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Seven years ago, Bobby Rahal’s Verizon IndyCar Series team was at its weak point.
From 2009-2011, Rahal’s team had fallen from its glory days of winning the 1992 CART championship and the 2004 Indianapolis 500 to a one-race-a-year operation that competed in the Indy 500. In 2009, Oriol Servia was running 10th before dropping out after only 98 laps. In 2010, Rahal’s son Graham drove for the team in the Indy 500 with a 12th-place finish. In 2011, Jay Howard and Bertrand Baguette both drove Rahal’s cars in the Indy 500, with Howard finishing 30th and Baguette seventh, although he was the lead with just three laps to go.
It was at that point Bobby Rahal along with his partners David Letterman and Michael Lanigan had a major decision to make.
“I certainly didn’t enjoy those early days, particularly given that when we were a full-time entrant in the ’90s, early 2000s, we won as many races probably as Penske or Ganassi or anybody else in those days, including Buddy Rice winning the Indy 500 in 2004,” team owner Bobby Rahal recalled. “To come back and have that level of performance, I really have to hand it to my partners.
“We sat down and talked about it. We’re either going to do this or we’re not. We’re not going to stay where we are. We really made a commitment to build our engineering group up. I think we’ve got one of the best groups out there, Eddie Jones, Tom German and many of the other assistant engineers.”
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing decided to invest heavily in an engineering staff. In 2012, it returned to full-time participation with Takuma Sato as the team’s driver in every race in the series, with Michel Jourdain of Mexico competing in the Indy 500.
In 2013, the team grew to a two-car effort with Graham Rahal and James Jakes as the two drivers. From 2014 to 2017, it was a single-car effort with Rahal as the driver.
Despite its one-car status during that time, the engineering group included Jones, Martin Pare and Michael Talbott. German was hired before last season started and he was the engineer for Team Penske when Sam Hornish, Jr. won the Indy 500 in 2006 and for Andretti Herta Autosport when Alexander Rossi won the 100th Indianapolis 500 in 2016.
“We were over-engineered for a one-car team the last several years but when you have a chance to get good people we wanted to make sure we got them in anticipation of a second car,” Bobby Rahal said. “We’ve been seamless because Eddie Jones came over to Sato’s team and Tom German is now Graham’s guy.
“We really made a conscious effort to try to go out and get the best people we could. We’re continuing to do that. We have a lot of good guys, many of whom have worked with Graham before. There was some familiarity there, a comfort level, but also really good people who didn’t have egos that would get in the way of working together.”
Those results certainly paid off in Friday’s first day of the Verizon IndyCar Series Open Test.
In the grand scheme, it was only the first day of the first open test of the season. But to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, it’s validation the Verizon IndyCar Series team is making all of the right moves for the 2018 season.
Rahal recently rehired Takuma Sato.
Rahal and the recently rehired Takuma Sato were the two fastest drivers in Friday’s six hours of testing. The Honda duo paced the field of 23 cars around the 1.022-mile ISM Raceway with a fast lap of 189.090 miles per hour in a Honda. That was just a tick faster than Sato’s 189.065 mph as the winner of the 102nd Indianapolis 500 returns to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing for the first time since 2012.
“It’s a good start considering most of these teams had prior oval track experience with this body kit and this is our first day,” Bobby Rahal said. “I’m real pleased with the way we came out of the gate. It could all change on Saturday but it’s a good start. It’s good for Takuma. That’s great. We are seeing the benefits of the second car.
“Stay focused, keep our heads up and keep doing it.”
Again, it’s just a test, but the fact both RLL drivers were at the top of the timing sheets was impressive.
“That’s what you are aiming for,” Rahal said. “You want that all the time. You want to be there at the tip of the spear, as they say, and have both cars there is what it’s all about.
“I’m sure we have a lot of work to do but it’s a good start.”
Honda Performance Development (HPD) President Art St. Cyr stood in the back of the Rahal Letterman Lanigan pit toward the end of Friday night’s three-hour practice session. He looked up and said, “It looks a lot better this year.”
That is the universal aero kit, or the new car, or the 2018 car or whatever it should be called — it’s the same aerodynamic package for both Honda and Chevrolet. That should make the field even more competitive in 2018 after three seasons where competitive aero kits often split the field, with one manufacturer having an advantage over another.
Graham Rahal was most satisfied that his car was fast in both the hot sunshine on Friday and the cooler conditions at night.
“Overall, there were a lot of positives that came out of today,” the younger Rahal said. “The biggest positive is we are good, and Takuma is right behind us. My sense is what is good is I’m not that super happy with the car but both cars have pace and that is awesome. To come here and have that pace — Takuma and I haven’t had a lot of luck here the past few years — but to come here with this aero kit and be competitive is awesome.”
Rahal said his car did better than what he was expecting entering the test.
“It’s better than I expected for the early days and a lot to build on with good translation from prior setups to what we have here today,” Rahal said. “My car was pretty good during the day. This car handled the transition from day and night better than the old car in my opinion.”
Graham Rahal was fast at Phoenix Friday during the day and the night.
“This is good. I’m excited. I know Pops is going to be happy but overall, it’s a good day.”
Sato never needs much of a reason to smile as he may be the happiest driver in the series. But his smile on Friday night was one of satisfaction.
“It’s only testing but it’s a great way to start,” Sato said. “It shows the commitment and work over the winter. All of the boys have worked real hard and with the universal package it’s a very competitive series now. It was a very productive day.
“It’s a very tight field and the last few seasons the short ovals are the venues we struggled behind the big teams but today we showed we can have the same speed. That was very encouraging.”
Has Sato returned to his home after three seasons with AJ Foyt Racing and one year with Andretti Autosport?
“Very much so,” Sato said with a smile.
Both drivers can owe that fast start to a strong engineering staff.
“I have no doubt we have the best engineering staff in the series,” Graham Rahal told Autoweek. “I think Dad and Rick Nault (team general manager) have done a great job identifying the right people. My dad once said in Formula 1, give me Adrian Newey as the engineer and it doesn’t matter who the driver is.”
Bobby Rahal believes he has the two fastest drivers on his team.
“We’re continuing to build,” Bobby Rahal said. “It’s making it fun to go to the races again. To see Graham run up front, to have Takuma, I love the guy. The thing about Takuma, what you see is what you get. When you come to the race, you know he’s going to give you 100 percent. We just need to make sure he doesn’t give us 110. But I love the guy. He and Graham work well together.
“You can never take anything for granted. I’m always optimistic. I think there’s real reason to feel we’re going to have a pretty good year.”