Race Weekend Central

Takuma Sato’s Ganassi Deal Is Great for IndyCar

Takuma Sato‘s decision to join Chip Ganassi Racing for 2023, piloting the No. 11 entry for the five oval events in the coming season, may just be one of the best IndyCar story lines of the century to date.

No, I mean it. Let’s start with some history.

Sato will turn 46 on Jan. 28, with 13 full seasons of IndyCar competition under his belt. Odds are the Tokyo native’s career is heading toward its curtain call, with a mixed legacy likely awaiting the two-time Indy 500 winner.

No matter what happens in 2023, Sato – affectionately dubbed Taku by fans – will one day depart IndyCar with the prestige of being both the first Japanese race winner in the series and the first Japanese driver to win the Indianapolis 500. Sato is also one of only 20 drivers to win the 500 multiple times – 2017 and 2020. A further four wins at Long Beach (2013), Portland (2018), Barber (2019) and Gateway (2019) bring Sato’s career total to six wins to date.

Sato is an unquestionably accomplished IndyCar driver; likewise, 13 years of racing is bound to come with its ups and downs.

Known for his motto “no attack, no chance,” Sato has rightfully earned a reputation as a fearless driver whose sense of self preservation isn’t always outwardly evident. This aggressive, elbows out style has produced both tantalising and head scratching moments over the years.

Sato spent just over six years competing in Formula 1 in the 2000s, where his reputation for bold and at times questionable maneuvers took root. Ayrton Senna once famously said, “if you no longer go for a gap that exists, you are no longer a racing driver.” Taku embodies this sentiment like no other. This combined with “no attack, no chance” has proven a truly marvellous combination, even if the statistics wouldn’t suggest as much.

IndyCar fans the world over will remember Sato’s last lap dive on Dario Franchitti into Turn 1 at the 2012 Indianapolis 500. Where a gap existed for only a second, Sato attacked Franchitti to the inside even if the space was in no way clearly sufficient to accommodate two cars traveling at 220+ mph. While his Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing machine ended the attempt nose first into the Turn 1 wall, the message was clear that Sato didn’t quite know what it meant to back off.

In the series 2017 visit to Texas, where the DW12 provided crazily close racing due to its aero package generating generous drag and downforce, Sato spent the last third of the race hounding the leading pack. With less than 10 laps remaining, Sato began doing what few drivers would dare attempt that night and forced a three-wide situation on the leaders. And made it stick.

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 In qualifying for the 2022 Indianapolis 500, Taku found himself slightly off the pace with a car that looked uncooperative, understeering on corner exit.

Solution?

Smack the right side of the car against the wall at 230 mph while exiting Turn 2, keep your foot in it, set your best lap time.

No exaggeration here whatsoever. Sato kept his foot firmly planted on the throttle despite being on a collision course with the wall, took the hit on the chin, and somehow managed to improve his pace versus the previous lap.

Three years earlier, Taku found himself staring at a second Indy 500 win from fifth place with 14 laps of racing remaining. On the race’s final restart, Sato masterfully dispatched of both Ed Carpenter and Josef Newgarden, around the outside of Turns 1 and 3, mind you. With that, Sato captured a third place finish behind a heated battle between Simon Pagenaud and Alexander Rossi.

Sato again proved his prowess for ovals later in 2019 by fending off a viciously fast Carpenter to take a shocking win at Gateway. Here, however, is where the nostalgia has to be interrupted.

Just as Sato’s reputation for daring, spectacular moves on the track is well earned, his association with questionable driving and lack of on-track awareness isn’t without merit either.

Sato’s 2017 Texas showing was punctuated by an ill-timed attempt to sneak under Scott Dixon on the start-finish straight that left himself, Dixon, Conor Daly and Max Chilton up in smoke. Sato’s decision to dive to Dixon’s inside wasn’t unusual in and of itself, but the timing meant that Sato clipped the infield grass as he pulled to Dixon’s left and subsequently lost control and collected Dixon, Daly and Chilton.

Two years later, while leading comfortably at Texas, Taku massively overshot his pit stall and collected one of his crewmen in the process. The resulting chaos put Sato multiple laps down and out of contention for what may have been a real shot at victory.Ā 

Perhaps most infamously, Sato was collected in and largely blamed for a massive crash in Turn 2 on the first lap of the 2019 ABC Supply 500 at Pocono.

The incident, which took place at the same corner where Robert Wickens had been left paralyzed the year before, ended with Sato upside down, Felix Rosenqvist in the fence and the IndyCar community generally furious, some even calling for Sato to be suspended. Sato was perceived by many, including the commentary booth, to have cut across Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay without reason, though both Rossi’s and Sato’s onboard footage told a different story.

Either way, Sato’s standing with the IndyCar garage and fanbase was stained as a result of the incident. He responded in earnest by taking the aforementioned shock win at Gateway the next week.

All this history in mind, what does Sato’s Ganassi deal mean for the sport?

Time’s almost up. Sato’s age – and decreased fiscal support from Honda – is coming to knock on his door sooner than later and he likely had a choice in where he landed for 2023. Sato was, after all, initially contracted for Dale Coyne Racing this season. For Ganassi to entice Coyne to release a two-time Indy 500 winner must have involved a hefty price tag. The CGR crew clearly recognizes that Sato is a constant threat to win on ovals, in Ganassi machinery this threat is only enhanced. 

In that context, for Sato to run a partial schedule suggests – I hope I’m wrong – that he doesn’t see himself returning to full-time competition after 2023. Sure, a powerhouse team like CGR may have only been willing to take Sato on for events he’s likely to do well at – and make room for Marcus Armstrong to cut his teeth on road courses – but likewise one can imagine that a smaller team in the garage would go a fair distance to secure someone with Sato’s credentials for a full campaign.

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One area where IndyCar has clearly fallen behind F1 and NASCAR is marketing. While uploading races for free on YouTube during the mid-2010s was absolutely gorgeous, the subdued post-race coverage and somewhat bare bones race weekend experience has seemed to hurt a series that was already lacking in star power for its drivers. Sato’s reputation and Ganassi’s decision to set Sato up on oval events where he’s a known contender offers the series a marketing opportunity it hasn’t grasped on to adequately in the past.

When was the last great (think Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr.) farewell tour for an outgoing driver in IndyCar?

Juan Pablo Montoya transitioned to sports car racing. Danica Patrick moved over to NASCAR. Very little fanfare for either driver, neither from the series nor the fanbase. Tony Kanaan‘s decision to go part time after 2018 cause a small murmur, but by and large IndyCar seems content to let drivers simply fade from the scene, at least as far as marketing is concerned. 

Imagine Kevin Harvick comes back in 2024 with Hendrick Motorsports to contest the Daytona 500, Coke 600, Southern 500 and Bristol night race. How many times would it be mentioned on air before the season ended?

There is no bigger character to market a farewell season for than Takuma Sato. IndyCar would do very well to give Sato an appropriate sendoff, if it is indeed time to do so.

In this light, Sato has been set up for a blitzkrieg season; perhaps his last. Sato will have Texas, Indianapolis, the Iowa doubleheader and Gateway to make something spectacular happen with a team that won four races, including Indy, last year. This context, paired up with Sato’s character and Ganassi’s speed?

I, personally, can’t wait.

About the author

Alex is the IndyCar Editor at Frontstretch, having initially joined as an entry-level contributor in 2021. He also leads the Center for Asia-Pacific Policy at the BIED Society, an international think tank in Washington, D.C. With previous experience in China, Japan and Poland, Alex is particularly passionate about the international realm of motorsport and the politics that make the wheels turn - literally - behind the scenes.

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