Graham Rahal is just 42 points back of championship leader Juan Pablo Montoya.
It would have been quite a stretch to think that Graham Rahal would be second in points at this point in the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series season if one looked at his results from last year. Then in his second year driving for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (RLLR), Rahal had no poles, no victories and finished 19th in the championship standings.
I think everything is working better this year. It’s the people. I’m not saying I haven’t been with a great group before but this year, we came together and unified.
Yet everything changed in 2015 for Rahal, now 26 years old and engaged to Courtney Force, youngest daughter of 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion John Force. Driving a Honda-powered and liveried car for RLLR, the lanky son of three-time CART champion and 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner Bobby Rahal has claimed victory at Fontana in the MAVTV500 and owns four added podium results, including third at the most recent Iowa oval contest.
42pts out of the lead
Rahal stands 42 points behind leader Juan Pablo Montoya, who drives on the four-car Team Penske squad, while Rahal works with a single-car entity. What does that mean? “The biggest advantage they have is data,” Rahal explained. “Every lap they turn throughout practice, qualifying and the race they get four times the data [that we do] and that’s a huge advantage. We made a mistake at Texas (in the June night race) and took the greatest amount of downforce needed and put it on. We didn’t have the data we needed to get it right… “
What this small but capable team has done is get it right without the extra data available to Team Penske and the four-car Chip Ganassi Chevrolet teams or for the three- and four-car Andretti Autosport Honda team, and they’ve clawed their way to the top. “We’ve found we can definitely compete with the Penske, Ganassi boys and beat those guys - that’s what we’re trying to do.
“I think everything is working better this year. It’s the people,” Rahal contends, “that make things go round. I’m not saying I haven’t been with a great group before but this year, we came together and unified. Everyone gets along. On the engineering side we’ve got Eddie, Martin and Mike - those guys are always in sync, there’s not arguments or concerns and that’s a change from the past. That’s a huge part of our success this year.”
The best shot Honda has
Rahal also credits his Honda engineer for a lot of his success this season. “Joe has been a tremendous help and we’ve been really hard on him. We’ve had to make the most of it with our Honda aero package,” but Rahal Letterman Lanigan has been the top-performing Honda team throughout the 2015 season, with 13 races down and only three to go. “We’ve put ourselves in great position for Honda and made them proud. I hope we continue to do so. I want to be their top team - we have been all year - I think we can win Honda a championship and nobody else can.”
Juan has a lot more to lose than I do, so I’ll keep pushing, fighting, taking chances and driving like I have all year. He has to take a more conservative role ... We’re in more of an attack mode.
Graham Rahal on title fight
That last statement is somewhat of a surprise because Honda believed, at the start of the season, their best opportunity lay with Andretti Autosport and 2012 champion Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Carlos Munoz. Thus far only Hunter-Reay and Munoz have won races for Andretti, at Iowa and Detroit #1, respectively. And their consistency hasn’t been on par with that at RLLR.
“Early on we found the Honda aero kit is typically edgy,” Rahal explained. “It’s hard to get the rear end stable and secure so I figured I’d just have to drive it even though it’s not exactly where I wanted it, handling wise. They’ve done a decent job of getting it where it needs to be and we’re just making the most of it. We haven’t had the ultimate pace on the road courses but I hope this weekend is different,” at the Honda Indy 200 on Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, which is Rahal’s home track.
Looking forward to Pocono
“We just have to keep the rear tire beneath us and work it on race day. There are no excuses out there; we’ve got to go beat those guys. With the permanent road courses, we’ve been pretty strong and that’s what we have to do this weekend and at Sonoma,” the double-points-paying season finale. Between those two, there’s Pocono, the third race in INDYCAR’s Triple Crown. Rahal won the second round, the Fontana 500-miler and he was fifth in the 99th Indianapolis 500 (from 17th on the grid), so he has the opportunity to win two legs of the crown, as does points leader Juan Pablo Montoya.
Pocono is, for Rahal a “cool, fast place and there’s been a Rahal in Victory Lane before. It’s a great track to run at but it hasn’t been a place we’ve necessarily been great at. With our setups,” he mused, “the things we’ve improved on, I think we’ll have a great shot at it. I’d be a fool to think Juan’s (Montoya) not going to be dominant or at the front, but our job is not only to catch Juan but keep ourselves in the top 2-3 in points.
“When we saw Juan go out at Iowa (he finished last), we knew we had a great opportunity and that it was my chance to gain a lot of points. Juan has a lot more to lose than I do, so I’ll keep pushing, fighting, taking chances and driving like I have all year. He has to take a more conservative role; he has to get to the end. We’re in more of an attack mode.”
Time to pounce is now
That attack mode begins this weekend at Mid-Ohio on the 2.258-mile, 13-corner permanent road course. It’s a track where he pretty much grew up, “Camping out, running around causing trouble and having a great time.” Graham Rahal finished fifth at the track last season in his No. 15 Steak’n’Shake Honda entry and expects to be able to run well in what is customarily a fuel mileage contest - an aspect where Honda excels.
Rahal’s stated objective on this difficult track for overtaking is first to make it to Firestone Fast Six in qualifying and then excel in the 90-lap race. While sunshine is currently forecast for practice and qualifying, there is - at this time - a 30 percent chance of showers on Sunday, a perfect opportunity for Rahal to test Firestone’s new silver-walled rain rubber. “Mid-Ohio always tends to turn into a fuel race and in that case I feel very good about Honda versus Chevy. I can’t tell you how much fun we’ve had this year - I hope we can keep it going."