Upon hearing the name ‘Takuma Sato’, it is highly unlikely that the two-time Indy 500 winner would be associated with Formula E. With one race start, his impact hardly left a legacy, however, the Japanese driver played a bigger role in the series’ inaugural season than you may initially think.
After one pre-season test appearance at Donnington Park – and some development work for the category – Sato was an outside candidate for a seat in the fully-electric series. But when future champion Antonio Felix da Costa was unable to race in Beijing with commitments to the DTM, the ex-F1 driver was parachuted into the Amlin Aguri camp.
Six years ago on this very day, 14th and 18th in FP1 and FP2 preceded a 14th-placed qualifying performance for the driver in question as the anticipation for the world’s first fully-electric single-seater race began to ramp up.
Nico Prost had pipped Lucas di Grassi to pole position while a number of Formula E’s current big-name drivers were further down the order – one of which was Sebastien Buemi, who had qualified in ninth place after a torrid day of running in the Chinese capital.
The Beijing E-Prix would not go down as the Swiss driver’s finest hour – he was out by lap 6 with a rear wing failure – but by returning to the pit lane and jumping into his second car, could still attempt to post the fastest lap of the race in search of two bonus points.
Sato meanwhile, was fighting for the final points-paying positions with Oriol Servia and Nelson Piquet Jr, although he too would soon run into issues, resorting to the same idea as Buemi, who, at this point, had achieved his only goal: Posting the quickest tour of the race.
As the laps wound down, what was a race of unknowns came to a conclusion. Prost and Heidfeld collided to cause the accident that put Formula E on the map and di Grassi won as a result, but it was Sato who took the fastest lap with a 1:45.101s run.
No sooner than his all-electric adventure had started, however, it was firmly over, with da Costa now available to race in the second round of the season at Putrajaya. The Beijing E-Prix still remains as a cameo for Sato, albeit a historic one as the first driver to set the fastest lap in a Formula E race.
For Buemi, his shocking opener was a simple one-off though, and as Season 1 progressed, the Swiss showcased just why he was one of the early favourites for the title. Wins in Punta del Este and Monaco – alongside podiums in Putrajaya and Berlin – placed him in the thick of it. When the final race weekend arrived, he was a championship contender.
When Buemi notched his third win of the campaign in the penultimate race of the season [the first leg of the London E-Prix], a nail-biting title showdown was created, with he, Piquet Jr, and di Grassi standing as the championship protagonists in the finale.
In a perfect fashion that is now synonymous with Formula E, the trio were nose to tail on track from sixth to eighth with Buemi at the helm in the final race. Bruno Senna was ahead in fifth, and if the Swiss pilot could pass the Brazilian, he would be the champion.
Despite being within one second of the Mahindra – darting left and right, desperate to overtake – Buemi couldn’t find a route around and even after a last-lap attempt, it wasn’t meant to be. Senna was fifth, Buemi was sixth, and Piquet Jr was Formula E’s inaugural champion.
Only one point separated Piquet Jr from Buemi in the final classification, and at the end of a season where the margins are so fine, reflection is inevitable. Usually, every squandered championship can be pinpointed to a number of pitfalls, and in the case of Season 1, it’s as simple as looking back to the Beijing E-Prix where one fast lap swayed a title.
Takuma Sato may only hold one race start in the series, but one lap in a one-off appearance turned out to be pivotal. If the Japanese driver hadn’t bettered Buemi’s best efforts by a margin of 0.773s, Formula E’s inaugural champion would have been an entirely different driver, and that’s the beauty of the series which turns six today.