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Sato Aging like Fine Wine in Twilight Years of Impressive Career

Takuma Sato is one of only three full-time drivers over age 40 in the NTT IndyCar Series.

But Sato, 41, doesn’t think he’s older as a race driver. He thinks he’s wiser.

“You can’t directly beat the young in power,” Sato said. “The great thing about racing, it’s not just physical strength. It’s coordination and experience. As long as you keep it up for the reaction and your thought and what you feel for what happens in the sport, it doesn’t have to be (all for drivers in their) 20s.

“I think at 40 years of age, it’s quite challenging from an athletic point of view. That’s why I have to train a lot. But I’m quite up for it, and I still feel I’m learning and developing. It’s a good thing.”

2017 Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge winner Sato is entering his 10th NTT IndyCar Series season. That’s the longest stint in one series for Sato, who became admired globally as a hard-charging, no-compromise driver in six full seasons of Formula One with the Jordan, BAR and Super Aguri teams from 2002-08.

There’s a reason – besides his endlessly sunny attitude – that Sato, a native of Tokyo, still feels fresh in his racing career despite being north of 40. His career odometer has fewer miles on it than one may think.

Sato was a champion cyclist as a teen in his native Japan and didn’t start motor racing until he was 20. Compare that to almost all his rivals in the NTT IndyCar Series, most of whom started karting while in elementary or middle school. His current teammate, 30-year-old Graham Rahal, won an NTT IndyCar Series race at age 19 – one year before Sato sat in the cockpit of a race car at speed.

So Sato thinks he has plenty of growth remaining as a race driver despite a career that has seen him race in most of the world’s top series, including F1, the NTT IndyCar Series, Formula E and the World Endurance Championship.

“I have so much learning all the time,” Sato said. “If you compare my fastest lap compared to when I was driving the BAR Honda in Formula One, perhaps I’d be at least the same but not quicker than where I was. But if you go to the racing, I feel confident that I could beat myself because now I know how to manage a whole race.

“Experience definitely made me a better, smarter driver. That’s why I’m still doing it. If I feel that I’m behind, then I’ll probably retire. Experience is the main thing. But my passion – I still want to race for the win. I want to be the fastest. That sort of thing is great motivation.”

Sato will attempt to make his 10th career Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge start this May and his third with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Sato sealed his reputation as a go-for-broke racer with his last-lap attempt to pass Dario Franchitti in Turn 1 for the win in 2012 at Indy in a Rahal Letterman Lanigan entry. That bold move ended in heartbreak and a pile of carbon-fiber shards after he crashed, but it also sealed his status as a fan favorite.

In 2013, Sato joined A.J. Foyt Racing for the first of four consecutive seasons. He jumped to Andretti Autosport in 2017, when he won the “500” after a thrilling duel with three-time Indy winner Helio Castroneves over the final 11 laps.

But Sato moved back to Rahal Letterman Lanigan for the 2018 season, when he found some familiar and new wrinkles in the team that he left after 2012.

Remember that 2012 was the first season Rahal Letterman Lanigan returned full time to the NTT IndyCar Series after three previous seasons in which it was primarily an Indy-only team. The team has impressive winning pedigree dating back to its first season, in 1992, in which it won four CART races and the season championship with team co-owner and driver Bobby Rahal.

But that first season back to full-time status in 2012 had its share of challenges and growing pains despite Sato’s impressive near-miss at Indianapolis, Sato said.

“Obviously, (team co-owners) Bobby, Mike Lanigan and David (Letterman) are there,” Sato said. “But other than a few people, the whole thing has changed.

“I see in a good way it’s a different team. One common thing is the philosophy is the same. A bunch of the quality control in terms of as a race team, operations-wise, how you use resources is two to three times better than it was.”

The team’s resources continue to grow, too. Perhaps the team’s biggest coup during the recent offseason was the signing of respected veteran engineer Allen McDonald.

McDonald was the race engineer or technical director for cars that won NTT IndyCar Series championships with Dario Franchitti in 2007 and Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2012, Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge race victories with Franchitti in 2007 and Dan Wheldon in 2011 and and three “500” poles, including Ed Carpenter’s run to the top qualifying spot last May.

Former F1 engineer McDonald oversees Rahal’s No. 15 United Rentals Honda, while the vastly experienced Eddie Jones tunes the setup of Sato’s No. 30 Panasonic/Seeman Holtz Honda as race engineer.

“Graham has been one of the best Honda drivers of the last four or five seasons,” Sato said. “As a single-car team (from 2014-17), that’s very impressive. Now I see why. Very strong engineering base.

“Last year, unfortunately, we couldn’t unlock the speed in the first half of the season. But the second half, fortunately we got better and better. This momentum definitely we can carry to 2019. The team is growing. Very professional team. I’m very happy to be back in Rahal.”

McDonald and Jones share data and ideas, Sato said. McDonald’s influence has created a different approach to setups for the 2.5-mile oval at IMS that Sato is eager to try and thinks will help Rahal Letterman Lanigan earn its second “500” victory, with the first coming with Buddy Rice in 2004.

“I have not tried it yet, but Graham did at the October test and already felt a significant step forward as a team,” Sato said of McDonald’s setups. “That’s a great boost for the team. I’m certainly looking forward to that. More consistently in a competitive team in 2019, I’m very up for it. I’m excited.

“Allen and Eddie have history from the Team Green days. They share all stuff. Allen has experience with a couple of different teams, although all of the teams have been fast, especially at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.”

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