Graham Rahal’s team seeks balance, better weekends all around

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At a track where he has two front row starts and finished second in 2011, Graham Rahal is in need of a turnaround at this weekend’s Milwaukee IndyFest.

Although he’s only 24, what was expected to be a big season in the confines of his father Bobby’s Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team has been a struggle. The team chemistry and dynamic is just fine between Rahal, engineer Gerry Hughes and his mechanics. Still, team and driver have often struggled to roll off the trailer with the setup nailed.

Part of the issue is that Rahal’s driving style is very sensitive to the rear of the car, which is a 180-degree difference for RLL than what Takuma Sato has had last year. The issues were amplified last week at Texas, when Rahal had what he called the worst night of his racing career.

“We were terrible. Texas was the longest night of my career,” Rahal said Friday in the Milwaukee media center. “We took six percent out of the front wing. The first 100 laps were brutal. It was difficult confidence wise.”

This week, Rahal rolled out with a more conservative setup as created by the team’s second engineer, Eddie Jones, who works on teammate James Jakes’ car. Jones has a knack for finding the right setup at the short ovals – Rubens Barrichello thrived under Jones’ direction at Milwaukee and Iowa last year – and the plan was to get Rahal and Jakes more comfortable over longer runs.

Although Jones has taken the reins on the team setup strategy, it’s not a foreshadowing of any changes coming down the pipeline in the team. As Rahal noted, Hughes’ Formula One background isn’t immediately compatible with oval setup.

“Just these two events we’re trying his setup,” Rahal said. “Gerry came from F1 and he’s almost going in blind on ovals. Plus Sato crashed here last year so there’s not a great read. We’re at the point as a team going forward, where, if you have an idea, you need to speak up. We value all opinions and we have a great team, with our assistant engineers and mechanics. Everyone’s working really hard, and we feel like we’re working harder than most.”

One of the other issues Rahal has worked to overcome has been a lack of testing. He’s had only two full days this calendar year since an electrical issue didn’t allow him to run the second day of INDYCAR’s official test at Barber Motorsports Park.

Rahal has a best finish of second at Long Beach this year. Although he finished in the top-10 in both Detroit races, he said the all-around weekend performance could have been better. The series completes its mad dash of six races in five weekends next weekend in Iowa.

Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
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Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed its new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with Ford Motor Co. in an event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and team principal Christian Horner.

It’s the first Formula 1 team to launch in the United States for 2023, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin, Texas, for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen already had wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

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Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
(Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Verstappen’s thoughts inevitably will turn to establishing a dynasty, and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his chief rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.