Why this is Graham Rahal's best chance yet for Indy 500 glory

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Why this is Graham Rahal's best chance yet for Indy 500 glory
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With the Rahal Letterman Lanigan-Honda team running better than for many years, Graham Rahal’s well-known proficiency around Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and a clipped schedule, the pieces appear to be in place for this second-gen driver to conquer the biggest race in the world. David Malsher-Lopez explains the reasoning.

Aside from star performances from the rookies – six races into the NTT IndyCar Series season, two of the three full-timers already have a podium finish, and it’s only a matter of time for the other – one of the most refreshing sights has been that of Rahal Letterman Lanigan fulfilling its inherent promise.

The team owned by IndyCar legend Bobby Rahal, David Letterman and Mike Lanigan had been a puzzling entity in recent years, one that generated more questions than answers. How come a squad that’s been full of talented engineers for several seasons and runs two fast and proven race winners isn’t a more consistent threat to the so-called Big Three in IndyCar? Why was the team a bigger championship threat when it ran just one car for Graham Rahal in 2015 than when it expanded to two entries? And how come young Rahal has been a more dependable performer over the last two seasons than his teammate Takuma Sato, yet the latter has scored the team’s three most recent victories?

Well, that last point is largely down to luck, or rather Graham’s lack of it. In fact, misfortune still lingers around the #15 entry in 2020: there was the pre-race ECU problem at Texas that consigned him to the back of the field, the fouled pitstop in Road America Race 1 that cost him a genuine shot at victory, and a crash at the same venue the next day following a collision with Will Power. Yet despite these incidents, Rahal still lies sixth in the championship and without them he’d be second and probably not too far from points leader Scott Dixon.

We won’t know until the finale at St. Petersburg (keep those fingers crossed, fans) how much progress RLL has made on street courses, because all other temporary courses on the calendar have of course been deleted due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. But we can say with some degree of authority that across ovals and natural road courses, RLL is looking stronger and more consistent than it has for five years.

Yet one of the real gauges of the team’s progress is the ability to turn a situation from negative to positive over the course of a race weekend. Chip Ganassi Racing has always been the best team at this – yes, better even than Team Penske – but now it appears that RLL, too, can collectively think and react on the fly, even if their cars don’t roll off the transporters as pacesetters. That truly takes some doing in 2020, a season of no testing, of two-day events, of heavily reduced practice time and briefer qualifying sessions on double-header weekends. Rahal has always been strong on the IMS road course, so the fact that he ran well all weekend and scored a runner-up finish in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis was no surprise, but at Iowa the team turned pond water into pinot grigio. Rahal couldn’t crack 165mph during practice at the 0.894-mile speedbowl at a time when pacesetter Colton Herta was at 171.99, and the #15 RLL-Honda finished the session last, but come Saturday night, Graham was on the podium.

Rahal held off defending Indy winner Pagenaud in his run to third place at Iowa.

Rahal held off defending Indy winner Pagenaud in his run to third place at Iowa.

Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images

He, naturally, was one of the first to notice the team’s new solidity. Speaking to the media about his Indy 500 prospects, Rahal remarked: “I thought Texas was a good sign, obviously other than the issues before the race: our competitiveness there was very good. I feel like all year round so far we've been able to bounce back, even at times like Iowa where we weren't great, we could bounce back and have a great race result.”

Rahal later added: “I got to say, I feel like our team is operating at a very high level. I feel like the engineering staff is doing a tremendous job. Allen [McDonald, Rahal’s race engineer] on my car has always done extremely well at Indianapolis. I fully expect us to be very competitive.”

On the basis of the first six races of the season, most IndyCar followers would share that expectation, and it’s logical to wonder if the severely pinched amount of track time available this year is suiting RLL more than its rivals. Remember in April 2019, when Firestone had a quality control glitch and delivered a batch of old and ‘cured’ tires to Barber Motorsports Park? Their weird behavior threw the biggest teams into paroxysms of perplexity, while RLL locked out the front row of the grid and Sato went on to win.

Theoretically, the Indy 500 – despite this year being reduced to just three practice days before qualifying and then 4.5 hours of practice between qualifying and race – offers a surfeit of track time in which to perfect the cars, at least by the standards of any other race on the IndyCar schedule. But even back when the Month of May was genuinely a month, Indianapolis Motor Speedway could be as mystifying as it is mystical, and this year there will be far less data from which to draw definitive conclusions. As defending race winner Simon Pagenaud explained yesterday, the iffy weather forecast for this week could further condense the schedule, and as Pagenaud's race engineer Ben Bretzman explained to Motorsport.com last week, the track’s going to be perma-busy because there’s so much for each driver and race engineer to get their heads around because of the aeroscreen’s effect on tire life and handling.

That being the case, don’t be surprised if the situation plays into RLL’s newly catcher-mitted hands. Putting this optimistic slant on the team’s Indy prospects to the aforementioned Allen McDonald elicits a similarly positive reaction, which is slightly surprising because he’s such a quiet and self-effacing gentleman. Despite contributing greatly to IndyCar championship titles, Indy 500 wins and Indy poles during his times at Andretti Green Racing/Andretti Autosport, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and Ed Carpenter Racing, McDonald never takes credit when he should, never criticizes colleagues when they screw up, and faces both success and failure with complete equanimity. Should Rahal roll into Victory Lane on Aug. 23, Allen will probably have to be lassoed in order to appear in the traditional milk-drenched photographs. So when even he admits there has indeed been a step up in performance from RLL this year, it’s worth taking seriously.

Race engineer Allen McDonald consults with Rahal. In their season-and-a-half together, McDonald has become a big fan.

Race engineer Allen McDonald consults with Rahal. In their season-and-a-half together, McDonald has become a big fan.

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

“Well, I think as you say, there are a lot of very bright people here,” he says. “You’ve got Neil Fife running the damper program. Mike Talbott running the DIL [Driver In the Loop simulator program], Tom German as technical director, and my old mate Eddie Jones working as engineer on Takuma’s car. It’s really strong here engineering-wise.

“I only joined for last season [McDonald moved from ECR to RLL in October 2018], but I think from my point of view, working with Graham, it’s helped to be with a driver who knows what he wants from his car. The team gave him that in 2015 and ’16 and he was really strong, but with the latest car [introduced in 2018] it’s been difficult to give that to him. Last year whenever we could deliver for him, he delivered too, but over the winter we really focused on giving him what he needed at all types of track. I think that’s crucial because if he has the car balance he wants, he’s very fast, as we’ve seen through the years.”

True enough. It’s no coincidence that Rahal shone when the cars had copious amounts of downforce in IndyCar’s manufacturer aerokit era [2015-’17] for even by race driver standards, he is very strong, fit and brave. But keeping his self-confidence running at 100 percent with cars that move about far more now than then has been a challenge because this current car and current regulations don’t allow the amount of rear-end downforce that is key to Rahal’s willingness to run on the edge of adhesion.

“Yeah, I think that’s true of every team and driver,” says McDonald. “Since these aerokits were introduced, we’ve all been looking for new ways to keep the rear end stable. We’ve been running on a knife edge, so finding that balance where the driver is ‘comfortable’ to extract everything from the car and himself is more difficult. It’s taken all this time to find ways to create a new sweet spot, a consistent platform. It’s a real challenge.”

With March, April and May wiped clear of IndyCar races in 2020, and there being a month between Round 1 at Texas Motor Speedway and Round 2 at the IMS road course, all teams have had far longer than even the series’ usual absurdly long off-season to make progress… albeit without the benefit of real test days. There’s no logical reason why RLL would have used this time any more wisely than its rivals, but Rahal’s performances this year suggest this may be the case. McDonald ponders the issue before replying.

“I’d say we’re a very close-knit team and I do think we did work really well during that period where we couldn’t get together and we weren’t racing,” he says. “We were all working from home but we were always communicating, there were lots of good ideas. Yeah, I think we did some great work in that time and it was a real reflection on how strong a team of engineers Rahal Letterman Lanigan has assembled.”

And a team that has apparently got a handle on ameliorating the effect of the aeroscreen and its revised weight distribution. But for this, McDonald also gives credit to his driver.

“The thing is, Graham is not only very fast, he’s also intelligent and now very experienced [14th year at this level] so he knows how to get the most from a racecar and how to best use his tires over a whole stint. I think you saw that at Iowa. Race 1, we still didn’t have the car right but I felt he still got the most out of it – him and Takuma can both do that. And then when we had the car better for Race 2, Graham went from 19th to third.

“That weekend, as you say, we were totally out to lunch to start with, that’s for sure! Then Takuma made a breakthrough to at least get in the ballpark right near the end of practice, and I think it’s testament to how well this team works together that we were able to share the information and both cars came back much stronger the next day.”

McDonald is too well-mannered – and politically adept – to agree with the observation that as the RLL cars have become better honed, Rahal has pulled away from Sato a little. Back in 2018 when they first became teammates, the pair seemed inextricably linked, and they would qualify within two or three grid spots of each other. This year Takuma has been surprisingly anonymous, a fact highlighted by Graham’s resurgence.

Graham, Takuma Sato and Bobby Rahal after Taku's surprise win at Portland in 2018. McDonald says similar breaks just haven't gone the way of the 2017 Indy 500 winner this year.

Graham, Takuma Sato and Bobby Rahal after Taku's surprise win at Portland in 2018. McDonald says similar breaks just haven't gone the way of the 2017 Indy 500 winner this year.

Photo by: Scott R LePage / Motorsport Images

“I think poor old Taku hasn’t had the good breaks,” says McDonald. “Things haven’t gone his way, and with the weekends so short, it’s been difficult to recover. Graham’s done a great job, and on days when it’s gone well for the #15, it hasn’t quite worked out for the #30, but I don’t think that truly reflects a different performance level or a difference in the cars. It’s just the way things have gone; that’s unfortunately part of racing, where one guy gets the breaks one year, the other one gets the breaks the following year. I still expect Taku to be strong for the rest of the season, just as I expect Graham to be strong.”

We outside observers can apparently expect the same of Rahal Letterman Lanigan as a whole, and this should be apparent at the Speedway over the next couple of weekends. The team is heading there with the 2017 winner (Sato), a man who has always been quick and undaunted there (Rahal) and the Citrone/Buhl Autosport entry of Spencer Pigot who at the last 500 started on the front row for Ed Carpenter Racing and who was a highly impressive addition to RLL at the GP of Indianapolis last month.

As Rahal himself observed, “What I'm most proud of, I would say, is the team. I see it when I go to the shop, the commitment that they put in. For instance, Mid-Ohio [a late postponement from last weekend] got delayed, right? I called the engineers, chief mechanic, and their response was, ‘Hey, that's great. Now we can spend a little extra time massaging on the suspension, now we can spend extra time doing this or that for Indy. I'm proud of that mentality. They've kind of taken it in stride. We move on to the next battle.”

Bobby Rahal, the 1986 Indy 500 winner, is someone who, like Roger Penske, appears to put an even greater emphasis on the 500 than on the IndyCar Series championship (which Bobby won three times), and it’s no surprise to hear this is reflected in the team’s efforts throughout the artificially elongated offseason.

McDonald says: “Everybody wants to win Indy. We spent some time in the simulator and a large part of the reason we’ve been strong right out of the box at the races this year – Iowa excepted! – has been what Mike Talbott has been doing in the DIL, which has really helped us. We have some good ideas from that research as to how things are going to be, and I think with Spencer being there as well – he’s obviously been really fast around Indy – I think we’ve got plenty of data to work from. The way we worked together at GP Indy, where Spencer should probably have got a podium finish, will carry on to the Speedway I’m sure.”

Graham Rahal has always talked a good fight and one of his endearing qualities has been loyalty to the team even under duress. But with the pace he has shown so far this season, his compliments and observations have carried more weight.

“The development from the team standpoint has been great,” he said. “At Iowa obviously we struggled with the preparation, but most places we've shown up and been competitive… I feel the team has done an excellent job being ready to go.”

That will be one crucial quality given the abbreviated practice this week, while another will be the ability to slickly analyze and act upon deductions – RLL’s apparently new-found strength in 2020. There are safer bets for Indy 500 glory this year, but don’t be surprised if Graham Rahal’s visage is the next to be carved on the Borg-Warner Trophy.

2019 Indy 500 - Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda

2019 Indy 500 - Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda

Photo by: Geoffrey M. Miller / Motorsport Images

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Series IndyCar
Event Indy 500
Author David Malsher-Lopez