Sato takes historic Indy winby John Oreovicz on 29th May 2017
With the attention on one Honda-backed driver, another ex-F1 man takes the spoils at Indy
The 2017 Indianapolis 500 attracted more worldwide attention than the grand old race had managed since 1993, when Nigel Mansell competed as a rookie driver who happened to be the defending Formula 1 World Champion.
Sure enough, this year’s winning driver was a ringer from the outside, a much-loved national hero with strong ties to Honda’s F1 programme. But it wasn’t Fernando Alonso, the man who was the focus of so much hype from the racing community across the globe.
Alonso acquitted himself well in his IndyCar and oval track debut, leading 27 laps and matching up well with his more experienced Andretti Autosport team-mates. But the all-too-familar experience of a blown Honda engine put an end to Alonso’s Indianapolis Motor Speedway adventure with 17 laps remaining.
With team leader Ryan Hunter-Reay also the victim of a Honda engine failure, it was left to Takuma Sato, the former Jordan/BAR Honda/Super Aguri F1 veteran to rescue the day for Michael Andretti’s six-car operation.
Sato’s Indianapolis win was no fluke, and more importantly it was recognized as a worthy achievement by the IMS faithful. Five years ago at Indy, Sato made a daring attempt to pass leader Dario Franchitti into Turn 1 on the final lap, only to spin out and crash.
Sato says his motto is “No attack, no chance!” and that burning desire to win at any cost has endeared him to casual IndyCar Series fans. His reputation in F1 was fast but erratic, and to some extent that has remained true throughout his eight-year career in America.
In 2013 he earned A.J. Foyt’s team’s first race win in 11 years at Long Beach and he came darn close to winning two races in a row, coming up short in a wild last-lap shoot-out to James Hinchcliffe in the IndyCar Series’ final appearance in Brazil.
He had never driven for a top-tier team until this year when his Honda connections placed him with the Andretti organization, winner of four IndyCar championships – and more importantly, four-time Indianapolis 500 victor.
Sato qualified fourth and dropped out of the top 10 only once, when a dropped lug nut delayed him to 16th place in the order. In the closing laps, he efficiently dealt with Ganassi Racing’s Max Chilton (who led the most laps with 50 and ultimately finished fourth) and traded the lead with three-time Indianapolis winner Hélio Castroneves, one of the most experienced men in the field.
Honda held a power advantage over Chevrolet all month, and Sato put his to good use by driving around the outside of Castroneves into Turn 1 with five laps to go. The 40-year old from Tokyo held off one final charge from the 42-year old Brazilian who so desperately wants to join Indy’s exclusive four-win club.
“It was obviously a very tough race but Hélio really drives fair,” Sato explained. “When Hélio came side by side with three laps to go, that was the moment I really had to go for it. And we did it and pulled away and it was fantastic. It’s unbelievable.”
Sato’s triumph capped a somewhat strange Indy 500 that may well end up being remembered as a classic. It featured a big crash (pole-winner Scott Dixon walked away from a nasty airborne incident after being collected by backmarker Jay Howard), intrigue about whether engine reliability would prove to be Honda’s Achilles’ heel, and ultimately, a fierce and clean 11-lap shootout for the win between Castroneves and a bunch of unlikely characters.
Castroneves’ Team Penske entry was the only Chevrolet capable of racing with the Hondas, but the Hondas started expiring with alarming regularity in the final 50 laps, eliminating Hunter-Reay (28 laps led), Charlie Kimball and Alonso.
The double F1 World Champion lived up to the hype he generated with a quality drive that saw him lead 27 laps and mix it up with IndyCar’s best until being let down by his engine.
“I was taking care a bit of the front tyres in the first couple laps of that stint because I knew the race would be decided in the last six or seven laps,” Alonso said.
“I think I had a little bit in the pocket before the engine blew up.”
The 250,000-strong crowd gave Alonso a standing ovation and he vowed to return to the Indy 500 some day.
“Let's see what happen in the following years,” he said. “I need to keep pursuing this challenge because winning the Indy 500 is not completed.”
You could argue that a journeyman ex-F1 driver like Sato winning the Indianapolis 500 backs up Lewis Hamilton’s widely scorned recent comments in L’Equipe in which he denigrated the quality of the IndyCar field if a total outsider like Alonso could qualify fifth.
Oval racing is a specialized skill and competing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway adds another whole element. It’s an ultra-high-speed four-cornered road course that requires extreme bravery and commitment – something Sato has always been known for.
If not for what happened at the end of the 2012 race, Sato would have been an anonymous Japanese driver who scored a historic first Indianapolis victory for his country.
But hardcore Indy fans already viewed him as a hero with significant history in their beloved race. That’s why a cheer went up when Sato took the lead over Castroneves and held off the wily Brazilian’s final charge.
With Hunter-Reay and Alonso knocked out by mechanical problems and other notables including Dixon and Will Power eliminated in wrecks, the Indy box score didn’t follow the 2017 form guide. Rookie Ed Jones demonstrated the speed of Dale Coyne Racing’s Hondas by finishing a deserved third, followed by Chilton and IndyCar veterans Tony Kanaan and Juan Pablo Montoya.
It was an unusual Indianapolis 500, but a memorable one, with one of the nicest guys in the sport taking the laurels.
“It’s such a privilege to win here,” Sato commented. “Whether it was the first attempt or eighth attempt or you had a drama in the past, it doesn’t really matter. You are winning today.
“It’s just superb.”