NEWMAN/HAAS/LANIGAN RACING RETURNS TO TWIN RING MOTEGI FOR THEIR SIXTH RACE HERE AND FIRST SINCE 2002; McDONALD'S DRIVER RAHAL TO MAKE HIS INDY JAPAN 300 DEBUT WHILE TEAMMATE SERVIA WILL MAKE HIS FOURTH START HERE MOTEGI, Japan (September 16, ...
NEWMAN/HAAS/LANIGAN RACING RETURNS TO TWIN RING MOTEGI FOR THEIR SIXTH RACE HERE AND FIRST SINCE 2002; McDONALD'S DRIVER RAHAL TO MAKE HIS INDY JAPAN 300 DEBUT WHILE TEAMMATE SERVIA WILL MAKE HIS FOURTH START HERE
MOTEGI, Japan (September 16, 2009) --- Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing (NHLR) will compete in their sixth event at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan this weekend but first since 2002. The 200-lap Indy Japan 300 on the 1.5 mile super speedway built in the mountains north of Tokyo will mark McDonald's driver Graham Rahal first event here while teammate Oriol Servia will make his fourth start here. Both are hoping to return the team to winner's circle again and add to the victory Michael Andretti earned here in 2000 after he led 26 laps.
"I hear that the track is quite challenging," said Rahal, who was a contender for his first oval win in the final laps of the previous race held on the 1.5 mile Chicagoland Speedway and finished fifth. "I'm looking forward to experiencing it for myself because it's kind of a mix of a short oval and a high-speed Super Speedway. It will be interesting to see exactly how quickly we can adapt. Being that it will be my first time to race at the track, it will be tough."
In the team's previous five CART races on the unique, egg-shaped oval from 1998-2002 they earned one win with Michael Andretti in 2000, while Christian Fittipaldi finished third in 1999 and fourth in 2001 but were contenders for the win at least two other times. Although Rahal knows his first race at this track will be tough, the team is hoping to expedite the learning curve of competing here for the first time in an Indy car with the assistance of NHLR race engineer Martin Pare who joined the team in the winter and engineered Danica Patrick's history-making first Indy car victory for a female here last year.
"We all knew it was going to be huge!" Pare said of Patrick's historical win. "It was nice to be part of the win, as it was nice being involved with the youngest pole-winning driver this year (Rahal, St. Pete). The race played into our hands. Dan Weldon had won for Andretti Green Racing using a similar strategy. When that yellow came out we knew we could get "home" from there, it was a matter of the race staying 'green.' Of the three that stopped we knew (Ed) Carpenter wasn't going to make it because he was driving too fast so it was between Danica and Helio (Castroneves) and she did a great job getting the target mileage -- enough that we did the last two laps, I think, under full power. I sure expect the McDonald's team to be competitive; our target is top five in the Championship! It will be challenging but that's why we do this right?"
"Martin's experience is really going to help us," added Rahal. "Yes he won in Japan last year but he's had a lot of cars that were more competitive than the one last year so that bodes well for us. The track isn't really similar to anything we have raced on this year. We'll see exactly how it plays out for the McDonald's team. The track is tough, we know that."
With two races remaining in the 2009 Indy Car Series season, Rahal is ranked eighth with 331 points but is only 22 behind fifth place Danica Patrick who has 353. The final two races on the 2009 schedule at Motegi and Homestead-Miami Speedway are venues that he will compete on for the first time but he expects to be competitive at both.
"You can't really prepare for the race in Japan other than watch tape of previous events and learn as much as you can to help you while you are there," said Rahal. "I have spent some time looking at track maps and read all the prep notes from the team. You have to learn on the fly but we expect to show up and be competitive. I think the McDonald's team should be pretty strong. The goal is to get fifth in the championship. It's definitely within our reach."
Oriol Servia will make his fourth start at this track after competing here in CART from 2000 to 2002 with a best finish of sixth in 2002. In 2000 he competed in only his third oval race as a rookie in CART's headline series where he started 13th and finished 24th with PPI Motorsports. In 2001 he started 18th and finished 14th with Sigma Autosport and in 2002 he started 20th and earned his highest finish here of sixth place with PWR Championship Racing. He's looking forward to his return.
"I raced three times at Motegi and I find it to be one of the most challenging and interesting ovals I have ever been too," said Servia. "I believe it offers a perfect balance between a Super Speedway with Turns 1 and 2 and a short oval with Turns 3 and 4. It represents a great challenge for drivers and engineers as it demands a perfect balance and compromise between both ends of the track."
In the previous race at Chicagoland Speedway, Servia qualified ninth, ran as high as third in the late stages of the race and finished seventh after rebounding from a bad final pit stop where he slightly missed his stop marks and dropped to 14th. Although it will be Servia's first time to race on this track in an Indy car, he has been preparing for his return to Japan all season and thinks the competitiveness seen in Chicago will carry over.
"Well, I can tell you I have been eating sushi regularly all season long!" said the Spaniard who, like many Japanese, is a fan of Karaoke and travels with his own system. "The truth is that from a driver standpoint there is not much you can do apart from watching last year's race and trying to have an open mind from the very beginning. We had a great race car in Chicago. The setup and pure speed of the car were very impressive so I expect Motegi to suit our car very much. Winning at any race weekend in this championship is extremely difficult, you must do everything perfect and still have a bit of luck on your side but I truly believe we can do it. My goal is nothing less."
Servia will work with a new race engineer this weekend as regular No. 06 engineer Todd Malloy and his wife recently welcomed the birth of their second child. Senior Engineer Craig Hampson will return to the role of race engineer for the first time since he engineered Sebastien Bourdais to a history-making fourth consecutive Champ Car title in 2007 this weekend in Japan.
"On one hand I am sad to not be able to continue working with Todd Malloy because I really believe we were getting to know each other really well and we had very good momentum going," said Servia. "The reason for the change though is a good one. Todd andhis wife Laura just had their second baby, Ardyn, and I am very happy for them. I will be working with Craig Hampson which I got to know very well during my 2005 season while driving for the team whenhe was engineering Sebastian Bourdais. Not only he is one of the most accomplished engineers in the country he is also extremely competitive and intelligent and I intend to take full advantage of it."
The new technical rules introduced at Kentucky Speedway two oval races ago should make a positive impact on the racing at this track as well although the three-wide racing seen in Chicagoland Speedway isn't expected.
"I think we will see a perfect type of race where it's going to be exciting and close race but without becoming a "bee pack" like it was in Chicago," said Servia. "You never know until you get there but I think the tech rules will be perfect."
"I don't expect a race like Chicago," agreed Pare. "In the best conditions Motegi isn't easy flat-out. Motegi is a bit like a big fast mile oval, a really nice challenge and nice facility. Turns 3 and 4 aren't easy. There should still be plenty of passing but it won't be a pack of cars, maybe more like a short oval -- a very fast short oval. I think we have as good a chance as any at the pole and the win in Motegi. The pole at Homestead will be harder but we can win there. It's quite good to see the progress we've made this year."