This time last year Takuma Sato gave Super Aguri their first ever point by finishing eighth in the Spanish Grand Prix – beating among others Giancarlo Fisichella in the Renault.
But this year the team that was created to keep the Japanese driver in F1 might not even be racing.
Does Sato deserve his place in F1? These are my thoughts on his career so far.
There is one commenter in particular on this website who often complains that drivers get their start in F1 when they are much too young. I’d agree with ‘Number 38’ that Sato made his F1 debut too soon. He won the British Formula Three championship for Carlin in 2001, and the following season was racing for Jordan.
To say he was wild would be a massive understatement. There were a lot of crashes – although, in his defence, he was entirely blameless for the worst one that occurred at the A1-Ring when he was hit by an out-of-control Nick Heidfeld and was lucky not to be badly hurt.
But he thrilled his home crowd by bringing the Honda-powered Jordan home fifth at Suzuka. Three years later that home support saved him from being left on the F1 scrap-heap.
With Honda ditching Jordan for 2003 Sato found himself on the sidelines but got back in when their new team, BAR, edged Jacques Villeneuve aside. Appropriately enough he returned to the cockpit at Suzuka.
BAR had their most competitive season the following year and at Indianapolis Sato became the first Japanese driver to get on the podium since Aguri Suzuki in 1990.
But he was badly outclassed by team mate Jenson Button and even in his third season of F1 in 2005 he was clearly still very ragged. He infamously tipped Michael Schumacher out of the Belgian Grand Prix – earning a rebuke from the seven times champion – and crashed into Jarno Trulli at Suzuka, getting disqualified as a result.
The Super Aguri project
Honda had clearly run out of patience with him but were unwilling to suffer bring criticised at home for dumping Sato. So they took the unprecedented step of setting up a new team, Super Aguri, where Sato would be the lead driver.
The team rushed onto the grid in time for the start of 2006 and didn’t score all season long. But with an ex-Honda chassis at his disposal in 2007 Sato pulled off some surprise results, Easily the bet was his sixth place at Montreal, partly achieved by passing Fernando Alonso’s McLaren.
But as the season wore on team mate Anthony Davidson began to exert an advantage over Sato, out-qualifying him 9-2 over the final 11 races.
The future of both drivers in the sport is now in doubt as a financial deal that would have saved the team has collapsed. I don’t want to see them go, but I’m not sure a team built around the career of a talent as mercurial as Sato’s ever looked like a good long-term prospect.