Wednesday, January 24, 2018

2018 IndyCar Team Preview: Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing

Our third IndyCar team preview takes a look at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. The team was Honda's shooting star in the aero kit-era. The team won five races, picked up 13 podium finishes and had 22 top five finishes in 49 races over the last three seasons. While running as a single-car team for majority of that period, the team grows back to a two-car operation and it brings in a familiar face in an attempt to take the team to the next level.

2017 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Review:
Wins: 2 (Belle Isle I & II)
Poles: 1 (Belle Isle I)
Final Championship Positions: 6th (Graham Rahal), 27th (Oriol Servià), 31st (Zachary Claman De Melo).

2018 Drivers:

Graham Rahal - #15 United Rentals/Mi-Jack Honda
The American driver kept up his good form in the aero kit-era in 2017. Rahal's season did face a rocky start after an opening lap accident at St. Petersburg and a lap one turn one accident at Phoenix put him further down in the hole. He had a competitive day in the Indianapolis 500 but a tire puncture forced an extra pit stop and he had to settle for 12th. Rahal left Indianapolis 15th in the championship and with only two top ten finishes from six races. He rebounded immediately at Belle Isle with a victory in race one from pole position and he swept the weekend from third on the grid in race two. The two victories took him to sixth in the championship. Rahal would score six consecutive top ten finishes after Belle Isle before a pit lane infraction cost him a sure top ten at Gateway. Despite the hiccup, Rahal closed the season with two more top ten finishes at Watkins Glen and Sonoma and finished sixth in the championship, the second-best Honda driver.

Numbers to Remember:
2: Top ten finishes in ten Indianapolis 500 starts.

5: Rahal was one of five drivers to win a race in each season of the aero kit-era (Dixon, Power, Newgarden, Bourdais).

69: Number of IndyCar races since RLLR's most recent double top ten finish (Houston 1 2013).

4,669: Days between RLLR's most recent double top five finish and the St. Petersburg season opener. The last double top five for RLLR was the 2005 Indianapolis 500 when Vitor Meira finished second and Danica Patrick finished fourth.

After seeing Rahal's results over the past three seasons he is a contender but the universal aero kit will be an equalizer. While RLLR was out performing the skin on its DW12 chassis, the balance doesn't mean RLLR will remain at the top. The team has improved greatly and I don't see the team slipping but I think this will be a more difficult year than others. Expanding to two cars can throw a team off and the team's most recent attempt at two cars was not the most successful.

Rahal won races and was a championship contender when many had written him off at ever being a driver worth a damn in IndyCar. Not to mention he did it while more respected IndyCar drivers struggled with the Honda aero kit. I think Rahal will win a race or two in 2018 and be somewhere around where he has been the last few seasons. What hurt Rahal last year was the start of the season and most of the trouble he got in wasn't of his doing. He also had a hard time getting on the podium. He swept the Belle Isle races but his only other podium in 2017 was third at Mid-Ohio.

If Rahal avoids a frustrating start to the season, finds a way onto the podium more and repeats what he did for the final two-thirds of 2017 then it wouldn't be surprising if he was alive for the title entering the Sonoma finale. He has been in championship battles recently but I think the team might need a year to make sure it can run two cars competitively before it can have one in the title fight.

Takuma Sato - #30 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda
After four seasons with A.J. Foyt Racing, the Japanese driver moved to another famous American name and joined Andretti Autosport in a puzzling move. Despite questions over competitiveness, Sato showed from the start he was not going to be seat filler and finished fifth in the St. Petersburg season opener in a drag race to the line for fourth with teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay. He picked up another top ten at Barber and entered the Indianapolis 500 portion of the calendar tied for 10th in the championship. He qualified fourth, second best of the six Andretti Autosport cars and ran at the front all race. His Honda engine lasted and was able to carry him to a popular Indianapolis 500 victory. He followed the victory with good weekends at Belle Isle and Texas. However, a slight injury at Road America was the start of a rough second half of 2017. Sato ended the season with one top ten finish in the final eight races but still finished eighth in the championship.

Numbers to Remember:
7: Sato had failed to finish in the top ten in seven consecutive Indianapolis 500 starts prior to his victory in 2017.

8.5: Average starting position last season, a career-best for Sato.

12.4: Average finishing position last season, a career-best for Sato.

Sato takes a step back from his standout 2017 season but I don't think he falls back into the inconsistent, equipment ruining ways of his past. We know Sato has the speed to win races but there has always been something in the way. I don't see him winning a race in 2018 but he will be competitive. He won't finish eighth in the championship again but if he finished in the top 12 and had a top ten finish rate between 33-50% no one would be surprised.

This is a new team in the sense that it will be running full-time after being a part-time effort for the better part of the last few seasons. The team may have some growing pain but the good days will come. I think Sato will do better on the road and street circuits than ovals and I think he will make a handful of appearances in the Fast Six of road/street course qualifying. He seems to be a good bet to take a pole position out of nowhere.

The 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season opener, the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg will take place on Sunday March 11th at 12:30 p.m. ET on ABC.