Career-best weekend for Graham Rahal one to savor in Detroit

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Weekends like the one Graham Rahal just had in the Verizon IndyCar Series’ Detroit doubleheader, where he swept the two races, don’t come often.

In fact, one hadn’t come to the 28-year-old from outside Columbus throughout the entirety of his 11-year career, combined between IndyCar and Champ Car, since he debuted as an 18-year-old in 2007.

Add in the fact Rahal witnessed his wife Courtney Force go through a fireball of an accident in her NHRA event in Epping, N.H., but emerge unscathed, and Rahal had the whirlwind of emotions hit like a tidal wave.

DAYTONA BEACH, FL – FEBRUARY 18: Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet, talks to IndyCar driver Graham Rahal and his wife, Courtney Force (R) during practice for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series 59th Annual DAYTONA 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 18, 2017 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

“Contrary to what a lot of people or fans or whatever want to think, it’s not cool,” Rahal admitted after his first of two wins this weekend on Saturday. “You know, it’s nerve-wracking because I see those cars firsthand each and every weekend. There’s a lot to be nervous about. There’s goods and bads there.

“That’s not a very comforting thing because I’ve seen that scenario before on others. I’ve never seen that with her. I guess, you know, you probably a lot of times take those things for granted, that it’s not going to happen to you, or that the safety has really been improved, when it’s really the same as it has been and everything else.

“You know, particularly when it’s your wife, it hits home.”

That was the scary part of his weekend, but the scarier part for the rest of his competitors in the Verizon IndyCar Series was what Rahal achieved this weekend on track.

Rahal’s No. 15 Honda. Photo: IndyCar

Rahal’s overriding emotion was one of elation after the dominance he displayed in Detroit this weekend in the No. 15 SoldierStrong/TurnsForTroops.com Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing wasn’t sabotaged by anything outside his hands.

He won both races at the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix Presented by Lear, a first for the event since the doubleheader format was introduced in 2013, led 96 of the 140 laps (55 of 70 in race one, 41 of 70 in race two), scored the pole for race one and banked all but one of a possible 108 points – with 107 combined points, he moved from 15th in the championship, 101 markers behind leader Helio Castroneves after last week’s Indianapolis 500, to sixth, 52 points out (303-251) of Scott Dixon in just one week.

It was a huge weekend for United Rentals’ Turns For Troops program as well, which raises money per each lap completed.

The doubleheader sweep was the first by any driver in IndyCar since Dixon at Toronto in 2013, and the first time RLL Racing has won back-to-back races since Kenny Brack at the Motegi and Milwaukee ovals in the 2001 CART season… when Rahal was 12 years old.

With a tremendous setup off the truck thanks to the engineering staff and the rest of the crew, Rahal’s swagger bordered on overconfidence, but he knew from the off he had a damn good race car, perhaps the best of his career.

It seemed Rahal’s presence in the media center for press conferences this weekend was as ubiquitous as his status being No. 1 on the timesheets.

“Overall, it’s been a place I’ve had some success, which is nice,” Rahal said in his first of what would be four appearances this past weekend, Friday after the two practice sessions.

He had runner-up finishes in Detroit in both 2014 and 2015, and was one of the hardest charging cars on the old layout in 2012 as well.

“But obviously today started off on the right foot. The United Rentals car seems to be very strong, very competitive right off the trailer this morning. The first session, we didn’t even change anything. I mean, there was no reason to.”

He continued, “This setup kind of started with a concept out of Long Beach. It is very, very, very, very different from what we ran here last year, or over the last handful of years, so…

“It is certainly a departure in our mindset than what we had done for a while. But this was something that we had tried at Long Beach, in basic theory, and it worked relatively well. I mean, on race day, had it not been for a flat (tire), we were in the top 5 for sure.

“Certainly I think what we’ve got going here is better. I don’t want to get over-confident, but hopefully it’s going to be strong tomorrow.”

Then Courtney’s incident happened, and on Friday night, Rahal had the chance to view it. While he didn’t address it Saturday morning in the press conference, his high hopes for the weekend superseded whatever concern or angst he had over witnessing it.

Rahal would have started second but inherited the pole for Saturday’s race one after Helio Castroneves was docked his fastest lap for failing to slow for a yellow flag period on course. Castroneves was livid; Rahal fortunate, and on the pole for the first time in more than 130 races since Kansas in 2009. It marked the team’s first pole since Scott Sharp, nearly 10 years to the day, did so at Texas in 2007.

“I felt for the first time in a long time I had a legitimate shot, that if I did my job, and I did my best, I felt we would be on pole or we would start on the front row,” he said. “Rarely does that actually work to plan, but today it did.

“I don’t want to put any extra pressure on myself or my team. But if we go out there and do our job today, yellows don’t play a huge role in strategy, things like that, where alternate strategies could pay off, I feel pretty good about where we’re at, without a doubt.”

Rahal bordered on being called Nostra-Grahamus with that prediction. He did his job, the team did in its job in pit stops in race one, the yellows affected other strategies but not his – and by the end of day one, Rahal had what could be considered the most authoritative of his at that point five career victories.

Compared to his four prior wins – in the rain at St. Petersburg in 2008, via strategy at home at Mid-Ohio in 2015 and in thrilling duels at Fontana in 2015 and Texas in 2016 – this was the first time in a while Rahal looked unbeatable from the off in an IndyCar race.

“Trust me, a lot of drivers didn’t like my comment that I felt like I could dominate if I got out front, but I didn’t lie,” he said Saturday afternoon. “You know, I didn’t say that in any other way other than I felt that confident in my car. It’s not about anything else. I just knew if I could be out front in clean air, we could do what we did today.”

Newgarden (left) and Power (right) flank Rahal. Photo: IndyCar

Rahal explained what the “dominate” comment meant and how he used it to in essence, “call his shot” on Saturday as he wound up and poked fun with Team Penske drivers Will Power, Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud.

“Power liked my comment. So Power said to me today, he came to me today, ‘Hey, mate, give Newgarden some (crap),'” Rahal laughed.

“At the autograph session, I’m like, ‘Hey, Newgarden, I’m going to dominate today. You watch.’

“He’s like, ‘Oh, come on, man, nobody dominates.’ He gets all bent out of shape.

“Then Pag jumped on me. All the Penske guys, you know. They’re used to kicking everybody’s butt. When somebody challenges them, they don’t like it so much.

“Yeah, no, I mean, it’s typical Will trying to get everybody spun up. It was fun. It was fun.”

Almost perfectly, Newgarden and Power finished second and third to Rahal in race two, and as such, could offer their take on Rahal’s friendly jabbing. Newgarden didn’t realize Rahal had said it but Power joked, “Clearly he did get in his head.”

Rahal with some of the RLL crew. Photo: IndyCar

The race two win came courtesy of two more excellent things Rahal did. Killer in and out-laps on the first sequence netted him the lead after Takuma Sato led the opening stint of the race. Then, after a restart following a red flag, Rahal launched away from Newgarden to keep the dominance alive.

Newgarden was congratulatory to Rahal and said he can understand what it means to have such a dominant weekend, as Newgarden did himself at Iowa last year, leading 282 of 300 laps not long after suffering injuries to his collarbone and hand in Texas.

“It’s the best thing you can do in racing. You feel great about it, when you feel like you’re just better than everybody and no one had anything for you.

“They don’t come around very often. So when you see them in front of you, you try to capitalize on them as best you can.”

Rahal could only reflect on what he’d accomplished in full once Sunday night hit and he had his second win of the weekend in the books. It’s his first weekend sweep in anything since he did so at Cleveland in 2006 in Formula Atlantic.

But now, he has this in the books and returns to Texas next weekend (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN) for the Rainguard Water Sealers 600, with a chance to defend his win there, too.

“As I said to you all last night, these things don’t happen very often. Through my career, through the ups and downs of my career, you know, when you get a chance to win a race, you never take it for granted. So it’s pretty special for me. You know, nice for our team.

“The guys are going to certainly feel good going into Texas next week, a place we know we can win at. You know, hopefully we can get it done again.”

Alonso, Vandoorne’s Azerbaijan GP grid drops grow through Saturday

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Stoffel Vandoorne and Fernando Alonso’s Formula 1 grid penalties for Sunday’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix grew through Saturday as the stewards confirmed both McLaren drivers had taken additional power unit parts ahead of qualifying.

Vandoorne and Alonso entered the Baku race weekend anticipating grid penalties after replacing parts on their Honda power units, which have lacked both reliability and performance throughout the season.

Both drivers were handed 15-place drops on Friday ahead of practice due to initial changes, only to receive further drops in the lead up to qualifying.

Alonso currently sits with a 40-place drop to his name after an overhaul of his power unit, while Vandoorne is to drop 35 places after also taking a gearbox change before qualifying.

McLaren ailed to its worst qualifying display of the season so far in Baku as both Alonso and Vandoorne dropped out in Q1, finishing 16th and 19th respectively.

However, Alonso was not too disheartened by the result, saying it has set McLaren up nicely for the race on Sunday.

“We did a good job today in terms of preparing for the race: we only used one set of tires, put in low fuel and did some checks,” the Spaniard said.

“We know we’re not competitive around here, but the race is going to be long and demanding. We’ve seen many mistakes from almost every driver, and we need to avoid making any of those tomorrow.

“In these kinds of grands prix, we need to try and finish the race, get some data for the team, and keep developing the car.

“We need to make sure we keep away from the walls tomorrow. Let’s also hope we can end up in the points.”

Due to a strange quirk in the regulations, Alonso and Vandoorne will not share the back row of the grid in Baku – and the latter will, in fact, gain a place.

As Renault’s Jolyon Palmer failed to post a time during Q1 and therefore did not qualify for the race, he will start P20.

By virtue of having a greater grid drop than Vandoorne, Alonso will take 19th on the grid, with the Belgian starting just ahead in P18.

Stroll feeling ‘comfortable’, ‘confident’ in car after Baku Q3 run

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Lance Stroll delivered the most impressive qualifying run of his fledgling Formula 1 career so far in Baku on Saturday, charging to eighth place on the grid for Williams.

Stroll, 18, made his F1 debut at the beginning of the year with Williams after stepping up from Formula 3, but endured a baptism of fire as he failed to score any points through his opening six outings.

The Canadian charged to his maiden points finish last time out at his home race in Montreal, finishing ninth overall, and carried that momentum through to qualifying for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

Stroll reached Q3 for the second time, beating his Chinese Grand Prix display by taking eighth spot, as well as outqualifying teammate Felipe Massa for the first time.

“It was a good day, and it has been a good weekend. I am comfortable and confident in the car,” Stroll said.

“I like the circuit and today everything fell into place. I missed a bit in Q3, and I think there was some more that was possible there, as we were four-tenths off compared to my lap in Q2.

“In Q3, because the track temperatures had dropped, it was hard to get the tires ready in one lap and also because of the red flag, we only had time to do one push lap.

“Sometimes around here it is better when you do one push lap, then another prep lap and then another push lap. But it is still a great result and I am just happy for the team.”

Red Bull’s high hopes come down to earth in F1 qualifying

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BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) Red Bull’s high hopes for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix came crashing down in qualifying on Saturday.

Max Verstappen qualified in fifth and teammate Daniel Ricciardo only 10th after clipping a barrier near the end coming out of Turn 6 on a hazardous Baku street circuit that has been causing problems all week.

“I’m not blaming the car. The rear went away a bit,” Ricciardo said. “Just the consequence of trying to get a bit more out of the car. I guess I was just chasing that little bit too much.”

It was disappointing for the team, considering that Red Bull had been showing promising speed, with Verstappen fastest in both practice sessions on Friday.

“The 10th (place) today doesn’t reflect it, but it’s definitely been a positive weekend in terms of the car feel and the progress we’re making,” Ricciardo said. “Relative to Ferrari it looks like we’ve closed the gap (in terms of speed).”

Red Bull was not the only team struggling on the sinewy, hard-braking track, which made its F1 debut last year.

“We’re all still experimenting,” Ricciardo said. “Still trying to find the sweet spot.”

Verstappen thought he found it on Friday, driving with his customary confidence to lead P1 and P2, then got a reality check on Saturday when his car packed up near the end of the third practice due to a hydraulics issue.

“We had to wind the engine down, which cost me quite a bit of lap time,” the Dutchman said. “It’s a bit unfortunate that we couldn’t extract more out of the car.”

Verstappen was second fastest behind Lewis Hamilton in the first part of qualifying, before fading in Q2 and Q3.

“We should be ahead (of Ferrari) without all those things that happened,” said Verstappen, who believes Red Bull can match Ferrari. “It’s looking a lot better. Mercedes is a bit too quick but with the Ferraris, for sure, we can fight.”

Verstappen could do with a good result in Baku on Sunday.

Last year, he became the youngest F1 driver to win a race and to qualify on the front row. But this season he has only one podium and failed to finish three races including the last, the Canadian GP two weeks ago.

Honda working on IndyCar engine fix following parts issue

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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – The blessing and curse of Honda Performance Development (HPD)’s improved performance and horsepower this year has been a tradeoff in the reliability department.

With now double digit failures over the last month or so, in Indianapolis and elsewhere, it’s been a season where reliability has become more of a story line than normal.

This has arisen though Honda’s on-track performance this year has seen the manufacturer deliver five wins (three more than in all of 2016) including the Indianapolis 500, with four of its five teams winning races thus far in nine races.

HPD President Art St. Cyr addressed both the failures and the recent successes Honda has achieved in the last month during a media availability Saturday at Road America, noting it was a parts processing issue that has contributed to some, if not all, failures.

“We had a couple engine failures over the last month or so,” St. Cyr said. “We have done a lot of analysis. It was actually pretty deep in our engine and the part that failed is one that we’ve been using for quite a while. Ultimately, it came down to a parts processing issue for that. So we have been able to identify the part that is failing.

“We have some fixes in place for the rest of this year. As it stands right now, we’re getting those parts into HPD at this point and we’re starting to build new engines with those parts in it. Unfortunately, the durability plan that we always had, going 2,500 miles, it’s going to take a while to cycle those engines into our pool.

“We hope to have those engines into our spares pool, optimistically by Iowa, but more realistically by Toronto.”

HPD does not plan to do a wholesale changeout of engines, St. Cyr intimated.

“There is no plan right now to a wholesale change out engines,” he said. “It happens in about one out of every eight engines, and if it does fail, it fails early. So when that problem arises, it shows up pretty quick.

“So, our expectations are that, once we get the engines in the spares pool, we will continue the engines that are in the cars throughout the remainder of their lives. And then those will be replaced with new engines.

“Knock on wood, hopefully we can get some of them in at Iowa, but more realistically, probably Toronto is when they’ll really start to show up.”

St. Cyr confirmed HPD has made a horsepower increase this year though would not be pressed on how much that increase has been.

“When you make more horsepower, you do expose parts to more stresses. That’s the fundamental thing about it,” he said.

“In this particular case, what it did was reduced our safety factor on that particular part. It still should have been fine, but the problem is that part of the process in the engine is the stress riser. It’s not in every engine, but it on a handful of engines.

“Yes, the increase in power is a contributing factor to that, because obviously there’s more stress on the engines, but the way the part if designed it should have been able to sustain that stress.”

He also said the company was happy with the tradeoff that has come with Takuma Sato’s win in the Indianapolis 500. That win made him a “popular winner” both in America and Japan as a result of his victory, helping both Honda arms.

“In general, our main goal is to win the Indy 500. We knew that, even if we ran the engines at full power, that the majority of our engines were going to make it,” St. Cyr explained.

“So, in that case, we were willing to make that tradeoff on that. If it was going to fail every engine, then maybe not, but ever circumstance is different. But, in this particular case, we were willing to make that.

“You risk that every year. Typically, both manufacturers have about two mechanical failure. That’s about what had this year anyway. We’ll make those judgments on a case-by-case basis.”

Heading into Road America this weekend for the KOHLER Grand Prix (Sunday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN), Honda leads Chevrolet, 737 to 698, in the Manufacturer’s Championship. Chevrolet has won all five in a row from 2012 through 2016 since the reintroduction of manufacturer competition.