What will you remember the 2015 IndyCar season for? Juan Pablo Montoya’s teflon coating wearing off right at the time he needed it most? The introduction of the aero kits, several years after they were first mooted? Rocky Moran Jr.’s inspiring hour of track time at Long Beach?
To try to make sense of it all, RACER‘s Marshall Pruett, Robin Miller and Mark Glendenning asked each other some searching questions about all of 2015’s regulars, which for the purpose of this review, includes anyone who started a minimum of half the races. Look for new installments every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
AJ Foyt Racing
2015 starts: 16
2015 best finish: 2nd (Detroit, Sunday race)
2015 championship position: 14th; 323pts
Sato was fifth – best among full – time Honda – powered drivers (behind Graham Rahal, Ryan Hunter – Reay, Marco Andretti and Carlos Munoz). Is that a positive, or representative of Honda’s diminished full – time roster?
MARK GLENDENNING: A little of both. Looking purely at the Hondas, Sato was undoubtedly a beneficiary of the upheaval in the No. 5 Schmidt car – if that entry had the same driver for the full season, it’s hard to imagine it not finishing three or four places ahead of Taku in the overall standings. So then you look at who he did beat from the Honda family.
You’d expect his experience to give him the edge over rookie Gabby Chaves this year, although if the Colombian – American returns with BHA in 2016, it might be a different story. Beating the second Schmidt entry was a fair achievement, but then there are question marks over whether James Jakes got the most out of that car. And Sato’s team – mate Jack Hawksworth was in the same boat as Taku in terms of not having great equipment to work with, but the Brit is still developing the toolkit he needs to help him tread water while the team gets its act together. Coyne didn’t have a driver do an entire season in either of its entries, so those cars were never in the picture.
By and large then, Sato was right about where you’d expect him to be. Marshall Pruett writes elsewhere that he was the “perfect benchmark for [Foyt’s] capabilities in 2015”, and you can’t ask much more from a driver than to extract the most from whatever is given to them.
Sato was 14th in the points this year, and the highest he has ever finished in the championship is 13th. Is he a fair benchmark for the Foyt team’s overall potential?
MARSHALL PRUETT: Yes, without a doubt, Sato was a perfect benchmark for the program’s capabilities in 2015. As easy as it might be to blame the charming Japanese pilot for a third underwhelming season with A.J. and Larry Foyt, the team shoulders more of that responsibility than at any point in the partnership.
To start, Taku’s run to 14th in the standings came from increased steadiness behind the wheel instead of wild fluctuations at each race. He’s had better seasons in terms of top finishes, but those were tempered by a significant number of crashes. This year, Taku found a happier medium.
For example: Sato’s ability to finish races (or finish in a decent position) has been suspect since he arrived in IndyCar, and in his first year with Foyt, Taku failed to place inside the top half of the field 74 percent of the time. That number improved to 72 percent in 2014, and in 2015, he made significant progress, lowering the outside-the-top-13 figure to 63 percent.
Despite his improvement, there’s a definite feeling it could have been much better if the team provided a car that was capable of challenging the top Hondas. It’s refreshing to suggest that for once – to a minor degree – Sato was actually the one being held back in the relationship, and only on rare occasion was he seen racing at the sharp end of the field. That, too, was a notable change for the 38-year-old.
Known for his pace over one lap, Sato’s poor average starting position of 14th was a telling metric that pointed more to deficiencies within the team than the driver. Even among the Honda drivers, who were routinely blitzed by the Chevys in qualifying, Sato’s car was clearly lacking speed at most rounds.
Come race day, too many mechanical issues, problems with pit stops, or odd strategy calls were made to keep the No. 14 from fighting among the leaders. And if it wasn’t the team coming up short, Taku still exhibited a flair for finding problems of his own, albeit at a lesser rate.
The best part of Sato’s 2015 is he made fewer mistakes, tore up less equipment, and demonstrated a refreshing ability to get to the finish line. From 2010-2014, Taku reached the checkered flag in 55.8 percent of his races. In 2015, it leapt to 75 percent, which delivered a fitting 14th-place in the championship.
By comparison to his first five seasons, Sato was a race-finishing machine, and the tide really turned in the last two races. A clear emphasis on getting to the finish line was present, and with that mindset in place, Sato recorded his two best consecutive results of the year (sixth at Pocono, eighth at Sonoma).
Larry Foyt expects to have Sato back for 2016, and if the No. 14 program can hold onto its late-season mojo, there’s every reason to believe Taku’s fourth year in the car could be the best yet.
If Foyt’s cars were powered by something other than Honda engines, would Sato continue to have a drive?
ROBIN MILLER: I highly doubt it. Not exactly sure what Honda does for Taku but it’s obviously enough to stay on board with A.J. The ever-pleasant veteran continued his career pattern in 2015 – maddeningly fast and inconsistent with one second at Detroit and a strong run at Fontana before crashing. He made the Fast Six twice and had four DNFs due to accidents (not all his fault) but Sato is too old to escape this pattern. He’ll likely have a couple good days, several average ones and a few crashes sprinkled in. It’s his routine, and it’s not going to change in 2016.
Missed one of the earlier reviews? You can go back and read them here: