Takuma Sato - Japan's rising son 05 Oct 2004
Many drivers can expect a warm welcome from spectators at their home Grand Prix. But, with the possible exception of Michael Schumacher at Hockenheim, no driver engenders quite such a passionate response as Takuma Sato, whose fans will be packing out the Suzuka circuit this weekend to see their hero in action.
For all its undoubted love of the sport of Formula One racing, Japan has yet to produce a truly world class driver - a role that many hope Sato will mature into. It's already clear that, unlike many of the Japanese who have previously tried to break into the sport, Sato is a real, unarguable talent. His vast natural pace and keen instincts as a racer have seen him produce some impressive performances this year, including putting his BAR onto second spot of the grid at the European Grand Prix (team mate Jenson Button was fifth), and also driving to his first ever podium with a third place at the United States Grand Prix.
Not that it has been easy, of course. Sato has suffered a run of disastrous luck with the Honda engines of his BAR, suffering from no fewer than four failures this season. His racecraft has also sometimes let him down, his more forceful overtaking attempts earning him a reputation for excessive aggression. That said, it is clear that he has matured throughout the season, and his sensational drive from 18th on the grid to an eventual sixth place finish at the inaugural Chinese Grand Prix was a remarkable achievement (especially contrasted with Michael Schumacher's disastrous race from the back of the grid.) it is known that the BAR team rates him very highly, and he is certainly not regarded as being a 'politically necessary' driver, as several previous Japanese Formula One hopefuls were.
Sato's hopes will be high for a very strong performance this weekend. Suzuka is definitely 'his' circuit. He is a graduate of the Honda racing school run there and has put in several of his best performances on the technically challenging track. He took his first ever Formula One points there back in 2002 when he drove his Jordan to a brilliant fifth place finish. In 2003 Sato had become BAR's test driver, and the only race he drove all season was at Suzuka, standing in for Jacques Villeneuve. To the delight of the home crowd he finished in sixth place.
Hopes are equally high for this weekend, and Sato knows that he has everything still to play for. If Jenson Button does not race for BAR next season then the young Japanese driver is in a very strong position to find himself in the team's number one spot. And however things pan out, there are few in the paddock who would be surprised if Sato becomes the first man from Japan to score a Formula One win.