Rahals pleased with 2017 performance, look for more in '18

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One memorable Motor City weekend reminded what Graham Rahal and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing are capable of in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

The “Graham Slam” sweep of June’s Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear races on the Raceway at Belle Isle Park’s temporary street course marked the first time a series driver won back-to-back weekend races since Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon prevailed twice at Toronto in 2013.

As for the rest of the season, Rahal endured despite some setbacks to contend once again for a series title. The 28-year-old son of team co-owner Bobby Rahal finished sixth in the championship, similar to placing fifth the year before and fourth in 2015. 

“We’ve been close, and I expect us to be close,” Graham said. “I still hear and I still see people who are surprised at our performances, but I don’t think they should be surprised anymore. We’re not an underdog anymore. We deserve to be there. We’ve proven that.”

Graham’s father, a three-time Indy car champion and 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner, saw the positives amid some unfortunate results, most notably tire punctures with Graham in contention late in the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

“Look at Detroit this year, he basically dictated the races because he was able to go further, faster and longer on old tires than anybody else,” Bobby said. “He really forced people’s hands to change their strategies. He’s really good at knowing how hard he can drive a car.”

An offseason emphasis on qualifying improvement showed progress as Graham’s average starting position of 9.6 was better than his 12.6 average the year before.

“Especially on the ovals, we’re always able to develop a pretty good race car,” Bobby said. “But at a lot tracks, road and street courses, it’s all about where you qualify and it’s hard otherwise. We qualified 10th at Watkins Glen and ended up fifth. What if we had qualified third or fourth, where would we be? On average, our qualifying on the road and street courses this year has been much better this year than last. But we need to be even better yet in that, across the board.

“We still have to have that continuity and consistency to where we’re sitting in that top six at every track we go to. It just makes it so much easier.”

RLL expects to benefit from having a second full-time driver in 2017 Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato, named Sept. 20 to be Graham Rahal’s teammate in 2018. Sato moved to the Verizon IndyCar Series in 2010 after seven seasons in Formula One. He drove for RLL in 2012, the year prior to Graham joining the team.

“All in all, I think you can look back and say it was a reasonably good year,” Bobby said. “Do we want to be better? For sure. We’re glad that it’s going back to a basic, standardized body kit (for all competitors in 2018) because the Hondas were definitely at a disadvantage in places like Phoenix, St. Louis and even Elkhart Lake. It will be nice taking that out of the equation, but we still need to get better, for sure.

“I’m pretty confident that running a second car next year is going to help. I have a lot of confidence in our people and in what we’re doing. I expect that we’ll be strong again next year.”

Is Graham more anxious to contend for a title after coming close three consecutive years?

“I don't think he's anxious,” Bobby said. “Like any driver, when you feel like you can win any race and when things get in the way or you get taken out, you get disappointed.

“You want somebody like that. You want them to be disappointed. You’ve got to want to win. You’ve got to be passionate about it. If you’re not disappointed when you don’t do well, I don’t know, maybe you should think about doing something else.”

Graham concurs with his father’s assessment.

“I think we’ve maximized what we’ve had the last couple of years,” Graham said. “Obviously, Team Penske has been very strong and has had the right combination for the last couple of years. They’ve almost had it easy in some ways, but they’re also a great team.”

Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden won his first series title this year and teammates Simon Pagenaud, Helio Castroneves and Will Power finished second, fourth and fifth. Pagenaud was the 2016 champion.

“I think we’re a great team, too,” Graham said. “We’ve led the charge for Honda. We didn’t do that this year, Scott (Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing, who finished third in points) beat us, but when I look at the year overall, we didn’t start off very strong, we didn’t finish very strong. Pocono, we gave one away. St. Louis, we were on for a fourth-place finish and had issues. We had a tire go flat at Indy while we were running third. We had a tire go flat at Long Beach while running fourth with three laps to go.

“We haven’t had luck, but we’ve soldiered on, we’ve worked hard and we’ve got ourselves to a decent spot.”

The expectation won’t change for 2018. Father and son are optimistic RLL will improve.

“I hope we can be better. I feel strongly that we can,” Graham said. “As a team, we don’t have anything to be ashamed of. We’ve pushed hard, we’ve worked hard and I’m proud of our organization for what we’ve accomplished.”

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