Takuma Sato’s stunning second victory at the Indianapolis 500 left some of his rivals in a state of confusion.
Making his final pit stop one lap before presumptive winner Scott Dixon, Sato drove past the 2008 Indy 500 winner to take the lead and, based on those rivals’ fuel calculations, the No. 30 Honda was expected to coast to a stop before reaching the finish line. Thanks to the unfortunate accident by Spencer Pigot, Sato’s Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing teammate, the final laps of the contest were run under cautionary speeds which, in theory, saved the 43-year-old from fuel-related heartbreak.
In revealing his critical efforts to save fuel while being chased by the Chip Ganassi Racing driver, Sato offers a different view of the situation.
“The last stint, yes, the fuel mileage was a key and I know Dixon had a one more lap, a little bit (more) luxury than us,” he said. “I had to dive into the pits because I led the race earlier, so I was short. But, if you scan the radio, you know I was hitting a number I needed to finish, even without yellow. Yes, we were able, I had to go through the (fuel) mixture, lean the mixture, even in the short chutes. and whenever Scott (caught) me and (made) some attempts for overtaking, I was obviously (full) power, best mixture, as soon as he pulled out. (Then it was going back) to the leanest mixture.”
Sato describes using the first half of the 200-lap race to try various fuel-saving techniques, and changing the point in each stint where he placed the greatest load on his tires, to use the findings for the final sprint to the checkered flag. Coincidentally, the last stint was the only time during the Indy 500 where Sato was able to pull away from Dixon.
“So I was obviously working really hard as well with traffic, because the traffic, they’re doing their race,” he said. “So it was a little bit tough. But I like this intense situation, and especially for the first hundred laps, because obviously the one-car tow, double-car tow, and three cars is different in terms of the fuel mileage, as well as the balance of car and the Firestone tires, where you put the peak on the stint. Is it the earlier part, or middle part or the last part of the stint?
“So I was working on the entire 100 laps. When I had opportunity to catch the back of Dixie (as they approached 180 laps), you got to go, you got to go try to challenge him. Now, of course after that, he was actually working for the fuel. Therefore, they made it one lap longer than us. The last stint was just so intense, but the team did a mega job in terms of calculating fuel. And of course, all the 30 (car) boys did amazing jobs for the pit stops. That’s why I was able to run in the top three, top five, (the) entire race.”
Sato came within one lap of winning the 2012 Indy 500 for RLL, and after earning his first Speedway win in 2017 with Michael Andretti’s team, the chance to take the organization owned by Bobby Rahal, David Letterman, and Mike Lanigan back to Victory Lane – with Graham Rahal matching a career-best finish in third – was made possible by superb strategy, engineering, and execution.
Sato also credits his teammate with elevating the program’s competitiveness at Indy after missing some speed during last year’s race.
“I just feel thankful to the entire team,” he said. “You know, (we) didn’t particularly have superspeedway performance, but Graham, he’s actually very technically minded. He’s commitment to pulling all the team together, and then (Rahal’s engineer Allan) McDonald’s came in. And of course, (my engineer) Eddie Jones, working all the time with me; and the continuous (work of the team owners). This is made (to) happen by them. So it’s a huge credit for the team.”
Sato closed by paying tribute to Jones, the quiet, but exemplary race engineer from England. As a former racer, and open-wheel chassis designer, few engineers on pit lane possess his vast experience, which has served countless drivers like Sato at Indianapolis over the years.
“What an amazing engineer Eddie Jones is,” he said of his friend who also became a two-time Indy 500 winner on Sunday, adding to the victory captured with Dan Wheldon in 2005. “He knows about business in the cockpit doing 200 miles an hour, which is the number one thing. He still remembers the feeling. Obviously, (Jones’ era of driving) is different, but you know, what the hell, the car’s a car. So, he knows everything, plus all the vehicle dynamics; and he’s amazing at working (on) details.
“You know, whoever the driver was with him – Danica (Patrick) and Marco (Andretti) and Dario Franchitti, and of course the great Dan Wheldon – you name it, so many great drivers had succeeded because of (Jones). Eddie succeeds behind the scene for the driver. This is (an) amazing guy. So all the credit, once again, (goes to the) 30 (car) boys and Eddie Jones. He made this win happen.”