A mix of smooth and methodical driving resulted in Takuma Sato and AJ Foyt Racing claiming their first top-five finish of the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 17. The trick now is keeping the momentum heading into this weekend’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park.
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Sato spent much of the Long Beach race in fuel-conservation mode, starting eighth and advancing one position after the first round of pit stops in the No. 14 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Honda. But after two stints of holding back, Sato came to life in the final third of the 80-lap dogfight on the 1.968-mile temporary street course.
Running sixth, Sato began to close on Tony Kanaan (No. 10 NTT Data Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet) as the laps clicked away. Sato shadowed the Brazilian for 14 laps, but with extra fuel and push-to-pass activations at his disposal, made his way around Kanaan for fifth place on Lap 67 and set his sights on Juan Pablo Montoya in the No. 2 Verizon Team Penske Chevy.
The two former Formula One drivers and Long Beach Indy car winners fought hard over the final 13 laps. Montoya denied Sato every move, including shutting the door going into Turn 1 with four laps to go. Sato never gave up and closed within a car-length of Montoya as the two crossed the finish line. Sato was the top finisher among the Honda contingent.
“We kept it cool and steady, but when I had a chance I gave it a go with Tony Kanaan and Juan Pablo,” Sato said. “I think we kept cool conditions, the team - what an amazing job on the pit stops. I was able to push hard, I was solid, so happy day!”
Even though he couldn’t overtake Montoya, Sato enjoyed the competition.
“He had a fast car,” Sato said. “I never got alongside of him, so he did nothing wrong. It was obviously hard racing. We always know how difficult it is to pass these guys, but I enjoyed it.”
The fifth-place finish was Sato’s best since he was runner-up in the second race of the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit at Belle Isle last year and moved him to sixth place in the standings as the series heads to Barber this weekend. It is a track the Japanese driver cannot wait to attack.
"Barber is an impressive road course that I always enjoy driving,” he said. “The track has many challenging high-speed corners and it flows beautifully. I also enjoy the great support from fans who are really enthusiastic for motor racing and just the nice overall atmosphere.”