Takuma Sato fell six laps shy of a shot at becoming a back-to-back and three-time champion of the Indianapolis 500.
The 44-year-old from Tokyo, Japan delivered a methodical drive after starting 15th. His No. 30 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda was consistent with pace and was a player in the top-10 throughout. Things were so good, in fact, that Sato continually extended the fuel mileage to the point that the team began to look at the possibilities of finishing the race with one less pit stop than their competition.
During the pit sequence that saw the rest of the front-runners make their fourth pit stop between Laps 148-150, Sato rotated to the lead and waited to come down pit lane until Lap 157. With 43 laps remaining, the message of trying to make it to the end was clear and he began to back up his lap times, running an average lap speed in the 208-212mph range instead of 220-225mph.
While others opted to short pit just 20-25 laps into their final stint, Sato remained on track and pounded laps around the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway, finding and following the No. 7 Arrow McLaren SP Chevrolet of Felix Rosenqvist, who inherited the lead on a similar strategy. However, Rosenqvist wasn’t able to stay out front and dove to the pits for a splash of fuel with seven laps to go.
Sato’s team continued to preach “save” over the radio in hopes of a chance, but moments later brought him in for a quick service of fuel. In the end, he was left with a deflating 14th-place finish.
“Well, before I committed to a strategy, I said, ‘Impossible’ twice,” said Sato, who sits 11th in the championship leaving Indy. “Not only for losing the shadow, which is losing the pack, and then you’re not going to be able to achieve the fuel number you needed. And I mentioned that it’s sort of the range of five times. I said, ‘Impossible’ twice, but equally, I cannot ignore the team’s decision. We’re a team player and were betting for the strategy.
“The team wanted me to run in a certain fuel number, which I tried to achieve (but) coming down to only 200mph, still was not possible. So once you lose the shadow and the momentum, I needed someone. At the end of the day, we committed to follow someone (Rosenqvist) clocking the same speed. At that point, we were using too much fuel and that’s how we shortened six laps to go.”
In some ways, Sato needed a similar outcome to what happened last year, when the caution came out with four laps to go while he was leading, helping him coast to the checkered flag. Instead, he was left watching Helio Castroneves capture his fourth Indy 500 victory.
“I think only if we had a caution we would have pulled a completely different result,” he added. “My point is that we relied on something like a caution, which was just disappointing. But, things happen. Huge congratulations for Helio. It’s big-time for a four-time winner. I fully respect him.”