By Josh Farmer, Contributing Journalist
Motorsports Tribune reviews the season of the top 12 drivers from the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. Our list begins with the 12th-place finisher, Takuma Sato.
Takuma Sato, No. 30 Mi Jack/Panasonic Honda
- 2018: 12th in the championship
- Wins: 1, Top 5: 4, Top 10: 7, Poles: 0, Laps Led: 32
- Best Finish: 1st (Grand Prix of Portland)
While Takuma Sato came off an all-time high last season with an Indianapolis 500 win for Andretti Autosport, he had a mixed bag of results highlighted by a win at Portland in his 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series campaign.
For the second straight year, the 41-year-old Japanese driver changed teams, electing to re-join Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, for whom he drove for in 2012. While the situation was somewhat familiar to him, it was an adjustment to the team as they had not fielded two full-time entries since 2013.
Naturally, expectations were high coming into the year with Sato after coming off a career-best season and onto a team that contended for the title in each of the last three years.
The winner of the 2017 Indy 500 showed pace in the first few rounds, but was unable to translate that into results. He finished mid-pack in the opening three rounds at St. Petersburg, Phoenix and Long Beach, managing to improve in April and early May by scoring a pair of top 10 finishes at Barber Motorsports Park (eighth) and the IndyCar Grand Prix (10th).
From there everything was up and down. An early crash with James Davison ended his chances for a second Indy 500 crown, but he produced a fifth-place effort at Race 1 in the Detroit doubleheader at Belle Isle.
He recovered from a 17th at second race at the Detroit street circuit and went on to score three straight top 10 results at Texas Motor Speedway (seventh), Road America (fourth) and Iowa Speedway (third). The middle leg of that trio proved to be one for the highlight reel for former Formula One pilot as he fought vigorously with former teammate Alexander Rossi throughout the race around the iconic road course based in Elkhart Lake,Wisconsin.
His hot streak came to an end in July and August as a couple of crashes took him out of the running at Toronto and Pocono, with another poor result at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course (17th) hampered any chance of climbing the standings.
A victory at IndyCar’s return to the Portland International Raceway erased the bad memories of the summer. He took the lead late by pitting first before a yellow flew late in the going and held off former teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay in the final 21 laps to earn the win.
However, back luck returned again in the season finale at Sonoma Raceway as a mechanical problem 15 laps in relegated him to a last-place finish in the race.
Ultimately, Sato ended the season 12th in the standings, the second-best result of his career behind only his eighth-place effort in 2017.
Amid the ups and downs, it was statistically on par with his career-best campaign in 2017 and in some ways a little better. His seven top 10s stand as a career-best, while his two podiums (Iowa, Portland) and four top fives matched his career-best.
When looking at it, Sato’s bad luck came in double points races (32nd at the Indy 500 and 25th at Sonoma), which prevented him from cracking the top 10 in points.
He also helped extend RLL’s winning streak to at least one win in each of the last four years, with his personal winning streak elevated to back-to-back seasons.
The year also proved to be an adjustment for the team as well as they expanded to two cars. Sato was certainly a welcomed sign for the team as Graham Rahal previously never worked with a formidable full-time teammate, let alone one that could compete on his level and help elevate the program.
After having a full year to learn each other, 2019 could be even better for everyone involved at RLL. Sato has matured into a driver the last few years that brings pace and can contend wins and podiums just about anywhere on calendar, which makes him a threat for championships.
The team has fought for titles with Graham Rahal, so a top five in points or even better might be in the cards.