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Sato poised for home honour
Alastair Himmer | October 07, 2004 20:19 IST
If ever conditions were tailor-made for Takuma Sato to make history, it will be at this weekend's Japanese Grand Prix.
Once thought of as an accident waiting to happen, the BAR driver feels he has a genuine chance of becoming Japan's first Formula One winner at Suzuka on Sunday.
"I want to get on the podium at least," Sato told Reuters.
"But you never know what can happen. There's lots of tension and extra pressure but it's great to come back to your home grand prix."
The 27-year-old, who eight years ago was a struggling bicycle racer, has already qualified on the front row and led a race this year, both firsts for a Japanese.
Sato has won 26 points this season -- just five shy of the total number of points won by Japanese drivers in the history of Formula One.
His best finish of 2004 was third at the U.S. Grand Prix in June but, with world champion Michael Schumacher suddenly looking human, Sato could produce a shock at Suzuka.
If warnings of weekend typhoons in Japan prove correct, the race could be turned into a real lottery.
Even second place would create a slice of history for Japan, whose drivers have, to put it mildly, often fallen short of the required standard.
Before Sato, only Ukyo Katayama, Satoru Nakajima, Shinji Nakano and Aguri Suzuki had finished in the points. Others, such as the hapless Taki Inoue, have been a liability.
Inoue, the son of a slot-machine magnate, infamously broke his leg when he was run over by a rescue car after breaking down at the 1995 Hungarian Grand Prix.
The same year in Monaco, his Footwork car was flipped over by the safety vehicle while he was being towed back to the pits.
Former world champion Damon Hill blasted Inoue as "clueless" and even the oft-derided Katayama called his countryman "absolutely rubbish".
If Inoue was arguably the worst of the 12 Japanese to have started a Formula One race, Sato ranks as the best now that he is more circumspect and less accident-prone.
The sight of Sato, then with Jordan, trudging through the undergrowth in Montreal two years ago to get back to the pit and into the spare car is no longer commonplace.
"I want to carry on from Ichiro," said Sato, referring to fellow Japanese Ichiro Suzuki, who last week broke Major League Baseball's single-season hits record.
"What he did has really fired me up. It would be incredible to make an impact on the world level like Ichiro has."
Both Sato and BAR team mate Jenson Button, locked in a battle with Renault for second place behind Ferrari in the constructors' championship, have cause for real optimism at Suzuka.
Button finished second at last month's inaugural Chinese Grand Prix while Sato came sixth after starting from the back of the grid following an engine blow-out in practice.
Both drivers will be desperate for their maiden Formula One victory at Suzuka, home of BAR's engine suppliers Honda.
Should either win it would be a first for BAR and the perfect way to mark their 100th race since making their F1 debut in 1999.
Button, third in the drivers' championship with 79 points, will feel he is due after finishing second four times this season.
Sato knows the Suzuka circuit as well as anybody, finishing in the points in 2002 -- with Jordan -- and last year.
Williams driver Juan Pablo Montoya tipped him to win a grand prix before Button, despite Sato's former 'wild man' reputation.
Last year, Sato stepped in as a replacement for Jacques Villeneuve and finished sixth. He expects more of himself this time.
Schumacher has failed to win any of the last three races and the German appeared to have mentally switched off in China, where he finished 12th.
Schumacher's Ferrari team mate Rubens Barrichello will be bidding to make it three victories in a row, and will certainly be the favourite in the season-ending Brazilian Grand Prix, but the overwhelming support in Japan will be for BAR.
With Button eager to leave for Williams at the end of the season, BAR could struggle for continuity next year.
Sato has already been confirmed as one of BAR's drivers for 2005 and will be anxious to justify the faith shown by team chief David Richards.
He may never get a better chance.
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