Focus - Takuma Sato: Japans rising son 03 Dec 2003
Takuma Sato, or 'Taku' to his friends, doesn't instantly strike you as a typical sporting superstar. The five feet three inch Japanese doesn't ooze the bravado of a megastar and, after all, one inconsistent season at Jordan and a year of testing at BAR doesn't turn you into a David Beckham. But in Japan, Sato isn't just a star, he's a phenomenon - so much so that he's said to be worth more to advertisers than the aforementioned England captain. For someone so small, he's absolutely huge.
When BAR held a press conference in Tokyo to officially announce his appointment as Jenson Button's 2004 team-mate, more than 250 journalists crammed in - more than BAR managed for the launch of their 005 in January. When Jacques Villeneuve decided not to race in Japan and Sato was called up, the event suddenly became a 160,000-seat sell-out, the biggest crowd in Suzuka's 16-year F1 history. Right now, nobody in Japan has the same sort of pulling power as Sato, even though he left his homeland five years ago to live in England.
Sato's move to England was helped greatly by his scholarship from the Honda racing school at Suzuka. But ever since winning the scholarship he has been dogged by allegations of favouritism from the manufacturer. While competing in F3, he was BAR Honda's test driver, then he graduated to F1 with Jordan Honda, before moving back to BAR. But the fact of the matter is that Honda and Sato have no contract that binds them together. He is his own man, and despite a difficult first season he is determined to prove that he has been granted his second chance through merit alone.
He took a huge step towards that with his sixth place at the season finale in Japan - his very first Grand Prix for BAR. Racing in front of his home crowd, having replaced a former World Champion, he would have been forgiven for cracking just a touch. But in first qualifying he was faster than his team-mate Button. Over the course of the weekend the Honda engineers reported that the British driver spent more time looking at his telemetry than at any other race this year. The team debriefs were twice as long as usual. Indeed, Button was moved to comment that, "Taku's bloody quick around here - much faster than I expected. I'm having to push hard to stay ahead of him."
Button couldn't get close to Sato's final sector time and it started to bug him. A detailed look at Sato's telemetry however, pinpointed one clear difference between the Japanese and almost every other driver on track. Through 130 R, Sato held it flat - virtually everyone else lifted. When the race came, even Michael Schumacher couldn't find a way past him.
And as Sato crossed the finish line, helping BAR secure fifth place in the Championship, the team didn't so much appear shocked as they did genuinely impressed, and none more so than team boss David Richards and Jacques Villeneuve's former race engineer Jock Clear. A man rarely lost for words, Richards stood quietly, wearing a grin as wide as his new driver's. As the cheers of Sato's adoring fans rang from the stands, Richards, looking like a man who'd just had a huge weight lifted from his shoulders, finally spoke: "I think we have a lot to be excited about for 2004."
(The above is an edited extract from a much longer feature on Takuma Sato. It is available exclusively in the December issue of Formula 1 Magazine.)