Graham Rahal’s Fontana win was long overdue, and a long time coming

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Lost in all the post-race hoopla of what the MAVTV 500 race was like, and the dissenting camps on whether it was too dangerous or overly exciting, was the fact Graham Rahal actually won the damn thing.

Yes, the guy folks have been asking since that glorious first win in the rain in St. Petersburg, 2008, when was he going to win his second race, finally won his second race in the No. 15 Mi-Jack/Steak ‘n Shake Honda.

And it’s been a shame it’s been as overlooked as it has in the grand scheme of things.

It’s been obvious to anyone paying attention in the Verizon IndyCar Series this year since as early as NOLA Motorsports Park, the second race of the year, that Rahal and the revamped, reorganized Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team have been operating at another level this season.

You can’t build chemistry, and the fact Rahal is enjoying a career season with individuals like Mike Talbott, Martin Pare and Eddie Jones speaks to how well they’re all gelling as a collective unit.

This eventual win has been building for months.

Rahal was borderline top-five in St. Petersburg before a penalty issued for avoidable contact, which was questionable at best as other drivers made contact with other cars but avoided penalty. He was running top-five at NOLA before the pit stop strategy gamble made by others shuffled him back.

Long Beach was OK, but Barber was his breakout. If he had another two or three laps, Rahal might have caught eventual winner Josef Newgarden, or to another point, Newgarden might have ran out of fuel.

His second straight runner-up in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis came courtesy of a dynamite first lap to avoid the first corner chaos. The fifth place in the Indianapolis 500 a few weeks later came with the Hondas notably down on overall performance compared to the Chevrolets.

Only at Detroit race one, where he was wrecked out at Turn 1, was the early season momentum halted. But another podium followed in Detroit race two.

Consecutive tough results in Texas and Toronto, 15th and ninth, threatened to derail the progress but Rahal rebounded in a big way this Saturday in Fontana.

Was there controversy over the fuel buckeye issue and subsequent caution? Sure there was. But, as noted, INDYCAR has changed the rule this year to where pit road infractions are subject to post-race penalties. So Rahal’s not being penalized in-race is consistent with the other 11 instances this season.

But at the end of the day, Rahal won. It didn’t matter how. He was due. The team was due.

source: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

“It feels good. I mean, you know, I’m most happy for my dad and Dave and Mike and all our sponsors that kind of came back and gave us some life this year,” Rahal said during the post-race press conference.

“This is a big, big deal for us. You know, there’s a lot of people that made a lot of comments about myself and about our team and about our owners and everything else that weren’t fair to be quite frank, so to kind of rebound the way we have all season, I mean, this feels good to win for sure, and I’m definitely looking forward to tonight, I can tell you that.

“It’s been a good year, and we’ve shown that it wasn’t like a one‑hit wonder that we were good at ‑‑ I don’t even know, Barber or something. I feel like we’re starting to find our form everywhere a little bit, and I think that’s helping us in the big picture, and I told my guys, you know, I mean, my sights are still set on finishing in the top-five in points. I don’t know that we can win it, I really don’t, but top-five in points I think is achievable.”

Rahal wasn’t a pre-race favorite Saturday on paper, starting 19th, but as he told his team pre-race, with 500 miles to go and passing opportunities plentiful, they still had a great shot.

“This morning we got together, and I said, guys, yeah, we start 19th, but this is our best opportunity right now,” he said.

“It starts here. These next three races are where we’ve been weak the last three years, and the next couple races are where we need to improve, and I think everybody did a good job, and seriously, enough can’t be said for this team.”

Rahal described what it means to have had this success as a one-car team, up against the mights – and staffs – of three- or four-car powerhouse operations.

“I mean, you’ve got to understand, we’re understaffed by a couple people, where we’ve never done a wind tunnel day. We’ve done one shaker rig deal. We don’t have the resources others do, and these guys put their heads down, and they work damned hard, and I’m really proud of them.”

Rahal, now 26 and engaged to NHRA star Funny Car driver Courtney Force, is also a more mature driver, more appreciative of his moment this time around.

“I think I’ve always been a firm believer in everything in life happens for a reason, and I think it’s really caused me to grow up, and I feel fortunate that today is the day that I got it,” he said. “Hopefully we can move on from here and not make it another seven years.”

The Rahal/Force engagement has been something of an off-track, consistent story for IndyCar throughout the year.

But what “G” and RLL have done on-track this year on the whole is so, so, incredibly worthy of widespread, national media praise and attention.

NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E and Ian James set to race ahead of electric motorsports’ curve

James McLaren Formula E
NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team
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As Formula E enters their ninth season and McLaren Racing is set to compete in last year’s championship winning car, Ian James is passionate about pushing electric motorsports forward at a critical stage as race technology begins surpassing that of the street cars.

Midseason, McLaren acquired the assets of the Mercedes-EQ team as they were already on their way to winning a second consecutive championship. With those assets in place and coming off a successful debut in the Extreme E series, James is set to usher in a new era in electric car racing.

Last week’s announcement that Jake Hughes will join Rene Rast behind the wheel of the NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team was the last piece of the puzzle.

McLaren’s electric portfolio is building with the Formula E team coming one year after they entered the Extreme E rally series in 2022 with Tanner Foust and Emma Gilmour. There were a lot of lessons to learn in that series with growing pains during the first three of five rounds. Rounds 4 and 5 were a completely different matter with the team crossing the finish line first in Chile before being assessed a time penalty.

In the final round in Uruguay, they scored an elusive podium.

“McLaren kicked off the season in Extreme E at the beginning of this year, so our first [electric] race took place Neom, actually out in Saudi,” NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team Principal James told NBC Sports. “At the time, we were in very early discussions about opportunities with the Formula E team. I actually went out there to meet with Zak [Brown, CEO McLaren Racing] and that was my first taste of Extreme E.

“Since the transition, I joined them in Chile in Atacama Desert, and then Uruguay last weekend. [The second-place finish was] a lovely way to round out the season. The fact that they got that podium. It was very well deserved. It’s a great team and a great series actually. It’s just so very different from anything else. The team’s done a great job in getting set up, and it’s nice now to, we’re trying to use that momentum that we’ve got from Uruguay to get us into next season when it kicks off next year, which will be great. I think we’re mid-March is looking like the first race, so a little bit of time to get things prepped for that.”

 

James McLaren Formula E
The NEOM Mclaren Racing Formula E Team was created through the acquisition of last year’s championship team from Mercedes-EQ. – NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team

Synergies exist between the single seater and rally series. Lessons learned about battery power and sustainability in the electric SUV carry over so long as one is mindful of keeping focus on the individual needs and nuances of each series.

Especially now that electric racing technology has caught up, and is ready to surpass, the existing technology that has gone into building street cars.

When internal combustion engines gained the upper hand soon after automobiles were invented, racing paced alongside. The pressure of competition pushed the development of their commercial equivalents. The same has not necessarily been true of electric cars. Street cars were not designed to undergo the same stress as racecars – and that vulnerability showed up on the racetrack.

“Formula E has come along a long way,” James said. “I think one of the most notable developments is in the battery technology. In Gen 1, you had the drivers jumping from one car to another car midrace because the battery technology and capacity simply wasn’t where it needed to be to do the full distance. That obviously changed in Gen 2 and we saw a power increase as well to the 250 kilowatts.

“Now going to Gen 3, we have 350 kilowatts in a smaller battery. But that means that we’re relying on the regeneration of energy and for that reason, we’ve got also the opportunity to regenerate on the front axle as well as the rear axle now. So, there’s all sorts of things that are developing in the right direction.

“In terms of throttle response, actually, we’re now in a situation with electric racing and the motors that it’s instantaneous. And one of the advantages of electric over combustion engine is that the torque is instantaneous as well, so that gives you a lot more room to play with.”

No matter the power source, racing has always been about resource management. Drivers and teams select tire strategies they believe produce the fastest elapsed time and fuel conservation comes into play.

On one hand, electric racing is the same, but there is a critical difference. With the battery as both the power source and an integral part of the engine, there are multiple reasons to manage it.

In electric racing, the brain of the car is the software – and that is where James sees the greatest room for advancement.

“As we are working with our drivers and engineers – and start to look at functionality to improve our efficiency and our performance, that’s something we’ll continue to push because that development is open throughout the season,” James said. “That’s going to be our focus going forward and provides enough of a challenge for us to get our teeth into.

“What’s going to be fascinating is as Formula E continues, is to really look at which areas of development on the car are going to be the most relevant and ensuring that we can focus on those together with the manufacturers so we continue and use the series as a platform for technical development that can then feed back into the road car side of things as well.

“At the end of the day, that’s what motorsports always been, a very powerful tool for, and I see Formula E as no exception.”

James McLaren Formula E
Jake Hughes and Rene Rast were chosen for their ability to drive fast and execute the necessary strategy for energy management. – NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E Team

Selecting Rast and Hughes as McLaren’s Formula E drivers was not simply because they know how to drive fast. James believes both drivers have the mental aptitude to execute energy management strategies throughout the race and squeeze maximum performance.

“As with many other motorsports, you’ve got a certain amount of energy that you’re able to deploy during the race and the management of that energy is absolutely crucial,” James said. “What we’re seeing typically in electric motorsports now is the hardware side of things. The efficiencies that we’re seeing in the powertrain as a whole, they’re getting up to the sort of 96%, 97%, 98% efficiency, so the gains that you get through that further and further become more marginal.”

With much more room for improvement, software is a different matter. To make the best decisions, the drivers need data, and that is where James believes McLaren Formula E will make their greatest impact.

“And then you really switch that focus to the software and that’s where you’re going to see the most the most improvement and the most gains,” James continued. “It’s then using that software to ensure that you’re deploying the energy in the most efficient manner during race, and thereby giving the driver the most performance. And that’s something which is incredibly complicated, but I find it a fascinating area to work in.

“The benefit of being involved in racing is you can really push the envelope in a way that you can’t do on road cars. And I think that that’s where that value comes in. It means that you accelerate the development a lot quicker. We will get ahead of the curve – and we are getting ahead of the curve now – and that will mean that the electric motorsports remain part of the overall development process.

“The key to that is also making sure that the racing’s exciting and fun for the fans. If we can, we can tick both of those boxes, then it’s got a very bright future ahead of it.”