Why Sato at Ganassi is a dream scenario for both parties
The idea of Takuma Sato joining forces with Chip Ganassi Racing for an oval-only programme in IndyCar should be giving his Indy 500 rivals some restless nights. Although it means relinquishing a full-season programme, the Japanese veteran is rightly excited by the latest opportunity in the twilight of his career
IndyCar team boss Dale Coyne stated that his contract with Takuma Sato last year was one-year with a one-year option, that included a clause that precluded him from racing for any other team in 2023. This was confirmed by Sato’s manager Steve Fusek in the summer and the off-season. However, there was some wriggle room – a matter on which Coyne doesn’t wish to comment, even as late as yesterday.
With Sato’s financial support from Honda Japan and Panasonic being reduced, Coyne adjusted his intentions. He would, he told Autosport, prefer to add a third car for Sato to run an oval-only programme. But while most admire Coyne's outfit and revel in its David-beating-Goliath achievements, one can understand why a driver in his career twilight would want his numerically reduced opportunities to be enhanced by placement at one of the greatest IndyCar teams.
And lo it has come to pass. Sato will share the #11 Chip Ganassi Racing entry with Formula 2 graduate and IndyCar rookie Marcus Armstrong. He joins a team with 14 IndyCar championships to its name, and with five Indianapolis 500 wins, including the most recent edition thanks to Marcus Ericsson.
Sato has scored six IndyCar wins since he arrived in the series from Formula 1 in 2010, but almost disproportionately, two have come in the 500 – in 2017 with Andretti Autosport and in 2020 with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. On the latter occasion he beat Ganassi’s Scott Dixon with a late pass and now he’s joining the team he memorably defeated on that occasion – the same team that has produced the fastest race cars for Indianapolis Motor Speedway over the past three years.
Sato admits that this time last year, he could not imagine that what will likely be the final stretch of his IndyCar driving career could include his best ever opportunities for victory. KV Racing was flaky, AJ Foyt Racing’s cars were only occasionally fast, Andretti Autosport was fast and flaky and he was there for only one year, while the form of RLL and Coyne over the past five years has been patchy.
Ganassi is a different level, a team you expect to see running in the top five and contending for victory at every race, whatever the type of track. Over the last few years, you could find many a full-timer who would trade 17 races with a middle-ranking team to run five races for CGR. That sentiment shines through when speaking to its latest recruit.
Sato won his second Indy 500 with RLL in 2020 after beating Ganassi's Scott Dixon
Photo by: Barry Cantrell / Motorsport Images
Sato tells Autosport: “I am very grateful to Dale Coyne and the entire DCR team for a fantastic opportunity to work together in 2022. I was full of motivation and we did have some great races. But life is full of surprises, and a year later I had this incredible opportunity to join Chip Ganassi Racing.
“The shifting to the oval-only programme is something I never imagined, but I was always prepared, as an athlete, a professional race car driver, to put the steering-wheel down. But before that, it was always my desire to compete at the highest level when I could. So this is an incredible opportunity for me to join such a team.
“You always want to win either the championship or the Indy 500 and physically, that’s a possibility to go for the Indy 500 with the best environment, the best team, the best team-mates. So I am so excited and I must again thank Chip and Mike [Hull, managing director] for putting this together.”
"Chip Ganassi Racing is top of the series all the time. I’ve never been in such an environment in all of my life, even in Formula 1" Takuma Sato
Sato’s lap 172 pass on Ganassi talisman Dixon in the 2020 Indy 500 turned out to be the winning move, as the then RLL driver repelled attempts to retaliate by the six-time champion and 2008 Indy winner. And when Sato’s fuel level would have been perilously low in the closing stages, having pitted for the final time a lap earlier than Dixon, he was saved by a caution period that froze the field on the run to the twin chequers.
Asked if he reckons his new employers have forgiven him for that defeat, Sato chuckles and is somewhat evasive in his answer.
“I always respected Chip Ganassi Racing – it’s always been my ultimate goal to beat them,” he says, “and it’s always been such tough competition. I have been with a big team, Andretti Autosport for example, and building up good opportunities with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, and there was KV Racing at first, and the AJ Foyt Racing days… that was an unforgettable time, and it was a very similar scenario with Dale. But always you wanted to be with a team that was the best in the business, and Chip Ganassi Racing is top of the series all the time. I’ve never been in such an environment in all of my life, even in Formula 1.
“This just feels like a tremendous opportunity. It makes me really happy to join a team working together at the highest level.”
Sato won his first Indy 500 with Andretti Autosport in 2017, but the team's form was sporadic in his single season there
Photo by: IndyCar Series
He’s not overstating Ganassi’s abilities. It’s unclear to outsiders how one team has found such a clear edge over the opposition at the Speedway, given that the basic DW12 is now at the end of its development, the universal aerokit is now six years old and even the aeroscreen has been present for three years. But it’s undeniable that Ganassi’s margin over the opposition, in terms of Indy 500 race pace, was greater in 2022 than it has been in any year since 2012, when Sato made his brave but doomed last-lap lunge to pass Dario Franchitti for the lead.
Last year, Ganassi’s rivals suffered a real psychological blow as they watched the track action in practice, observing how comfortable and settled the CGR cars looked in close proximity to other cars, and how they were fast in any conditions. Sato wants some of that, and now he’s in a position where he can get it.
“Their dominance was just incredible to see,” he agrees, “especially, like you say, at the end of development of the DW12. It’s really interesting me to find out just what they are doing! And it’s not just the preparation of the car; it’s the organisation of the entire team, the teamwork, the strategies, knowing the team pit crews are in the gym every single morning preparing to give the best pit procedure as well.
“How do I say it? I’m like a boy with a new toy and I’m still unwrapping what’s inside. I’m just so excited. I know everyone is top quality personnel and they are all working together to the ultimate goal of winning for Chip Ganassi Racing. And because I have different experiences, I hope I can help the team and make it stronger.”
While Ganassi has lost Tony Kanaan to the Arrow McLaren SP team, Sato’s arrival means that the team will again tackle the 500 with three previous winners on the roster. And unlike Kanaan in 2022, Sato is not in a one-off entry: the #11 team is full-time, meaning those staffing the car – led by race engineer Eric Cowdin – will be gelled and in sync by the Month of May. Sato appreciates the difference, but points out that even if his car was an extra for the oval races, he would have faith in any crew that Ganassi put together.
“That is true and it is important, but when Tony was driving for Ganassi last year, there was nothing from outside the team where you could identify it was only a part-time deal,” he says. “That’s why Tony was able to finish third and could fight for the win. This team is always prepared and the people they employ always commit 100 percent.
“All the people working in the IndyCar paddock are tremendous; it’s how a team works together that makes the difference between the teams. I think the #11 car will be right on the pace from the beginning, and Marcus Armstrong has shown in Formula 2 that he is very talented. I will do anything I can to help him and the team.”
Despite being a one-off entry last year, Kanaan was on the pace all month and finished a strong third - Sato's crew this year will be full-timers
Photo by: Jake Galstad / Motorsport Images
Sato is right, as usual, in that teamwork and truly productive interaction on race weekends can separate the great teams from the merely very good. But there’s also something magical about what goes on in the best teams between seasons – the collective genius of the engineers and data analysts is what allows teams to make significant strides even when the current car is supposed to be down to the last speck of development potential. Sato acknowledges that he’s intrigued to see just how Ganassi sets up its cars to be so consistently strong.
“In terms of just pure speed, last year I don’t think Ganassi and Dale Coyne Racing were that different,” he recalls, “and that is why I was always interrupting the Ganassi train in practice, sometimes popping up in first or second or third. We could match their speed.
"When Tony was driving for Ganassi last year, there was nothing from outside the team where you could identify it was only a part-time deal" Takuma Sato
“But the environment changes, the track conditions change, the temperature changes, the wind direction changes, there’s different amounts of rubber down, it’s always challenging and the Ganassi cars and the team seemed to always be prepared, able to be fastest whatever the conditions. They had an A-plan, B-plan, C-plan, D-plan – they could always find something that worked – and that is crucial to being fast at the end of the race. That’s why I think they are so strong.
“How they do that, I don’t know. That’s something I hope to find out!”
He will – there are no secrets between engineers at Ganassi – and then… Who would bet against Sato winning Indy or one of his other four IndyCar outings this year?
Sato is looking forward to unlocking the secrets of Ganassi's success
Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images
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