It seems a very long time ago that Takuma Sato was at work in the F1 Grand Prix paddock, racing for the likes of Jordan, BAR and Super Aguri between 2002 and 2008. When that chapter of his life closed he headed over the Atlantic to try his hand at racing in the IZOD IndyCar Series.
At first he made the same sort of physical impact on races as he all-too-often had in F1; but gradually his raw speed and aggressive driving style started to click with the US open wheel style of competition, and on a number of occasions he's come close to pulling off a maiden victory. But on none of those occasions did he display the sure-footed, confident sense of complete domination that he showed on Sunday throughout 80-laps of the 1.968-mile, 11-turn street course street course in Long Beach, California and which assured him a lasting place in the annals of motorsport.
The race got underway cleanly with Ryan Hunter-Reay dropping behind pole man Dario Franchitti through turn 1, while Takuma Sato - fastest in the Sunday warm-up - immediately moved past Will Power into third place. There was a minor scuffle between Power and Mike Conway over fourth place through turn 2, and then a more emphatic contact between back row starters Scott Dixon and Tristan Vautier which left Dixon spun around with a rear puncture and Vautier with a drive-thru penalty to serve.
"I made a mistake at the beginning of the race with Scott," explained Vautier. "I'm sorry about that to him and his crew. I got pretty familiar with pit lane after serving my drive thru penalty for the incident, but we got back out on the track and my pace was amazing."
But there was no actual caution, at least not until Sebastian Saavedra made a rash overtaking move on Simona de Silvestro that left him too fast into turn 10: he clipped the tyres and ended up with the #6 Dragon car pancaked against the wall, forcing the first full course yellow to make its presence known.
"It was a wild start," admitted Saavedra. "Battling with Simona there, I think she had some front damage, so I was taking advantage of it. Went into the corner and lost the control from the back and tried to catch it, and when I caught it I just went straight into the wall, one of those things.
"It's just an unfortunate situation," he added. "We've been strong throughout the weekend, we just needed a good finish and to try to bring the car home. It didn't happen. It feels very bad to be honest, we shouldn't have been in this situation. We'll keep working for the next."
There were few takers for early pit stops, although Marco Andretti needed a new front wing after early minor contact and Justin Wilson was among a number of cars lower down the order that opted to pit for an early switch to red wall sort option tyres.
The race eventually got underway again on lap 8, with Hunter-Reay looking to get the jump on Franchitti only to be out-braked by the Scot into turn 1 which meant that the Ganassi was back in charge again. Further back, Helio Castroneves got caught out by the compression of the pack through the fountain complex and had his front wing broken for his pains, and he came in on lap 12 for a replacement.
"I was trying to be careful but got bunched up and broke the front wing," said the Brazilian. "Tough day for the Auto Club Chevrolet, but my team did a great job getting me back out after our incident with the nose."
Pressure on Hunter-Reay from third-place man Takuma Sato allowed Dario Franchitti to start to pull away at the front, with the #10 three seconds ahead by the time Sato finally used push-to-pass to secure second place on lap 23 with the Andretti Autosport #1 now clearly struggling with tyre wear. Once releases, Sato immediately made huge inroads into Franchitti's lead before he came in for hit pit stop on lap 28, the same time that Hunter-Reay came in to dispense with that shot set of first reds.
Franchitti himself came in next time by - already having led nearly double the number of laps at Long Beach than he's managed on all the street courses in 2012 combined - but he suffered a problematic pit top that cost him valuable seconds. The situation was not helped by the course going full course yellow moments later when Alex Tagliani and Charlie Kimball ended their extended side-by-side battle by ploughing into the tyre wall at turn 8 after Kimball simply went into too hot to make the corner and left Tagliani with no place to avoid the accident.
Having been left in charge of the race after the cars ahead pitted, Will Power was now able to nip into pit lane for his own stop and emerge back out on track jut behind Takuma Sato who was following the safety car around. Franchitti had dropped to third ahead of Conway who had come in early by comparison; Graham Rahal and James Hinchcliffe rounded out the top six going into the restart on lap 35.
The restart seemed to catch many by surprise, Franchitti using the opportunity to jump Power and retake second spot on the run down to the first corner. But the big loser was James Hinchcliffe who made a rash dive down the inside line and got pinched into the left hand wall for his troubles by Tony Kanaan. The #27 GoDaddy.com car ended up shattered and in the tyre barrier, catching his team mate EJ Viso on the way.
Although Viso was able to spin the car around and get back underway, a call to pit lane was in his immediate future where he also found Conway and Hunter-Reay already present for repairs. Hinchcliffe's own car was beyond salvaging but at least he didn't have to sit out the rest of the race stuck in the car, instead jumping on a scooter to get back to pit lane after a second consecutive dismal race for the St Pete race winner.
"Two in a row, what a kick in the pants," he said later. "I didn't get the best restart and Tony had a smokin' one and I was trying to keep, I think it was Pagenaud, behind me on the inside and as we got down to Turn 1.
"I haven't seen a replay so I don't know if Tony was trying to do a last minute pass or if he was getting squeezed by someone else, but he moved in the brake zone and I just had nowhere to go and day done," Hinchcliffe added. "Really tough break ... I genuinely think we were podium contenders today and it was going to be a good comeback from not the strongest of weekends [in Alabama.]"
After the clean-up, racing resumed once more on lap 39 with Sato quickly speeding away while Franchitti promptly lost second spot again this time to Graham Rahal, with Vautier now up to fourth place despite his back row start and drive-thru penalty. Tony Kanaan and Simon Pagenaud formed up the rest of the top six with Will Power down in seventh ahead of a feisty-looking Justin Wilson, who made a successful move on Power with a shot of push to pass into turn 1 on lap 41. Nor were Power's problems over, as Oriol Servià was next in line to pressure the clearly struggling Penske car despite carrying front wing damage of his own; he finally pulled off the move successfully on lap 44.
Sato had pulled out a whopping four seconds in just four laps since the restart over Rahal; by contrast, early leader Franchitti succumbed to a move from a confident looking Vautier and was ousted from third place by the rookie, making the Ganassi the uneasy filling in a Schmidt sandwich. But even Sato was not immune to the waxing and waning fortunes of the day, and slowly but surely Rahal started to reel him back in again.
The gap became academic on lap 51 when Ryan Hunter-Reay pushed too hard while trying to get past Ana Beatriz and ended up into the tyres at turn 8. "I just started getting desperate," admitted the reigning series champion. "We couldn't go anywhere. We missed some of the grip today that we had in prior days. Some of the corners that were my strongest were my weakest today.
"I was definitely handcuffed, so we just started trying things," he continued. "We were in the back anyway, I had to move forward again and I just got in too hot, no grip on the inside there. Just trying things, trying anything to make a bad day go a little better, but it just went from bad to worse."
It was at least good timing as far as the rest of the field was concerned, as it was possible for everyone to pit under the ensuing caution and make it to the end albeit with some strict fuel conservation. That made pit lane a busy place - too busy as it turned out, with Tristan Vautier exiting his pit box only to find Will Power angling in to his own stall immediately ahead. The two made contact, costing Vautier a second drive-thru penalty for causing avoidable contact, but more seriously giving Power right rear suspension damage from the slow-speed collision that cost the Penske crew a lot of time to sort out.
"Unfortunately in the pits I got sent out and made contact with Will Power's car," Vautier explained. "We had some communication issues as a team, but we're all learning to work together and things happen. We win as a team and we lose as a team, and I had my mistakes as well. We had a great race going and it's too bad it ended this way, but we're going to get a good result soon because our speed is there."
"Frustrating day out there," added Power from his own perspective. "We had a car that we thought was good enough to win today [but] Sato was very strong and he really dominated."
With Hunter-Reay confirmed out and AJ Allmendinger parked on the roadside at turn 5 with a broken gearbox, it had been a costly few minutes for some of the series; biggest names. The top three were unchanged by all the incidents - Sato still led Rahal and Franchitti at the restart with Wilson now in fourth ahead of Kanaan and Servià. Kanaan was the only driver facing the final stint on the black tyres, making them harder-wearing but also less grippy in the early laps.
The green came out on lap 56 with Charlie Kimball making an astonishing play for the lead from deep in the pack, but predictably it ended up in the tyres at turn 1. Fortunately Kimball was able to reverse out and get back underway without forcing the race back under yellow, although a trip to pit lane was needed to sort out the damage to the #83.
There were pitched battles right through the field over the ensuing laps, with Simon Pagenaud's left rear damaged by Marco Andretti as the two tangled over seventh place, Sebastien Bourdais falling from 11th 18th at the back of the lead lap after needing to take to the run-off, while at the front Dario Franchitti lost another spot this time to Justin Wilson who took over third place on lap 59 making a gain of 21 places on his grid position at the start of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach after being unable to participate in qualifying while the team worked on replacing the rear wing following a practice accident.
"It was a little bit of luck, circumstances and the team did a great job on strategy," Wilson explained later. "We pitted on Lap 5 or 6. Came in and put the reds on. We had plenty of reds because we didn't qualify. We just went out there and pushed hard the entire race."
Sato's lead over Rahal ebbed and flowed during the ensuing laps but he looked solidly in control. Behind Wilson and Franchitti there was a huge 7.5s gap back to Kanaan, as it seemed that the black-wall 'prime tyres were no match for the reds in the concluding laps after all; instead, Kanaan was coming under pressure from Servià behind him in six place and on lap 78 the two tangled into turn 1 leaving Kanaan caught by the tyre wall.
"We had a good race going and I was set for a fifth-place finish until Servia took me out with half a lap to go," said Kanaan. "It's really frustrating ... I was the leading Chevy car out there and it was looking like a good points race for us. I'm really disappointed on how it turned out."
"With two laps to go, I had a run on Tony," explained Servia. "I was on the push to pass, I don't think he saw me coming. I got in his inside and he closed the door. I was there. I cannot disappear!"
Servià initially had 30 seconds added to his final race time for causing the crash, dropping him from sixth to 18th place in the final results - a very costly penalty indeed - but this was rescinded after the team appealed the decision, with Servia vehement that he hadn't been to blame and that the clash didn't merit a penalty.
"It was one of those deals where you both want the same space in the corner so you crash," he said. "I'm angry with him, he's angry with me. That's what happens in racing."
Despite Kanaan's parlous position stuck in the tyre wall, the race director opted to keep the yellows limited to a local caution for just long enough to put Sato onto the final lap. When the full course caution did come out it confirmed Sato's maiden IZOD IndyCar Series victory over Rahal by a nominal 5.3612s, with Wilson in third making it the first all-Honda podium since last June at Detroit.
Team manager Larry Foyt praised Sato's perfect drive while lamenting that his father, motor racing icon AJ Foyt, wasn't able to be present at Long Beach to see the team's first win in almost 11 years as the 78-year-old was at home in Texas preparing to undergo surgery for ongoing problems with sciatica.
"I wish he was here, we hate it because he is definitely our big leader and he is the big boss man. This is for him," said Foyt. "Takuma made it look too easy. It made me so nervous watching it out there. He just drove a flawless race - I've never seen a race like that, just a perfect race. And the car was great, the engineers did a great set up - and what a pit crew!"
AJ's absence didn't dampen the celebrations in victory lane one bit, however, as the team celebrated Sato rewarding Foyt's faith signing him as the team's lead driver. In the process he'd become the first Japanese driver to win a race in the US open wheel series. "Just fantastic," said Sato afterwards. "An incredible feeling ... Put it this way, it was an easy win," he added, praising the car which had been perfect to drive all afternoon.
"It was just a perfect weekend to be honest. The team did a tremendous job. Pit stops, right calls, the power was great and I was comfortable in the car and able to push everything," he added.
Previously runner up at Edmonton in 2012, Sato has also come tantalisingly close to winning in 2011 at Sao Paulo and memorably last year in the Indy 500 when he wrecked at the start of the final lap while challenging Dario Franchitti for the lead. As luck happens these are the next two venues on the calendar over the coming month.
Having now made his breakthrough maiden win, and with Sato on the sort of dominating form he displayed at Long Beach, it wouldn't be much of a shock at all if this ended up being just the first of a run of strong results from the 36-year-old in 2013.Full race results
and championship standings