Graham Rahal on why his season has been both brilliant and brutal
Graham Rahal is having a perplexing season as he fights to finish in the championship top five for a third straight year. He spoke to David Malsher about the challenges the team has been facing, and his hopes for the future.
DM: After your struggle to find qualifying speed earlier this year it looked like at Detroit you made a breakthrough, and in qualifying at Road America too. What happened in the race?
GR: [Sigh] We’re massively off on road courses this year. The Indy Grand Prix wasn’t bad, but in general there’s been a lot of reason to be concerned when it comes to road courses and that’s sad because last year road courses were our strength.
But I will say this; whatever anyone wants to say or believe, I think the tires have changed enough this year to make our lives a bit difficult. As a team, we are working 100 percent to try to figure this out better, and work out why we suck so bad at some of these events.
But it’s weird how it strikes you at different times. Like at Barber this year, your pace on raceday was good but it wasn’t obvious to everyone because you’d qualified at the back. Then we get to Road America two months later, and you qualify in the Firestone Fast Six and have a completely anonymous race.
Yeah. Well this is gonna sound cocky but it’s not supposed to – it’s just what it is, OK? I have, without a doubt in my mind, on occasion this year wayyy outperformed our potential in qualifying. And qualifying is not normally a strength of mine because it’s something we’ve never focused too much on. We want to be in the first three rows, but going for poles isn’t a big deal. But there have been at least two weekends this year where I just hit qualifying right and wrung more from the car than it wanted to give.
But after first practice at Road America, I could have told you that I knew already we were going to have a major struggle in the race. I told the engineers that I was worried, they said, ‘Why?’ and I said, ‘Because this thing is a bloody handful.’ It was so loose. Soooo loose. I was hanging onto my ass cheeks so many times.
And sure enough, although I don’t normally get the amount of tire degradation that a lot of drivers do in the race, by the third lap, I knew there was no way I was going to make those used reds last a full stint. No way. My car was awful and I was just trying to hang on.
In qualifying with a car like that, you can go out and maybe put a lap in that works. And I think that’s what I did in Road America. But on raceday you can’t keep repeating those kinds of lap for a whole stint.
Are you any closer to understanding what was wrong with the setup?
Well, we changed everything – diffs, rollcenters, ride-heights… I feel we did everything and it’s just not putting a dent in it. We can’t seem to figure out the roadcourse tire. Maybe others haven’t had an issue, and haven’t felt how much the tire has changed from one year to the next, but all I can say is that for us, it is a night and day difference. So that’s been a lot for me to try and overcome. I’m not going to sugar-coat it; that’s been a big challenge.
Yeah, you’re not the only one. Simon Pagenaud got seven poles last year and hasn’t looked as strong in qualifying this season. The difference is that he and Ben Bretzman [race engineer] have three quick teammates to share data and share workload with…
Well that’s the other problem of course. I mean, my boss [three-time Indy car champion Bobby Rahal] says I can’t say that about being on a single-car team; he says it’s a lame excuse! But when I don’t have any help, honestly, it is tough. This year at Barber and Road America alone, we radically changed more to the car than I have changed in the previous two years combined. And yet we’re still struggling to get the car into a working zone.
OK, GP Indy, we kept the rear tires under us when a lot of drivers couldn’t, and we came through the field and got sixth. I think Will Power and those guys are lucky we didn’t qualify near the front because by raceday we had a car that could have won. But again, we sucked in qualifying so we weren’t able to take full advantage. But with only 45min sessions this year, that hasn’t helped either; with one car, we struggle to find the time to try all the changes we wanna try. Basically, if we roll off the truck quick, we’re good. If we don’t, we really struggle to catch up to the multi-car teams.
So once the new kit comes out for 2018 and everyone’s having to start from base camp, learning the new aerokit’s best operating window for each track, is being a one-car team going to hurt you even more?
I think it will help us be better than this year, actually. We’ve got a lot of smart guys on this team that I think can make the most of that opportunity, particularly if the Honda retains its advantage. The Honda has pure lowdown grunt.
Back to this year. Bearing in mind how strong you were at Detroit is that a good sign for how strong you’ll be at Toronto?
I’d say that’s a pretty fair assumption, and yeah, I think we should be really strong there because I don’t think we should need to change much from our Detroit setup. Just a few tweaks here and there. But as I tell people, I never like to get overconfident any more because you never know what could happen. Things can change so much and if you miss it by a hair, suddenly you’re not making it out of Q1. That’s how close this series has gotten. And in the race, you can’t rely on yellows any more, not even at Toronto, because as a series we just have a higher standard of drivers out there than we used to.
Bearing in mind your team’s struggles on road courses lately and Honda’s struggles on short ovals, that would suggest – barring a freaky strategy happening elsewhere – Toronto and Pocono are your last chances of winning this year.
Yeah… I suppose… On paper, I can’t dispute that. Hopefully we’re able to prove that theory wrong. The adrenaline of a home race means we ought to be half decent at Mid-Ohio, but yeah, it’s a roadcourse and those haven’t been coming easy to us. I guess we have to hope that Road America and Barber were the anomalies and not a general trend.
People didn’t get to see it [Turn 1 collision with Charlie Kimball] but we were really strong at Watkins Glen last year. We got a qualifying penalty that put us back and then there was the Turn 1 shunt but I feel legitimately that I was the only guy who had something for Scott Dixon that day.
So you’re seventh in the points standings at the moment. Can you keep up your run of finishing the season in the Top 5?
Yeah, I think we can. We’re easily capable of it. And that would be good because I really sense that people feel the last couple of years finishing in the top five has happened by luck, and that’s not the case. We’ve worked hard and are not gaining positions by luck. I don’t care about me, but I think our team deserves more credit for what has been accomplished, truly.
We’ve been hurt by double-points, for example – in 2015 we got a decent finish at Indy and then sucked at Sonoma. Last year we had a strong run at Sonoma – which again shows how great the team improved from one year to the next – but had a bad day at Indy.
And even this year hasn’t been kind; we had some crappy luck at the start, and that’s what made Detroit so rewarding. Until then, everything that could go wrong had gone wrong, so you think, ‘When’s that gonna stop?’ And at Detroit it did.
Is it looking massively positive for Honda drivers in 2018 with the universal aerokit? If Honda are making more power and they’re getting on top of their reliability issues this year, everything’s kinda rosy for you next year surely?
Ha! Well, you’d think so, but I’m always cautious about following that path of logic. I have no doubt that the competition is going to be pushing hard throughout the offseason, so none of us should sit here and be led to believe anything different. Jim Campbell, Mark Kent, Ilmor… they’re going to be ready to go next year, we all know that.
But yeah, you have to believe that Honda is very strong, and if they carry on down the path they’re on, then yeah, we should be feeling pretty good about life once everything else on the car is equal.
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