditions was unbelievable. His qualifying skill, everything. Heís my hero and still is.
ZC: Is there a little Ayrton Senna in you and how you drive on the track?
TS: No I donít think so. We completely different person. [Iíve] tried to be Ayrton Senna, of course, everyone else, too. If something in common, I like rain conditions — Once he come here then you have – youíre just expanding a lot fo world. For example, like AJ, it’s the history. The number of wins, it’s just massive. Unbelievable. While Iím here trying to follow AJ’s footsteps, Iím still driving, especially driving the No. 14 car. Thatís the one.
Ayrton Senna is somewhere else that in my heart – it’s not like I’m following him right now. It’s always special and special moment top share with a lot of good drivers in F1 days like Michael Schumacher. I wish him that – thereís a recovery will be long way, but its just lets hope. Heís a strong guy. He come from nowhere and that’s a special thing so lots of memories.