Takuma Sato Takes Series Lead Ahead of Indy 500

A second-place finish at the Sao Paolo 300 Sunday has given Japan’s Takuma Sato the lead in the point total of the IndyCar Series heading into the Indianapolis 500.

After becoming the first Japanese ever to win an IndyCar series race last month at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, Sato appeared headed for a second consecutive victory going into the final turn at Sao Paolo’s Anhembi track Sunday. But Canada’s James Hinchcliffe mounted a surprise late challenge and succeeded in taking advantage of the superior traction of his fresh tires to cut into the inside lane just a few hundred yards from the finish line.

Hichcliffe’s charge is reminiscent of Sato’s own, both at last year’s Sao Paolo 300 — in which he charged from 25th place to a 3rd-place finish — and this year’s in which he started in 12th position after failing to advance out of the second round.

“Hinch did a very good job today,” Sato said of his rival’s strong finish. “We didn’t make any mistake at all really. We felt it was a hard, competitive fight. I lost, he won, that’s it. But given the circumstances today, (I’m) very happy for the team, very valuable points.”

Sato is in his first year driving for the A.J. Foyt team which he praised effusively.

“Obviously, the team stuck together,” he said. “Even in the first two races, we had a couple of issues, didn’t quite have the results we wished, but we finished every single race as high as possible. That shows a really perfect race at Long Beach. Today was nearly perfect, too.”

Sunday’s win gives Sato a total of 136 points in the series, 13 points ahead of Marco Andretti of the US who finished third Sunday, 20 points ahead of Brazil’s Helio Castraneves and 24 points ahead of Hinchcliffe.

Sato and his team are carrying strong momentum into the Indianapolis 500 which has been billed as the world’s biggest sporting event, with a stadium seating capacity of over a quarter million. Adding the 400,000 that can be seated in the field, the event easily commands the biggest live audience of any auto race.

“(I’m) really happy with the performance,” he said. “I think (there’s) consistency now, (we are) getting really good rhythm. So hopefully now (we can) carry really good momentum.”

Sato’s solid performance during the first four races of this year has made him the driver to beat on Memorial Day. Some credit his recent surge to the IndyCar’s dramatic change of specs as of 2012. All teams are now required to use the Dallara DW12 chassis which is deemed both safer and more economical than ones commonly used earlier. The engine specs too have been changed from a 3.5-liter V-8 to a 2.2-liter V-6 turbo.

At last last year’s Indianapolis 500 Sato attempted to take the lead from Dario Franchitti going into the final lap. Franchitti appeared to make an illegal block which forced Sato onto the apron where he lost control. A controversial decision allowed Franchitti to claim first place while Sato, unable to finish, came in 17th. At the 2011 Indianapolis 500 Sato finished dead-last (33rd), following a 20th-place finish in 2010.