Rahal

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.”

Gutierrez hoping for more in Russia after finally banking first finish

during practice ahead of the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park on March 18, 2016 in Melbourne, Australia.
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An accident in the Australian Grand Prix and brake issues in the Bahrain Grand Prix was not the kind of return to competition Esteban Gutierrez was expecting.

After a one-year hiatus and two failures to finish in 2016, the 24-year-old Mexican driver for Formula 1’s new American team was finally running at the end of a race.

As he heads into this weekend’s Russian Grand Prix, Gutierrez is keen to start getting any sort of momentum going.

“For sure it was a relief to finish the race finally,” Gutierrez said in Thursday’s FIA Press Conference.

“It’s been a frustrating start for me, a lot of interruptions over the weekends, but I wasn’t satisfied completely just by finishing the race of course, I want much more than that.”

Gutierrez finished the Chinese Grand Prix 14th, as the first driver one lap down to the leaders in the No. 21 Haas VF-16 Ferrari.

Notably, that is precisely where he finished his most recent five races of 2014—one lap off the pace, but running at the end of the show. Gutierrez’s last complete race came in the 2014 Belgian Grand Prix when he finished 15th.

“China overall wasn’t a great track for our car,” he admitted. “Hopefully we can recover from now on, in Russia, and that this track gives us better possibilities.

“Russia offers… yeah, let’s say a medium range of overtaking so it’s not very straightforward but hopefully the strategy can be a bit more viable, that we can have more pitstops. As you say, the prediction is not the case, but hopefully we have a fun race for the people outside to watch, and have fun.”

Last year, Gutierrez spent his year working on race simulations to stay sharp. It was no substitute for race experience, but it provided a different perspective he hopes will lead to eventually finishing in a points’ paying position.

Working on a simulator in 2015 “didn’t change the approach; it changed my knowledge,” Gutierrez added. “I basically experiment a lot.”

“I feel very confident and I feel very prepared right now and everything is in front of me.”

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Kvyat hopeful of continuing China form on home soil

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 28:  Daniil Kvyat of Russia and Red Bull Racing waves at the crowd as he arrives on stage during previews ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 28, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Daniil Kvyat is confident that Red Bull can continue its strong start to the 2016 Formula 1 season this weekend in Russia as he prepares for his home grand prix.

Kvyat became just the second Russian F1 driver when he made his debut in 2014 with Toro Rosso, and the first to race on home soil after the addition of a grand prix in Sochi to the calendar the same year.

Kvyat finished third in China two weeks ago after enjoying a spirited battle with Sebastian Vettel, and arrives in Russia full of confidence thanks to the competitiveness of the Red Bull RB12 car.

“Lately we have been competitive on most of the tracks, any kind really, starting with Australia, Bahrain, China we always looked in quite good shape,” Kvyat said.

“I think Sochi also in the past for us maybe hasn’t been the easiest track, as a team, but now we are just coming to any track and we are just trying to extract everything the car has got.

“I believe also here we can fight for quite strong points. We will do our best and I think the car is looking in great shape.”

Kvyat came under fire from Vettel following an aggressive move at the start of the Chinese Grand Prix, but said that he has moved on from the incident.

“I think everything confirmed my point of view,” Kvyat said. “I think obviously everyone told their opinions on that incident, all the people involved. I think all in all I did what any competitive racing driver would do.

“But now I think there has been enough talk about it. Now it’s time to turn the page and move forward and now we are fully focused on the upcoming races.”

Hamilton: Red Bull F1 cockpit aero screen ‘like a riot shield’

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 28: Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and Red Bull Racing sits in his Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer fitted with the aeroscreen in the garage during previews ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 28, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton has made no secret of his opposition to Red Bull’s proposed ‘aero screen’ cockpit protection device, saying that it looks “like a bloody riot shield”.

Formula 1 has been working to improve cockpit safety following the deaths of Jules Bianchi and IndyCar’s Justin Wilson in 2015 from head injuries sustained while racing.

The ‘Halo’ device designed by Mercedes made its first public appearance in Barcelona in February at pre-season testing, meeting a mixed response.

Red Bull’s screen is an alternative proposal that has gained significant traction in recent weeks, meaning that it also could be implemented for the 2017 season.

Hamilton spoke out against the Halo when it debuted in Barcelona, and was just as dismissive of the aero screen ahead of its first public run-out in Russian GP practice on Friday.

“If they are going to do this, close the cockpit like a fighter jet,” Hamilton told reporters in Sochi on Thursday.

“If you are going to do it close the cockpit like a fighter jet, don’t half-ass it.

“That screen looks so bad. It’s like a bloody riot shield.”

“You’ve got this cool, elegant, futuristic Formula 1 car and you’ve got a crappy riot shield sat on top of it, and the other one [Halo], the carbon fibre structure was obviously good but obviously Fernando [Alonso] wouldn’t have been able to get out of the car potentially in his crash in Melbourne.”

However, Hamilton said he was pleased to see the FIA pushing on with its drive to improve safety standards in F1, although he believes danger should remain an inherent part of the sport.

“It is a good thing to see that the FIA do take safety seriously,” Hamilton said.

“It is a constant thing that always needs to be worked on but as long as it doesn’t affect the aesthetics and the style and the coolness of Formula 1.

“Because the reason you look as a kid, you look at Formula 1 [and think] ‘wow, these guys, they are crazy, they could die at any moment.’

“Everyone who comes to me who has just started watching Formula 1 is like ‘ah it’s so dangerous’ and that’s a large part of why they are so in awe of what you do.

“You take away all that and that person could do it almost.”

Rosberg: F1 title rivals have had a ‘messy’ start

during previews ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 28, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.
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Nico Rosberg may enjoy a 36-point lead at the top of the Formula 1 drivers’ championship, but the German driver is under no illusions about the difficult start to the season his main rivals have suffered.

Rosberg claimed his sixth consecutive grand prix victory in China two weeks ago to extend his advantage over Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton in the drivers’ standings.

Hamilton is yet to have a clean race and go wheel-to-wheel with Rosberg at the front of the pack, while Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel failed to start in Bahrain and suffered damage at the start in China.

Rosberg arrived in Sochi this week ahead of Sunday’s Russian Grand Prix full of confidence, but acknowledged that his rivals have been unlucky and expects them to respond soon.

“Definitely I’m pleased with the way I’ve been driving now in the first three races,” Rosberg said.

“For me, it’s not six in a row because the three last year were last year and they don’t count for anything in this year’s championship so for me it’s winning the first three which I’m really happy about.

“I’ve been driving really well, but my opposition had a really messy start. That’s the reality of it.

“I definitely expect them all to bounce back, especially Lewis and it’s going to be a great battle against them as always and it will be tough, even if I have some points lead now but it’s still such a long season: three races is a seventh or something of the whole thing.

“There’s like 450 points to take still and now I have 30-something in front or whatever. There’s still a massively long way to go so it’s not really changing the situation much.”

The Russian Grand Prix is live across NBCSN, CNBC and Live Extra this weekend. For more details, click here.