Takuma Sato on Portland win: “It was a beautiful race”

by Jordan Groves
Takuma Sato (JAP), Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series, Portland

Verizon IndyCar Series driver Takuma Sato has stated that the Sunday of the 2018 Grand Prix of Portland was “one of the most beautiful days in my life” after having taken his third career win. The Japanese driver held off a late charge from Ryan Hunter-Reay to take the victory; his first in over a year and his first with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.

Sato’s weekend at Portland International Raceway was definitely one of mixed fortunes. Takuma had a torrid time in Saturday’s qualifying session, despite having believed that he his #30 RLLR Honda was good enough to at least advance out of the first knockout session.

In the end, Sato’s lap-time of 57.7848-seconds would only be four-tenths of a second off of the eventual pole position time set by Team Penske‘s Will Power. However, that was not good enough for Takuma to get into the top twelve that would advance to the second session. In fact, it meant that he would start way down in twentieth place; whilst team-mate Graham Rahal went on to take tenth on the grid.

Sato would go on to explain that he believed the rapid change in track temperature from the morning’s practice to the afternoon’s qualifying was to blame for his car not behaving as expected during the session:

“We had a very strong package this morning [in final practice].” Sato said after qualifying, “The car felt good with the changes we made overnight so we were very positive about qualifying. Obviously, the temperature was very different between practice and qualifying. It was cold this morning and we had a great session and then in qualifying it was the hottest so far of the weekend and changed our speed a lot.

“Unfortunately, the balance wasn’t there and I wasn’t able to clock a fast enough time to progress so I am very disappointed. There are some places to pass but it will be very challenging. We will continue to work on improving the car and give it our best effort in the race.”

Things quickly turned around for Sato when the green flag flew to start the Grand Prix of Portland on Sunday. Sato went from being the misfortunate Rahal Letterman Lanigan Driver to the fortunate one when team-mate Graham Rahal was eliminated on lap one after a pile-up between himself, James HinchcliffeEd JonesMarco Andretti and Scott Dixon; who was the only driver to continue on in the race.

Sato’s team elected to make an early pit-stop to top off on fuel during the first caution, but from there it was a two-stop race to the chequered flag. This ultimately proved to be the best strategy to be on, particularly for Sato, who found himself in the right place at the right time during when a caution came out on lap forty-five after a crash for Will Power. He stayed out on track whilst other cars pitted and subsequently moved up to tenth place, which duly became seventh place by the time another caution was called after a spin for Zach Veach on lap fifty-six.

Takuma Sato (JAP), Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing / Ryan Hunter-Reay (USA), Andretti Autosport, 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series, Portland

Credit: Joe Skibinski / Courtesy of IndyCar

All of the former front-runners elected to pit during the latter caution, which moved Sato up to second place behind Ryan Hunter-Reay. The pair would make their final pit-stops, a couple of laps apart, shortly after lap seventy, with Sato crucially coming out of the pit-cycle ahead of Hunter-Reay and with only Max Chilton ahead of him; with the British driver yet to make his final stop for Carlin.

Chilton would make pit-stop on lap eighty-five, meaning that for the last twenty laps, Sato would have to hold off Hunter-Reay if he wanted to get the race win. Hunter-Reay was believed to have the faster car of the pair, but he was hampered early on in the final stint as he had to save some fuel to make it to the finish.

Within the last five laps, Hunter-Reay’s team informed him that he could give it all he had to try and take the win, but sadly all he had was not enough. Ryan would close the gap on Takuma to under a second, but he ran out of laps to be able to try and make a pass for the lead.

In the end, Takuma had enough pace to keep Ryan at bay, coming home to take his third victory in the Verizon IndyCar Series by just over half a second. The win would be Sato’s first since winning the 2017 Indianapolis 500 and it would also be his first win on a road course; as his first win back in 2013 had come on the streets of Long Beach.

After the race, Sato would hail the day as one of the most “beautiful” days of his life, highlighting his and the teams’ struggles during the season so far; which has seen Takuma finish in the top five on four occasions.

“The strategy worked extremely well, the car worked well and the pit stops were fantastic.” Sato said in post-race interviews, “It was a beautiful race. I was, of course, looking at Ryan Hunter-Reay in my mirrors. I knew he had more Push to Pass and knew he was coming but I kept really cool.

“The last couple of weekends were difficult, especially at St. Louis. We tried the fuel strategy and it didn’t work but you have to keep on going and this time the fuel strategy worked really well.  The yellow obviously helped it but, most importantly, the car had pace.

“Look at these fans in Portland, so enthusiastic. I think this is one of the most beautiful days of my life again. Since we failed to have good qualifying yesterday, we started from 20th which you have to have an open mind on strategy.”

Sato will be hoping to carry the momentum of his victory into the season-finale at Sonoma Raceway to try and cap off the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series in the best way that he can. The Grand Prix of Sonoma will take place on Sunday, September 16.

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