Born on January 28th, 1977, Takuma Sato is a Japanese driver closely associated with Honda through their engine partnerships and teams.
Sato began racing not in karts or lower formulae, but instead the small Japanese driver started out on bikes, winning several junior championships on two wheels. It wasn’t until Sato was nineteen that he first sat in a kart and raced under a power not of his own. Considering the very late stage at which Sato started out in motor sport, his rise through the ranks is actually quite impressive. Initially, Sato drove at the Suzuka Racing School, located at the famous Honda-owned track in Japan. By 1998 Takuma realised he had strong abilities at racing and signed a contract to drive for the Mugen-Dome project in the All-Japan Formula Three Championship. However, partway through the season Takuma left the series, breaking his contract, and headed for Europe to pursue his career further.
From 1999 to 2001, Sato was racing in British Formula Three and doing well. He manged to finish third in the title tables in 2000 and impressively took the crown in 2001. His performance in this lower series earned him respect from then Jordan owner Eddie Jordan, and Takuma was signed to the Anglo-Irish squad.
At the time, Jordan were powered by Honda, although the results the team were producing appeared to be in a decline. Takuma was partnered with returnee Giancarlo Fisichella, an experienced and fast driver from Italy. His first year in Formula One was difficult and Sato gained a reputation of a non-finisher. Then at the Austrian Grand Prix Sato had a serious accident when Nick Heidfeld lost control of his Sauber and hit the side of Sato’s Jordan, piercing the monocoque and trapping Takuma in the car. He suffered minor concussion and returned for the next race, and by the end of the year had collected his first points in Formula One, in front of his adoring fans at the Japanese Grand Prix.
He couldn’t shake his reputation though, and for 2003 he moved the BAR Honda team as a test driver after Honda themselves left Jordan. Following the engine manufacturer was a wise move for Sato, and although it would mean not racing for a while, he was able to further hone his skills with the well-funded team.
Towards the end of the season Jacques Villeneuve was causing unrest in the team and the squad decided to replace him with Sato at the very last round in Japan. Again, Takuma would get a chance to race in front of his home crowd, and again he delivered scoring three world championship points for sixth place.
With Jacques Villeneuve out of the picture and Jenson Button settling in to the team well Takuma Sato was promoted to the race seat for 2004. The Japanese driver embraced the team and considering his time spent away from the circuits was able to get back into his groove well. The car was good and they found themselves being better than just about every team aside from the all-dominant Ferrari. Button was regularly on the podium and Sato was never too far behind. At the United States Grand Prix Sato became the second driver to step on to a Formula One podium after Aguri Suzuki managed the feat in 1990.
The rumours surrounding Sato’s driving style failed to disappear though, and his points tally at the end of the season was not close to Button’s due to the vast amount of engine failures the Japanese driver suffered. Jenson Button seemed to have better luck with his engines though, and this led to suggestions that Sato was too aggressive with his car. It was also rumoured that Honda were trying out new parts on Sato’s car so as not to damage Button’s chances. Both rumours were unfounded, but refused to go away none-the-less.
After the high of finishing second in the 2004 constructors title, the following year would bring the team back down to earth with a very large bump. The car was simply not good enough and BAR struggled, as did both drivers. Sato missed the Malaysian Grand Prix due to illness, and then the team was disqualified from the San Marino Grand Prix and banned for a further two races after it was found they had breached the regulations, albeit non-deliberately.
When the team returned to the grid at the Nurburgring, morale was low and the results still did not materialise. From 34 points in 2004, Sato scored just one in 2005. By the end of the season it had been announced that Honda were purchasing the squad and making it into a works team for the engine manufacturer; Sato was let go, sort of.
Wanting to turn the fortunes of Honda around, it was decided to acquire the talents of Ferrari refugee Rubens Barrichello. His experience and expertise would be a valuable asset to an improving Honda team and his likeable personality sat well with Honda. This meant that Takuma would be demoted to a testing role at minimum though, something the Japanese manufacturer were unhappy about.
However, former driver Aguri Suzuki was in the process of setting up a new Formula One team, and with backing from Honda through their engines and engineers, Super Aguri were thrown together just in time for the 2006 season, complete with Sato in the cockpit.
As with any new team, expectations were low and the team were basing their car from 2002 Arrows chassis they had acquired from then Minardi boss Paul Stoddart. Sato however drove admirably and although no points were rewarded, he comfortably outpaced all his team mates during the year, first Yuji Ide, then Franck Montagny and finally Sakon Yamamoto.
Staying with the squad for 2007 and the promise of being able to run last years Honda chassis, things really started to look up for Super Aguri. This time he was partnered with Honda test driver Anthony Davidson, a widely respected driver among the paddock and familiar with the Honda set up.
Pre-season testing raised eyebrows up and down the pitlane, and although there was controversy over using another teams chassis, the team still went racing and shone throughout the year. Honda had developed a poor descendant to the RA106, now resting in Aguri’s hands, and the new team were, in general, outpacing the works squad.
At the Spanish Grand Prix, Sato finished in eighth, recording the teams first ever point and placing the team above Honda in the constructors tables. At the Canadian Grand Prix, Sato finished in a magnificent sixth, adding a further three points to his haul and further embarrassing the works team. Takuma drove brilliantly during the Canadian event and passed Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari, Ralf Schumacher’s Toyota and Fernando Alonso’s McLaren; it was Super Aguri’s shining moment. Takuma also only retired a total of three times, finally paying an end to his reputation of a non-finisher.