A new beginning in 2017 will also mark one of the biggest opportunities in Takuma Sato’s Verizon IndyCar Series career.
The 40-year-old Japanese racer left AJ Foyt Racing, a team he called home the four previous years, and moved to Andretti Autosport over the offseason.
Since Michael Andretti’s involvement as a team owner in 2003, the outfit has enjoyed four series titles – a total matched by its Indianapolis 500 victories. That winning pedigree had Sato eager to pilot the No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda in the Feb. 10-11 open test at Phoenix Raceway, as he becomes acclimated to the program prior to the start of the season in three weeks.
“Confident and excited about (the opportunity) and my motivation is high because Andretti is competitive,” said Sato, entering his eighth Verizon IndyCar Series season following seven years spent in Formula One.
The transition also puts the 2013 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach winner on a team with a healthy blend of veteran experience and success, something that has eluded Sato in recent years. His teammates this year are veterans Ryan Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti, along with second-year driver and reigning Indianapolis 500 champion Alexander Rossi.
“It is, for sure, beneficial,” said Sato. “We have seen that in years and years at Andretti Autosport, (it) is working extremely competitive throughout the season because of the driver lineup and the way they operate the team.
“Now obviously I could see why they could do that. It's a very sophisticated engineering program. Those drivers share the data.
“It will be fun to enjoy, to work together and to make the team move forward, and that's our only objective at the end of the day. I think this is a great opportunity for me to work with this foundation and organization. I'm extremely excited about it.”
Despite Sato and Rossi finding the wall in nearly identical crashes during the Phoenix test while making mock qualifying runs, Sato came away pleased with the amount of data shared among the four drivers and teams.
“Yeah, we shared a lot,” he said. “In fact, our race setup was pretty strong, which they basically shared those same things. We did try various setting and programs that seemed to be very productive. It was a shame that Alex and I had the problem with qualifying simulation, but other than that it was a very, very productive test.”
A veteran of Verizon IndyCar Series 118 starts with the Foyt, Rahal Letterman Lanigan and KV Racing teams, Sato noted that it is nice to be a part of a big program again, something that hasn’t happened since his F1 days.
“It's nothing (that) really surprised me. I've been in a big team in the Formula One world with 600 people working on one factory, so you can imagine compared to that, INDYCAR is more like really tight family.
“But I was in Texas (with Foyt’s team) for a long time and it was a very nice, warm team. But in terms of number of people working, it's extremely narrow and small numbers. Now, of course, we went to Andretti, not only for the (Verizon IndyCar Series) program but working with the Indy Lights program and all the others all together, close to 100 people altogether. It's difficult to remember the name who you're working with – passing the people (at the Indianapolis race shop), say hello, it's difficult to remember (names) right now – but it just feels good.
“The very strong engineering, that's what matters, and those boys are the same. Boys have been boys all the time. Every mechanic is fantastic, so I'm happy to be working with a big team.”
The Andretti quartet has a private team test scheduled in a couple weeks at Sebring International Raceway in Florida. It will be the final chance to get cars and drivers ready before the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season opens with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on the 1.8-mile temporary street circuit March 12 (noon ET, ABC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network).
The demanding 17-race schedule consists of six oval events – including the 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil on May 28 – five races on temporary street circuits and six on permanent road courses.