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Bobby Rahal: RLL needs to ‘begin season on a better footing’

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For two consecutive years, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing has been at the top of the heap among Honda teams in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

Staying there in 2017 will be possible if the team gets off to a fast start, something that’s eluded it at St. Petersburg both seasons.

RLL’s Graham Rahal has finished 11th and 16th the last two years at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and neither result was indicative of his pace.

Rahal was assessed a drive-through penalty, perhaps questionably assessed from the race stewards, for contact with Charlie Kimball at Turn 10 in 2015. Last year, a top-five finish seemed on the cards before Carlos Munoz knocked Rahal into a spin at Turn 4, which subsequently caused a parking lot/accordion style incident last year. Rahal lamented the heavy downforce levels from the top-side of the car after the race, noting how difficult it was to pass after losing the positions from the incident.

His dad and team co-owner Bobby Rahal estimates that if Graham Rahal can have a less troublesome day at the office this go-around, it’ll make for a better start to the year for the driver of the No. 15 Steak ‘n Shake Honda. The younger Rahal, who won his maiden IndyCar race at St. Petersburg in 2008, hasn’t finished in the top-10 at St. Petersburg since coming ninth in his debut with Sarah Fisher Racing in 2010.

“I think that every year we are able to take advantage of our successes that we had the previous year – and failures –and ensure we begin the new season on a better footing,” Bobby Rahal said in the team’s preseason advance. “Last year we started much better at St. Pete than we did the previous year and it’s certainly our hope to do the same again this year.

“I think especially given the fact that the aero kits are the same, that’s one less thing to deal with so it just comes down to preparation.  We have had a positive test season so far and we will go to St. Pete with some of the things we found.  We brought in Tom German since last year but aside from that the team is basically the same so that consistency and the added value that Tom brings has got us thinking pretty positive about the upcoming season.”

The elder Rahal is also bullish on the continuity RLL has compared to Chip Ganassi Racing, which switches to Honda from Chevrolet this year, and Andretti Autosport, which has a number of engineering changes and one driver swap.

“Our expectation is to be even more competitive this year than last,” he said. “When you think about last year, half the season we were in the top five which was pretty good but we need to make it more than half of the season. We need to be averaging a top-five finish in every race in order to win the championship. We just need to start off on the right foot. Last year we got taken out by (Carlos) Munoz and it’s things like that, that aren’t of your making that put you behind.

“Ganassi coming back to Honda will certainly be a big story this year. Frankly I like the fact that they now have the same equipment as we do.  We beat them when they were with the competition so it will be interesting to see how we fare and I expect that we will fare quite well. But we can’t just focus on them; we’ve got to focus on the whole field.

“We just have to do what we’ve done the past several years and that’s rely on ourselves to develop the best car we can. Obviously everyone has to do their job, and do their job better than they’ve ever done it before.  And that’s from the management side, to the mechanics, to pit stops, to Graham’s driving.  We’ve  just got to continue to raise our game.  If we do that I think we’ll be in a good spot.”

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.