INDIANAPOLIS — The long awaited rumor was confirmed on Tuesday when Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Racing announced that two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Takuma Sato won’t be returning to the team for the 2022 NTT IndyCar Series season. That may come to a shock to some and while surprising that it may be that a team would cut ties with the driver who’s won the only four races for them since he rejoined the team in 2018, it all comes down to dollars and cents.
Sato, 44, has long brought Honda’s backing with him. Unfortunately, Honda is still searching for ways to keep funding the Japanese driver here and right now, the prospects of being a full-time driver are growing slimmer by the day. In turn, the deadline to figure out their operation on the RLL side for next season has come and gone. They can’t wait forever. What happens if they wait too long and miss out on someone else?
So, RLL had to make moves and couldn’t make it work to bring Sato back with Honda’s full backing.
All signs are pointing to Jack Harvey landing in the No. 30 Honda now for 2022 and the No. 45 Honda ride coming down to either Santino Ferrucci or Oliver Askew. Word is Hy-Vee is preferring an American driver for that ride and both fit that bill.
As to where Sato could land? His most likely shot is with Dale Coyne Racing. Does Vasser-Sullivan stay on the 18 and figure out a way for Sato to drive there? That’s unlikely I’m hearing. From what I’ve heard, that ride likely goes to either Kyle Kirkwood or David Malukas.
Andretti Autosport isn’t too keen on losing Kirkwood but they don’t have much space for him on the INDYCAR side. Alexander Rossi and Colton Herta return while Romain Grosjean was already announced as the replacement for Ryan Hunter-Reay in the No. 28 Honda. In all likelihood, Devlin DeFrancesco will soon be named the replacement for James Hinchcliffe in the No. 29 Honda.
Kirkwood only brings funding for 3 of the 17 races, so it doesn’t make a ton of sense to bring out a fifth full time car without proper sponsorship for 14 of the 17 races on it. They are looking to piece it together with a part-time role in INDYCAR and other series’ that Andretti is involved in. Then, for 2023, they can bring him up if they lose Rossi to free agency. If not, maybe they can find the funding it takes for a fifth full-time car again since Herta, Grosjean and DeFrancesco’s deals will all be multi-year deals.
If they can’t retain him, then Kirkwood’s most logical fit is with Vasser-Sullivan since he races for them in IMSA too. He can be their flagship driver with the team eyeing going out on their own for 2023. One rumor is Vasser-Sullivan merging with Andretti and keeping Kirkwood that way and Malukas’ team, HMD, moving up to fill that void left from Vasser Sulilvan with Coyne and sliding him into that 18 seat.
Nevertheless, one of the two drivers in Indy Lights this past season will more than likely be in the 18.
Sato would fill the void in the No. 51 Honda with Rick Ware Racing if they can make it work. He’s the favorite to land there and would be a hell of a signing to replace the departing Grosjean. It would also be a big jolt for this team as they’d instantly become an Indy 500 contender next May.
Sato, is searching to join rare company by winning his third ‘500 crown. He just won in 2020 and in fact has won two of the last five years here. What would be wild is if he could win with DCR/RWR’s operation, it would be three wins in six years with three different teams.
The other option is to hop into the No. 52 Honda on a part-time role with DCR/RWR as we know that car will be brought out for select races in 2022. Pietro Fittipaldi did an excellent job in that car for this past year’s Indy 500 as he and Cody Ware split time in that ride for the 2021 season. Sato would be a great fit there.
Other than that, there’s not much left. He’s not going to drive for a Chevrolet team so his options are limited. RLL couldn’t make it work. Andretti is full. Meyer Shank has already expanded to two cars so a third full time car isn’t going to happen. Chip Ganassi Racing could only put Sato in a part-time role if they choose to expand to a fifth car barring Jimmie Johnson going full-time. If he doesn’t, then the only time they’ll go to a fifth entry is for Tony Kanaan in the Indy 500. Past that, Kanaan will drive the 48 in Texas, World Wide Technology Raceway and Iowa with the fifth car parked. If Johnson goes full-time, then a Sato/Kanaan pairing would make the most sense so long as Sebastien Bourdais doesn’t slide into that option. Bourdais, will slide over to CGR on their IMSA program but he can run most races. The ones he couldn’t?
Texas, Long Beach, Barber, Indianapolis road course, Belle Isle, Mid-Ohio, Toronto and Nashville. The thing is, we know a charter is going to take teams and drivers between Texas and Sebring. Long Beach and Belle Isle are IMSA/INDYCAR shared weekend. So in all reality, Barber, Indy road course, Mid-Ohio, Toronto and Nashville are his main conflicts. Maybe that’s where Sato slides in.
That fifth Ganassi car could be:
St. Pete – Bourdais
Texas – Kanaan (If Johnson is full time) or Sato
Long Beach – Bourdais
Barber – Sato
Indy Road Course – Sato
Indy 500 – Kanaan
Belle Isle – Bourdais
Road America – Bourdais
Mid-Ohio – Sato
Toronto – Sato
Iowa – Kanaan (If Johnson isn’t full-time) or Sato
Indy Road Course – Bourdais
Nashville – Sato
Gateway – Kanaan (If Johnson isn’t full-time) or Sato
Portland – Bourdais
Laguna Seca – Bourdais
The only thing for Sato is, there’s no Indy 500 path there which is where he should truly focus since he can join a short list of drivers with 3+ Indy wins.
If none of those work, then the only other Honda team is Dale Coyne Racing with Rick Ware or Vasser Sullivan’s support.