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.”

Porsche wins, champs crowned in rain-shortened Petit Le Mans

Photo: IMSA
Photo: IMSA

BRASELTON, Ga. – One of the more bizarre races in recent sports car history was called just prior to the eight-hour mark, as IMSA Race Director Beaux Barfield made the decision to end the 2015 edition of the Petit Le Mans powered by Mazda early.

It produced a surprise winner, as the GT Le Mans class No. 911 Porsche 911 RSR secured an overall victory courtesy of a storming drive from Nick Tandy and co-driver Patrick Pilet. Third driver Richard Lietz did not get to drive in the race.

Pilet has now secured the GTLM class championship, too, as a result.

Meanwhile Action Express Racing stormed from behind to win its second consecutive Prototype class championship.

The No. 5 Corvette DP of Joao Barbosa, Christian Fittipaldi and Sebastien Bourdais finished third overall – behind both the No. 911 car and No. 24 BMW Z4 GTE – but the result was enough to give it a class win and the class championship.

Other class champions include Jon Bennett and Colin Braun in Prototype Challenge in the No. 54 CORE autosport Oreca FLM09 and NBCSN IndyCar analyst Townsend Bell and Bill Sweedler in the No. 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 458 Italia in GT Daytona. Like the Action Express pairing, Bell and Sweedler came from behind to win the title.

Other race winners were the No. 52 PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports Oreca FLM09 of Tom Kimber-Smith, Mike Guasch and Andrew Palmer in PC and the No. 73 Park Place Motorsports Porsche 911 GT America of Spencer Pumpelly, Patrick Lindsey and Madison Snow in GTD.

The race was slowed by 10 full-course cautions and a number of accidents, spins, and other off-course excursions.

It also featured a red flag of one hour and five minutes during the race, but the race was resumed.

Barfield explained the decision to call the race when he did in a post-race press conference with assembled reporters:

“So a big part of reconnecting with the drivers and competitors in this paddock has been really open communication,” Barfield said.

“For the basis of this decision, I go back to Watkins Glen. At Watkins Glen because of the imminent weather we had coming there and how it ended up being managed, we encouraged more open dialogue to gather as much information as possible for our decision process.

“As it turned out that was very successful how they communicated real time.

“So going into this event, with the weather being similarly predictably bad, we reestablished that. How we communicated and went about it the same way.

“Today was really similar to that with our attention to our attention to what was going on the track and on the TV screeens, and with looking at the radar. With my knowledge of this track having spent a lot of time here in the past. Having a quick car availbel for recon laps during the vents. All of our decisions were for gathering information from those different directions.

“Fast forward to the very end of the race, the last restart, I felt in my gut that with the visibility issues, you have to think about these issues that produce two problems.

“One is the grip, hydroplaning – whatever part of the world you’re from – where issues where drivers have less control. An often forgotten major issue is the visibility. Cars with downforce shoot up such a spray, it’s hard to see around.

“The grip issue was one and dealt with but we had some daylight. The visibility was a problem. But not as it great as it became in the last hour when we lost sunlight.

“The light with the track conditions gave me no comfort level to go back green that is. What I saw on track, the visibility issues I had with a Porsche on track, you had the speed they had, you’d have to drop into night with a sunset, I felt like I’d be putting driver out there completely blind.

“So this decision was made to pull the plug and do the checkered flag.”

Bottas: Williams turning focus to 2016 car

Williams driver Valtteri Bottas of Finland steers his car to set the third fastest time during the qualifying session at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit, Belgium, Saturday, Aug. 22, 2015. The Belgium Formula One Grand Prix will be held on Sunday. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)
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Valtteri Bottas has explained how Williams is beginning to turn its attention to the development of its car for the 2016 Formula 1 season as the team settles into third place in the constructors’ championship.

Williams has struggled to put up much of a fight to Mercedes and Ferrari at the front of the field in 2015, picking up just three podium finishes.

With five races to go in the season, the team sits comfortably in third place in the constructors’ standings, knowing that neither the 129 point gap to Ferrari ahead or the 69 point difference to Red Bull behind are likely to be bridged.

As a result, the team is now turning attention to its 2016 car, the FW38, as explained by Bottas in his post-Japanese Grand Prix blog.

“As we get to this stage of the season some of the focus is switching to next year’s car and for sure we’ve been developing the FW38 for a long time,” Bottas said.

“That’s the target until the end of the season – to look ahead and put us in the best place for 2016. But if we can also find something that benefits this year’s car then we’ll use it as we would like to get more podiums before the season finishes. And if we can get closer to Ferrari then all the better.”

Williams has looked most comfortable at the high-speed tracks so far this season, and with the likes of the Circuit of The Americas, the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez and the Yas Marina Circuit all to come, the team should be in good stead for the final leg of the year.

“Most of the tracks we’re still going to this year should be good for us, so that’s very positive,” Bottas said. “I believe the upgrades we introduced for Singapore gave us more downforce and worked well, so they definitively worked here too.

“We ran the same bits on the car at Suzuka and were competitive but, obviously, Red Bull and Ferrari have made improvements too and they’ll be very difficult to beat in the coming races.”