Before the staging of the 101st Indianapolis 500 in May 28, it was very easy to overlook eventual winner Takuma Sato of Japan.
For one, two-time Formula One champion of Spain, his teammate at Andretti Autosport Honda, hogged the limelight because it is not usual for a leading F1 figure to participate in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” Alonso showed smoothness in testing and the time trials, gaining him fifth spot at the starting grid behind Sato.
Then there’s defending champion Alexander Rossi of the United States, who won last year’s edition in dramatic fashion as he ran out of fuel approaching the finish line. Another teammate of Sato, Ryan Hunter-Reay also of the US, who won the 2014 Indianapolis 500 and the 2012 Verizon IndyCar Series championship, was touted as the best drive in Andretti Autosport Honda.
Also a familiar in name in the team is owner Michael Andretti’s 30-year-old son, Marco, who has shared his father’s affinity for “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” by almost winning five times — finishing second once, third three times and fourth once. Marco’s grandfather Mario is the 1969 Indianapolis 500 winner and the first to exceed 200 mph (320 kph) during the race.
And not to be overshadowed was rookie Jack Harvey of the United Kingdom.
But with only five laps left in the race and three of his teammates, Alonso, Hunter-Reay and Harvey, out of the race, Sato passed three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves of Brazil and held off his protagonist to take the chequered flag. Sato’s two other teammates Rossi and Marco Andretti finished seventh and eighth.
“It’s beautiful,” Sato told Indianapolismotorspeedway.com. “I dreamed of something like this since I was 12.”
“‘Taku’ did an awesome job,” Michael Andretti said.
Sato’s compatriot Tora Takagi had the highest finish for a Japanese in 2003, placing fifth and earning the Rookie of the Year award. Like Sato, Takagi was also winless in F1.
“This will be mega big,” Sato said of the anticipated reaction in Japan. “I cannot imagine how it’s going to be.”
After his only other series victory in the IndyCar at Long Beach in 2013, Sato went home for a press conference and was met by about 300 media. Sato is currently third in the 2017 IndyCar charts after six races, his best season so far.
“I know they [flew]over from Japan today,” Sato said of his supporters. “Many, many people came.”
Sato recently admitted he was still uncomfortable on the high-speed 2.5-mile oval at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and his best previous finish there in seven starts was 13th, twice.
But Sato showed he’s still fearless, just like on the last lap of the 2012 Indianapolis 500, when he tried to dart inside for the lead on Dario Franchitti of the UK and crashed in Turn 1.
Andretti piling up wins
For the Andrettis, Sato’s win gave them a career total of five, or equaling Chip Ganassi for second on the all-time list behind Roger Penske’s 16.
“Maybe when I’m 80 years old, hopefully I’ll have more wins than Roger,” Michael Andretti said of the 80-year-old Penske. “That’s our goal.”
Michael Andretti, 54, continues to atone for what’s missing in his racing resume when he drove, leading the most laps (431) without an Indianapolis 500 victory. The six cars were the most he has ever entered in the race.
Although his cars were strong for much of the afternoon, Andretti couldn’t help but be concerned after Hunter-Reay and Alonso failed to finish the race because of engine problems. In a race with a record 15 lap leaders, Hunter-Reay led 28 laps, Alonso 27 and Rossi 23 compared to Sato’s 17.
Sato, however, turned in the fastest lap of the race at 226.190 mph (about 362 kph) on Lap 150.
“There’s many times where he was in a difficult situation, and he would get out of the situation,” Michael Andretti said. “He showed a lot of patience. But then when he had to go, he went.”
Castroneves, bidding to equal Foyt, Rick Mears and Al Unser with a record-tying fourth Indianapolis 500 win, took the lead on Lap 194. But Sato stayed close and pulled off a sling-shot pass just before the “Yard of Bricks” start/finish line at the end of Lap 195.
Overall, Harvey finished 31st after running over debris from an accident, Hunter-Reay placed 27th, Alonso 24th, Marco Andretti eighth and Rossi seventh.
Sato was a late bloomer who didn’t see his first race until 10 and never raced a car until 20. Sato, 40, becomes the 14th Indy 500 winner 40 years or older and first since Eddie Cheever in 1998.
Sato proved late bloomers can pull surprises and prove their worth.