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IndyCar: What time is it? It’s Graham Rahal’s time for a championship

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If you see Graham Rahal this weekend at the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, ask him what time it is.

But don’t expect him to answer something like 10 a.m., Noon or 6 p.m.

Instead, he’ll talk about his chances to win the 2018 IndyCar championship.

“I feel like it is our time,” Rahal says with a strong air of confidence that this truly will be his year to win his first IndyCar championship.

The son of three-time CART champion and 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner Bobby Rahal has good reason to be as confident as he is.

In the last three seasons, the younger Rahal has finished fourth (a career best), fifth and sixth in the IndyCar ranks. He’s also earned five of his six career wins in the last three seasons, including two triumphs in 2017.

Also in those last three seasons, he’s earned 13 podium finishes and one pole.

After all that, you know, yes, maybe it is Rahal’s time in 2018.

“I feel like it is,” Rahal reiterated. “I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but I’m still 29, I’m just kind of entering the prime of my career, I’ve gone through my ups and downs, been with different teams and we’ve all settled in here.

“I just feel like this team is a great place to be and I think we’re at a point where together, we know each other so well and work together so well. We’ve had no changes; we don’t change things, we just don’t. We keep the status quo, just keep going with the great people around us, so, yeah, I feel like it is our time.”

Even at such a young age, Rahal is an experienced veteran. He’s entering his 11th season in IndyCar and 12th overall in U.S. open-wheel racing (competed in Champ Car in 2007), for a grand total of 11 years and 175 race starts.

As he’s gone through all those years, Rahal has watched as other young drivers have gone on to great success in IndyCar.

In Rahal’s first full-time season in IndyCar in 2008, Scott Dixon won the first of his three championships at 28 years old. And then last season, Josef Newgarden became one of the youngest drivers to ever win an IndyCar championship at the age of 27.

And let’s not forget the Indianapolis 500. Alexander Rossi won the 100th anniversary of the Greatest Spectacle In Racing at the age of 24 in 2016, and as an IndyCar rookie.

Rahal has envisioned himself in their place too many times to count.

But heading into the 2018 campaign, with a team that is perhaps the strongest it has ever been at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, Graham said there’s a championship feeling at the team’s headquarters.

“I think we’re going to have a great year,” Rahal said. “I’m excited for what I’ve seen so far. We’ve been doing a lot of testing and overall, there’s been no complaints. Lots of positives for us.”

And with the bold, sexy design of the new Dallara body, Rahal says there’ll be lots of positives for the sanctioning body and its fans, making this perhaps the most optimistic season in the last 20 or more years.

“The new car, I think is going to re-energize a lot of fans,” Rahal said. “I think people are going to really enjoy what they see, the performance it has.

“It’s different, different in the way it performs, acceleration and everything else. I think people are really going to like that. Anybody who fell in love with the sport during, say, my dad’s era, are certainly going to love what they see.

“I think it’s good. It’s been fun. It’s a different feel, there’s no doubt about that. But just the way it brakes, slows down, it’s very different than before. You have to drive it differently, think about it differently, but what’s fun about it is the challenge that it provides.

“A lot of race cars year after year after year are very similar. So when you get a big change like this, it makes it exciting as a driver to figure it out. In a lot of ways, it levels the playing field as well. So I think it should be really cool.”

Takuma Sato, left, and Graham Rahal are back to being teammates at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing this season.

Rahal is also be reunited with last year’s Indianapolis 500 winner, Takuma Sato, who rejoins RLL after just one season with Andretti Autosport.

“I think he helps a lot,” Rahal said of Sato. “He brings a lot to the team. The key for our program is to keep the intensity low and the smiles frequent.

“We’ve been able to keep a lot of guys and have had success because everybody enjoys themselves on this team. When you bring in a guy like Takuma or any other driver, you always have to be very cautious of that, don’t mess up our mojo.

“But the great thing about Takuma is he doesn’t, he’s a great guy, a happy guy and is a great influence on our program, our people and our team. We’re very, very excited to have him as part of that and I think we’re fortunate to have him and his influence to be part of that.

“I’ve had teammates with other guys that don’t have that influence. For some guys, the sky’s always falling and it’s not fun to work with those guys. In this case, Takuma is a guy that slots right in, a lot of experience, a very technical guy and obviously never lacks speed. We all know that.”

While he’s keen about his own championship hopes, Rahal knows it won’t be a cakewalk by any means. A few mistakes here, a few poor finishes there, and his title plans could quickly go awry.

Who does he consider his toughest competitors?

“I think there’s no doubt that Penske is going to be tough,” Rahal said. “They always are. They’re still the team to beat.

“Scott Dixon, he’s an animal. To me, he’s the best driver in the series, so you have to watch out for him and Ganassi, Scott’s going to be right there. Also, (Ryan) Hunter-Reay will have a pretty good year, and I think (Alex) Rossi will be much improved again.

“But I’d like to believe that everybody else has a little bit of fear about us, because I do like to believe that our team is on the verge of doing great things. We’ve had a good couple of years, a great couple of years, but now with the same aero kits and it all coming down to team, driver and Honda, there’s a lot to believe in and a lot of reasons to think our team can be pretty tough.”

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F1 Preview – 2018 French Grand Prix

Photo: Getty Images
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It’s hard to believe that the French Grand Prix, the oldest grand prix event on the planet, as it dates back to June of 1906, was ever removed from the Formula 1 calendar.

Alas, not since 2008 at Magny-Cours has Formula 1 held a race on French soil. Yet, that all changes this weekend, as Formula 1 visits the Circuit Paul Ricard for its first French race in a decade.

Formula 1 teams are not strangers to Paul Ricard. It has been a popular testing facility for years, as evidenced by the below photo from 2016, featuring Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari in a wet tire test.

LE CASTELLET, FRANCE – JANUARY 26: Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Scuderia Ferrari drives during wet weather tire testing at Circuit Paul Ricard on January 26, 2016 in Le Castellet, France. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

However, in terms of racing, Paul Ricard has also been absent from the calendar for quite a long time – the last time Formula 1 race at Paul Ricard was in 1990. Alain Prost won for Ferrari that day.

1990: Alain Prost of France punches the air in celebration after passing the chequered flag in his Scuderia Ferrari to win the French Grand Prix at the Paul Ricard circuit in Le Beausset, France. Mandatory Credit: Pascal Rondeau/Allsport

As such, despite being a known quantity as a testing facility, how a race weekend will shake out is anybody’s guess.

And what’s more, it marks the beginning of three consecutive race weekends – The French Grand Prix, The Austrian Grand Prix, and The British Grand Prix – which F1 teams and drivers are calling “the triple header.”

Talking points ahead of the French Grand Prix are below.

A Journey Into the Unknown?

Like all new venues, or resurrected and refurbished ones in this case, the Circuit Paul Ricard represents somewhat of an unknown, as there’s no available race data to make predictions off of.

And the 3.61-mile, 15-turn track itself represents a range of challenges. It has fast corners, like Turns 1 and 2 (S de la Verrerie), a technical section between Turns 3 and 7 (Virage de l’Hotel through the Mistral Straight Start), and a 1.1-mile straightaway in the Mistral Straight, though it is separated by a chicane (Turns 8 and 9).

Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff discussed the challenge of the circuit, highlighting the lack of data to build off of as well the tough three-race stretch ahead as especially challenging, in a preview on Formula 1’s website.

“France should be an interesting race. We don’t often get to race on a track where we have little to no historical data. It makes preparing for the weekend a bit trickier than usual, but that element of the unknown also adds to the challenge. The French Grand Prix marks the first race of the triple header, which will test all F1 teams to their limits, but also offers the chance to score a lot of points over the course of three weeks – which is precisely what we’re setting out to do,” said Wolff.

That element of the unknown makes Paul Ricard one of the biggest wildcards on the 2018 F1 calendar, and a championship shake up could be in the cards as a result.

Ferrari, Mercedes Continue Their Back and Forth

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – MARCH 25: Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF71H leads Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes WO9 on track during the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park on March 25, 2018 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Ferrari and Mercedes have traded jabs throughout the 2018 season, with neither able to pull away from the other so far through seven races.

Sebastian Vettel enters the French Grand Prix with a one-point lead over Lewis Hamilton, and holds a slight edge in victories – three to Hamilton’s two – and comes off a thorough domination of the Canadian Grand Prix.

Vettel led every lap at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on his way to victory, while Valtteri Bottas had to carry the Mercedes flag in finishing second. Hamilton languished in fifth, a surprising and disappointing result given his previous success there.

The aforementioned Toto Wolff described it as a “wake up call,” though Mercedes will roll out a power unit upgrade this weekend – Ferrari and Renault, which also powers Red Bull Racing, rolled out upgrades of their own in Canada.

With four long straightaways present at Paul Ricard, power will certainly be at a premium, so such upgrades will be vital in giving Mercedes a chance to make amends after Canada’s disappointment.

Trio of French Drivers Look to Impress on Home Soil

It comes hardly as a surprise that the three French drivers – Romain Grosjean, Pierre Gasly, and Esteban Ocon – are keen to make an impression at their home race.

And all three could certainly use a boost. Gasly has only one finish inside the points (seventh in the Monaco Grand Prix) since his stellar fourth place effort in the Bahrain Grand Prix. Ocon is coming off back-to-back points finishes (sixth in Monaco, ninth in Canada), but he has only one other finish inside the points this year (tenth, in Bahrain). And Grosjean, despite showing the speed to finish in the points, is yet to score any in 2018.

As such, all three are hoping for big things in their home race this weekend.

“I want to get a good weekend, have some luck, get my first points of the season, and get a lot of support from the fans,” said Grosjean. “I think we should be in a nice place at Paul Ricard. I’m always looking forward to jumping back in the car. I just love driving an F1 car.”

Ocon, who has raced and won at Paul Ricard in the past, expects his prior experience could be a big help.

“I did race at Paul Ricard early in my career – it was actually where I had my first victory in single seaters in 2013 so I have some fantastic memories of the place,” Ocon described. “I hope we can add some more success this weekend. Having been there in the junior categories makes getting used to a new track in a Formula One car much easier. I think I will find my rhythm quite quickly.”

Gasly’s excitement level obviously matches that of his French compatriots, with the added bonus that the return coincides with his rookie F1 effort.

“For me it will be absolutely incredible that my first full season of Formula 1 coincides with the return of a French Grand Prix to the calendar for the first time in 10 years,” said Gasly. “That has to be a reason for me to be very happy and I’m really excited to be racing in my home country. I can tell it will be a special feeling going out on track and actually, I have spoken to Jean Alesi and Alain Prost about it and they both told me that it will feel really special and something that you really have to experience as a Frenchman racing in France.”

Qualifying for The French Grand Prix begins at 9:55 a.m. ET on Saturday, with Sunday’s race at 9:30 a.m. ET.

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