Former F1 driver turned IndyCar racer Takuma Sato is celebrating his 35th birthday today!
Tokyo-born Sato teenage ambition was to be a Tour de France cyclist, but at the relatively late age of 19, he got behind the wheel of a go-kart, and was immediately taken to it.
He won Suzuka’s Racing School scholarship the very next year, and he quickly secured backing from Honda, who continue to have an instrumental role in his career from that point on.
He moved to Europe and contested the Formula Vauxhall Junior championship, before jumping into British Formula 3. After running in Class B, he graduated to Class A, finishing third in the 2000 championship standings with the Carlin team.
He earned himself (courtesy of his connections with Honda) a test drive opportunity with the BAR F1 team, but it was decided that he should remain in Formula 3 for another season to keep his racecraft sharp.
Sato promptly rewarded them by dominating the 2001 season, winning the British title, the Marlboro Masters and Zandvoort and the Macau Grand Prix.
Not promoted to BAR’s frontline line-up, Sato jumped ship to Jordan (also running Honda engines). His year began in a wobbly fashion with several heavy crashes and he struggled to get to grips with his new machinery. With his stint in F1 threatening to be little more than a flash in the pan, Sato claimed a points’ finish on home soil at Suzuka to keep the doubters at bay.
It wasn’t enough to remain with the team for 2002, and so he joined BAR’s reserve line-up again, moving into the race team at the season-ending Japanese Grand Prix after the team (rather predictability) decided to fire Jacques Villeneuve.
He finished in the points again, and stayed on with the team for the 2004 season, doing a good enough job – including claiming his sole podium finish, at the United States GP – to be retained for the 2005 season.
But the 2005 package was not as strong, and Sato’s wild driving returned in his quest to keep pace with Jenson Button.
Not surprisingly, he was dropped from the factory team’s line-up ahead of the 2006 season, but Honda decided to split its efforts into supporting Aguri Suzuki’s fledgling F1 effort, and a deal was quickly struck for the carmaker to supply the new team with its engines in exchange for a seat for ‘Taku’.
The de facto team leader for Super Aguri from the outset, Sato drove some outstanding races for the underfunded team, claiming points’ finishes at the 2007 Spanish and Canadian Grands Prix, before the team collapsed the following year.
Sato was without a drive, and when he was overlooked for the chance to join Lotus Racing in its debut season in 2009, he headed Stateside, where his Honda connections helped secure him a seat at the KV Racing IndyCar team.
A little rough around the edges in his first season, ‘Taku’ displayed a new-found maturity in his sophomore year, and claimed to pole positions.