Graham Rahal hoping to start turn-around at home

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Graham Rahal makes no bones about it – 2013 has not been one of his greatest years in the IZOD IndyCar Series.

“Unfortunately, as things came together for the team this year, we didn’t have speed in the car from the get go,” Rahal said on Wednesday at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course ahead of this weekend’s Honda Indy 200 (Sun., 3 p.m. ET, NBCSN). “At a couple of different tracks this year, it clicked for us. We ran up front at Long Beach and at Iowa, we were really strong.

“When I can only list two races out of all the ones we’ve done, it’s been a frustrating year.”

The 24-year-old American, who drives for Rahal Letterman Lanigan, sits a disappointing 17th in the championship with a lone podium (Long Beach) and two Top-5 finishes (the Beach and Iowa) in the season’s first 13 events.

But the Ohio native has come to home ground this weekend at Mid-Ohio, and he’s very much wanting to finish 2013 strong – starting with a victory in front of his family, friends and fellow Buckeyes.

“I want to do well here,” he said. “A win here would mean a lot to us. Not only for me as a person, but for the whole team. It would mean a ton.”

Still, Rahal notes that the team has been “making some changes” in an effort to get a head-start on next season. Among those changes are the welcoming of a new engineer for him, Neil Fife, who’s joined RLL after being released from Dragon Racing.

“It helps us because if this is the way the team is going to stay in ’14, we get time to work together,” Rahal said. “I’ve known Neil for a long time, but we’ve never worked together. It’s a new thing.

“…It’s all about building momentum and the more time you spend and get more familiar with everybody, it’s only going to help you in the future.”

Hartley happy with ‘big progression’ on first day with Toro Rosso

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With 69 laps completed (28 in free practice one and 41 in free practice two) and respectable lap times in both sessions, Brendon Hartley quickly acclimated to a modern day Formula 1 chassis in his first run with Scuderia Toro Rosso in Friday practice for the United States Grand Prix.

The Porsche factory driver has been drafted into the team following a convoluted series of musical chairs that sees Daniil Kvyat back after a two-race absence, Carlos Sainz Jr. now at Renault and Pierre Gasly racing at the Super Formula season finale in Suzuka.

Over the time in the car today, Hartley experienced changeable conditions in FP1 before a more normal FP2, and discovered the new F1 cockpit after a day learning in the garage yesterday.

“A steep learning curve today! It all went pretty smoothly and I kept the car on track without making too many mistakes, so I’m quite happy,” the New Zealander reflected at day’s end.

“I didn’t really know what to expect from today because I just had so much to learn! I think I made quite a big progression throughout the day.

“The biggest difference from what I’m used to is the high-speed grip, it’s incredible here in Formula 1…it was quite an eye-opener! Another challenge are the tires, which are also quite different to what I’m used to. On the other hand, the long-run looks quite positive and I did a good job managing the tires there – the biggest thing I need to work on now is the new tire pace, and I’ll get another crack at it tomorrow morning before qualifying.

“All in all, I’d say it’s all coming together. We’ll now work hard and go through plenty of data tonight and hopefully I’ll make another step forward tomorrow.”

His best lap was 1.1 seconds up on Friday driver Sean Gelael, the Indonesian Formula 2 driver, in FP1 (1:39.267 to 1:40.406, good enough for 14th) and 1.1 seconds off the returning Kvyat in FP2 (1:37.987 to 1:36.761, good enough for 17th). Interestingly, the Gelael/Hartley combination in FP1 marked the second time in three races that Toro Rosso had a pair of drivers in its cars without a single Grand Prix start between them – Gasly’s debut at Malaysia was the other, when he and Gelael were in in FP1.

Coming into Friday’s running, Hartley said he was more ready for this opportunity now than he had been as a teenager. He admitted he’d called Red Bull’s Helmut Marko in the wake of Porsche’s LMP1 withdrawal news earlier this year to say he was game for any chance that might come.

“I’m a lot stronger than I was back then, basically. I wasn’t ready at 18 years old. I like to think I’m ready now,” he said.

“I haven’t driven a single-seater since 2012, but I like to think that Porsche LMP1 has hopefully prepared me well.”

As for the rest of his weekend, it’s been made more complicated by Hartley being assessed a 25-spot grid penalty, even though Hartley had done nothing to accrue the penalties.

The roundabout sequence of driver changes at Toro Rosso saw Gasly replace Kvyat, Kvyat replace Sainz, and now Hartley replace Gasly, as is outlined by NBCSN pit reporter Will Buxton below.