INDIANAPOLIS: When the moment came, Takuma Sato seized it, and was rewarded with one of auto racing’s grandest prizes.
Sato became the first Japanese driver to win the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday (Monday in Manila), holding off three-time winner Helio Castroneves of Brazil to do it.
Sato had toiled for two weeks at Indianapolis in the shadow of temporary Andretti Autosport teammate Fernando Alonso — the two-time Formula One world champion taking time out from the Grand Prix circuit to try his luck at Indy.
But he emerged with a fearless finish made all the more impressive by the memory of 2012, when his last-lap attempt to grab the lead from Dario Franchitti ended with the Japanese driver in the wall.
“I knew I could do it but I was waiting for the moment and the last few laps there was a moment,” said Sato, who snatched the lead from Castroneves with five laps remaining after both had worked their way past Briton Max Chilton.
Then it was up to Sato — winner of just one prior IndyCar race — to keep Castroneves behind him.
“I know Helio is always coming on charge,” Sato said. “But he’s just such a gentleman, such a fair player. I believe in him.
“We go side-by-side turn one. It was job done.
“The last two laps, the car worked beautifully. I just cannot thank enough everyone who supported me.”
Castroneves, trying to become just the fourth driver to win the Indianapolis 500 four times, said he just couldn’t find an answer to Sato.
“I did everything I could, trust me, everything I could,” the Penske driver said.
Right guy for sure
Team chief Michael Andretti said Sato had put himself on the path to victory long before the dramatic duel at the finish.
“We had the right guy doing it, for sure,” said Andretti, who had six entrants in the race.
“He drove a superb race. There’s many times where he was in a difficult situation, and he would get out of the situation. He showed a lot of patience.
“But then when he had to go, he went. There was one move where he passed two cars on the outside in one, which was a very important move, because that gave him the track position of the top two guys in front of him. That was one of the moves of the race, in my opinion.
“When I saw that, I’m like, ‘Whoa, I think we’re going to win this thing.’”
Sato became the fifth different driver to win the Indy 500 for Andretti.
The team’s Honda engines showed superior speed throughout practice and qualifying, but they also showed a maddening propensity to fail.
It was a blown engine that brought Alonso’s race to an end on the 179th lap, and Honda’s engine woes also ended the day for Ryan Hunter-Reay and Charlie Kimball.
Amid those struggles for the Japanese manufacturer, Andretti was delighted to see a Japanese driver deliver a win for them.
“Taku did an awesome job,” Andretti said. “I’m so happy for him. Really happy for Honda. They worked really hard to get us here.”