LONG BEACH-Great things do come in small packages after all. The main event of the 39th Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach proved as much. The IZOD IndyCar Series race also included a bit of historical footnote to boot. Takuma Sato, the only Japanese driver competing in the IndyCar Series circuit in 2013, made history when he won the IZOD IndyCar Series race, leading a quadruple finish of Honda-driven cars claiming the top four spots.
“I mean, first of all thanking to everyone for support,” Sato said. “It’s (a) fantastic day. I mean, tremendous work from the team the whole winter. The first two races we show it’s (a) great performance. Unfortunately we had little issues during the race. Not many people noticed that. But I think we show the good speed. I mean, today, this weekend, there was no mistake, nothing. And the quality performance from the team, working with the boys and the engineers, and today was just perfect. The car was so fun to drive.
“I could manage both sets of tires, black and red, working on the way to us. The restarts, I had to be really cautious, especially the last one. But then we get our way with that. A couple of the restarts were very good. I had to push so hard because I had the black tire; all surrounding me had the alternate tire. I knew from last year the black tire was a little risky, but it could work really well if you can hang on to the top three, which we did.”
Honda-driven cars took seven of the top 12 spots in the race that saw Dario Franchitti (Target Chip Ganassi Racing) lead most of the way during the 80-lap race, only to falter and finish fourth. What also was proven in Sato’s unforeseen upset victory was that the IndyCar Series is going to be extremely competitive moving forward and all the way to the last race in October.
The next IZOD IndyCar Series race will be on the streets of Sao Paulo, Brazil on May 5. After Sunday’s race, Sato was second in the IndyCar Series standings with 93 points, trailing Team Penske driver Helio Castroneves, who have accumulated 99 points.
Castroneves finished 10th and picked up 20 points to sit atop the IndyCar Series standings. Sato, on the other hand, picked up a monstrous 53 points with his win to elevate to the second spot.
To say the least, it was a great day for Sato and the A.J. Foyt Enterprises racing team. Sato’s win, as it turns out, is the first street victory by the racing team since A.J. Foyt himself climbed the winner’s circle at Silverstone 35 years ago.
Larry Foyt, director of A.J. Foyt Enterprises, said Sato’s impact was felt immediately.
“It was really kind of immediate when Takuma came in,” Foyt said. “We knew he was fast. Until you really know somebody, you don’t know how you’re going to work together and how it’s going to be. It was great our first working relationship was a seven-day Caribbean cruise. We’ve been good friends ever since. It was great.
“I really think between our chief engineer Don Halliday and Takuma, there was a lot of trust there, which you have to have. It’s been great. Like Takuma said, the speed has been there. Little issues can always bite you. Our junior engineer kept telling us we don’t have to be the biggest team to win. There can be positives to being a smaller team and a tight-knit group.”
The race itself was interesting as it showed that a driver accustomed to being on top does not carry carte blanche into any one race. It also furthered demonstrated that the little guys may be sneaking up on the big boys being able to compete at the elite level. Drivers who used to dominate the Long Beach course had a pretty disastrous afternoon.
Will Power, the 2008 and 2012 champ of the Long Beach IndyCar race, mustered only a 16th place finish out of the 27 spots in the field. Sebastien Bourdais (Dragon Racing), who went on a three-year Grand Prix of Long Beach win-tear from 2005 to 2008, faired just one place better than Power, locking up the 15th spot in the race with his Chevrolet-power vehicle.
For Ryan Hunter-Reay (Andretti Autosport DHL Chevrolet) and Mike Conway (Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing), the 2010 and 2011 winners, respectively, the day turned out to be one to put in the rearview mirror. Neither man completed the 80-lap race. Hunter-Rey took in 49 laps before calling it a day to lay claim to the 24th spot.
Conway managed just 38 laps with his Honda engine car to finish two spots from last place in a nightmarish performance.
“It’s so competitive,” said Graham Rahal, who finished second to Sato. “You look at me. Last week I qualified 21st; today I’m finishing second. It’s so competitive, if you barely miss it that can be 20 spots. So on the points side of it today is extremely important. The last two races, looking at points, man, that is brutal.
“But here we are. I don’t know where we are, but I’m sure this had to help us in ha huge, huge way. As you said, you look again, Hinch (James Hinchcliffe) had a bad day, Hunter-Reay had a bad day. Brazil is a place I love. We’re going to go back and hopefully have a good weekend there.”