By Aaron Bearden, Contributing Writer
Motorsports Tribune reviews the season of the top 10 drivers from the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. Our list continues with the eighth-place championship finisher, Takuma Sato.
Takuma Sato, No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda
- 2017: 8th in the championship
- Wins: 1, Top 5: 4, Top 10: 7, Poles: 1, Laps Led: 41
- Best Finish: 1st (Indianapolis 500)
His championship hopes may have sputtered over the summer months, but Sato’s 2017 will be forever be remembered as a tale of redemption after his fateful drive to Indianapolis Motor Speedway glory.
Sato entered the 2017 season with the optimism of a fresh start with a new team. After four subpar seasons with AJ Foyt Racing, the Japanese shoe began anew with defending Indianapolis 500 champions Andretti Autosport.
The 40-year-old’s year began with a string of inconsistency. The opening weekend in St. Petersburg brought a top five, but the ensuing race at Long Beach ended with a disappointing 18th-place result. Sato returned to the top 10 with a ninth-place finish at Barber Motorsports Park, but again followed it up with a subpar finish of 16th at Phoenix Raceway.
While the opening two months of the season didn’t provide much hope for Sato and Andretti, the eight-year Verizon IndyCar Series veteran was given the opportunity of a lifetime when the Month of May arrived.
Sato’s month started with another disappointment – a 12th-place finish in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. But when the field finally took to the track’s legendary 2.5-mile oval, Sato’s potential to contend began to shine through.
The majority of the focus and attention went to Formula One’s Fernando Alonso throughout the month, but Sato positioned himself as a quiet contender for the 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500 when he qualified fourth for the event.
After a quiet race week, Sato arrived at the ‘Brickyard’ on race day morning with his first strong chance at the winner’s milk since 2012 – the year Sato was left heartbroken after crashing on the last lap in a battle with race-winner Dario Franchitti.
During his torrid years with Foyt, many wondered if Sato would ever have the opportunity to avenge that loss. With the laps winding down in the 2017 edition of the race, it was clear that he would.
Sato drove through to the lead in the closing laps, fended off a fierce challenge from Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves and flashed across the bricks on Lap 200 to claim an emotional Indy win.
Five years removed from Indy heartbreak, Sato had finally ascended to INDYCAR’s promised land. He drank the milk, kissed the bricks and posed next to the Borg-Warner Trophy as a champion of North America’s biggest race.
From there on Sato’s season slowly descended back to regularity. The Honda driver kept himself in championship contention the following weekend at Belle Isle Park with finishes of eighth and fourth. His title fight stayed alive through Texas Motor Speedway, too, after Sato survived longer than most to salvage a 10th-place result.
From there things fell apart. Sato managed only one top 10 – a fifth-place run at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course – over the season’s final eight races.
Sato ultimately ended the season eighth in points, the highest mark he’s managed in his eight-year career. He set a new personal best in both average start (8.8) and average finish (12.4), while tying his career best in poles (two).
Whether Sato will be able to parlay his strong 2017 into continued results in 2018 remains to be seen. The new 2018 aero kits and a move back to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing – where he competed in 2012 – mean many questions will need answered before Sato’s championship prospects are known. At 41 years old by the time the 2018 season begins, Sato will also be forced to address the career and health questions that come with his age.
But regardless of how the 2018 season and beyond play out, Sato will always be remembered as an Indianapolis 500 champion. For that reason, his 2017 will always be a year to remember.