Are we about to say sayonara to Sato? 06 Oct 2005
Will this weekend's Grand Prix be the last Formula One race in Japan for Takuma Sato? Things have certainly not been going well for him recently - after suffering a miserable season it's been confirmed that he won't be racing for BAR next year, despite Honda's buyout of the team. So what might the future hold?
Whatever happens between now and the start of next season, Satos place in the Formula One record books as the most successful driver ever to hail from Japan is assured - for now at least. Not only has he visited the podium (with third place at the 2004 United States Grand Prix) but he's also proved his unarguable pace with several strong qualifying positions, including P2 at last year's European Grand Prix, making him the first Japanese driver to start from the front row of the grid.
So where did it all go wrong? Sato scored 34 points last season, putting him eighth in the drivers' championship - a commendable performance, even before you take several unlucky mechanical failures into account. Many anticipated that 2005 would be his breakthrough season. Instead of which, with two races to go, he's languishing all the way down in joint 23rd position in the drivers' table, having scored just a single point. In contrast, BAR team mate Jenson Button is ninth, on 32.
Sato's natural pace has never been in doubt. Indeed, many reckon that in the right car on the right lap he's right up there with the best. He certainly isn't the journeyman driver many previous Japanese pilots were seen as. Having started racing relatively late he proved himself in British Formula 3 (third in the 2000 championship, victor in 2001) - and after graduating to a seat with Jordan in 2002 he managed a strong drive to a well-deserved maiden points finish at Suzuka, to the delight of the Japanese fans.
Many believe his biggest problem has been an inconsistent driving style - which has led him into some pretty spectacular accidents - but it must also be said hes had a distinct lack of the sort of luck necessary to make a successful Formula One career. It sometimes must have felt to Sato that everything that could go wrong, did - like last season when the poor reliability of his Honda V10 engine gave him a string of DNFs, or this year when a bout of illness forced him to miss the Malaysian Grand Prix. BAR's disqualification from two races for fuel tank irregularities denied him even more race time.
Yet there's a feeling among many in the paddock that Sato has been the author of his own misfortune, especially after his miserable 2005 season. Team mate Button has proved far more capable of driving around problems when BAR have struggled for pace, consistently out-performing Sato in both qualifying and race performance. And after he was told by the team to up his game or risk losing his seat, Sato endured a 10 position grid penalty in Turkey after he was adjudged to have disrupted Mark Webber's qualifying lap. He was then handed an identical penalty for Brazil after stewards deemed him responsible for taking Michael Schumacher (and himself) out of the Belgian Grand Prix.
Sato has already ruled out a testing role for BAR - but don't be surprised if his Formula One career isn't over quite yet. Japan has an enormous desire to create a Formula One star and thanks to his countrys passionate love for the sport, Sato probably has more fans than any other driver in the paddock with the exception of Michael Schumacher.
There has already been talk of a 2006 seat with Jordan, soon to become Midland, though their Toyota connections could conflict with Satos Honda history. But that is only one of numerous rumours doing the rounds. As the Japanese Grand Prix weekend commences in Suzuka, speculation over Satos future is reaching fever pitch. We, like his fans, await the outcome with interest.