“It was weird,” Takuma Sato admits.
Present at the season-opening NTT IndyCar Series race in St. Petersburg with his new Chip Ganassi Racing team, the IndyCar veteran had no specific role to play as the 2023 season got under way. He’s been through the situation once before when his Super Aguri Formula 1 team lost funding and fell out of the series after four rounds in 2008; it took nearly a year and a half of sitting idle and an eventual investment from his savings into the KV Racing IndyCar team to rekindle his career with a reboot in America.
Signed to an oval-only deal with the defending Indianapolis 500 winners, Sato arrived at St. Pete where he raced 13 straight times from 2010-22 and spent the weekend sitting in on CGR’s engineering meetings and getting to know the crew who will run him in the No. 11 Honda.
Set for his debut with the team during Sunday’s PPG 375 race, the 46-year-old Japanese ace is trying to adjust to a very different reality where he isn’t lining up for a full-season campaign.
“I don’t think any driver likes this situation (of going part-time), but given the circumstances for me at this point, I want to go for the wins,” Sato told RACER. “I want to go with a very competitive team, and obviously, the opportunity came together to drive for Chip Ganassi.
“If I was a very young, fresh driver that needed to gain experience, I would go with a very nice, small team full-time just to gain experience. But at this point for me, Ganassi is just a fantastic solution. In my Formula 1 days, it was a different story. It was just a nightmare to me when it stopped, and I didn’t have anything to drive. But this time, it’s different. I’ve been given a very limited opportunity most drivers don’t get, so I’m very excited.”
Another aspect of Sato’s start to the season on the wickedly fast 1.5-mile Texas oval that can’t be ignored is his lack of testing and seat time prior to Saturday morning’s opening practice session.
“I’ll need a couple laps…just to get comfortable with the environment,” he said. “The last time I was in the car was (last September) at Laguna Seca in the final IndyCar race. And so to properly get back up to speed, I’m going to take it a little bit conservatively, just step by step, instead of going 210 miles an hour immediately. But I think it shouldn’t take too long.”
Building a rapport with race engineer Eric Cowdin, a fellow Indy 500 winner, and all of the personnel involved with running the No. 11 Honda is another aspect of Sato’s debut that will need to happen in a flash.
“This is another weird feeling where now you’re in the Ganassi camp and with all the teams that I was competing for before, I was always trying to beat them and now I’m inside of the team,” he said. “It has been quite fascinating this offseason; I’ve been to the shop a couple of times, not just for the seat fitting, but also several times to go through things with engineers.
“I was there the entire weekend with the team at St. Petersburg, completing little pieces of the puzzle all the time. Although you’re not driving, you’re learning quite massively. So now we will learn for the first time together at a race. There’s a lot of great drivers here to work with and particularly Scott Dixon; there’s been a mutual respect for a long time and now we are teammates. And of course, the two Marcus’ (Ericsson and Armstrong) and Alex Palou. It’s a lot of competitive drivers in a competitive team and it’s a fantastic place for me.”
With five ovals on his calendar with CGR, Sato hopes to add more victories to his record — kissing the bricks for a third time at the Speedway would be atop the list — and then take stock of whether he wants to pursue a return in whatever capacity next year.
“I’ll take a look at whatever the opportunity is for the future,” he added. “And not just in IndyCar. Obviously, this limited program for the ovals wasn’t my first choice, but going with Chip Ganassi Racing, particularly for the Indy 500, that’s the most attractive race for me. Hopefully this year, we have a very good package again and then have a strong race. But for the future, I have no plans, no decisions or anything. We’ll do these races together and then see.”