Takuma Sato got a thrill out of being behind the wheel at Twin Ring Motegi again — even though he did it on a virtual track and thousands of kilometers away from the Tochigi Prefecture circuit.
Sato was among the drivers in the field for the Motegi leg of the IndyCar iRacing Challenge on April 18. It was his debut in the esports competition and he had a blast.
"I never thought about going back to Motegi with current race car drivers and having a kind of Indy Japan for the first time after 10 years," the IndyCar star told The Japan Times in a video interview from the U.S. "It was an exciting moment."
The next race promises to be even more exciting. Because when Sato hits the track again, it'll be for real.
IndyCar, which has been stuck in park like other sports because of the coronavirus, will finally begin its delayed season on June 6 with the Genesys 300 at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth.
"It feels awesome, fantastic," Sato, the 2017 Indianapolis 500 winner, said about starting the season. "It was obviously an uncertain situation. Day by day, everything was updated. Finally, the league confirmed we could race and I think that's fantastic for the world.
"Obviously, the most important thing is the huge appreciation we have for everybody involved in the medical profession and in the hospitals as well. We have huge appreciation for those people, who are saving a lot of lives."
The IndyCar season was supposed to begin March 15 in St. Petersburg, Florida. The COVID-19 situation, however, resulted in the cancellation or postponement of the first six races on the schedule. On May 7, the series announced the season would start in Texas.
"America needs live sports and they are not going to believe what they see when the Genesys 300 storms into their living rooms on TV from Texas," Eddie Gossage, president and general manager of Texas Motor Speedway, said in a statement on May 7.
Sato is also hopeful of putting on a good show.
"Today, what can we do as athletes? I think we can have a field and we can go race," he said. "I think it's fantastic to bring a lot of hope and excitement and provide that to people."
While the race is a small step toward normalcy, it will be anything but normal.
For one, there will be no fans in the grandstands. Numerous COVID-19 protocols will also be in place, including a limited number of personnel at the track and health screenings for participants.
Additionally, practice, qualifying and the race will all take place on the same day.
"Preparation will be extremely important," Sato said. "But not just because it's just a single day. Every single weekend, preparation is one of the most important things. It's not really dramatically different from the three-day event, or two-day event for the oval.
"But we as a team, I've never driven the new Aeroscreen IndyCar in the oval. So there are a lot of unknown things. The physical setup, how I feel and how quickly I adapt and get used to the car."
The Aeroscreen, a polycarbonate canopy attached to the cockpit, is a safety measure IndyCar is implementing to help protect drivers from debris.
Sato said he's gotten used to the feeling of the air hitting him in the cockpit and even found ways to use the sensation strategically. That feeling, though, will be gone with the Aeroscreen.
"So it used to be we have a lot of air coming into the cockpit," he said. "When you're driving and following one car, or two or three cars, or five or 10 cars, it's very different airstreams.
"So that's one little thing that's going to be challenging for me. But at least the Aeroscreen is a significant step forward in terms of driver safety, so we really appreciate that."
With racing stalled the over the past few weeks, Sato has been spending time doing some remote work and trying to stay in shape. His iRacing debut was also a fun distraction.
"I'm sure the fans enjoyed it, under the difficult circumstances," he said. "I think IndyCar Series did a great job of predicting what an exciting season is coming by starting off with the iRacing virtual series.
Sato has even done some video workouts with his trainer over Zoom, saying, "it feels a little weird to start with but you just get used to it."
There will likely be a lot of things for drivers to get used to this season, as the sports world adjusts to the virus.
Sato, who won two races and was ninth in the final standings last year, is preparing to take it all in stride when things get going in Texas.
"It's challenging for sure," he said. "But everyone else feels the same way. We're just trying to be the best of the best all the time. The situation is difficult. Really lacking, or limited, amount of testing, both physically and timewise. You've got to believe the team engineers are working flat out, even in this situation.
"We just hope we have a very competitive season. I have to be prepared mentally, physically, obviously need to be healthy, and be 100 percent prepared to go to the race every single weekend and see the outcome."
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