Takuma Sato nearly won the Indianapolis 500 in May, but a bold move for the lead relegated the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver to 17th as he spun while trying to pass eventual winner Dario Franchitti on the final lap.
His car owner Bobby Rahal found no fault with his effort, but he admits his tongue sometimes "bleeds" as he bites back his thoughts on the man some say is brave, others define as crazy and all agree is fast.
"You couldn't leave that day and be disappointed," Rahal said. "People knew we were there. Anyone would have tried."
"I always go for the win," Sato said, explaining his inside move out of the second turn at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. "It was the very last lap — I hoped, I thought we'd win the race. Afterward Bobby was very happy that we attacked. Our whole philosophy is … to attack."
The 35-year-old Sato, a Formula One veteran who finished as high as eighth in that series' points standings (in 2004), is in his third season in the IZOD IndyCar Series. A year ago, he finished 13th in the IndyCar points standings and was 18th in the Baltimore Grand Prix.
As the Grand Prix of Baltimore returns to the city this weekend, both Sato and Rahal are hoping to see progress. It is the next-to-last race of the season and time is running out for a victory.
"There have been times this season when I've thought he needs a little more patience," Rahal said. "But he's a work in progress. If he didn't have the talent, you wouldn't make the effort. You hope this weekend and next he can be in position to win. If we can do that, then job accomplished.
"He has the potential … He has the speed. We just need to complete the picture for him. He's a diamond in the rough. We need to polish him, get him to be a little more patient. But he's a diamond."
During his time in the IndyCar Series, Sato has built a reputation for boldness and for speed. Fellow competitors, however, view his driving style warily.
Asked if Sato is brave or crazy, drivers' answers run in all directions.
"Crazy," Chip Ganassi Racing driver Scott Dixon said. "But, you also have to be good to get to this point and he's had a long career."
Franchitti, the man Sato tried to pass for the lead at Indianapolis, thought for a moment.
"A little bit of both," Franchitti, who also drives for Ganassi, said. "He's committed. Sometimes it pays off. More often than not it doesn't. He's fast. And I'd prefer not to see him — or anyone else — in my rear view mirror."
Another competitor, Oriol Servia, who finished second in Baltimore last year, said Sato is aggressive.
"But sometimes after years of experience like he has, to make a pass with only a 15 percent chance of success, well, you don't take that chance," Servia said. "Sato sees 10 percent; he goes for the gain more than not. But in Edmonton, he changed a little bit. He was second. He was faster than [race winner Helio] Castroneves, but his chances of overtaking him weren't good and he chose to finish the race and take second."
At Indianapolis, Servia said, the chance Sato took may have been worth it.
"There's a $2.5 million payout," he said. "Maybe I wouldn't have done it, but I think Indy is the one place where I would agree he had a chance. He just didn't go blindly."
In fact, Sato, who has not finished seven times in 13 races this season, doesn't think he goes blindly at all. He has spent his entire life taking chances and beating the odds.
"Aggressiveness can be a strength," he said. "Maybe I need to calm down a little bit, but you have to be living on the edge to go to the next level.
"The first time I drove a race car I was already 19 years old. I was late — very late. I didn't have the environment. My parents had no idea about racing. When I was 10, I saw my first Formula One Grand Prix. It was 1987 in Japan at Suzuka. When I saw it, it made my life."
Sato waited nine years after seeing that Japanese Grand Prix to see an advertisement in a motor sports magazine for the Suzuka Racing School.
"You had to be under 20 to participate and I was 19," he said. "I know no one and I need help. I went to the school and I got the scholarship. I had to compete against drivers who had 10 years of experience, but I won that scholarship to go to the U.K."
The rest, as is often said, is history. But Sato also needed to learn English, a language he speaks fluently and almost as fast as his race cars run.
"I could say 'yes' and 'no,' only, but I had to go for it," he said. "I lived with an English family and went to school and drove and won a couple Formula Three championships and was in Formula One for 6 1/2 seasons and I am very proud of what we did."
But in 2008, after two partial seasons in Formula One, he figured it was time for a change.
"To compete and win in Formula One, if you don't have the equipment, you are at the back of the grid and you can not win," Sato said. "And then I looked at Indy cars."
Sato saw his first Indianapolis 500 in 2009, wondered if he could drive and control the car into its turns, "thought at that moment, I totally couldn't do it," he said. It was then that he met Rahal and Jimmy Vasser.
Vasser hired him for the 2010 and 2011 seasons, and then Rahal called. He wanted to build a team and return to full-time IndyCar racing.
Given Sato's background, patience would seem to be one of his strengths. But, maybe he feels he has waited long enough and it's just time to put everything he has out there to be seen.
"Only you know the truth about yourself and your decisions," he said. "It's carefully calculated. I see if there is an opportunity [a shrug]. It's not a hospital parade. If a chance is there, why not go for it? I want to win and you need to prove you can do it."
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