Rahal-Sato Comments a Good Story, Taku a Good Bet

For me, the most intriguing story of the 2024 Indy 500 has been Graham Rahal’s comments about his one-off, hired gun teammate Takuma “Taku” Sato’s engine. “Takuma, he’s got a hell of an engine, man,” Motorsport.com quotes Graham as saying.

While any pool of engines that are supposed to be identical can see some variation, it’s the kind of thing that is more often talked about regarding, say, Vance and Hines NHRA Suzuki normally aspirated engines than Honda Racing Corporation (HRC) IndyCar motors. I don’t remember this ever being a topic in the current turbo V6 era.

Japanese driver Sato is quite sensitive to any suggestion that he’s favored by supplier Honda and replied to me quite clearly about his teammate’s suggestion. “That bullshit!” said Sato, who claimed that his set-up was the difference.

“That’s not true,” Rahal said when quoted Sato’s set-up claim. “Takuma’s set-up is not why he’s fast.”

RLL teammate Christian Lundgaard proposed that Sato’s advantage (almost 3 mph qualifying average) may lie in his cajones. “He’s committed. Taku just sends it!” said Lundgaard.

I was hoping to ask Rahal to clarify how he thought Sato’s engine achieved this result. Did he think it was somehow mechanically superior? Did he think Honda’s engineers had loaded special mapping into Sato’s ECU? The Rahal-Letterman-Lanigan (RLL) PR director witnessed my exchange with Sato and seemed to block me from allowing Graham the chance to elaborate.

Sato stressed that his set-up is available to everyone on the team. Had he had the opportunity to talk further, Rahal might have noted that the vast differences in physical size between himself and jockey-like Sato made shared set-ups a non-starter, let alone differences in driving style style and preference.

In this audip clip, Sato talks about setting his car up solely for qualifying, what he needs to do to fix it for raceday, the perception of oddsmakers and others on his ranking, and the assertion that his motor is special. Rahal talks about set-ups not being the difference and defends his team’s performance.

Sato’s engine may or may not be an anomaly, but his results in the Indianapolis 500 certainly have been. He is one of only 20 drivers to have won more than once (2017 and 2020) in the 107-race history of the event. He nearly won a third in 2012 when a last lap, checkers or wreckers “commitment” put him in the wall to cap off a thrilling duel between himself and winner Dario Franchitti. He also finished third in 2019. He clearly has a knack for setting up his car up during the race to be one of the three or so cars that are capable of winning in any late race shootout situation.

Making his Indy record more remarkable is the number of teams Sato has achieved these results with. They include RLL in 2012 and again in 2018-21. He won with Andretti Autosport in 2017, and also drove Indy for A.J. Foyt and KV Racing. He gets this place in ways that a select few of his contemporaries do.

It’s not just his teammate that doesn’t grasp a connection between Sato’s skills and his results, media and oddsmakers have similar shortcomings. Sato was on the outside of the front row in 2020, but his odds were—if I remember correctly—+1700 on a popular betting site. I thought to myself that he must have said bad things about his car on Carb Day, so I looked online for quotes. No, he loved his car. He won and paid off big.

This year, Sato is qualified 11th at 232.171 mph and, as I write, sits at +2500. In the Thursday press conferences, he wasn’t happy with his car’s performance in traffic in the Monday session after spending all of his practice time on qualifying trim. He stressed making the car more race-friendly was something to work on during the two-hour Carb Day session.

During that session, Hondas in general showed themselves to be far racier than they did in qualifying. Sato was 14th overall on the Carb Day speed charts.

He’s showed himself repeatedly capable of working to get his car one of the few capable of winning at the end of 500 miles at Indianapolis. Will he do that again this year? Hard to tell, but at +2500 he’s certainly worth considering.

story, photos and audio by Tim Hailey

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