Graham Rahal has spoken of his disappointment following his retirement during last weekend's NTT IndyCar Series Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park. Rahal qualified in second-place, joining his team-mate Takuma Sato on the front row of the grid. Whilst Sato would go on to dominate the race, Rahal encountered numerous throttle issues which later led to his retirement.
The weekend in Alabama started off fairly inconspicuously for both Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing drivers. In practice one, Rahal would finish down in twentieth, whilst team-mate Sato set the eighth fastest time. In practice two, Rahal would take sixteenth, with Sato a few places higher in thirteenth. After the session, Graham commented that he wasn't exactly where he wanted to be in terms of pace, but that there was every chance that the team could find more speed overnight.
"We're not quickest, but we're only half of a second out," Rahal said on Friday, "It's so close. It looks like there is only one sector where we are losing most of our time. We will work hard to resolve that."
In final practice on Saturday, Rahal was once again down the time-sheets in nineteenth place. His session was compromised after he caused one of the red flags following a spin into the gravel. His team-mate, meanwhile, was up in fifth place; perhaps foreshadowing what was to come later in the day.
A number of high-profile eliminations were seen throughout the opening rounds of qualifying later in the day. The likes of Josef Newgarden, Alexander Rossi, Will Power and others fell by the wayside, whilst Rahal and Sato both made it into the shoot-out for pole position.
For much of the final session, Graham looked on course to take a fantastic pole position with his lap-time of 1:08.6971. However, at the last moment, Sato would put in a lap of 1:08.5934 that would see him take pole position by just a tenth of a second.
After the session, Graham did not show any signs of disappointment at being out-qualified by his team-mate. Instead, he thanked his team for the "tremendous job" they had done to lock-out the front row.
"Well, I think overall, we got a little bit better everywhere," Rahal said after qualifying, "The one sector [where Rahal had spoken about losing time on Friday] might still be a little bit not perfect, I would say, maybe a little thorn in our side. But typically, I think the guys did a tremendous job today.
"This morning, our time and our finishing position, which ended up in the gravel, is not indicative of our pace and we felt that. Did we feel we had the front row locked out? Probably not. But the really good sign of this, I think, is that our cars are clearly pretty consistent with tire wear from the first run to the second run on those reds [Firestone alternate tyres].
"I'm excited. I think we're in a good position as we go forward. I think we've had good races here in the past, but we've never started anywhere near here. Hopefully, tomorrow can be a pretty straightforward, really strong day for us."
Sadly for Rahal, the ninety-lap race on Sunday was anything but straightforward. At the start of the race, Sato would maintain position at the front of the field, with Graham just about holding on to second-place after being challenged by Scott Dixon. Soon, however, Graham hit trouble.
Just a few laps in, Graham's #15 Honda started to develop a throttle issue. The throttle was starting to stick more and more as the laps went on, with Graham soon coming over the radio to inform his team that the issue would soon cause him to crash without resolution.
"About Lap 3, the throttle started to stick and I tried to make it hang on," Rahal said after the race of his early issues, "We did, I don't know, 15 laps that way. Finally, it was going to put me in a gravel trap or something; for sure, I was hanging on way too much.
During the first pit-stops of the race, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing opted to conduct a lengthy stop for Rahal so that the team could plug the car in to try and deal with the issue, that they believed was being caused by a throttle sensor issue. After twenty-six seconds being stationary in the pits, Rahal was released back onto the race-track, but he was now right towards the back of the field.
Rahal would remain in the race for many laps after his first pit-stop, but he would not make as much progress through the order as he would have hoped. As the race neared it's final thirty laps, Rahal's car would suddenly grind to a halt out on the race-track with seemingly no warning. After entering the race with such high-hopes due to his front-row grid spot, Rahal would be forced to climb from his #15 Honda with no reward for his or his crew's efforts.
Post-race, Rahal would admit that his #15 Honda had suffered a similar issue at the end of qualifying. His team had changed numerous components on the car to try and prevent the issue from occurring again. Sadly, the changes would not fix the issue.
"The car just died, completely shut off," Rahal said on Sunday, "We had this [problem] in qualifying, luckily it was on my cool-down lap from the lap where I [qualified second]. But these have to be connected. Last night, we changed the throttle pedal, we changed the sensors, we checked all the tuning. I don't know, but it has to be something in the loom."
"It's just a shame. One Cure, this whole team was working really good. Takuma [Sato] and I were running away there at the start. I thought it was our day, man, I thought it was our weekend. Here and at St. Pete, with the flat tire, man, c'mon. At some point [our luck] has got to change."
Whilst Rahal watched from the sidelines, his team-mate would go on to take the victory; capping off what had been a near-perfect drive. As a result, Sato now sits third in the championship standings, thirty-four points off of the lead, whilst Rahal is down in thirteenth place with a sixty-seven point deficit to the top of the table.
Rahal will be hoping that his fortune turns around at the next round of the 2019 championship this weekend. The 2019 Grand Prix of Long Beach will take place on Sunday, April 14.