The confirmation of Sebastien Bourdais staying at Toro Rosso extinguished Takuma Sato's lingering hopes of returning to Formula One, certainly for this year, maybe forever.
On one level it's just another hard luck story among many, the history of F1 being littered with those who were never able to quite convince folk that they had all of what it took. But, on another level, it could have much wider implications.
Sato has captured the imagination of Japanese F1 fans in a way no driver has done, arguably since the days of Ayrton Senna. The great Brazilian embodied a fighting spirit the Japanese admired, and combined it with an unearthly skill. That he did so while sitting in front of one of their revered Honda motors made him a god to them.
Sato, while never anything like as potent a force on track as Senna, stirred and inspired his home fans in a similar way. Maybe they saw him as a sort of human, home-created version of that great god. Taku may not have had as much to give, but he gave his absolute all, all of the time.
His driving was marked by a very visible attack that, every now and then, allowed him to pull off a spectacular performance. Just as often it landed him in trouble, but that never deterred him. He embodied a peculiarly Japanese approach to racing - a rather one-dimensional but very intense attack - that has never been particularly successful on a world stage, but which remained visibly true to values prized very highly by the country's culture.
He drove with a style more like a proud warrior than any Japanese driver before or since, and combined it with a humility out of the car that was also very appealing.
Sato chimed with the identity the young Japanese had of themselves, with how they would like to be seen by the rest of the world. He did them proud, he excited them, especially when he did his stuff for them at Suzuka - constantly rescuing himself from the ragged edge, then charging right back there.
Back in 2002 when he was fighting for fifth place in his Jordan-Honda as, one by one, all the other three Honda engines went bang, the tension was unbearable, the pits grandstand erupting every time he came by, urging him on. Michael Schumacher won the race for Ferrari but his was a bit-part to Taku's main story.
A national treasure
Once, back in the days when Honda still had an F1 team, it decided there was no longer room in it for Sato. The outcry back home was so monumental, caused such ill-feeling towards the company, that it initiated a satellite team just to keep him on the grid. Now satellite and parent alike have gone, and Taku's last hope was Toro Rosso.
As STR weighed up Bourdais and Sato, there were moves afoot by the fans in Japan to consume more of the product of the team's parent company, Red Bull - a product that has never sold well in Japan - believing this would enhance his chances. The choice of Bourdais has now reportedly created a strong backlash against the company. It all just confirms a fanatical intensity of support, one that totally dwarfs that of the remaining Japanese manufacturer in F1, Toyota.
It has implications beyond just that of Red Bull, though. Fuji TV has paid the big bucks to F1, happy in the knowledge that the number of fans attracted to the show by Sato, Honda, Super Aguri and Toyota (in that order) enabled them to more than make it pay. First Super Aguri then Honda were no longer there. But waiting in the wings was the prospect of a Sato return, something that would more than compensate for the loss. Now that too has been dashed. Japanese fans will be switching off in droves, Japanese advertisers will lose interest.
It's true that between Senna's death in 1994 and the re-emergence of Honda in the early 2000s, the Japanese Grand Prix survived. But in the straitened economic circumstances of today, there must surely be question marks about the event's future. Pity the poor folk at Toro Rosso; all they believed they were doing was choosing who they thought was the best available driver.
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