Graham Rahal’s team seeks balance, better weekends all around

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At a track where he has two front row starts and finished second in 2011, Graham Rahal is in need of a turnaround at this weekend’s Milwaukee IndyFest.

Although he’s only 24, what was expected to be a big season in the confines of his father Bobby’s Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team has been a struggle. The team chemistry and dynamic is just fine between Rahal, engineer Gerry Hughes and his mechanics. Still, team and driver have often struggled to roll off the trailer with the setup nailed.

Part of the issue is that Rahal’s driving style is very sensitive to the rear of the car, which is a 180-degree difference for RLL than what Takuma Sato has had last year. The issues were amplified last week at Texas, when Rahal had what he called the worst night of his racing career.

“We were terrible. Texas was the longest night of my career,” Rahal said Friday in the Milwaukee media center. “We took six percent out of the front wing. The first 100 laps were brutal. It was difficult confidence wise.”

This week, Rahal rolled out with a more conservative setup as created by the team’s second engineer, Eddie Jones, who works on teammate James Jakes’ car. Jones has a knack for finding the right setup at the short ovals – Rubens Barrichello thrived under Jones’ direction at Milwaukee and Iowa last year – and the plan was to get Rahal and Jakes more comfortable over longer runs.

Although Jones has taken the reins on the team setup strategy, it’s not a foreshadowing of any changes coming down the pipeline in the team. As Rahal noted, Hughes’ Formula One background isn’t immediately compatible with oval setup.

“Just these two events we’re trying his setup,” Rahal said. “Gerry came from F1 and he’s almost going in blind on ovals. Plus Sato crashed here last year so there’s not a great read. We’re at the point as a team going forward, where, if you have an idea, you need to speak up. We value all opinions and we have a great team, with our assistant engineers and mechanics. Everyone’s working really hard, and we feel like we’re working harder than most.”

One of the other issues Rahal has worked to overcome has been a lack of testing. He’s had only two full days this calendar year since an electrical issue didn’t allow him to run the second day of INDYCAR’s official test at Barber Motorsports Park.

Rahal has a best finish of second at Long Beach this year. Although he finished in the top-10 in both Detroit races, he said the all-around weekend performance could have been better. The series completes its mad dash of six races in five weekends next weekend in Iowa.

F1 Preview: 2018 Australian Grand Prix

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Save for two occasions, in 2006, and 2010, the Australian Grand Prix has served as the season-opening event for the FIA Formula 1 World Championship since 1996, and this weekend’s event will be the 21st time that the city of Melbourne has kicked off the Formula 1 campaign.

The 2018 season is the fifth one of the current hybrid power unit era, the second season of the current aero regulations, and the second under Liberty Media’s guidance.

Last year saw titans Mercedes AMG Petronas and Scuderia Ferrari duel for supremacy for most of the season before Mercedes distanced Ferrari late in the season to take the constructor’s title and the driver’s title, with Lewis Hamilton, who is now tied with Sebastian Vettel on four world championships apiece.

Four drivers on the grid have Formula 1 world championships to their name: Hamilton, Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen, and Fernando Alonso. Scuderia Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley also has a world championship to his name as a two-time titlist in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

So, what can viewers expect from the 2018 curtain-raiser in Australia? A handful of things to watch are below?

2018 Australian Grand Prix – Talking Points

Does Anyone Have Anything for Mercedes?

Only on one day during pre-season testing did a Mercedes driver lead the way – Lewis Hamilton was fastest on the final day of Week 1 at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.

However, all indications were that was by design, with the team focusing the majority of the second week, if not the entire second week, on long runs with their W09 EQ Power+ chassis.

Such a decision is an ominous one, in that it indicates the team is very comfortable with the amount of speed in the car and did not see a need, or desire, to show their hand during testing.

With that in mind, the Mercedes duo of Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas may yet again have the best and fastest cars, and the team looks poised to potentially make it five constructor’s and driver’s championships in a row.

Ferrari and Red Bull Look to End Mercedes Reign

The biggest threats to Mercedes are undoubtedly Ferrari and Red Bull, the only other teams to win in 2017.

And both teams displayed a lot of pace during testing, particularly in the “one-lap speed” category. Ricciardo set a lap record around the Catalunya circuit during the second week, only for Vettel to supplant that mark later in the week. Teammate Kimi Raikkonen led the way during the final day of testing.

It is unknown how that pace will translate over the course of a race distance. Mercedes appeared to have an edge on both Ferrari and Red Bull over long runs and race simulations, but there is also a theory that neither Ferrari nor Red Bull had their true long-run form on display.

Still, if a team is going to knock off Mercedes, it will likely be either Ferrari or Red Bull.

McLaren on the Rebound?

Put simply, the previous three seasons for McLaren F1 Team were a bit of a disaster. Their partnership with Honda yielded point totals of 27 (2015), 76 (2016), and 30 (2017) in a three-year venture that was defined by poor reliability and underwhelming power.

The relationship hit a boiling point last year and both entities parted ways ahead of the 2018 season, with McLaren signing a new power unit deal with Renault.

Testing went better than in previous years, though the team continued to battle reliability problems. However, all issues appeared to be minor, needling issues rather than more significant, foundational problems, as the other Renault teams (Red Bull and Renault Sport F1 Team) had solid runs with few reliability issues.

The car does appear to have speed in it, so if the reliability problems are behind them, McLaren could be in for a rebound season.

Stuck in the Midfield Again

Formula 1’s battle amongst the midfield is set to be as fierce as ever as a host of a several teams have a chance at being “best of the rest.”

Sahara Force India has been the frontrunner from the the midfield teams each of the last two years, finishing fourth in the constructor’s title in both 2016 and 2017, though if the steady conflict between drivers Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez continues through 2018, it could hamper their efforts significantly.

Renault Sport F1 Team and Haas F1 Team look to improve on their 2017 form, while Toro Rosso is in a new partnership with Honda power units…and has experienced a surprisingly smooth pre-season as Honda’s 2018 platform looks significantly better, with the team enjoying a solid run of testing with few, if any, reliability problems.

Williams Martini Racing and Alfa Romeo Sauber appear to be at the back of the pack entering the season, but both could battle for points finishes if those ahead of them falter.