Graham Rahal believes the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing-Honda team will “be in the hunt straight away” in the 2018 IndyCar season, despite not starting testing the new aerokit on-track until January.
Team Penske (Chevrolet) and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (Honda) were given the original task of testing the universal aerokit, with Ed Carpenter Racing and Chip Ganassi Racing receiving the next two kits.
However, speaking at the announcement of RLLR’s title sponsorship with Total oils and fuels for the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, Rahal says that the strength of the squad’s engineering means he can fight for wins from the season-opening Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
“I think it's a clear advantage for them,” he said, “but to be honest, Schmidt was a team that had a lot of testing. The first test, we were quicker than them. I think with good quality engineering staff, with a great team around us, drivers that are capable of getting up to speed quickly, I feel like we'll be right in the hunt right away.
“Clearly a Penske, Ganassi, a team of that stature that have had a lot of off-season testing, it might help them. But I think, as you guys saw with our team in 2015, when a lot of Honda teams were struggling, we made no excuses, went out there and performed really well. I think that's going to be our attitude again.”
Rahal was also positive about how many test days were still left to the RLLR team, which will expand this year to two cars with the arrival of defending Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato.
“I believe we should be able to go to St. Pete and we should be able to win,” said Rahal. “Frankly, there's a lot of testing. I mean, I'll go to Sebring at least a couple more days, I'll be in Barber a couple days, we got Phoenix [Open Test]. There still is quite a lot of testing.
“I think we need to look beyond the excuses and just focus on what's next.”
The 29-year-old from Columbus, OH, sounded less convinced that the data from other teams had been shared, but said that ultimately that should not matter to himself and Sato.
“Was the data shared with us? I would say some of it,” he remarked. “We all have to remember it's fairly easy to fudge data a little bit. The data sets that are getting sent, are they accurate? Doesn't mean they always are. Thanks to Honda, they share with us. We don't get the setups, but we get the basics we can learn from.
“Takuma and I need to drive the cars, we need to develop our own opinions, and we need to go racing.”
Rahal has finished in the top six in the championship for the past three years, and scored five wins over that period. Citing these performances as proof of RLLR’s strength in depth, Rahal said: “Our team is capable, our team is ready, our guys are excited. The work ethic that our people have, there's no doubt that we should be championship contenders. I expect that. I know Dad expects that. I know Mr. Lanigan, Mr. Letterman, the entire staff expects that. So we're excited about what's ahead.
“I think getting a universal aerokit, the new car is going to help us considerably. I think the depth of the engineering staff, partners like Total – that's a huge deal from a strategic side, things that we can do, that are going to help us in areas we haven't really pushed much before. I think there's a lot of reasons to believe we'll be very strong.”
Regarding next week’s Phoenix test, Rahal added: “It's important in part because this car is going to be very different on the short ovals from what I see and from what I hear. So being my first exposure, Takuma's first, to driving the car on that sort of circuit, it's going to be different.
“The challenges are ahead of us. We'll have to go out and try to figure it out, make the most of it.”