Wednesday, October 25, 2017

IndyCar Wrap-Up: Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing's 2017 Season

While Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing was not the top Honda team in 2017, the team continued a successful stretch and was competitive everywhere IndyCar went. This year will mark the end of the team's single-car status. The team didn't fight for the championship until the wire nor did it set any records but it was the first team to win multiple races this season.

Graham Rahal picked up another two victories this season
Graham Rahal
The season started off with a bit of a rough patch almost immediately. Rahal started tenth and in turn two he was spun by Charlie Kimball and he was caught a lap down. He never recovered from the incident and he finished 17th. He spent most of the Long Beach race in the top ten and a late pit stop dropped him out of the top ten. He would steal the tenth position on the final lap after Mikhail Aleshin ran into J.R. Hildebrand. He started dead last at Barber and finished 13th. Rahal was one of five drivers taken out in the turn one lap one accident at Phoenix.

For the second consecutive year, Rahal took a car from one of the final three positions on the grid and raced his way into the top five in the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. He picked his way through the field and ended up with a sixth place finish. After qualifying 14th for the Indianapolis 500, Rahal had a good car. He worked his way to the front and he led two laps just after halfway. However, a caution dropped him out of the top ten and a flat tire sent him back even further. He was able to get back up to a 12th place finish. Rahal had not dominated a race yet in his career and that changed at Belle Isle. He won his third career pole position for race one and he proceeded to lead 55 of 70 laps on his way to victory. In race two, Rahal rolled off from third position and he would take the lead after the first pit cycle. He was cruising until a late caution but he held off all challengers and swept the weekend on his way to become the first multi-race winner this season. At Texas, Rahal yo-yoed through the field all night and by the time he took the checkered flag he was in fourth.

His podium streak at Road America ended and he didn't have a great car but a change of strategy mid-race salvaged an eighth place finish for him. Rahal had a strong run around the top five all day at Iowa and finished fifth. He qualified on row one for Toronto but the Tony Kanaan caution shuffled him to the back and he had to claw his way to a ninth place finish. At his home race of Mid-Ohio, Rahal started fourth and he got up to third but could not break up the Penske 1-2 of Josef Newgarden and Will Power.

Rahal and Kanaan put on a show at Pocono trading the lead every lap for a dozen laps and he was in the top ten the entire race. Unfortunately for Rahal, he was shuffled back a few positions and finished ninth when he was better than that on the day. The lone mistake of the season for Rahal was leaving the pit lane with the fuel hose attached at Gateway and it cost him a top five finish. He recovered to finish fifth at Watkins Glen after starting tenth. He put together another solid day at Sonoma after starting ninth and finishing sixth.

Graham Rahal's 2017 Statistics
Championship Positions: 6th (522 points)
Wins: 2
Podiums: 3
Top Fives: 6
Top Tens: 12
Laps Led: 110
Poles: 1
Fast Sixes: 4
Fast Twelves: 7
Average Start: 9.647
Average Finish: 8.352

It was another season where Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing deserved a round of applause when it was all said and done. For three years of the aero kit-era, RLLR was the best Honda team. While Rahal was not the top Honda driver in the championship, he was second best of the Honda drivers from a single-car team. Rahal is a top driver. He had a few rough years. The results didn't come as quickly as most wanted them to come but he is a driver you aren't surprised to be contending no matter where the race is located. He had 12 top ten finishes this season, only Hélio Castroneves, Scott Dixon, Simon Pagenaud and Josef Newgarden had more.

Rahal wasn't the only driver who did well this year for RLLR. Oriol Servià was running well in the Indianapolis 500 and could have stolen a top ten finish before he was caught in an accident. The Catalan driver's two Belle Isle races were not good. Zachary Claman DeMelo made a surprise debut at Sonoma and he started 21st but he kept the car in one piece and finished 17th.

The team now transitions from a single-car team to a two-car team with the addition of Takuma Sato from Andretti Autosport. I think there has to be a little concern of the team taking a step back. Growth is change and sometimes it takes a while for change to really take hold. There will be more team members but it is about getting everything to mesh and keep Rahal where he is at while trying to get Sato's team up to that level. There will be more resources but the attention will be split and there will be more chances for a headache.

You would think the introduction of the universal aero kit will only bring an already strong RLLR even closer to the top but I do wonder if a neutralization of the field will only make it more difficult for RLLR to stand out. Sato had good runs with the team in 2012 but Rahal struggled in 2013 and 2014, the final two years of the original DW12 aero kit. I think the pieces in place behind the scenes are stronger than they were in the first three years of the DW12-era and that could keep the team fighting at the sharp end of the grid.