Wednesday, October 26, 2016

IndyCar Wrap-Up: Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing's 2016 Season

The final Honda team to be picked a part will be Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. For the second consecutive season the single-car team proved to be the #1 weapon for the Japanese manufacture and topped all its counterparts.

Graham Rahal had another season to be happy about
Graham Rahal
Rahal was coming off a disappointing end to the 2015 season where his championship hopes where crushed with two accidents in the final two races and in both he was the innocent bystander. He started sixth in the season opener at St. Petersburg but had a top ten taken from him when he was drilled by Carlos Muñoz in turn three, knocking Rahal to a 16th-place finish. If it wasn't for Ryan Hunter-Reay, Rahal would have had our attention at Phoenix as he went from 19th on the grid to fifth with passes on restarts and on the outside. Unlike Hunter-Reay, Rahal caught a break with a caution. He tried to go off strategy at Long Beach to get a top ten but slipped to 15th. At Barber, Rahal caught Pagenaud and if it weren't for Jack Hawksworth choosing the inside line exiting turn five, he would have won the race but limbed home to second.

Rahal had his qualifying time disallowed for the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and went from the second row to 24th, the second to last position on the grid. He stretched his fuel unlike anybody else and ended up finishing fourth. He stumbled in Indianapolis 500 qualifying and had to start 26th. He made his way forward during the race but couldn't get a top ten and finished 14th. At Belle Isle, Rahal went all-out while others were conservative and finished fourth. In the second race, he needed to make an emergency stop prior to the green flag because of a concern with the brakes. He went from the back to finish 11th.

At Road America, Rahal was up at the front for the entire race and challenged the likes of Simon Pagenaud and Tony Kanaan. Rahal finished third for the second time in his two IndyCar starts at the famed road course. Rahal didn't have a great race at Iowa but was in contention for a top ten until being caught out by a caution just after making a late pit stop. Toronto was Rahal's most mediocre race all season with him starting 16th and finishing 13th. Rahal returned to his home race looking to defending his race victory. He started sixth and was strong all day but didn't have anything for the Penskes of Pagenaud and Will Power but finished a respectable fourth.

He started 11th and finished 11th at Pocono and never really challenged to be a contender. Rahal improved constantly over the night at Texas and was in contention late. He didn't pit when the likes of Kanaan, Pagenaud and Hélio Castroneves did and he juked out James Hinchcliffe to take the lead in turn three and held for the victory on in the charge to the line as Hinchcliffe made one final lunge in what ended up being the fifth-closest finish in IndyCar history. Contact with Charlie Kimball exiting turn one ended what could have been a top ten finish at Watkins Glen. Rahal ended the season with another hard-fought battle with Simon Pagenaud for the victory but the Frenchman pulled away and Rahal settled for a well-deserved second-place finish.

Graham Rahal's 2016 Statistics
Championship Positions: 5th (484 points)
Wins: 1
Podiums: 4
Top Fives: 8
Top Tens: 8
Laps Led: 14
Poles: 0
Fast Sixes: 5
Fast Twelves: 7
Average Start: 12.8125
Average Finish: 8.875

I thought Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing would have a good season. I didn't expect fifth in the championship and to be the top Honda team for the second consecutive season. I don't what that team is doing. If history has taught us anything RLLR should have taken a step back. Single-car teams having extended success in IndyCar isn't common. With the lack of information gathered by RLLR, you would have expected it to fall back behind Andretti Autosport and maybe even Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. Instead, the team kept up the success from 2015.

Rahal's consistency has been a revelation the last two seasons but if there is one thing we can see as the difference between Rahal's 2015 season and his 2016 season was even though he was consistent this year, he wasn't consistent enough. While Rahal had eight top five finishes, those were his only top ten finishes of the season and amazingly his average finish was only worse by 0.375 points (his average finish was 8.5 last year) but imagine how much better Rahal's season would have been had his finishes of 11th, 13th, 14th and 15th were finishes of eighth, ninth and tenth. Not to mention the field as a whole was better in 2016 as the only drivers who had a better average finish than Rahal last season were Juan Pablo Montoya at 6.875 and Scott Dixon at 7.6875. This year, four drivers had a better average finish than 8.5 and Simon Pagenaud's average finish this year was 6.125.

With aero kit development being frozen for the 2017 season, there is no reason to expect RLLR to step back in terms of its performance. At the same time though, you can't expect RLLR to take a step forward unless it comes down to have more spells of good fortune and capitalizing on things such as double points and qualifying points at Indianapolis. Consider that Rahal qualified 26th for the 100th Indianapolis 500, which paid eight points. Had he qualified ninth, he would have scored 18 more points, enough to put him level with Josef Newgarden on points and actually giving Rahal fourth in the championship on tiebreaker.

RLLR is on the cusp of being a championship team and they can probably do it without having to expand the operation to two cars. While taking the fight to the Penske juggernaut may be an uphill battle, if the last two seasons have taught us anything is you can't count the little Ohioan team out.