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RLL team relieved to survive Bump Day

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That Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing put all three of their cars into the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500 Presented by PennGrade Motor Oil may be something of a surprise.

The non-tow charts on “Fast Friday” looked somewhat bleak, especially for full-time drivers Takuma Sato and Graham Rahal – Sato was 25th while Rahal languished in 34th. Oriol Servia, in the No. 64 Honda in a joint effort with Scuderia Corsa, was best of that threesome, ending up 20th on the no-tow board.

Saturday looked even more bleak, especially for Rahal and Servia. Rahal, who was one of the first drivers to make a qualifying attempt, turned in a four-lap average of 225.407 mph, which didn’t seem fast enough to make the show.

Yet, as the day went on, it proved to be just enough. Rahal was never in genuine jeopardy of getting bumped – he was never bumped out and had no fewer than four drivers in between him and the first car out of the field before Jack Harvey made a big jump on his second run to go up to 27th.

Still, that only knocked Rahal down to 30th, and even though he did not improve on his second attempt, it was still enough to put him in the field.

“We’re in the show and that’s probably as much as I can ask for. We get to go racing,” Rahal said afterward. “Obviously, we have our work cut out for us back where we are but it’s a long race and anything can happen. We will finish it up tomorrow to get our final starting position.”

Servia’s day, however, was much worse, as he and the team had to wave off after a major handling problem.

His second attempt wasn’t much better, forcing them to make a third attempt in the final hour. This time, however, things were much better – his four-lap average of 225.007 mph was enough to put him in 31st, and he was able to sneak into the field.

Oriol Servia did just enough to make the 33-car field for the 102nd Indianapolis 500. Photo: IndyCar

“It’s been probably the biggest roller-coaster of my life, just today,” Servia quipped.

He added that the laps he spent on track were the most hair-raising that he has ever experienced.

“It was just the hardest I’ve driven – the hardest 12 laps I’ve driven ever,” he said of his three qualifying attempts. “When the car is off, it’s not right, at a speedway like this, there’s not much you can do apart from trying not to crash, which is what I did. It was really difficult. At that point (on the last run), you’re committed. (Like what happened to James Hinchcliffe), if you come in, you might not have a chance to go out again. I knew I had to try to stick it in. I’m happy for the effort, and we’ll see what we’ve got tomorrow.”

Takuma Sato fared the best of the three, though he wasn’t exactly happy. Sato could do no better than 29th with a four-lap average of 225.513 mph.

Takuma Sato during Indy 500 qualifying. Photo: IndyCar

Sato explained that track conditions didn’t mesh with their setup, but their lack of speed was a much bigger issue.

“The track conditions were not necessarily good, but we are lacking speed, for sure,” he explained. “I ended up lifting off the throttle because I simply couldn’t make the corner (on the third lap). We have a lot of work to be done. We gathered a lot of data over three cars and it’s going to be a long night.”

The three RLL drivers will look for better qualifying performances on Sunday.

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Formula One: Haas fighting for ‘best of the rest’ in Year 3

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AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The third season for Haas F1 has been its best, even if it’s been a bit bizarre.

Formula One’s only U.S.-based team has scored the most points in its young history and overcome some serious bumbles early to compete with – and beat – some of the legacy team names in F1.

Haas heads into this week’s U.S. Grand Prix in a tough season-ending fight with Renault for the “best of the rest” title among the teams outside of the Big Three of Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull.

“It’s the best battle of the field. It’s very tight. It’s going to go to the last lap of the race in Abu Dhabi, while I think the world championship is probably going to go this weekend,” said Haas’ French driver Romain Grosjean, who signed with the team before their first season.

“To rise as quickly as we’ve done hasn’t been seen in Formula One, I don’t think,” said his Danish teammate Kevin Magnussen.

Haas launched with a surprise in 2016 and has been rising ever since.

Haas scored points in its first race in 2016, and in 2017 had both cars finish in the top 10 for the first time at Monte Carlo, the biggest race on the annual calendar. A strong run over the last 10 races of this season has Haas just eight points behind Renault in the race for fourth place with four races left.

The 2018 season looks to finish better than it started.

After Haas scored the team’s best-ever qualifying at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix, neither car finished the race. Magnussen and Grosjean both left pit stops on consecutive laps with unsecured wheels and had to stop. The team was fined for sending the cars out in unsafe conditions.

“That was extremely, extremely disappointing” Magnussen said “We are still showing signs of immaturity at certain moments.”

Other problems followed. A month later in Azerbaijan, Grosjean fought his way from the back row into sixth before he drove straight into the wall while following a safety car. Grosjean felt horrible, but blamed one of the season’s most bizarre incidents on an errant flip of a steering wheel switch that he said upset the car’s brake balance and sent him spinning into the barrier.

More valuable points were lost in Italy when the floor of Grosjean’s car was deemed illegal and he was disqualified from sixth place. Haas appealed and is awaiting a decision on points that would close the gap with Renault with a stroke of a pen. Despite the gaffes, Grosjean has finished in the top 10 four times in the last seven races.

“I got eight points stolen in Monza,” Grosjean said. “The results are coming with the kind of performance Haas signed me for in the first place.”

After the problems, Grosjean admitted it was a relief to extend his contract with Haas for 2019. He and Magnussen will be teammates again.

“When I joined, I didn’t know what Haas was going to be. I think they gave me some credit for that when I had a tough time earlier this year and turned things around, Grosjean said.

Haas Team Principal Guenther Steiner said he and team owner Gene Haas saw value in staying with drivers who knew the Haas cars.

“Just to change a driver for the same level of skill, you go backward,” Steiner said. “There’s not a lot of better drivers out there, so why should we change them? Stay the same and mature quicker.”

The question now is how high can Haas go?

The Haas business model – which has drawn complaints from its middle-of-the-pack rivals – has it buying parts and engines, most notably from Ferrari. It keeps costs down but creates a performance ceiling that Haas is unlikely to break through.

“We are not developing parts for our car,” Grosjean said. “So far it hasn’t been a problem. If one day we start to beat Ferrari, it’s not going to work.”

Steiner said a top three finish isn’t realistic, not against teams with much bigger budgets, development and staff.

“The first year we didn’t finish last, the second year we didn’t finish last and now we are fighting for fourth. We must be doing something right,” Steiner said. “How do we get to that next step? Where do we go from here? Right now, there is no answer.”

That can be the frustrating part of an otherwise very good season.

A taste of success begs for more. For the 26-year-old Magnussen, he can be good with Haas, maybe even the “best of the rest.” But that’s a career definition no driver wants.

“It’s been six years since I won a race in motorsport,” Magnussen said. “I miss winning. Badly.”