Does the success of one-car Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing point the way forward for other IndyCar teams?
Can you remember how startled you were when Jenson Button, caught in the middle of Honda’s (first) nightmarish 21st century return to Formula 1, pulled the proverbial rabbit from a hat and won the 2006 Hungarian Grand Prix?
Well, imagine that same sense of shock spread over a four-month period and you have some idea just what effect Graham Rahal had on the Verizon IndyCar Series in 2015. After a slowish start to the season in terms of hard results, he went on to thoroughly reconfigure the perception of him within the paddock and the fanbase, taking two victories and an armful of podiums, and simultaneously building a strong title challenge.
A stubborn critic might question the excitement over what became fourth place in the championship. This was, after all, Rahal’s ninth year at the top level of open-wheel, despite being just 26 years old, and his 2015 performance didn’t suddenly legitimize the two or three years of underachievement. However, it certainly did validate his excuses when things didn’t go well this season past. People tend to listen when you talk the talk once you start walking the walk.
What particularly impressed most onlookers was that this impressive run of results came despite the fact that Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing campaigned just one car for all races except the Indy 500. That’s certainly left IndyCar team owners questioning the value of multi-car squads, in terms of dollar-per-car-per-victory. Chip Ganassi Racing, Team Penske and Michael Andretti each ran four cars for the majority of the time, yet scored only three wins apiece. Seven of those 12 entries never saw Victory Lane.
So how much does the extra data stream from additional cars help a team succeed? That’s the question that needs to be answered when money is tight, as it is for the majority of IndyCar squads. Is there any point in stretching a budget to campaign two middling cars when a single entry could leave you enough dollars to populate it with the best available engineers, mechanics and pit crew? That’s the question that may receive a firm “No,” from race-winning teams such as KV Racing and CFH Racing in 2016.
When I drove on a one-car team, it meant the engineers were purely looking at what I wanted from the car, no distractions.
“Honestly, I believe that campaigning just one car, although it halves your chances, can actually be better,” says RLLR founder and co-owner Bobby Rahal, who scored all three of his Indy car driver titles while flying solo. “You only have one shot at winning, but the intensity of focus on that one car is awfully strong. When I drove on a one-car team, it meant the engineers were purely looking at what I wanted from the car, no distractions. Whereas if two drivers’ preferred setups are quite different, it’s more like running two one-car teams.
“The only disadvantage that I see is that all your eggs are in one basket. But again, I think that increases the responsibility on that driver but in a good way. He’ll try and give more at debriefs, he’ll work harder at self-analysis and self-improvement, he’ll race smarter knowing that the entire team is depending on him. And to be honest that heightened sense of challenge applies to the whole team, not just the driver.
“It’s also easier to build a real team with fewer people,” Bobby continues. “The more people you have, the harder it becomes to make them all pull in the same direction. So everyone on Rahal Letterman Lanigan is really protective of the team chemistry right now, and I wouldn’t want to risk that.”
Right people, right places, right attitudes
Chemistry is the key word there, according to Graham Rahal’s race engineer, Eddie Jones.
“To be fair, you could argue that a second source of data from having a second car could have benefited us at all events this year,” says Jones, who was in his third season at RLLR but his first working on Graham’s car. “But it’s so dependent on how well the team is structured, the dynamic between the drivers, the dynamic between the two sets of staff, and so on. Trying to run two cars if you have the wrong mix of people is counter-productive.
“Very much part of our success this year was having the right people – no weak links, no personnel clashes – and surrounding Graham with a small group of people who truly believed in him and who he had faith in. It doesn’t take much to upset that dynamic. You could have the budget to run three or four cars, but if those three or four sets of people and particularly the drivers aren’t working for the greater good of the team, or just don’t get on well, you’re going to be in for a long season.”
At the start of the season, we could really have used more cars
Eddie Jones, RLLR race engineer
Nevertheless, the standard belief would be that in a year of substantial technical change such as 2015, when everyone was trying to fathom the breadth of potential created by the aero kits, one-car teams would suffer most. A lot of contemporary IndyCar team personnel are too young to remember the era of learning a new car at the start of every season, so mix-and-match aero kits and the huge number of variables contained therein came as a bit of a culture shock. Yet RLLR appeared to get its arms around the tricky Honda kit better and faster than any of its rivals.
Jones isn’t sure about this compliment, pointing out: “Honestly, at the start of the season, we could really have used more cars, especially when you consider how late we got the kits. My God, there were limitless configurations, and the bigger teams were able to try more of those combinations sooner than we were. But we’re fortunate to have Mike Talbott heading our vehicle dynamics program – he’s very strong – and as the season went on, we were able to refine our aero package.”
Bobby Rahal concurs. “You could see we were narrowing down the technical philosophies for road and street courses, to the extent that each successive weekend we started from a higher level, so we’d be in the top 10 right from the start of practice. Eddie became very specific about our start-off point each event and then the team would refine it according to the conditions. So I think next year we’ll be able to avoid that slightly slow first couple of races and we’ll be even stronger from the start.”
All of this would have been for naught had the guy in the cockpit not played his part. But as well as skill and car control, Graham Rahal also developed a more malleable driving style. He listened whenever he was shown he was losing time on a certain corner, and on occasions when the fastest setup didn’t match his tastes, he was able to adapt and make the most of it.
“That’s the funny thing,” says Graham. “There were probably only one or two races where I liked the way my car handled, in terms of suiting my driving style. But I reached the point of accepting that… and maybe a bit sooner than a lot of the other drivers. The thing is, with the pitch sensitivity of the Honda aero kit, I didn’t see there’d ever be a way to fix the fact that this car is basically loose, so I just accepted it and found a way to go fast with it. And I think it worked out decently well. Getting it close enough and then going out and making the most of it was how we approached most races this year.”
There were probably only one or two races where I liked the way my car handled
That positive approach to a fundamental and largely unsolvable issue was a sign of maturity from Rahal, and his enthusiasm for the task at hand was apparent. Like Bobby says, “when you have self-confidence, good things can happen,” and Jones agrees. He cites Rahal’s drive at Barber Motorsports Park – where in the closing stages he passed Will Power, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Scott Dixon – as a prime example of his driver’s renewed ebullience.
“You obviously have to have great skill to perform like that but it was also a sign of his confidence,” says Jones. “This year was the first time in a long time that Graham had a group who he felt really believed in him, and it showed.”
Graham himself acknowledges that psychological boost, and hints that it also derived from an “Us vs. the world” mentality. He really enjoyed the team’s underdog role in 2015.
“RLLR is a group of people who absolutely extract the best out of each other,” he says. “We don’t have the most resources or the most sponsorship, not by any means. Does that make it harder? Yes. Does it hurt? Yes. But should Andretti have beaten us this year? Yes!
“We all took a lot of pride in competing with Penske and Ganassi and beating Andretti this year. No one expected us to be anywhere near that level. And when the people at IndyCar tech inspection tell us the No. 15 is prepped as well as the Penske cars, our guys love that, as they should. It shows their quality.
“Obviously we sometimes missed. Go try and run an oval with a new aero kit and without a teammate. We honestly didn’t know where to start, and at Texas, that killed our speed because we didn’t have enough downforce for the conditions. Then at Pocono, we went the opposite way, and in the first two pit stops our priority was to try and get the downforce out. So those are times when being a one-car team hurt.
“But I think we proved that when you have a group of talented guys who have confidence in each other, you can still get it right a hell of a lot more often than you get it wrong. Look at Grand Prix of Indy – that really showed how we elevated our game, we overcame obstacles and we wouldn’t let anything get us down. That day we had great strategy, great pit stops, a fast car, and we came through from 17th on the grid to finish second.”
A rare blend
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing certainly made a concrete case for IndyCar teams to stop overstretching their funds to run more cars than they can comfortably handle. But downsizing won’t automatically lead to success as Michael Cannon, Dale Coyne Racing race engineer observes. He points out that RLLR’s success was the result of the actual talents involved and how they worked together.
“Personally I like to have another engineer to bounce ideas off,” says Cannon, “so I’m glad Dale runs two cars. But what Bobby did with his team this year was wonderful. He assembled the best lineup of engineering staff he could, no expense spared, he made sure there were no personality clashes, and then he committed them to just one car. No one was overstretched. Finally he had all the ingredients to do the job properly, and Graham rose to the occasion and recaptured all the potential we’d seen in him from back in the Atlantic days. Very impressive.”
Do I think it would be better to have a really, really good teammate? Ideally, yes
From the drivers’ perspective, RLLR’s decision to run just one entry makes sense, in current circumstances.
“Do I think it would be better to have a really, really good teammate? Ideally, yes,” says Graham. “But how many of those are available? And where’s the money for that second car coming from? What makes most economic sense to RLLR is to have one very well-funded car, instead of cutting corners to run a second one that doesn’t add anything to the program and would probably actually hurt it.”
Even if funding a second car weren’t an issue, there would still be hesitancy within the RLLR ranks regarding expansion. Ask Eddie Jones how he might respond if Bobby were to tell him that he’d found $6m to run a second car in 2016, and he barely hesitates.
“First I’d ask for a pay rise,” he chuckles. “But seriously, I’d ask Bobby which driver he was looking at, and which engineer, too. And then I’d ask him if we really needed to go to two cars, given how we ran this year.”
Don’t be surprised to see others try and emulate the RLLR template next season.