There was no catching Takuma Sato in the closing stages of this year’s Long Beach Grand Prix. The Japanese driver was in a class of his own through the race’s second half as he pulled away after the final restart to score his first IndyCar win from Graham Rahal and Justin Wilson. This is Sato’s fourth year in Indycars and his first with AJ Foyt’s team, which recorded its first win in 11 years and first ever on a street circuit.
“It was just fantastic,” Sato grinned. “The power was great, the pitstops were perfect and it was a great call to stay on the red tyres. It’s just an incredible feeling. This is just amazing. I’m really happy with the team and the fantastic opportunity AJ has given me. I think it was a perfect race. Put it this way – it was an easy win. This is a hard race but everything came together.”
Sato qualified fourth at Long Beach and jumped to third at the start behind front row starters Dario Franchitti and Ryan Hunter-Reay. Franchitti was able to dominate the opening laps, pulling clear of Hunter-Reay and Sato, but a mistake in the pits during his first stop, when the team dropped the car too early, cost Dario the lead.
In contrast, Sato and Foyt’s team made no such errors as Sato came out of the pits in the lead. Sato continued to lead through the final round of stops when team manager Larry Foyt made the call to keep his driver on Firestone’s softer ‘red’ tyres. Some other teams doubted Foyt’s tyre choice, believing the soft rubber would run out of grip before the end of the race. But Foyt was proven correct as Sato edged away to win comfortably, his tyres working perfectly all the way.
Graham Rahal drove a fine race to come from eleventh on the grid to finish second. Rahal chased hard after Sato in the closing laps but couldn’t get close enough to threaten to the Japanese driver.
“We had more fun this weekend than we had the first two races this year, that’s for sure,” Rahal remarked. “Today was great because everything came together. We all felt that we had a car to run up front. I felt we had a similar car at St Pete, but we couldn’t see it through, so without a doubt it feels phenomenal to be up here on the podium.”
Justin Wilson also drove an excellent race to move all the way to third from 24th on the grid. Wilson and Dale Coyne’s team recovered from an accident on Friday to produce a great race day performance. This was the first time in five years that none of the Ganassi, Penske or Andretti teams made the podium, a healthy sign for IndyCar.
“It was a pretty crazy race,” Wilson said. “I’m still kind of confused about why I made the podium. We had a good car and we pushed hard and we made a good move by stopping under the yellow for tyres on lap five. So it was perfect strategy and taking full advantage of the restarts to drive by people. We also had five or six laps more fuel than everybody else so it was all about making the best of the situation.”
Dario Franchitti qualified on the pole at Long Beach and lead the race’s opening segment before losing time in the pits. Dario was third for the final restart but was quickly passed by Wilson as he went on to enjoy his best result so far this year. Franchitti completed a 1-2-3-4 sweep for Honda who produced a more competitive engine for round two of the IndyCar series at Barber Motorsports Park two weeks ago after being soundly outpaced by Chevrolet in the St Petersburg season-opener.
Another to enjoy his best race of the season to date was JR Hildebrand who qualified 12th and made steady progress to finish fifth ahead of Oriol Servia and Marco Andretti. Among those to hit trouble were James Hinchcliffe and defending champion Ryan Hunter-Reay, both of whom were eliminated in accidents.
Will Power was delayed by a mid-race spin, eventually scraping home in 12th place, while Penske team-mate Helio Castroneves retained his championship lead with an unspectacular run to finish 10th. Sato’s victory moved him to second in points, just six behind Castoneves.