It’s not that Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing wasn’t capable of winning races or contending for Verizon IndyCar Series championships, because in its 20-plus year history it had done both with regularity.
But when RLL Racing as a single-car, relatively modest budget effort managed to do so last year after what had been a seven-year drought since its last win and after successive finishes of 18th and 19th in points with Graham Rahal, it came as a bit of a surprise.
Rahal won twice, at Fontana’s Auto Club Speedway and at his and the team’s home track of Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. He finished fourth in points after a tough final two races, but was as high as second, nine points back, after Mid-Ohio.
Now, after Rahal’s career year and bond with the new/returning people put in place by father and team co-owner Bobby, the good problem RLL Racing faces in 2016 is the burden of higher expectations for the No. 15 Steak ‘n Shake/Hyatt/Mi-Jack Honda.
Not that either Bobby or Graham is acknowledging any pressure.
“I don’t think we should feel under pressure other than we have a chance to do really well this year,” Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports. “It’s really the same people; same mechanics, same engineers. There’s one new truck driver, but otherwise, it’s the same.
“That’s the first time that’s been the case for us and Graham in quite a while. It gives us a reason to be more optmisic. I’d rather feel the pressure of expectations of success, versus, ‘When are you guys gonna win a race?’”
“I think there’s probably more pressure from the standpoint people will expect a lot out of us,” Graham Rahal added in a separate interview.
“Personally, I believe the sport is getting more and more competitive. Its gonna be more difficult this year than ever before. But this year we have a good solid base, setup-wise. Having that knowledge is definitely gonna help us going forward. Pressure standpoint, I don’t feel too bad. We’re pretty competitive, and can take some ease in the fact we won last year.”
The personnel and setup point is a key one. Bobby Rahal moved off the box with Ricardo Nault taking over on the bo as strategist. Then, with the combination of engineer Eddie Jones, aero specialist Mike Talbott and shock specialist Martin Pare, RLL found setups last year that worked that hadn’t clicked in the past.
It’s what allowed for a greater comfort level for Graham Rahal behind the wheel, and for Bobby Rahal in observing how well the car worked.
“The difference between now and a year ago is tremendous,” Bobby Rahal explained. “We didn’t have good setups for the circuits. It was a year of discovery in a lot of ways. We’d go for a race where we didn’t know where to start from, while Penske and Ganassi did based on previous setups.
“This is why as the year went on, we got more competitive. At ‘like’ circuits, we started from a better place. We go into this year so much further ahead of where we were last year.”
Graham Rahal, himself, was thankful to reunite with Pare, who helped contribute to his best races during his two year run with Chip Ganassi Racing from 2011 to 2012.
“What helped me last year was all the guys around me,” he said. “I had a tremendous group of people. I knew we’d be competitive, and we could run with everyone. Eddie does a great job of listening.
“Martin Pare is our unsung hero. I already had a great relationship with him, and his advice, even towards Eddie, was that he knew what I wanted and needed.
“For two years, I complained about rear on ovals. It was very numb, and I didn’t know if the rear would stick or not. I legitimately started to think, ‘It’s me; I can’t drive on ovals anymore.’
“But he’d just say, ‘Let’s just do this or that’ from prior experience. And now, my car’s good again! That’s where I got a lot of confidence. I didn’t want to point the finger at myself, but I was.
“Those three guys are magic. Our core is our mechanics, but those three brains behind it are key to keeping it together.”
If there is an area and key point of improvement in 2016 for driver and team, it’s qualifying. Graham Rahal’s grid position average last year of 11th place was eighth best in the field, and best Honda. He had seven top-10 starts, but only one via a Firestone Fast Six session, when he qualified sixth at the Sonoma season finale.
The improvements will come if Honda’s aero kit makes the key strides, but as Rahal related, he knows he can dig deeper in sessions and his Sonoma run was a confidence booster.
“That’s our weakness,” he said. “That’s what we need to get better at for sure. I don’t want to make my life any harder. I haven’t been good to myself.
“But at the same time, from what we’ve seen, I’d fully expect our competitors (Chevrolet) might have a bigger advantage on ovals. They should be quicker on road course qualifying.
“I want to make my life easier. If I can start fifth and only have to get by a handful of guys, it’s so much better than 15th. I know I have a great pit crew that can make up spots, and I know I can pass cars on the track.
“Sonoma gave me a lot of confidence. I wasn’t pleased at all but we qualified sixth. I muscled it around there hard. It gave me the confidence to know, if I have to pull a lap together, I think I can do it now compared to years past.”
While many people point to Graham’s marriage to NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Funny Car ace Courtney Force as the key confidence booster, as he alluded to earlier, the overall improvements he said came from the people around him in the team.
It’s a fact Bobby Rahal agrees with it in explaining how the 2015 season was such a success.
“Last year, as the year went on, you’re competitive in a lot of races. The team is working well together. You continue to see progression on engineering, and working in a good communication between yourself. All that does is build your confidence,” he said.
“When a driver’s confident, that’s a pretty powerful component. Certainly that’s what we saw. Even at St. Pete last year, we went in and didn’t qualify that great, but in the race we were extremely competitive. We developed as weekend went on. Morning warm-up, I think we were fastest.
“Graham started passing people, got close to the front, but got penalized. I watched from Turn 1 on the grandstands. I told the team that our car looked better over bumps, with his ability to carry speed through the corner.
“You look at that race, and things were better. It’s just a matter for him, do well, and he’s had a great sense of confidence. Running up front all the time means you’re happier going to races. Everything leads onto the next. Good place mentally. From a personal standpoint, he and Courtney have been a great combination. You saw the results.”
The goal for 2016, of course, is seeing continued strong results for the primarily single-car team. Spencer Pigot is confirmed for three races in the second car, and while both Rahals are keen to see him continue for more, the primary focus will be on the No. 15 car this season.
It’s a message that Bobby Rahal thinks can help Graham win the title.
“All my championships were as a single-car team,” he said. “Everything’s dedicated to a single driver’s likes and dislikes. There’s a simplicity about one-car team that comes from it.
“For a team, the odds of winning are less, but for a driver, it’s greater. It’s about what you do with what you have. I really believe a strong sharply focused one-car team can vie for the championship against multi-car teams.”