The ingredients are set for Graham Rahal’s big, breakout year

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Graham Rahal is in the best possible position for a true, and overdue, breakout IndyCar Series campaign in 2014.

He’s nearly a decade into his career, but he only just turned 25 in January.

It seems hard to believe, but Rahal first entered the national open-wheel sphere as a then-16-year-old winning the Formula Atlantic class at the SCCA National Championship Runoffs in 2005, the youngest driver to claim that honor at the Runoffs.

A year later, he engaged in a knife-fight with Simon Pagenaud for the Champ Car-backed Formula Atlantic title, but lost. Still, both leapt into Champ Car in 2007, and Rahal was on the podium in only his third race after missing his prom.

He won his first IndyCar-sanctioned start at St. Petersburg in 2008. In 2009, he frequently hassled the Penske and Ganassi squads with the Newman/Haas/Lanigan team as a regular podium visitor and occasional pole sitter.

And yet since that point, it’s been stop-start.

The 2010 season saw Rahal out of a full-time ride; instead he took up multiple opportunities when presented. A switch to Chip Ganassi Racing’s new second two-car team in 2011 didn’t bare the expected fruits of success.

Homecoming last year to his dad Bobby’s operation also didn’t go according to plan. Some highlights happened, but it was a trying season due to some organizational (engineering) changes during the year, and other bits of bad luck that frequently popped up.

The 2014 season is the big reset. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing has National Guard backing, and Graham is the Guard’s new face.

The engineering strength has been bolstered with Bill Pappas joining as Rahal’s full-time engineer, with strength in depth of Eddie Jones and new hire John Dick.

Oriol Servia will join for at least four races in the team’s second car, which means the part-time pairing from 2009 at NHL gets reunited.

Add it all up and the ingredients all appear to be in place.

“For us, there’s quite a lot of pride involved in this,” Rahal said at IndyCar media day in Orlando.  “I know Dave (Letterman) is certainly extremely excited, probably the most excited I’ve seen him in years to be involved in a program like this.  So is, of course, Mike Lanigan.

“There is quite a lot of responsibility for us.  On-track performance is key.  We want to do a good job.  But off-track performance is equally as important to the National Guard and we need to make sure the main goals of recruiting and retention are things we carry through each and every day and do the best we can to help them out, try to keep them in the sport as long as we can.”

Graham has learned well from his father, Bobby, in terms of the business side. He’s been a key activator and voice for some of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s new additions this year, notably the new road course race on May 10 (Rahal tested on the course to gauge potential configurations) and the new qualifying format for the Indianapolis 500.

The business on-track, of course, is delivering a package better than a 17.7 qualifying average in 2013, and a points result better than 18th. And Rahal, who’s scored four top-10 championship finishes since 2007 (with a best of fifth coming as an 18-year-old rookie in Champ Car that year), is under no illusions about the challenge it will take to get back to those heights.

“As a team, this elevates us to a whole new level, because it allows us to invest in the people, shock programs that we haven’t had, that the Ganassis, Penskes, Andrettis of the world have,” Rahal explained.

“I think it’s going to help elevate us to a different level we haven’t been in many years, probably since the team was a Ford factory team or funded by Miller or Shell in the old days.  It kind of gets us back to that sort of level.”

The shock program, Rahal said, was night-and-day difference coming home versus being with Ganassi. At CGR, he said they could use four different pairs of shocks per weekend, while at RLL, the options were less.

Rahal though has already gelled with Pappas, and said the feel of the car is much improved.

“When I got out of what was my car last year, and then drove what was a Bill Pappas car for the first time, didn’t feel like the same chassis,” Rahal explained. “The car felt so different it was like driving a sports car versus an IndyCar. It was a completely different sensation.”

On that front, Rahal did get some sports car mileage in this winter too, racing in the BMW Team RLL BMW Z4 GTE car at the Rolex 24 at Daytona. His car finished fourth in the GT Le Mans class, an impressive result given the car’s straight-line speed deficit.

Now though, he’ll want some fourths, then thirds, seconds and his elusive second win as he prepares for full year number two home at RLL. They’re family, but it’s business.

“This year I think dad trusts in me a lot to help him when he needs something, needs to get some inside scoop or anything like that,” Rahal explained. “I think we have a very close relationship that I think a lot of people, father-son relationship, whatever it may be, the business can tear that apart, but I think we’re pretty good at balancing that.”

Grosjean: ‘Unbelievable’ to score Haas’ best F1 qualifying result in Australia

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Romain Grosjean hailed Haas’ Formula 1 qualifying performance in Australia as “unbelievable” after picking up its best Saturday result since joining the grid.

NASCAR team co-owner Gene Haas took his eponymous operation into F1 last year, with Grosjean leading its charge through its debut campaign.

Haas enters its sophomore year in 2017 looking to build on its eighth-place finish in the constructors’ championship, and made a strong start in Australia on Saturday.

While new driver Kevin Magnussen dropped out in Q1 following an error on his hot lap, Grosjean was able to take Haas into Q3 before securing sixth place on the grid for Sunday’s season-opener.

The result marks Haas’ best qualifying result to date in F1, beating Grosjean’s run to P7 ahead of the Brazilian Grand Prix last November.

“It was quite an unbelievable qualifying session for us. It’s a shame that we didn’t get Kevin there, but the car is looking good, even better than what we’ve seen recently,” Grosjean said after the session.

“We’ve made some good progress over the weekend. There’s a lot more we can understand and analyze but, generally, it’s a great start for us.

“It’s always good to start with a strong qualifying session. It tells you that if you keep improving the car, you could be in a good place very soon. If that’s our baseline, and you can fight between sixth and 10th position, where it’s so tight, it would be great to be there most of the time and enjoy some good times.

“Tomorrow’s start is a big unknown. We’ve been practicing and some have been good, others not so much. Hopefully, we’ll get the first one right tomorrow.”

The Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from midnight ET.

Daniel Ricciardo frustrated to crash out of home F1 qualifying

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Daniel Ricciardo made no secret of his frustration after crash out of Formula 1 qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix, resigning himself to a 10th-place start for his home race on Sunday.

Ricciardo entered the Melbourne weekend aiming to become the first Australian to finish on the podium at his home race since the event became part of the F1 world championship in 1985.

Despite struggling with the setup on his RB13 car on Friday, Ricciardo looked poised to claim a top-five grid slot for Sunday’s race, only to lose control of his car at Turn 14 in Q3 and end the session in the wall.

“That was a tough one today. I don’t crash into the barriers often and the last place I want to do that is at home,” Ricciardo said after the session.

“But I feel I crashed for the right reason, as I was basically pushing and trying to find the limit and these things happen, so let’s say I’m not disappointed by the approach, it was just more of a frustrating outcome, starting 10th instead of being under the top five.”

Ever the optimist, Ricciardo said the difficult qualifying will only serve as greater motivation to fight back up the order and give his home fans a result to celebrate on Sunday.

“I knew the crowds would have also preferred to see me further up the grid and it would have been nice to put on a better performance than that but tomorrow is where the points are,” Ricciardo said.

“It’s a chance to create a bigger headline if I have a good race so that’s what will motivate me to do better tomorrow. I made it a bit more difficult for myself but it’s going to be alright.

“To get a good start in the race will be the key. I saved a set of ultra-softs in Q2, I know that not everyone in front of me has, so maybe that gives me a chance.”

The Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from midnight ET.

Valtteri Bottas disappointed with P3 start for Mercedes F1 debut

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Valtteri Bottas came away from qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix feeling disappointed despite securing third place on the grid for his first Formula 1 race as a Mercedes driver.

Bottas joined Mercedes over the winter following world champion Nico Rosberg’s decision to retire from racing, and made his first official race weekend appearance for the Silver Arrows on Friday.

The ex-Williams driver made a splash in qualifying by running teammate Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel close, but was left to settle for third on the grid after finishing three-tenths of a second off the pole time.

“Third position is not ideal. In general I’m not happy with the result,” Bottas admitted after qualifying.

“But what I’m really happy about and proud about [is] what the team has done again with this car. I only saw a very small part of the preparation with the new car and the new era of Formula 1, and it’s really nice to see that all the work has paid off and we’re fighting at the very front.

“It seems to be very close this year, especially here. Myself I didn’t get any perfect laps in, so not that satisfied.

“Tomorrow’s the day that matters. It seems like in the race starts we’ve been quite strong. If we can keep that form I had in practice, and have a nice and clean race and get some really good points.”

Bottas’ best finish in Australia currently stands at fifth place in 2014 with Williams, with the Finn never qualifying any higher than sixth at Albert Park in his four previous attempts.

The Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from midnight ET.

Vettel: Front-row grid slot for Australia proof of Ferrari’s progress

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Sebastian Vettel believes that his charge to second place on the grid for Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix acts as proof of the progress Ferrari’s Formula 1 operation has made over the winter.

Vettel arrived in Australia as one of the favorites to take pole following an impressive showing in pre-season testing, prompting three-time champion Lewis Hamilton to name Ferrari as the leading team.

Hamilton rallied in qualifying to take pole position for Mercedes, beating Vettel by two-tenths of a second, but the Ferrari driver managed to fend off Valtteri Bottas in the second Silver Arrow and clinch a front-row berth.

The result marked Ferrari’s best qualifying result since the 2015 Singapore Grand Prix – Vettel’s and Ferrari’s last pole and victory in F1 – and the German was encouraged by the result.

“I think we have a good car. I think we are working well as a team,” Vettel said.

“Things are improving. Obviously it’s nice to see that things are working, the car is working. I had a mixed day yesterday, but the confidence in the car was there from testing and I think we showed that again today.”

Vettel conceded that he felt his final lap in qualifying could have been faster, but doubts it would have been enough to catch pole-sitter Hamilton.

“In the end I was not entirely happy with my lap. I was pretty happy with the end, maybe not so much with the opening of the lap where we lost a bit too much,” Vettel said.

“But I think Lewis did a very good lap. I would have loved to, but I don’t think pole was up for grabs. Tomorrow I think we can do something in the race. The car feels good, we’ve improved it so the pace should be much better than it was yesterday when we had practice.

“It’s been a big winter for us, lots of change we’ve gone through as a team in the last 12 months, and for the better. I think the team is getting stronger.

“Obviously everyone is pushing very hard and it’s not so easy to come here with a long journey to get to Australia, but I think people are fired up and we are motivated for tomorrow.

“I think it’s the first good opportunity.”