INDIANAPOLIS – It’s easy to overlook the fact that Fernando Alonso has an Andretti Autosport teammate who, like the Spaniard, finished on the podium in the Formula One United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Like two-time F1 world champion Alonso, this teammate had to figure out driving on high-speed ovals after racing his entire career on road and street courses. This teammate learned enough over time that he came within a last-lap duel and crash of winning the 2012 Indianapolis 500.
If anyone understands the adjustments Alonso is facing for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, it’s Takuma Sato.
Before Sato, 40, became a Verizon IndyCar Series regular in 2010, he had 91 F1 starts on street/road courses for three teams over a seven-year span — and his best series finish was third place on the IMS road course in the 2004 U.S. Grand Prix. Three years later, Alonso finished second in that same race.
Even after seven years of racing on Verizon IndyCar Series ovals, Japanese driver Sato still sounds like his education is ongoing.
“I’m never comfortable,” Sato said. “I enjoy it, but I’m never comfortable.”
There’s nothing normal about Alonso speeding down the main straightaway at 230-plus mph in his No. 29 McLaren-Honda-Andretti Honda. He’s like a 35-year-old student cramming for a final exam on the night before — he’s scheduled for just 10 days on the intimidating Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval with its squared 90-degree turns, counting a private test two weeks ago.
Sato, who drives the No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda, has finished in the top 10 in just seven of 45 career oval starts. He was, however, fastest of all 33 drivers today when it came to laps without the benefit of an aerodynamic tow from a car in front (224.734 mph).
“My first oval experience was, I think, Kansas (Speedway),” Sato said of that 2010 race, in which he finished 24th in a KV Racing Technology entry. “At that time, there were a lot of 1.5-mile ovals. That really, for me, was oval racing. I never really experienced it before, something like the sensation of the speed, going into the banking.
“I (was) used to be turning the G-force in lateral, but now it’s like diagonal. And I’m going side-by-side at 210, 220 mph. That was a whole new experience. You need to try to work out the traffic effects.”
Sato made his Indy 500 debut in the next race in 2010, finishing 20th. His best result on an oval was fifth place in the first of the Firestone Twin 275s in 2011 at Texas Motor Speedway. His lone Verizon IndyCar Series victory, while driving for AJ Foyt Racing, came on a street course in the 2013 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.
Many racing fans remember how Sato almost put it all together on an oval, coming so agonizingly close to winning the 2012 Indy 500. He entered the final lap battling for the lead with Dario Franchitti. The cars entered Turn 1, Sato challenging from behind on the inside of the main groove, Franchitti closing the space. Sato spun out and crashed into the SAFER Barrier. Franchitti celebrated his third Indy 500 win while Sato settled for a “what-might-have-been” 17th place.
“The thing about the race is it’s sometimes really affected by the other person’s hand until you complete the maneuver,” Sato said. “Before Turn 1, you can’t control the race. That was really difficult because we went there side-by-side. My first priority was not hitting him, so I have to avoid him going inside, and I was on the white line (at the bottom of the track). That was the big risk and the big learning, how to handle that, how you need to handle that on the last lap.
“I would still attempt the maneuver, but in a slightly different way, and make sure I was pointing in the right direction, which I do think I can now. It was in somebody else’s hands, not fully my control of the situation.”
If given the same last-lap chance on race day this year, May 28, Sato would go for it again.
“Yes, because it’s for the winning possibility,” he said.
Sato’s best Indy 500 finish has been 13th in 2013 and 2015, driving for Foyt. Race experience has him thinking he needs to be in the top three at the end to seriously contend.
Despite his lack of comfort behind the wheel at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, his appreciation for the track and the race has grown over the years.
“Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a little bit exceptional,” he said. “Like everyone says, you’ve got to have plenty of practice before the race, which is true. The nature of this track is four high-speed corners and (two) straights. It is oval, but it isn’t. It’s almost like four high-speed, road-course corners. That’s how I see it.
“I enjoy every single moment. I have appreciation for the history, atmosphere, fans and I respect the track. I know how it bites you as well as how it chooses the winner.”
Practice for the 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500 continues from noon-6 p.m. ET Friday and streams live on RaceControl.IndyCar.com. Two days of qualifying to set the 33-car field are scheduled for Saturday and Sunday.
The 200-lap race airs live at 11 a.m. ET May 28 on ABC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network. Visit IMS.com to purchase tickets for practice, qualifying or the race.
For more information about Honda Racing, visit http://hpd.honda.com/.