There is a story about the career path of Takuma Sato that says he needs two years to succeed in a series; the first year will consist of a lot of crashes as he goes over the limit of his car to find it, and the second year he will take the lessons learnt and dominate. This is unlikely to happen in Formula One, but considering his undoubted speed the other drivers have good reason to look over their shoulders. Sato has always had a keen interest in cycling, and as a youth he dreamt of success on two wheels. His first taste of karting changed that, and he scraped together the money to buy his first kart. In 1997 he was the karting champion in Honda's Suzuka Racing School Scholarship and was handed the prize of a fully paid season in the Japanese Formula Three Championship. He chose not to accept it, turning his attention instead towards Europe.
In 1998 Sato contested in the Formula Vauxhall Junior series, moving up during the year to Formula Opel with Diamond Racing. He split the following year between the Opel series and, later, the Scholarship Class in British Formula Three, running competitively in both series. He also took his first win in Macau that year, in the support race.
For 2000 Sato moved up to the A Class of Formula Three with Carlin Motorsports, claiming five wins and third in the championship in a wild learning season. Formula One teams took note, and he had his first tests with Jordan and BAR that year before signing as test driver for the latter at the behest of engine supplier Honda.
Sato demolished the competition the following year, taking twelve of a possible thirteen wins along the way to his F3 title, the highest number of wins ever in the series. He also grabbed wins at the Marlboro Masters in Zandvoort and both races at the Macau Grand Prix. Honda seemed to finally have what they were looking for after so long; a Japanese driver who could make it to the top flight on pure ability rather than financial support.
Jordan snapped him up for a race drive in 2002, and it was a dramatic season. Sato seemed unable to come to terms with teammate Giancarlo Fisichella's speed, and had a number of off-track adventures in pursuit of his quick colleague. Sato refined his approach over the season before claiming his first points finish at the season closer in Japan with a fine fifth place, and then returned to BAR for the following year.
Sato spent 2003 as the team's third driver, working closely on development with the BAR and Honda engineers, developing the car and looking for improvements. His hard work was rewarded with a race drive for 2004, with an early appearance at the end of the year in Japan, replacing Jacques Villeneuve who didn't show up. Sato proved his worth by claiming a hard won sixth place.
DC: You were the test driver last year and have been involved in the team's programme for some time; what do you think has been most noticeable about their improvement over this time?
Takuma Sato: "I think there is continuous work. BAR Honda has a structure since David Richards came, and he made it a new structure for the team and built it up. Basically the last year was the first year that they planned it and did an action as a first year, and I think they did it quite well. Technically Honda's commitment has improved every year, and instead of them developing themselves like BAR and Honda (separately) and choosing what is the best, with the restriction of time and energy it is better to have the one (together). So Honda and BAR have come together and developed the one thing, and it's a lot better I think."
DC: There has been a noticeable improvement in that; in previous years Honda and BAR seemed fairly far apart, and it has certainly improved last year and this year. How has that come about?
TS: "I think from BAR's point of view as a very newish team they didn't have a historical way to do it; so it's more being open minded and prepared to try new things. And Honda's got a very successful past, although it was ten, fifteen years ago, and as a third generation Honda's return to Formula One was not only as an engine manufacturer but also trying to develop the car as well, and that's very different. And obviously BAR and Honda has the same philosophy to do some new type of work in Formula One. I think it does take a little bit of time, and that was it over the last two years."
DC: How much of an improvement have you seen in the team since you joined them?
TS: "It's quite significant actually, because in the last year I have been involved in development programme, so I can see how significant the development has been, and that was a fantastic experience for me. But also for me I only did my first year in Jordan, and that was a great season but we didn't have a great test time because they hardly ever did any testing after the first few races. So to be honest I don't know; I've never been to a different team to test, but I think all I can say is obviously the BAR Honda development work is continuously working; that's quite a strong point. This year, as I said, instead of the two development programmes we do one, and that's quite significant."
DC: Jordan ran a Honda engine during your time there; what is the most significant difference between the two teams while you've been there?
TS: "Circumstances are quite, quite different really; as Jordan is a very little private team. Basically Eddie Jordan gave me a great opportunity to drive a Formula One car, and he chose me as a Grand Prix driver and we had a really great season, but basically Honda wasn't involved in the chassis development on the Jordan at that time, and with BAR they do, so it's very different basis. And now Honda is only with one team, so they can try anything they want, and that makes a huge difference on testing and development leads."
DC: How much of an impact do you think you've had on the development of this year's car?
TS: "I think that's one thing it is better to ask Geoff, because he is the man who knows this, but I could say to you that I had a big involvement in the development of the gearbox on last year's car, with internal gears, changings and everything, based on Honda's development programme in a package with engine development. Honda developed this package, and I was involved in it, and every time I tested it, it was better and better.
"Unfortunately we couldn't use that stuff on last year's car; it was all ready to go on the last race, but we couldn't because it didn't have enough testing. And then obviously having a new car with that gearbox on it I'm very pleased, because you can see how it developed, and now I'm using it on the racing stuff and that was quite big. Also I think Honda is looking into the suspension geometry as well, and that's quite handy because changing from Bridgestone to Michelin we had to redesign the suspension, which means a lot of time in the races, which I think helps."
DC: You did a lot of testing in winter; when you were doing that how did you compare yourselves with the other teams, which is very difficult to do, and how do you compare yourselves to them now that you've raced?
TS: "Well the team is obviously looking at the other teams to see what they are doing, but you never know the true answer. Obviously from a driver's point of view you just concentrate on your development programme, not looking at the other side, only looking at the front with the engineers at the programme you make and how you achieve that programme. So I didn't really see the others."
DC: So where do you see yourself this year? What are your aims?
TS: "Basically my ambition is the same as the team's ambition; challenging the top teams and finishing in the top four of the Constructors' Championship. But to be able to do that basically you need a podium finish and constantly score the points, and that's what my goal is; just get a podium throughout the season at some stage, and of course the earlier the better. If I could do it, that would be very good, and obviously I've never been on the podium (in Formula One) so it would be very nice to have that!"