Takuma Sato talks oval track racing

Takuma Sato

Joining A.J. Foyt’s ABC Supply Racing team this year, Takuma Sato’s first sponsor ‘obligation’ was a seven-day cruise in the Caribbean aboard Holland-America’s ‘Eurodam’ which ABC Supply chartered in January. While at sea, the ex-Formula 1 driver sat down for an interview that covered a wide range of topics. We found his thoughts on oval track racing insightful and appropriate to share now as we head to Texas Motor Speedway, the only 1.5-mile banked superspeedway on the IZOD IndyCar schedule.

Sato’s first experience with ovals was the 1.5-mile Kansas Speedway in 2010. That year he ran four 1.5-mile tracks: Kansas, Texas, Chicago, Miami-Homestead, three of which are no longer part of the IndyCar Series. The Firestone 550 at TMS will be Sato’s 22nd IndyCar race on an oval track. In his six starts this year, he has one victory (Long Beach Grand Prix), a 2nd place finish in Brazil and another top-10 in St. Petersburg. He is currently sixth in the standings.

How big was the adjustment for you to drive on oval tracks?
“I went with a clean sheet of paper; there were tons of things I had to learn and things I would have to adapt to for oval track racing. Not hugely different because at the end of the day you still have to work with four tires and make the most of it. It’s a different kind of driving, going into the corners, especially if you follow someone, the way you position yourself is extremely delicate for the airflow. Then you have to time it right to get back on the gas because you’re traveling at such high speeds–over 200mph. The car doesn’t really accelerate well at speed even with massive power because we’re hitting terminal velocity with the air. The car accelerates really slowly which is why when you lift a little bit, you decelerate so much that it takes a long time to get back up to speed… in some cases it needs a lap.

“In a normal road course, from corner to corner you accelerate from second gear to top gear within seconds then braking into the next corner, but on the oval you don’t do that. You just try to keep a good momentum and be positioned where you need to be in traffic; it’s important to work a very fine line for the air rather than the ultimate racing line. Then you’re talking about balance for the understeer and oversteer. The real oversteer is never going to work on an oval because you just can’t have it—you don’t counter-steer on ovals. Well, occasionally you might have to because you need to catch it. On the road course there are a lot of corrections, so the driver wants a neutral car (not too much over or understeer) so you have your own reference. When you go to the oval, that reference has to be shifted quite a lot because having real actual oversteer on an oval is impossible, I mean it’s a nightmare. It’s a little scary but more importantly, you don’t go fast at all. You scrub too much speed—and that is happening when you have understeer too. Everything has to be traction. People easily misunderstand that. For example if you want to go fast, you usually reduce the downforce to take off the drag, but if you take off too much drag, you go slow because you start to slide. It’s all about the balance and it’s just a real fine line. That’s the thing in IndyCar on oval that is so great–and so difficult!

“With the ovals, there is more weight on the engineering but it’s great because usually on the road course you have to find the good trade-off point; you’ll never be perfect in individual corners because we have 10-15 different corners so it’s a compromise. But with the oval there is almost no compromise. You have to be perfect-well not perfect–but closer to perfect. Because the speed range between corners is similar, you can target very specifically how the car is working aerodynamically. You don’t have to cover from a 40mph hairpin to a 150mph corner—the oval has only two corners or four corners in a lap and the speed range is 170-210mph plus you only turn left! You play with the anti-roll bars front and rear, and the weight-jacker to move around which corner (tire) you want to work hard for adjusting the balance of the car. And you’re doing it constantly because the car is changing all the time with the tire wear, changing track conditions and you’re using the fuel, so the balance is changing–very lightly but it’s changing all the time. Since the car needs to be near perfect on the oval, the driver has to adjust it quite a lot, which is good fun."

Your first oval race was in Kansas, was there a lot of side-by-side racing?
“There was quite a lot, it was great but it was such a windy day, you couldn’t go flat all the time so you had to actually drive it hard. But the car worked really well…I qualified 11th but nearly went to the very end of a cue in a few laps because I wasn’t used to it and didn’t know what to do. But I moved up quite quickly and I started to get the taste of the feeling of oval racing. It was amazing because the speed was so fast and the sensation of going through the banking was great by yourself, but when you were racing with other drivers in a pack, it was just so different. You had to figure out how to set up to go into the corner because depending on your position, you get so many different feelings because of the turbulence so I had to learn and just figure out how to do it."

Did you do that in practice?
“I did a little bit, but not a lot. It was really in the race but it was good, really good—I enjoyed it. I think the car was good and my engineer Garrett gave me a car that was not very much an oval car because with a special oval setup, the car tends to turn in by itself but that means the driver has to know how to drive the car with experience. Because I didn’t have the experience, he set up the car so that I really needed to turn in like I was driving on a road course going into a high speed corner. So it wasn’t necessarily the quickest physically (optimal setup) but it was a great way for me to learn how to race on an oval and how the car is working on an oval. So KV Racing was a perfect team for me to learn the whole process. I actually enjoyed my first oval race which is very important."

A.J. Foyt said he rarely had a race when he didn’t ‘thrill the hell out of himself’. Do you feel fear in a race car?
“Yes, of course, all the time. You’re traveling too fast! (laughs) As a human being I do, but at the same time, it’s great excitement too. And the excitement and determination always overcomes the fear that is part of racing. Usually when you feel fear, it’s that time when you cannot see the future. Now it sounds strange, but what I’m trying to say is that people feel fear because they don’t know what’s going on. If you know the future, you’re not scared because you can prepare. If you have the car under control, and you are controlling the car really well, you don’t feel fear even if you’re sliding at over 200mph because you know you can control it or catch it. But if you’re not happy with the car balance, then you don’t know what’s going on, and you feel really bad. Or if it is raining, and you can’t see because of the water splashing, then you feel fear a lot. That’s why if you’re comfortable, you really enjoy the racing. You have to be comfortable. But at same time, physically, you know how fast you’re traveling, and the energy of this is so big, that yes, I do feel fear."

What do you love most about racing?
“Winning…and being fast."

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