Takuma Sato has always maintained that his exile from Formula One would be a temporary one, but potential openings for the feisty Japanese remain limited as the grid looks set to retain a familiar look in 2009.
That is not to say that there won't be any opening for the former Jordan, BAR/Honda and Super Aguri racer, and speculation in the week following the Hungarian Grand Prix now links Sato to one of the more unexpected destinations for next season - Scuderia Toro Rosso.
With co-owner Dietrich Mateschitz looking to offload his 'second' team in time for the 2010 campaign, and partner Gerhard Berger admitting that the hunt is on for potential backers, Sato stands as good a chance as anyone of landing a seat at Faenza, especially with one vacancy already confirmed for next season.
Berger has been quoted as saying that his ideal line-up for 2009 would consist of a relative newcomer alongside a more experienced campaigner, following this year's pairing of rookies Sebastien Bourdais and Sebastian Vettel, and Sato would fit the latter role nicely. Bourdais' place in the team is under threat following a somewhat lacklustre mid-part of the season, and Berger has made little secret of his interest in GP2 frontrunner Bruno Senna to fill the 'newcomer' spot next season.
With Vettel off to Red Bull Racing to fill the gap left by the retiring David Coulthard, Toro Rosso seeks experience to balance the line-up, and Sato's name crept into the frame at Budapest. Much could depend on whether Mateschitz insists on a Red Bull-backed driver getting one of the two seats - Senna is not currently on his roster and Sebastien Buemi has been touted as an alternative should he not be snapped up by BMW Sauber first - but Sato's experience in the top flight would still stand him in good stead with few similarly-seasoned campaigners carrying the support of the drinks brand.
According to Swiss publication Motorsport Aktuell
, Sato's presence in the team - at least for 2009 - could have the immediate benefit of raising Red Bull's profile in the Japanese beverage market, one it has so far been slow to crack.
Bourdais, meanwhile, needs to raise his game if his Formula One career - one that many experts believe took too long to arrive - is not to be a one-year wonder. The Frenchman, who was helped into the second seat by manager Nicolas Todt, admits that he has struggled to come to terms with Toro Rosso's 2008 machine, which has propelled Vettel to several points finishes since its introduction in Monaco.
"We all have a driving style that suits us and mine is ill-suited to a car that understeers in fast corners and oversteers in tight corners,” he wrote in a recent column for French newspaper l'Equipe
, “I'm having trouble adjusting to it [as], one minute, I'm not pushing hard enough and the next I am over-driving, whereas Sebastian Vettel is better at adapting [to the car's characteristics].
“[However] , during Friday practice [in Hungary], I found several small things which helped me to understand the car better, even if I am still not totally at ease with it. Despite everything, it's getting better little by little, [but] I somewhat regret the time I've spent over these last few weeks looking for grand ideas on how to adapt the car to my driving style. Now I am concentrating on a few details, I'm taking small steps, and it seems to be paying off. But it's still complicated. That's just how it is… ”
Mateschitz has said that Toro Rosso will continue to benefit from his backing through to the end of 2009 but, beyond that, the situation remains clouded by the ongoing dispute over 'customer cars'. The team benefits from a technical relationship with Red Bull Racing, and runs cars of very similar design to the sister team, but would be prevented from doing so should a definitive ruling be passed against such partnerships. Should that be the case, Mateschitz has said that he would concentrate on RBR and look to off-load his half-share of STR.