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RLL working towards BMW renewal, IndyCar second car

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One of Bobby Rahal and the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s strengths for the better part of the last decade has been the ability to run two parallel programs – one in IndyCar and one in sports cars – that contend for wins and championships on an annual basis.

And the goal is to continue that into 2018 as one of its programs comes up for renewal.

BMW Motorsport has partnered with RLL, under the BMW Team RLL banner, for nearly a decade since 2009. In that time frame, BMW and RLL have combined to launch the M3, Z4 and M6 GTE spec models, winning races seven of the nine years.

There have been 13 combined wins – seven with the M3 from 2009 to 2012, four with the Z4 from 2013 to 2015 and now two with the new M6 this year – along with the 2011 ALMS GT title for Joey Hand and Dirk Mueller and a pair of back-to-back Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring wins in 2011 and 2012.

While the contract is up for bid and as rumors swirl of a possible change by BMW to another outfit, Rahal is optimistic the years of success achieved by the combined unit will be able to continue together for 2018 and beyond as the new M8 GTE makes its debut.

“BMW is our priority – we’ve been with them nearly 10 years,” Rahal told NBC Sports. “Of course it’s a contract year. I would presume given our success that should mean something to them, and that the relationship would continue.”

BMW finally has come to the fore in GTLM. Photo courtesy of IMSA

The pair of back-to-back wins this IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season at Watkins Glen International and Canadian Tire Motorsport Park could not have come at a better time.

Balance of Performance adjustments seem to have adversely affected BMW Team RLL and the M6 GTLM more than other cars within the stacked GT Le Mans class, and through a combination of bad luck, pace restrictions and the heavier car, the M6 was stuck in a near two-year rut from when it got introduced prior to 2016 through mid-year this year.

That was a challenge to team morale, but it was something Rahal was keen and focused to lead the team through.

“It’s been a long time coming as you say. Let’s face it; there were mechanical issues we started out with when the car first showed up, and then BoP came in and knocked the wind out of our sails for most of the rest of 2016,” he reflected.

“Even Sebring this year, we were so far off. I thought it was a hell of a job to finish on the same lap as the leaders almost at Daytona and Sebring, as we didn’t have anywhere near the pace (timing data backs that up; best race lap at Daytona was a 1:44.247, one of only three cars in 11 in the 1:44s while rest in 1:43s and at Sebring, best race lap 1:58.376 more than a second off leaders). That was just good consistent running and pit stops.

“As I told people recently, I think Sebring was the longest 12 hours of my life – it was painful. We didn’t stand a chance. To sit there and pound around there knowing that, the crew pushing on anyway, depressing was a good word.

“We finally got the BoP back starting at Austin as we were on equal ground, and now we actually had a shot. At least you’re in the race with a chance. We saw that in Austin and then it kept going at Watkins Glen and Mosport.”

Both lineups have changed this year with Alexander Sims and Martin Tomczyk joining BMW American veterans Bill Auberlen and John Edwards, respectively, in the Nos. 25 and 24 BMW M6 GTLMs. These two are largely new to the American scene but have adapted rather well.

Rahal also harbors Le Mans ambitions for his team, and while that is highly unlikely to be with BMW given it will have the M-TEK team running the M8 GTE in Europe, he’d one day like to run an LMP2 entry there and have a heavy American presence in the driver lineup.

AVONDALE, AZ – APRIL 28: Graham Rahal, driver of the #15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda drives during practice for the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix at Phoenix International Raceway on April 28, 2017 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

As for on the other domestic front, one of the annual questions that arises with RLL – which consistently overachieves as a one-car team in the Verizon IndyCar Series – is whether it will expand back to a two-car program full-time for the first time since 2013. A second car has run part-time each of the last four years, including this one.

The possibility is greater of that happening with again, rumors of teams switching manufacturers. If Honda has available units in the bank, that enhances the chances that a second RLL car will appear on the grid. Rahal remains adamant though that such a driver would need to enhance the overall competitiveness of the program.

“Having a good two-car team is better than a good one-car team, but the second car has to be a contributor, not just a second car,” Rahal said.

“But I feel pretty good about our opportunities in that respect. We’re talking to several people – and the thing is we’re looking for our own money so we don’t need a driver with money. We’re not there yet, but odds are good we’ll have a two-car team.”

Past RLL veterans Takuma Sato and Oriol Servia would make sense there; Sato if Andretti Autosport shifts from Honda to Chevrolet as is possible and Servia, who’s been off-and-on with RLL since 2009 on several occasions but never enjoyed a full-time season with the team. Servia is undertaking the Honda development on the 2018 universal Dallara aero kit and his setup presence would be invaluable.

“There’s some good teams that could look to improve their lineups, or teams that aren’t doing so well to improve their driver lineup. Then teams will add, like presumably us. It’s interesting to watch.

“As I’ve said all along, whoever is in the second car, it’s gotta be a competitive race car. A guy like Taku, we have a lot of warm feelings having worked with him a number of years ago. Hinchcliffe is on the market. If I look at the driver, you look at what combination works, and there’s other guys out there. Those two would get along. There’s even Oriol, who works very well with the team.

“There’s a number of options, so the goal is to get the most competitive guy you can get.”

Spencer Pigot ready for full-season IndyCar effort with ECR

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After spending the last two years in a part-time role with Ed Carpenter Racing, contesting the road and street course races in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, Spencer Pigot now gets a long-awaited chance at a full-season effort in 2018.

Moving over to the No. 21 entry, which has featured ECR’s full-season driver since 2016, Pigot has seen slight differences in his off-season prep ahead of the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

“We were one of the teams that got to a handful of days testing the aero kit, so I obviously did all the running on the road courses, but I was able to do a few laps on the ovals when Ed was testing. So, that wouldn’t have happened (if I was part-time still),” he told NBC Sports.

However, outside of that increase in testing and a little learning some new tracks – he has not raced at ISM Raceway, Gateway Motorsports Park, Pocono Raceway, or Iowa Speedway in an IndyCar – the changes to Pigot’s off-season program have not been dramatic.

“There’s definitely some things I’ll need to learn, but as far as off-season prep: nothing too dramatic, nothing too different.”

Pigot’s first full-season campaign saw its first official outing of the 2018 season last weekend during the open test at ISM Raceway. While he and the ECR team struggled to find speed much of the weekend – they languished outside of the top ten in the results of the first three sessions – things took a turn for the better during the final session of the weekend on Saturday night, when Pigot ended up ninth on the speed charts.

He ended up 14th in the combined results for the weekend, noting that he and the team still want to find more outright speed.

“I thought throughout the test that our average long run pace was okay, but we were still missing the outright pace to be where we need to be come qualifying time,” he revealed. “I think that we definitely made a step forward Saturday night and definitely have a much better idea of a direction we can head and go with when we go back.”

In terms of long-run practice, Pigot noted that tire degradation became much more prevalent, which made running with others cars around you somewhat of a challenge. Though, he emphasized that tire degradation could be beneficial for racing.

“Talking to some of the other guys, it seems a little bit harder to run behind people as the tires go off because the tires are degrading pretty quick with the lack of downforce as well,” he explained. “So, it’s going to be tricky, it’s going to be sliding around a little bit more than what guys have experienced in the past. But, I think everyone’s under the same kind of idea that it’s going to be better racing, and especially at (ISM Raceway) it should be exciting.”

Pigot did get some practice at overtaking at ISM and got a feel for what he may be able to expect when IndyCar returns in April for the Phoenix Grand Prix, and while he acknowledged it was difficult to judge during testing, he did feel like he could run around other cars without much of an issue.

“It’s not like a race when everyone comes in the pits at the same time and you’re all on similar tires, so it’s kind of hard to know exactly. But, I thought we were pretty good,” he detailed. “I thought I was able to run pretty close to guys in front of me and was able to make a few passes when other guys made mistakes or might have gone a little high.”

The test also served as Pigot’s first IndyCar venture on a short oval – he last ran on a short oval in 2015 during his Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship season.

“The corners definitely come up quick. There’s not much time to really relax or think about too much,” Pigot quipped when describing his first time on a short oval.

He continued, “You’ve got to concentrate pretty hard on being precise because the line there is very narrow so you have to make sure that you’re where the grip is at all points throughout the corner. And then, when everyone’s out there and you run in traffic, it’s just like you’re constantly in a corner, so it’s a little more difficult to get big runs and drafts off people. But I think it’ll definitely play into the hands of guys that have their cars set up well and can be easier on the tires.”

And in becoming the team’s full-time driver, Pigot is seeing a slight increase in his leadership role within the team, especially as it relates to testing and development, with Pigot doing the lion’s share of testing during the winter on road courses.

But, he also emphasized the oval prowess of teammate, and team owner, Ed Carpenter as something he will lean on when he ventures out on other ovals for the first time this year.

“Especially as we’re trying to learn this new aero kit, I was the one that pretty much did all the testing on the road and street courses. It was kind of me and the engineers trying to develop the car and work towards the setup that’s going to work for us. So, there’s definitely a little more responsibility in that. But, then on the ovals, obviously Ed’s there and he’s a great teammate to have and to learn from and bounce ideas off of. But, yeah, it’s definitely a more involved role within the team,” Pigot explained.

Pigot and ECR will test two more times, at Barber Motorsports Park and Sebring International Raceway, in the month of February prior to the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 11.

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