Talk about an epic drive that flew under the radar. The big news from the GMR Grand Prix at Indianapolis involved breakthrough winner Rinus VeeKay and poleman and runner-up Romain Grosjean. Three spots behind them, Graham Rahal put in one of the most impressive drives of his career, but it was far from sexy or spectacular. If you love performances that burn below the surface, this run from last place to P5 was sublime.
“Somebody explain this to me: Why the hell did we just do that?” Rahal asked his race strategist Neil Fife when the driver of the No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda was called into the pits on Lap 3.
“We thought we had more time,” Fife responded.
Rahal’s chastisement and frustration — heard during the NBC TV broadcast — closed the radio conversation.
“Well, that was stupid,” Rahal fired back.
Starting in P11, he’d became collateral damage when Simon Pagenaud out-braked himself into Turn 1 at the start of the 85-lap contest. Hitting Conor Daly, the force of Pagenaud’s strike was enough to knock the car into Rahal’s entry, which suffered damage to the right-rear bodywork.
Within two laps, Rahal would vent and ask why, after pitting on Lap 2 for repairs, he was called in again on Lap 3 to top up on fuel. The problem wasn’t simply the call to pit on two consecutive laps, but the late timing of the decision. It meant the 23 drivers in front of the No. 15 Honda were tightly bunched behind the pace car and took the green flag together while Rahal crossed the finish line 18.2s behind Pato O’Ward in P23, and 27.8s from race leader Romain Grosjean.
The race’s lap chart tells the rest of the tale.
Down in P18 at the end of Lap 1, he restarted last in P24 on Lap 4 and begrudgingly accepted a new mission: Try to erase the big deficit by cutting a pit stop from his afternoon of racing.
As the rest of the field settled in to a three-stop strategy, Rahal would use the Lap 3 top-up and delicate use of the throttle pedal to do the thing drivers hate most — making speed while saving fuel.
He’d stretch the tank and pick up positions as the rest of the runners made their first visits to pit lane; Rahal would rise to P5 before pulling in on Lap 30. Like Rahal, Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon also made an early stop on Lap 3 to top-up and change tires; he’d pit on Lap 28 while Rahal went two laps farther as the fuel-saving efforts were in full effect.
Falling to P21 after his stop, Rahal started the process over again. As most of his rivals pitted a second time between Laps 35-40, the No. 15 car climbed the order once more to P5 before his second and final stop was performed on Lap 58. As most of the leaders turned between 23 and 24 laps before pitting, Rahal went a remarkable 27 and 28 for his pair of stops. By lifting and coasting earlier than the others into Turn 1 and Turn 5, Rahal was saving copious amounts of fuel, but it also reflected in his lap times as he re-entered the race in P19.
Consider the pace of VeeKay over the six laps following his third and final stop, which peaked at a 1m11.6s and achieved an average lap time of 1m11.9s. Rahal’s six-lap average after his second and last green stop was more than a second slower at 1m13.1s, with a best of 1m12.6s. If losing one second per lap to the leader wasn’t enough of a concern, Rahal also had the reason for his long afternoon — Simon Pagenaud — in hot pursuit.
Pitting on Lap 61, Pagenaud had plenty of fuel to burn in pursuit of Rahal over the remaining 24 laps; the driver of the No. 15 Honda wasn’t as fortunate, needing to go 27 laps while completing the fuel-saving dance.
To close the race, Pagenaud’s No. 22 Chevy produced full-tilt laps ranging between 1m12.2s and 1m12.5s from Laps 80-85 while hunting Rahal. To his credit, Rahal made exceptional speed in all the places where lifting and coasting wasn’t required; he matched Pagenaud with laps ranging from 1m12.2s to 1m12.6s as they raced to the checkered flag.
From P11 to P24 and nearly 20 seconds behind the field, to P5, to P21, to P5, to P19, and back to P5 with a scant 0.8891s margin over Pagenaud at the finish line, Rahal delivered an epic drive that warrants recognition.
“Hitting that fuel number was unreal,” Rahal told RACER. “And doing the last 20 laps under that pressure from Pagenaud while still needing to get that fuel mileage was very hard. Obviously that restart wasn’t ideal — we topped up on fuel and restarted 20 seconds behind. Imagine if we had restarted in the back of the pack and didn’t have to make up the 20 seconds.
“But at the same time, by the time I got to some of those guys in the sequence, they were having to pit — I could just keep going, so the momentum just kept rolling. It was definitely a good day.”