BY MARTIN WALSH
THE Indianapolis 500 is one of the most famous races in the world and, along with the Monaco GP and the 24 Hour Le Mans, is unofficially referred to a part of the Triple Crown of Motorsport. A few weeks ago Japanese driver Takuma Sato won the Indy 500 for the second time in three years.
Sato is a hero in Japan where he is treated like a rock star and was scheduled to carry the Olympic torch until the coronavirus pandemic saw the Games postponed until 2021. He is also familiar to many readers of The Southern Star. Back in 1999 local racing ace Michael Keohane went toe to toe with him during the EFDA (European) series – all double headers and racing in such places as Zolder, Luxemburg, Nurburgring, Hockenheim, Monza, Donington Park, Silverstone and, of course, Mondello Park.
‘The first time we met was when we were two rookies at the EFDA (European Formula Drivers Association) series in Zolder. He was a champion cyclist in Japan and was being run by Diamond Motorsport, who previously ran Mika Hakkinen, so the team had a strong pedigree,’ explained Keohane, who actually went on to win the ‘Rookie of the Year’ title.
‘We were dicing all through the year, really,’ he added.
In Mondello Park in 1999 Keohane was the top Irish driver in the Leinster Trophy, finishing fourth behind Sato, who took the final spot on the podium as Tomas Scheckter, who previously had helped Keohane at Zandvoort, took the famous trophy. Keohane imparted his knowledge of the Kildare circuit to an appreciative Scheckter, whose father Jody was a Formula 1 champion. In the first race in Mondello Keohane was running second to Sato, only to retire on the penultimate lap with a broken driveshaft.
The following season Sato contested the 2000 British Formula 3 Championship with Carlin Motorsport and Keohane moved to the Formula Renault series where his team-mate was none other than an equally young German named Kimi Raikkonen. More pedigree.
Then, as Raikkonen left for F1, Keohane went to the British Formula 3 series competing in the scholarship class with the Irish-owned Meritus team run by Wexford man Sean Thompson and a Brazilian named Roberta Costa. That year Sato won the main series with Carlin Motorsport while Keohane won a number of races in the scholarship class, eventually finishing third overall. On one occasion in Donington, they were both on the podium as respective winners of their categories.
Sato joined Eddie Jordan’s team in Formula 1 and Keohane inherited Sato’s seat at Carlin after impressing team boss Trevor Carlin at a test in Pembrey, driving the car that Sato took to championship victory.
‘Taku’ competed in F1 from 2002 to 2008 without any great success and moved on to Indy Cars in 2010. By then, Michael Keohane was back home in Ballygurteen and following the untimely death of his father and mentor Paddy was, along with his sister Eibhlín, concentrating on the family business.
Keohane never raced at Indianapolis but he came close, almost clinching a deal to drive with Chevrolet in the IndyCar Championship in 2005 but GM (General Motors) began to haemorrhage money and instead of a six-car team it was slashed to just two cars.
But Keohane had sampled and tested at the Texas Speedway and at Sebring in Florida, and showed he had the pace.
‘In the first day at Texas, I came down to the same time as everyone else and I averaged 212.7 miles per hour,’ he said.
That’s worth a second mention. Yes, 212.7mph, and yes, an average. In the context of a racing environment it requires concentration beyond belief, everything else is a pre-requisite of a top-class racing driver. Preparation was key.
‘I was training seven days a week, four hours a day. You pull 6½G in your neck, that’s the same as being in a fighter plane, except you are not wearing the circulation suit. Weights were a constant, especially in helping to build the neck muscles, but there was also a lot of cardiovascular work and strength training,’ he explained.
Keohane was a guest of Chevrolet a week before his test with the team and attended a race Chicago. The trip also allowed Keohane renew acquaintances with Tomas Scheckter, who was driving for the team. The circuit briefing on Mondello paid dividends.
‘He was very helpful, he gave me a lot of tips and really looked after me,’ he explained.
And when they all headed back to the team’s base at Indianapolis, Keohane was put through a full medical. Then it was on to the test at Fort Worth, Texas. Scheckter was there too.
‘He sat down with me and we went through the track. He said, “If you want to put a time in here today, you have to do one thing. When you go out the speed increases, 170mph, 180 and 190 and then upwards again. Then, after fitting new tyres and from about lap 10 to 14, if you get it right, you will get it flat – all the way around, and after that you will be in the wall!”’
Scheckter then gave the key to setting the fastest time.
‘Whenever you get the nod from your spotter (team member positioned in the grandstand departing strategy as well as informing driver who is coming up from behind) you cross your left leg across your right foot and jam it in there for four laps. After that you will be in the wall.’
On board a 650bhp Chevrolet, Keohane, trusting Scheckter, did as advised.
‘I remember the last lap of it (four laps) I could hardly see daylight between the back wheel of the car and the wall. That was also my fastest lap. I was completely on the limit,’ the West Cork man said.
Keohane had showed he had the pace. The deal to race was almost done until GM changed plans. For his Champ Car test, Keohane drove an 850bhp Ford Cosworth with Dale Coyne Racing. So what’s it like at such speed?
‘Once you put on the helmet you are a racing driver and you can’t think that (frightening) way. They are the fastest cars in the world. Once you are up over 200 miles per hour, you feel the speed,’ he explained.
The years in building up speed in karting to Formula Ford, Opel, EFDA, F3 and F3000 came good.
‘The faster cars always suited me, I think America would have suited my driving style,’ Keohane said, adding, ‘To go at that speed for 500 miles, the concentration is mind blowing, crazy. You have your spotter talking to you all the time, you have settings, change ride height, etc. You feel for the switches (there’s no looking down), it’s pre-visualisation, it’s a bit like playing music in some ways.’
Sato’s Indy 500 win certainly struck a chord.