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.
MRTI: Chris Griffis Test Sunday times and notebook
Thompson (90, Exclusive) and Hoogenboom (78, BN) in Pro Mazda. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
The two-day Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy Test concluded on Sunday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.
Combined times after the two days of running are below, with Nico Jamin (Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires) and Oliver Askew (Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires) remaining on top from Saturday to Sunday, and Darren Keane (Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda) supplanting Andres Gutierrez at the head of that field.
Previous notebooks are linked here (Friday, Saturday), with additional Sunday notes to follow.
Several drivers pulled double duty between series, namely Parker Thompson (Exclusive Autosport in Pro Mazda and USF2000), Carlos Cunha (Juncos Racing in Indy Lights and Pro Mazda) and Aaron Telitz (Team Pelfrey in Pro Mazda, RJB Motorsports in USF2000). Telitz (above) added a run in Pro Mazda in Team Pelfrey’s No. 82 car; the Wisconsinite has done a lot of the series’ testing for the new Pro Mazda Tatuus PM-18, and had hoped to run all three series. We’ll have more meanwhile on Thompson and Exclusive’s double in the days to come; the Michael Duncalfe-led team out of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan was one of three new Pro Mazda teams adding those cars to USF2000 efforts (Pabst Racing, BN Racing) this week.
There were a handful of drivers that changed cars or teams for Sunday’s second day of the test, primarily in USF2000. While Keane ran both days at Newman Wachs, the Brian Halahan-managed team ran David Osborne and Oscar DeLuzuriaga in the Nos. 37 and 38 cars, taking over from Jake Craig and Max Peichel. Osborne switched from Team Pelfrey, where he ran Saturday, and where Jacob Loomis ran Sunday. Justin Gordon ran a second Exclusive Autosport chassis, switching to the No. 90 on Sunday after running the No. 92 Saturday.
The PM-18 best lap set by Askew is more than three seconds faster than the series’ official track record (Pato O’Ward in 2016, at 1:22.8800, 105.941 mph). Askew’s best time of 1:19.8142 averages 110.010 mph around the 2.439-mile circuit. Neither the Indy Lights nor USF2000 cars eclipsed the existing lap records in those categories.
Drivers largely extolled the PM-18’s outright pace and potential with the horsepower upgrade, in what is a significant step forward for the series. “Following prototype testing of the new PM-18, I believed that we had a special race car and this weekend’s testing confirms that,” said Dan Andersen, Owner and CEO of Andersen Promotions. “Based on team and driver comments, this is a fantastic race car and I am very pleased with what Tatuus, Elite Engines and my team have assembled. It fits perfectly in between the USF-17 and the IL-15 in terms of lap times and, more importantly, it takes what a driver learns in the first step and introduces higher HP, higher grip and higher aero. This will be a great training car for years to come, and seeing our program now with three excellent and well-designed cars is very satisfying to me.”
Keane, one of the few veterans (relatively speaking) within USF2000 was plugged in this weekend as the only driver outside Pabst Racing to threaten the top of the timesheets. “It’s a good boost in confidence for me heading into next year. I am really happy with how everything is going with the team. They are a great group of guys and it’s just really good to see us improving and being where we want to be,” he said.
Rinus Veekay hailed the Indy Lights Dallara IL-15 Mazda this weekend in his first test there, although the talented Dutch teenager may well focus on Pro Mazda next season and shoot to win that championship, and continue his battle with Askew established in USF2000. “The car is very nice, quick,” noted VeeKay. “You can really feel the downforce and it was a pleasure to drive.”
The MRTI is done with official running for the year, but the $200,000 MRTI Scholarship Shootout remains in December at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, the former Firebird Raceway, outside Phoenix. The winner of that will get a ticket into USF2000 for the 2018 season.
Full MRTI spring training will take place at Homestead-Miami Speedway in February 2018, with undoubtedly a bevy of driver and team announcements to come over the following months.