Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Wednesday Wrap-Up: Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing's 2015 Season

The antepenultimate Wednesday Wrap-Up looks at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, which went from the worst team in IndyCar to championship contenders in one season. The team surprisingly was the best Honda team despite not developing the Honda aero kit during the offseason. The team did not have any mechanical failures take them out of a race and outside of one race, all of RLLR's poor results where not of their making.

It was a dream season for Graham Rahal
Graham Rahal
This was the season people having been waiting for from Graham Rahal since 2009. The first race saw Rahal be penalized when he made contact with Charlie Kimball's wounded car but he recovered to finish 11th. He survived the rain at NOLA to finish eighth and picked up another 11th at Long Beach. The natural-terrain road courses are where we got to see the strength of the Honda aero kit. Rahal started eighth and used pit strategy to put him into the lead. He had to make an additional pit stop but he was on fresh tires, was running laps two seconds faster than other drivers and drove his way to second until the checkered flag was displayed and he was 2.2 seconds behind Josef Newgarden.

Rahal developed a tendency to get at least one podium a year but the next race showed he had found a groove. He had to use pit strategy again to get from 17th to the front but he was running competitive lap times to Will Power, Juan Pablo Montoya and the other front-runners. He got within 1.5 seconds of Power but once again fell a few laps short. He started 17th in the Indianapolis 500 and his car improved as the race went on. He worked his way into the top ten and then into the top five. He couldn't get to the Penskes of Power and Monotya or the Ganassis of Kimball and Dixon and finished fifth.

Belle Isle 1 was the first bump in the road for Rahal as Stefano Coletti and James Jakes got together, leaving him and Tony Kanaan as collateral damage and ending Rahal's race on lap five. An early exit like this one would have killed Rahal's season in previous years. The next race he would driven too hard, bounced off the barrier, get even more frustrated, have it carry over to the next race and it would be all downhill. But race two saw Rahal benefit from qualifying being rained out, started fifth, benefitted from Power, Hélio Castroneves and Dixon being taken out and from others needing to conserve fuel to finish third. Texas was the only race that Rahal can pin on him and the team. He started sixth, got the set-up wrong for the race and finished 14th. He was the top Honda in eighth at Toronto made some aggressive passes to get there.

Then there is Fontana. Some races you win because you catch breaks. Rahal caught breaks at Fontana. He drove well all race and worked his way to the front but benefitted from not being penalized for leaving the pit lane with the fuel nozzle still attached and benefitted for not being called for multiple blocks near the end of the race. He broke his drought of 124 starts between victories. He had another solid run at Milwaukee where he ran in the top ten all race and ended up on the podium once again. At Iowa, he came back from a gearbox issue and falling a lap down to finish fourth. This led into his home victory at Mid-Ohio. He pitted at the right time when a caution came out and ended up on the top step of the podium.

Unfortunately, the storyline took a turn for the worst after Mid-Ohio. A botched pit stop at Pocono dropped him from the top ten to the back of the field. Tristan Vautier attempted a move into turn three that was never going to work and Rahal just happened to be the driver Vautier dove under. He still had a shot at the title despite the incident with Vautier and was running in the top ten at Sonoma until Sébastien Bourdais punted him and dropped him to 18th in the final race of the season and from second in the championship to fourth.

Graham Rahal had a championship season. Equipment was reliable. He turned top tens into top fives and top fives into podiums. Could he have been more conservative at Pocono? Who knows? He couldn't have seen the amount of attrition based off the previous two Pocono races. Belle Isle 1 and Sonoma were out of his control. Texas was the lone race that he and his name can hang their head on and even then he wasn't the only one to get the set-up wrong at Texas (Will Power and Simon Pagenaud are in the same boat). Rahal seems to be in a better place. He is settling down and getting married and perhaps that is a reason for his better on-track success.

Now the pressure is on Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Can they replicate these results? Andretti Autosport came on strong at the end of 2015 and history has shown us that Andretti Autosport can rebound. Penske and Ganassi will still be there. Maybe CFH Racing remains a contender. Perhaps KV Racing and Sébastien Bourdais makes that next step forward. RLLR has plenty of teams breathing down its neck to compete for the championship. The team is not expanding to two full-time teams but Spencer Pigot will be driving for the team at St. Petersburg and the two Indianapolis races and full-time hasn't been entirely ruled out. If they do bring on the Indy Lights champion, can the team develop him and not take a step back?

After having many competitive races in 2012 with Takuma Sato, RLLR were flat in the following two seasons. After winning three races in 2004, including the Indianapolis 500 with Buddy Rice, RLLR didn't win another race until Ryan Hunter-Reay at Watkins Glen in 2008. Can RLLR prevent the rollercoaster pattern from continuing in 2016?