Honda’s favourite son Takuma Sato finally gave the Japanese car giant reason to smile as he powered to a thrilling victory in the 2017 edition of the Indianapolis 500.
The former Formula 1 driver was backed by Honda for most of his career, driving at the pinnacle of the sport with Honda for seven years Jordan, BAR and Super Aguri – from 2002 to 2008 – before moving to the IndyCar series in 2010.
And at the age of 40, 15 years down the line Sato rewarded Honda with victory at the Brickyard.
Fernando Alonso hogged the spotlight all month at the Brickyard but Sato was the headliner as he became the first Japanese driver to win the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing”.
On a powerhouse Andretti Autosport team that included twice Formula One world champion Alonso, last year’s winner Alexander Rossi, 2014 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay, Briton Jack Harvey and Marco Andretti, it was easy to overlook the soft-spoken Sato.
But it will now be hard to miss him as he becomes not only the toast of IndyCar but also of his entire country.
“This will be mega big,” Sato told reporters. “I cannot imagine how it’s going to be. Nowadays, a lot of Japanese, the fans (are) following IndyCar Series, particularly for the Indy 500. I know they flew over from Japan today. Many, many people came.
“So I’m very, really proud of what we achieved, and the team gave a super good opportunity. We showed finally a great result today.”
Sato will get the full celebrity treatment when IndyCar sends the winner out for a media blitz next week.
In the world of speed, success has been slow coming to the 40-year-old Sato, who spent seven win-less seasons in Formula One at defunct teams Jordan, BAR and Super Aguri.
Until Sunday, seven seasons on the IndyCar circuit with KV Racing, Rahal Letterman, AJ Foyt and Andretti had produced just one win, at Long Beach in 2013. But Indianapolis has always seemed to bring out something extra from Sato.
In 2004, he collected his only F1 podium at the U.S. Grand Prix for BAR at the Speedway and in 2012 almost pulled off a shock Indy 500 win for AJ Foyt but crashed trying to pass Dario Franchitti on the final lap.
On Sunday, Sato powered past Helio Castroneves with five laps to run, then had to hold off the Brazilian, who looked poised to retake the lead. The Japanese driver kept his cool to fight off the challenge and let out a mighty roar as he took the checkered flag.
“It’s such a privilege to win here whether it was the first attempt or eighth attempt or you had a drama in the past, it doesn’t really matter,” said Sato. “You know, winning today, it’s just superb.
“But, yes, I do feel after 2012 I really needed to correct something I left over. I knew I could do it. But just, you know, waiting (for) the moment. The last few laps, they were the moment.”