“I’ve never washed the milk bottle since!”
Takuma Sato is the racing driver who never ages. It’s 15 years since he was in Formula 1 and yet now at the age of 46 he’s certainly not slowing down any time soon.
In this the most important month on the American motorsport calendar - meaning it’s Indianapolis 500 time - Takuma will be lining up again and on the hunt for victory.
“I think the magnitude of the Indy 500 is that you just never imagine it until you’ve actually experienced it. It’s the pinnacle but not just from the pure competition side. It's a whole story where you need some luck as well as knowing that 500 miles can end up being split by a couple of tenths and that’s just amazing.”
It’s a race that he’s won not just once but twice, the first time in 2017 at the 101st running of the event when he beat Hélio Castroneves by just 0.2011 seconds, a day that was very memorable in more ways than one.
“When I was taking the checkered flag I was actually screaming through the radio. Usually when you’ve had a great day, or even if it's not, you just radio the team thanking them. So usually I'm thanking them because I feel like that way too, however, neither Japanese or English language came out of my mouth. I couldn't say anything, all I did was just scream, it was just a moment and I’d forgotten that my radio was on and so broadcast everywhere which I hadn’t known about.
Then you're driving back but mentally you are just somewhere else and then heading down victory lane but that’s when you realise that it’s your dream come true. It felt like my body was with somebody else because after that, you’re doing five hours of all the satellite interviews and all the press conferences and the next time I actually changed out of my race suit was hours later.”
The Indy 500 is synonymous with the winning driver heading into victory lane and then drinking the famous bottle of milk, something which Takuma has fond memories of.
“The taste of the milk was just the best. It's completely organic milk but filtered quite a few times, so I call it special milk as it doesn’t even smell, which is amazing. After five hours of being in my race suit after my win, having had milk poured over me, it was completely dry. I kept the milk bottle too and I’ve never washed it and it’s just simply frosted white like a powder.”
In 2020 the COVID pandemic had hit and although he took another victory, not only were the last four laps run under caution due to debris being cleared from a Spencer Pigot crash, but there was an altogether different atmosphere at the famous oval.
“I think everybody wants to see us going to the finish line flat out but I think each win is equally valued of course, particularly for the team, sponsors and fans.
At the venue there’s usually 350,000 people and there was virtually nobody there as spectators weren’t allowed in so it was a completely grey, quiet stand. Even when I was punching the air as I crossed the line, there was nobody to cheer, but I was glad knowing that millions of people were watching through the TV, safely at home.”
Having signed up with the legendary Chip Ganassi Racing to do the oval races this year in IndyCar, the iconic Turn One at the brickyard is just mind-blowing not only to the fans but drivers too and it’s interesting that even the best Formula One drivers in the world can be blown away by it, as Fernando Alonso, who skipped the Monaco Grand Prix to race at Indy, found out in 2017.
“It's a great feeling although it’s a little bit scary. Fernando Alonso is one of the best drivers in the world but the power and the downforce is nothing like in F1.
When you go flat you need some kind of commitment as you’re approaching the corner at over 235 miles per hour but even he had to lift the throttle because the speed you’re getting into turn one is nothing like it and add in 4.5 to 5G for every single corner makes it so much greater than F1. You get the sensation, the speed, you can see the corner radius, but when you actually approach it, it almost feels like a 90 degree corner.”
With the countdown on to this year’s Indy 500, Takuma knows that when it comes to the race there are so many different factors that have to come together to get the win and although his approach for this will be slightly different compared to 2017, what matters is the final two stints of the race.
"Imagine for about two and a half hours during the race with the cars pounding around all the time, with the conditions changing dramatically, not just ambient temperature and track temperature and the wind direction, but also the track itself. The car is completely different from the start of the race to the finish.
Hopefully I don't need really good luck, but just to make sure there is no bad luck and just try to avoid any risky moments because you have to be there at around lap 200. You have to manage all the things; getting comfortable, going through the traffic, managing the turbulence in the car - a single car, two cars, or ten cars in front of you. With all of these things the turbulence is dramatically different so you have to process it all.
For the final ten laps if you’re in positions 1, 2, 3, then you have a shot to be able to challenge for the win. So that's kind of the mentality; it should be exactly the same as in 2017 but now I’m more experienced I think I can probably manage even better than the past two wins. Hopefully!”
After adding his name into the history books as the first Japanese driver to win the prestigious race, which was massive news in his country as his victory was broadcast across the daily news both morning and evening, he was also really proud to be a part of the Honda family to achieve his incredible Indy 500 victories because the company has played a massive part in his racing career, even at home too with his father owning Honda cars.
After having gone to watch the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka as a young boy, he was a big fan of motor racing and although cycling took him away from motorsport - he was a national cycling champion - it wasn’t until he was 20 years old that the Honda Racing School set him on the path to an illustrious career.
“I’m still a part of Honda and it has been an absolute privilege working with every single person at the company during my career, you know they have a passion, they have a dream, and they make it happen all the time.”
Which is exactly what sums up Takuma Sato, he had a passion, he had dreams and he made it happen…and continues to do so.