We weren’t mean. We weren’t putting the boot in while he was on the ground. No, we were just honest, told it how we saw it. In 2014, Graham Rahal’s IndyCar career appeared to have reached a new nadir, and the RACER writers called it at season’s end.
Who was at fault in this apparent demise of a strong team and distinctly promising driver?
Well, Rahal himself had no doubts. He’d made mistakes, he admitted, but the general lack of performance from himself and the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team was largely the result of failing to click with some of the key personnel within the team. They had no faith in him, he had no faith in them, and both sides were trenchant and immovable. Any attempt to improve the relationships, and thereby try to recover some sense of positivity in the team, was a lost cause.
At this point we, along with a lot of others, shuddered. How many talented drivers down the years have failed to fulfill their potential by convincing themselves and the team owner that every problem was someone else’s fault?
Even more frustrating was that this had happened to Graham Rahal, a kid who’d seared most of his rivals with his talent in junior formulas and, through his Indy car career, had shown flashes of ace potential.
Ten months on, we aren’t going to take back our words. What we said about Rahal in our season-end review last year was accurate. But however bruised and abused he felt, so too he was unbroken. And his utter faith that he could turn it around in the right circumstances has been vindicated in 2015. Everyone would have been deeply impressed if he and the RLLR squad had bounced back hard enough to finish this season in the top five. Wretched double points, both here at Sonoma and in May at the Indy 500 Instead, he enters the season finale as a strong contender for the Verizon IndyCar Series title.
“First of all, I think Honda has done a tremendous job to close the gap,” a reflective Rahal told RACER’s Marshall Pruett earlier this weekend. “There’s a deficit when it comes to the aerodynamic efficiency of the aero kit, but I think the people at Honda, at HPD in particular, have gotten us a pretty good engine. I think it speaks volumes for what they have accomplished.
“At the same time, I think for me there’s a great sense of pride, accomplishment, achievement – however you want to say it – to be in a position where we can fight for a championship. As you said, at the start of the year nobody thought we would be here or, frankly, nobody thought we would be even close to this.”
For those who think Graham is overemphasizing the difficult condition in which Honda teams found themselves, think again. Despite the clear improvements made during the year by the Honda/HPD tech heads, there is still apparently a deficit in outright pace, at least in qualifying trim. Not once this season, on any type of track, has a Honda car started from the front row of the grid, despite the company’s lineup including folks like Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti, Carlos Munoz, the late Justin Wilson and, of course, Mr. Rahal himself. And, however much Honda has won lately, for the first half of the year, the company was strangled by the Chevrolet bowtie.
So has Rahal been lucky and avoided all the scrapes and misfortunes that have struck so many of his contenders? No, not really. Of course, he was lucky to escape without points censure following his victory in Fontana – that was a clear Race Control blunder. But such was the nature of the race – three- and four-wide and enough yellow flag time to catch up, who’s to say he wouldn’t have won even if the No. 15 Steak ’n’ Shake car had received a pit drive-through penalty?
For some, the sheer resilience of the team and resolve of the driver was highlighted by Iowa, where twice Rahal went a lap down as a result of gearbox issues, and still came back and finished fourth.
“It’s exciting, it’s been fun, it’s had its ups and downs, had challenges –obviously Pocono [ABOVE], Detroit Race 1. Stuff that wasn’t necessarily our fault is the frustrating aspect of racing. But we are here, we have an opportunity this weekend. We have the ability, I feel, and we have the opportunity to go win a championship and take the fight to the big boys.”
Rahal also emphasizes the David vs. Goliath nature of their battle – the fact that he has, almost from Day 1, been Honda’s primary hope, despite the inherent deficit of being a one-car team, has also meant he’s a thorn in the side to Penske, Ganassi, etc.
“When you look at Rahal Letterman Lanigan versus Team Penske, you’re talking 20 employees versus 400,” he states. “You are talking no wind tunnel testing, no shaker rig testing versus in-house wind tunnel, in-house shaker rig. That’s a big difference. But it’s the people you have that can make a team great. And that’s how we’ve gotten to where we are, and I’m extremely proud of them.”
And so Rahal arrives at the season finale with a somewhat clear head. He doesn’t have to defend – a scenario which has brought many a great driver to grief by being over-cautious. He simply has to put his foot down, look after his tires and try and score his third win of the year. Beyond that, what Juan Pablo Montoya does, is largely out of his control, despite the fact they’re starting on Row 3 alongside each other for the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma….
“Nobody is giving up now. No one is losing any hope. We are 34 points back, but we really feel that we have a great chance this weekend. We are looking at this weekend as a must-win scenario. We go out there and win, we’re going to be looking pretty good. It’s been a great year and we’re proud to fly the big Honda H.
“And I really hope that we can do – I really hope we can get it for them, for Honda Japan, HPD and John Mendel and everybody at American Honda who have been putting a lot of effort, time, money and everything else into this thing.”
But whatever the outcome of the race, Rahal has done himself, his team and his engine-supplier proud this year. While he’s generously keen to emphasize the team factor in his bounce-back to respectability, Graham can also take quiet satisfaction from what he himself has done this year…including proving his critics wrong.
We weren’t wrong last year in our criticism of young Rahal, but we aren’t wrong this season, either, in metaphorically thumping him on the back and saying, “Bravo kid, you’ve got what it takes.”
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