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March 04, 2018

IndyCar Team Preview: RLLR Aim to Upend Status Quo

INDIANAPOLIS -- Over the past three years, no two drivers have had more success toppling IndyCar’s titans (Penske, Ganassi, Andretti) than Graham Rahal and Sebastien Bourdais. Combined, the two have racked up nine wins while the rest of the series has just five.

Though Rahal has been the more consistent finisher in the championship, Bourdais was poised to contend last season before a horrific crash during Indianapolis 500 qualifying fractured his hip and crushed that dream.

But Bourdais is back, healthy and ready to make another run at the top. Bolstered by the union with his friends and former KV team owners, Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan, Bourdais may boast the best organizational talent he’s had in years.

Meanwhile, RLL made some substantial additions of its own, bringing the reigning 500 champion into a garage already packed with enviable engineering talent.

The talent, investment and desire are there for both teams, but will either claim the first non-Penske/Ganassi/Andretti championship since 2002? We’ll soon find out.

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing

Driver: Graham Rahal, No. 15 Honda

Strategist: Ricardo Nault; Engineer: Tom German

2017 championship finish: 6th

Early indications are that RLL is going to be fast from the start. After Takuma Sato topped the Phoenix open test speed charts, Graham Rahal turned the fastest lap time Wednesday during the private test at Sebring. Yes, it’s just testing, but RLL already looks to be at the head of the class in terms of deciphering the new universal aero kit -- a testament to the team’s exquisite engineering group made up Tom German, Eddie Jones, Martin Pare and Michael Talbott.

A quick start would be a welcome change for Rahal, who had  to muster late-season surges the past two years. Last season, he entered May in 17th after a first-lap incident cost him at St. Petersburg and Mikhail Aleshin’s crash swept him up in Phoenix. After Indianapolis, though, he shook off the bad luck, swept the doubleheader in Detroit and nabbed four more top-five finishes to close out the season sixth in the championship.

We’ll never know what he might have accomplished had he enjoyed a little more good fortune early last season, but we know there is one area he has to improve if he’s going to contend this year: qualifying.

Despite earning his first pole since 2009, Rahal’s average starting position of 9.6 was the worst among the top eight championship finishers. In 2016, his average starting position was 12.8 and in 2015, it was 11.0. Few drivers are more adept at maneuvering to the front through a pack -- just admire his work at the IndyCar Grand Prix the past two years -- but Rahal would benefit from not having to employ that skill as much this year. If he and his cadre of engineers solve their qualifying woes, Rahal will threaten to finish higher than he ever has (fourth) in the championship.

Driver: Takuma Sato, No. 30 Honda

Strategist: Bobby Rahal; Engineer: Eddie Jones

2017 championship finish: 8th (with Andretti Autosport)

The defending Indianapolis 500 champion is coming off of the most successful season of his eight-year IndyCar career. Beyond his life-changing win at the 500, he scored three more top-five finishes along with poles at Detroit and Pocono and finished a career-best eighth in the championship.

Now he returns “home” -- as he’s fond of calling it -- to RLL, where he spent the 2012 season. The daring Japanese driver couldn’t have picked a better time to return, with RLL looking primed to contend with the series’ traditional powers for both race wins and the championship. However, it Sato truly is going to be a title contender for the first time, he’ll need to avoid those mistakes that have long clouded his career. He raced fairly clean last season, but he still threw away a top-five finish at Texas with a risky passing maneuver and lost control of his car in the late stages at Phoenix. If he can eliminate those types of errors, his immense skill and qualifying excellence could vault him into the thick of the championship.

Beyond his own title aspirations, Sato will be key in helping Rahal make his assault on the standings. Rahal hasn’t had a teammate since James Jakes in 2013, so for four years, he’s had no one to compare his insights with, no one else to gather data for his engineers. In a series that doesn’t allow for much testing, that put Rahal and RLL behind the eight ball, but with an inquisitive and experienced mind like Sato in the fold, that should no longer be a problem.

The stat: Since Rahal’s June 27, 2015, victory at Fontana, only Will Power (seven) and Simon Pagenaud (seven) have more race wins than Rahal’s five.

The quote: “Everybody knows the job Graham has done the last three seasons, and he’s done it basically by himself. That’s impressive. But we’re already sharing lots with each other and are working extremely well together. As race drivers, we’ll push each other, and we’re hoping to bring the whole team a level up." -- Takuma Sato

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