As Graham Rahal moves forward after analyzing a 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season in which qualifying improved and he thought he drove better to finish fifth in the points, one race still sticks in his mind.
It’s the most important race each year.
An optimistic tone turns more serious when the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver discusses the 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, in which he qualified 26th and finished 14th. Although he finished third in 2011 and fifth in 2015 in the world’s largest single-day sporting event, Rahal has had his share of humbling results in failing to finish better than 12th in seven other Indy 500 starts.
The 28-year-old son of 1986 Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal intends to make amends this May.
“We really need to improve at Indy,” Graham Rahal said. “That's our main focus of everything this offseason.”
To that end, Oriol Servia has already been announced as the team’s second driver for the Indianapolis 500 and Rahal welcomes the savvy veteran’s feedback. RLL also hired Tom German as an engineering consultant in a multi-year deal announced in December. In addition to being the race engineer for rookie Alexander Rossi, who won last year’s Indy 500 for Andretti Herta Autosport with Curb-Agajanian, German spent 14 years with Team Penske and has contributed to four other Indy 500 wins as well as three series titles.
“We brought on Tom German to kind of help out on the engineering front with specialty projects, particularly because Indy was such a struggle,” Rahal said. “We really messed up on some aerodynamic testing that we did before. We only did one day of wind tunnel testing and it completely fooled us, and that's what happened to us at Indy. We just reacted to this one day, and the data points weren't even correct, and it literally ruined our entire month.
“You know, we were an outlier for the Honda camp by far (at the Indy 500), as far as our aerodynamic settings. We shot ourselves in the foot, and so we just kind of have to reset and Tom will help us do that.”
Rahal said German has already made a difference in how the team will prepare the No. 15 Honda.
“He brings, obviously, a lot of experience from Penske mainly,” he said. “Clearly he was with Rossi last year, but going backwards from that, he had many, many years at Penske, so on the preparation side of things, he's already pinpointed a couple things that we need to do.”
It’s not that Rahal is dwelling on a negative. He’s won three races in two years, including a nail-biter last year in the closest finish ever at Texas Motor Speedway. He finished fourth in the points in 2015, so he’s established as a contender. He’s convinced some bad breaks prevented him from finishing better than fifth in the championship last season, when he had eight top-five results.
“I thought 2016 was a year of tremendous potential,” he said. “The potential really that we did tap into, if you look at our qualifying performance, was pretty solid everywhere compared to 2015, where our qualifying was certainly weak. But 2016 we were in the ballpark a lot. We were in the (Firestone) Fast Six a lot. I want to say every single road course we were, other than Watkins Glen, where we got the penalty.
“I felt like speed-wise, our performance was actually better than 2015, pretty considerably. We just did our season reviews about a month and a half ago, and it's pretty clear to see, performance-wise, the team performed a lot better. However, we had a lot of things that just didn't quite go our way, whereas in 2015 we had bounces that certainly did."
He questions if any driver could have overtaken series champion Simon Pagenaud of Team Penske, who won five races, seven poles and had 10 top-five finishes.
The challenge ahead is how Rahal and his team can fine-tune the weaknesses to be more consistent and have a title shot.
“Lots of potential and we just have to find going forward a way to keep that performance level, enhance it a little bit,” he said. “Obviously the cars aren't really going to change at all. We'll see what Firestone brings on the tire front and what we have to adjust to there, but hopefully we can keep the speed (in) the car.”
He mentions the old adage about “horsepower can overcome anything” in reiterating his faith in Honda making progress in engine development since the Honda and Chevrolet aero kit specifications must be the same this year as last. INDYCAR has announced a universal aero kit for all cars to debut in 2018.
“My hope, as a Honda guy through and through, is that the engine can continue to improve and overcome what the aero kit lacks,” Rahal said. “There is no doubt that there's aero kit inefficiencies, but it is what it is.
“Yeah, is it a little bit tough kind of going into a season knowing, OK, we're going to have the same uphill battle we've had for the last couple years? Yes. But again, I actually believe that Honda on the engine side is pretty strong and I think that that will continue to develop.”
The entire Verizon IndyCar Series field heads to Phoenix Raceway for the Feb. 10-11 open test on the historic 1-mile oval. Cars are on track from 3-6 p.m. and 8-11 p.m. ET both days, the later sessions giving teams and drivers track time to acclimate themselves to race conditions for the April 29 Phoenix Grand Prix under the lights. The Feb. 11 “Prix View” day practices are open free to the public beginning at 2 p.m. ET and will include an all-driver autograph session from 6:45-7:30 p.m. For more information on the Prix View and April 28-29 race weekend, visit phoenixraceway.com.
The 17-race season tips off with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on the 1.8-mile temporary street circuit March 10-12. It marks the seventh straight year that the Verizon IndyCar Series will begin in the Florida city. For ticket and race information, visit gpstpete.com.