IndyCar season review: Graham Rahal

IndyCar season review: Graham Rahal

IndyCar

IndyCar season review: Graham Rahal

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What will you remember the 2015 IndyCar season for? Juan Pablo Montoya’s teflon coating wearing off right at the time he needed it most? The introduction of the aero kits, several years after they were first mooted? Rocky Moran Jr.’s inspiring hour of track time at Long Beach?

To try to make sense of it all, RACER‘s Marshall Pruett, Robin Miller and Mark Glendenning asked each other some searching questions about all of 2015’s regulars, which for the purpose of this review, includes anyone who started a minimum of half the races. Look for new installments every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

GRAHAM RAHAL
2015 starts: 16

2015 best finish: 1st (Fontana, Mid-Ohio)
2015 championship position: fifth; 453pts

What did RLL get right that the rest of the Honda teams didn’t?

MARK GLENDENNING: It was able to turn a potential disadvantage – its single-car status – into a strength. The team didn’t have access to the multiple data streams that some of its rivals had to draw upon, so it went back to basics, listened carefully to what Rahal was saying about the car, and then channeled its energies in direct response to his feedback.

At one level that’s no different to what any other single-car team does, but a major reason that RLL was able to do it so effectively was that every person involved in making the car go faster shared the same ideas about how to move forward. It’s easy to underestimate the value of a driver and engineering team that are all pushing in the same direction.

You can point to the occasions where it rode its luck. Rahal should have been penalized at Fontana when he drove out of the pits with the fuel nozzle dangling out of the car, although even if he had been, he was quick enough that he’d probably still have salvaged a lot of points. And those breaks were balanced out by weekends where Rahal finished higher than he had any business doing. Look at Iowa, where he battled shifting problems so severe that at one point he left the pits in sixth gear, and yet he still managed to drag the car home in fourth. It was like the entire operation drew energy from its underdog status.

That depth of team unity is a rare thing, and RLL team manager Ricardo Nault believes that all of the potential landmines that the team was tip-toeing around at the start of the season (one car, a finicky technical package, a driver stuggling for confidence) and used to to forge a kind of seige mentality. You could probably throw something about Bobby stepping off the pitwall into the mix, too. Graham himself fed off all that, and rose to the challenge. Sometimes its not about having the most people, it’s about having the right people, and RLL’s 2015 performance was a testament to what can happen when everyone really clicks.

Despite an impressively strong season, RLL missed badly at Sonoma – the one race where they faced actual expectations – and Graham seemed to fall into the Captain Complainer role that left his critics underwhelmed prior to 2015. Was Sonoma a forgettable misfire, or a reminder of how he (and the team) can easily strike out?

MARSHALL PRUETT: Sonoma was indeed RLLR’s one big Mulligan for the season, and just as things were going wrong in the race, Graham’s former teammate Sebastien Bourdais decided to help make things worse by hitting and spinning Honda’s greatest hope.

Moving back to the start of the championship finale in Sonoma, Rahal struggled to find a happy chassis balance in practice, rallied to qualify sixth, and then, to paraphrase one of his in-race radio transmissions, “saved the worst for last” as balance and grip were in short supply. Bourdais’ torpedo impression only made things worse as Graham fell to 18th at the finish, he bitched and moaned the whole way home to the checkered flag.

The last bit was an uncomfortable reminder of the last major item left in Rahal’s personal development, and if that’s the biggest criticism to level about Graham’s breakout season, he’s in great shape.

Rahal did a superb job of handling pressure when things were going well, and as we saw (and heard) at Sonoma, adversity can indeed knock him off his mental game, but he isn’t alone in that department.

I’d rate Sonoma as an aberration for Graham – a forgettable misfire. And provided he’s willing to work on finding better ways to manage disappointment in the car, there’s every reason to believe he’s capable of stronger performances in the future.

What did Rahal himself do differently this year to produce those sorts of results?

ROBIN MILLER: He regained his comfort and confidence, plain and simple. The Graham Rahal Bandwagon was all but empty following 2014, and he was so disillusioned that he was even talking sports cars. But we all remembered (well, some of us, anyway) this kid had the ability to be up front because he’d shown it, whether it was throwing together a late lap to make the Fast Six, or making a bad-ass restart or pass. Eddie Jones and Martin Pare meshed well together and, along with Mike Talbott, RLL gave young Rahal a car he could drive in a year where Honda was overwhelmed. Graham also seemed more focused, more mature and more driven to prove his critics wrong. Which he did.

Missed one of the earlier reviews? You can find them here:

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