By Takuma Sato, Driver Columnist
In his opening column for Motorsports Tribune, Takuma Sato discusses his Andretti Autosport debut in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and brings everyone up to speed with how he went from Formula 1 to competing in the Indianapolis 500.
Debuting for Andretti Autosport
It has been so exciting from the moment I joined the team. It was a long winter and off-season, but a lot of things have happened. However, from the IndyCar regulations to the time that I signed up to drive the No. 26 Honda for Andretti Autosport, this was the least amount of time I was in the car before the season started. Having said that, we did a lot of preparation on the technical side of things, driving simulators and stuff like that, and it all looked promising so I was very excited to come to St. Petersburg as the opening race of the new season.
The practice sessions were tough and we had some issues there, but we made significant progress and showed a strong performance in qualifying – I was really enjoying those laps and we ended up starting fifth. Then on Sunday, there were a lot of expectations, which is always a bit nervous, but really exciting because how the race will be nobody knows.
From fifth, which is a great place to start and you are surrounded by quality drivers, I knew it was going to be a lot of fun. I was able to make a good pass on Josef Newgarden at the start, who was fourth. It all began very smoothly and I even led my first laps for the team.
I didn’t know if it was going to go like that because of the few brake issues we had leading up to the race and stuff like that. My teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay was having those problems in morning warmup, too. It was really tricky, but I think the boys did a brilliant job to get it all back together.
On Sunday,we knew we needed a good result, and even though we always want to win, finishing fifth is a good way to start off the season. I think we could have finished on podium today if we didn’t have equipment issue during my last pit stop. In racing things happen, but I’m happy to score a fifth-place in my first race with the team.
I never had an opportunity to drive race cars when I was a kid, simply because my parents had no idea of racing, but I was always interested in cars, racing and things like that. The first time I drove a race car I was 20-year-old and in Japan, I went to Honda’s racing school. They had age restrictions, you have to be under 20-years-old to get into it, but what was great is they had a huge scholarship system. Of course, a lot of drivers started in karting when they are four or five years old, in extreme cases,which is great if you were, but I simply didn’t have that kind of opportunity.
Then I finally got a chance at the school and grabbed a scholarship, and I raced in Japan a short time then went to the UK. After I experienced few UK junior categories, I moved up to British Formula 3, and won the title and prestigious F3 races, including Marlboro Masters F3 and Macau Grand Prix that helped me reach Formula 1. Those are some great memories.
After roughly seven seasons or so, I had an opportunity to come to the United States. I always knew that running in the Indianapolis 500 was very special and something I was always interested in. Jimmy Vasser gave me my first start with a fantastic opportunity driving for KV Racing my first two years here.
After that, then Bobby Rahal was planning to return full-time to IndyCar in 2012, so we got together and he gave me a shot to continue driving Indy cars and I am so pleased to have been a part of that great program.We were so close to winning the Indy 500 that year!
Though after just for one season with Bobby, I moved on to race for A.J. Foyt. I couldn’t have imagined driving for one of the most iconic American teams. There was so much chemistry with team and myself, and we went on to win at Long Beach in 2013. I am so grateful to have had that opportunity to drive for A.J. for four years. For a team based in Houston, with such a family atmosphere and so many memories, it was so great to see them come up to me this weekend in St. Petersburg on pitlane and say, ‘great job,’ and even A.J. stopped by to talk. It’s still a great relationship.
Now, I’ve got probably my best chance to be competitive in IndyCar because Michael Andretti gave me such a great opportunity to join Andretti Autosport. The team has been so welcoming and I have a lot to learn for the new environment, it just feels fantastic. It’s a very exciting time and I’m really looking forward to this year.