Photos: IndyCar

IndyCar: Graham Rahal goes from last to fast in St. Petersburg runner-up finish

Leave a comment

It may not work at many other places, but to win or do well at St. Petersburg, the best place of late to start seems to not be on or near the pole, but rather the polar opposite: last place.

It worked for Sebastien Bourdais last year, when he started the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg from the back of the pack, worked his way through the field and wound up winning.

Starting from last almost worked once again in Sunday’s race. Graham Rahal had a tough qualifying session Saturday and was the last driver on the 24-driver grid when the green flag fell Sunday.

But just like Bourdais did last year, Rahal didn’t panic. In fact, you could make a strong case that he took a page right out of Bourdais’ playbook from last year’s race.

Rahal methodically worked his way up through the pack over the course of the race’s 110 laps, stayed out of trouble and brought his No. 15 United Rentals Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing to a podium finish to start the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

Bourdais won again Sunday (started from 14th this time, making it two wins in a row in the season opener). Bourdais and Rahal finished 1-2 after race leaders Robert Wickens and Alexander Rossi tangled exiting Turn 1 with two laps to go.

Wickens would be knocked out of the race and finished 18th, while Rossi would bounce back from the incident with Wickens to finish third.

“I was inside of Bourdais, too, on the restart, and I just looked up, and I saw the marbles, and I thought, this isn’t going to work,” Rahal said. “So I literally just said to myself, take fourth, let’s go home.

“And next thing I know, I saw smoke, and bam. It worked out even prettier than that.”

So, is there really something to this deal of starting last at St. Pete? Rahal certainly seems to think so.

“You might as well start last,” he said after Sunday’s race. “If you look at the last few years, I think it’s the best place to start.

“It worked out well for Seb (Bourdais) last year. I’m trying to think who else won that started pretty much last or got knocked out. Well, even Bourdais today, he got knocked out (early in the race) and went to the back, went to last, and it worked out.

“Even the year I won here (2008), I got hit by Will (Power), and we went to dead last, and it worked out. I joke around, but it might not be a bad play for the future. I mean, I had tires for days, so I was looking good for race day.”

It wasn’t all that easy, though. While most teams had a substantial amount of preseason testing coming into the weekend, Sunday marked the first time in actual race conditions for the highly-touted new 2018 Dallara body.

The new car has less downforce, putting more control in drivers’ hands. It’s also racier and faster.

But at the same time, like pretty much anything that is radically new, it will take time for drivers to get used to the new car, particularly handling. No, there’s nothing wrong with the handling, it’s just different and a tougher than what drivers became used to with the former chassis.

“These cars are far more demanding than anything we’ve driven — not demanding in the sense that it’s harder to get the speed out, it’s just easier to mess up,” Rahal said. “The window of opportunity, the margin is just very, very, very, very slim.

“The old car, when you’d get a big moment of yaw, like when the car would snap out, I don’t want to say it would straighten itself out, because it had so much downforce and sideforce. This new car doesn’t have anything, so if it snaps, it just keeps going. You saw that today. Guys were in trouble a lot, and certainly the tires have become very tricky in their current form, what we have, and you saw it in the brake zones. There’s going to be a lot of excitement this year. There’s going to be no lack of that for sure.

“It’s the trickiest I think all of us have had it, and I also think in some ways, I know it sounds crazy, in some ways I almost think rookies had a little advantage here this weekend because they don’t have an expectation of what the old car should be here. The first practice session, I literally felt like I was driving somewhere I had never — my mind is telling me, you should be able to do this, you should brake here, you should do that, and you just couldn’t do it, and it was just nasty. This car is so different than anything that I think a lot of us have driven. It’s fun, but it takes a while to adapt.”

Despite how hard it was to drive the new car, at the end, it appeared Rahal adapted to it pretty well and quickly. Going from starting last to finishing second – and almost first, like Bourdais did in last year’s race – has Rahal off in the right direction.

Now, there’s just 16 races left.

“We look at ourselves as championship contenders,” Rahal said. “I don’t care what happened the last two days (Friday’s practices or Saturday’s practice and qualifying), we still believe in that.

“We know that we are. This is a great way to start.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Mercedes: F1 teams need to work together to avoid split

Getty Images
Leave a comment

MELBOURNE, Australia — Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said Friday that Formula One teams have a responsibility to try to overcome their differences over the future of the sport in the face of a threat by Ferrari to quit because of a number of proposed changes.

Bernie Ecclestone, who ran F1 for 40 years before being replaced by new owners Liberty Media last year, has raised the possibility that Ferrari chairman Sergio Marchionne could walk away from F1 and form a breakaway series over Liberty’s future vision for the sport.

Ferrari is unhappy with Liberty’s proposal to simplify engines and redistribute prize money among F1 teams after the current contract with teams expires at the end of 2020.

Ferrari team boss Maurizio Arrivabene would not comment on the specifics of Marchionne’s previous comments at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix on Friday, but said: “My only suggestion, please take him seriously.”

Wolff is also taking the possibility of Ferrari walking away seriously. He told Britain’s Press Association before the Australian GP that he agreed with Marchionne’s concerns and that Formula One can’t afford to alienate Ferrari or lose the team.

“Don’t mess with Sergio Marchionne,” he said. “Formula One needs Ferrari much more than Ferrari needs Formula One.”

Wolff was more diplomatic on Friday, saying he hopes all sides could come together for the good of the sport.

“I think this as much a battle on track as much as it is a fight off track for an advantage,” he said. “It is clear the current governance and how the rules are being made is not very functional. There’s too much different opinions and agendas on the table and we need to sort it for 2021 for the best interest of the sport.”

Red Bull boss Christian Horner agreed there are too many competing agendas, suggesting that the FIA-Formula One’s governing body-and Liberty Media come together to decide on a set of regulations and financial framework for the next contract and the teams can then decide if they want to accept it or not.

“Trying to get a consensus between teams that have varying objectives, different set-ups, is going to be impossible,” he said. “It’s history repeating itself. It happens every five or six years, every time the Concorde Agreement comes up for renewal.”

Tempers also flared during Friday’s media conference over another issue of contention between the teams – Ferrari’s recent hiring of FIA’s ex-safety director, Laurent Mekies.

Horner believes Ferrari broke an agreement among teams at a recent meeting to institute a 12-month waiting period for any former employee of FIA or FOM (Formula One Management) to be able to start working for one of F1’s teams. The concern is that former FIA staff who go to work for a specific team could share secrets from other teams.

“Certain teams were pushing for that period to be three years, but in the end it was agreed upon being 12 months,” he said. “It almost makes those meetings pointless if we can’t agree on something and action it.”

Arrivabene defended Ferrari’s move, saying Mekies would not join its team until after a six-month “gardening leave” period.

“There is nothing wrong with that because we were absolutely respecting the local law, the Swiss local law where Laurent was hired,” he said.