RACER takes a look at each full-time NTT IndyCar Series team ahead of the new season’s launch this weekend at St. Petersburg, continuing with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.
2022 Entrants’ Championship (1-25):
11th, No. 15 Honda with Graham Rahal
14th, No. 30 Honda with Christian Lundgaard
20th, No. 45 Honda with Jack Harvey
No. 15 Honda with Graham Rahal
No. 30 Honda with Jack Harvey
No. 45 Honda with Christian Lundgaard
No team underperformed more than Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing last season, and no team has done more than RLL during the offseason to address its competitive shortcomings. The narrative was developed throughout most of the year as RLL’s ambitious moves to replace two-time Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato with promising Formula 2 talent Christian Lundgaard and to add a third car for budding star Jack Harvey took a nearly instant detour.
Team leader Graham Rahal was the early salvation for the team as he reeled off three top 10s over the opening four races in the No. 15, but the same couldn’t be said for rookie Lundgaard who came home outside the top 10 at those same four races. Harvey’s RLL debut ended with a midfield result in 13th with the No. 45, and then his season imploded with the crash and concussion he suffered during practice at Texas. Santino Ferrucci deputized for the Briton and produced the top result for the team on the day — a run to ninth — that would also stand as the top finish for the No. 45 of the 15 remaining races.
Harvey’s post-Texas struggles were relentless, and with a rookie race engineer on his timing stand, the situation continued to devolve. A 10th-place finish with his No. 45 Honda at Nashville was the only bright spot in a year that was worth forgetting.
Having missed the mark on an extensive damper development program, the RLL cars were slower than expected at too many venues. With Harvey epitomizing the worst of the team’s struggles, his teammates were able to run somewhat competitively on a more regular basis, but it wasn’t until a simpler direction was taken on damping that better results started to emerge.
By the midpoint in the season, Rahal and Lundgaard could be counted on to run inside the top 10 at most events, which spoke to the huge in-season effort by RLL to turn its engineering program around. There were increasing murmurings regarding Harvey’s future with the team as the season reached its final months, but the decision was made to hold onto him and make a few changes that would benefit the team and driver.
In moving Harvey from the Hy-Vee-sponsored No. 45 to the No. 30 entry, Lundgaard has been placed in the No. 45 and should give the grocery store chain and backer of the Iowa doubleheader more time in the spotlight and in front of NBC’s TV cameras. For the sake of clarity, it’s a car number and sponsor swap; the crews for Harvey and Lundgaard are the same as last year.
Unsatisfied with its overall output in 2022, RLL has been aggressive in hiring and retooling its engineering group. This is another area where the team has made more changes than any other, and it should make a world of difference.
With input from Red Bull Formula 1 designer (and Bobby Rahal’s former CART IndyCar race engineer) Adrian Newey, RLL signed veteran F1 engineer and aerodynamicist Stefano Sordo as its new technical director. His appointment has also resulted in the creation of a more formal and hierarchal engineering structure with Sordo leading the group. The excitement surrounding Sordo and the potential of his influence within the team is remarkable.
Among the drivers, Rahal’s most competitive years came with Eddie Jones as his race engineer, and after Jones stepped back from that role a few seasons ago, the highly respected Allan McDonald — nicknamed ‘Squirrel’ — was hired to run the No. 15 car. Rahal and Squirrel put together a strong body of work during their time together, but RLL is looking to recreate the race-winning magic Rahal and Jones summoned so they’ve been reunited as driver and race engineer. They should make at least one return to victory lane, if not more.
McDonald’s been moved over to engineer the No. 30, and that’s the best lifeline the team could have thrown Harvey. McDonald becomes the most experienced and successful engineer Harvey’s had as an IndyCar driver. Rahal and McDonald earned nine finishes inside the top 10 last season — during a down year for the team — so all excuses have been removed for what’s possible with Harvey’s entry. Of RLL’s three cars, Lundgaard’s No. 45 is the only one with year-to-year consistency between driver and engineer.
On the managerial side, former HPD VP Steve Eriksen joined RLL during the offseason, replacing former president Piers Phillips. Put it all together, and the team has made a statement about its willingness to spend and invest in the people and resources needed to turn RLL into a title contender.
WHAT THEY NEED
Obvious Statement Alert: They need to win motor races.
The last driver to finish first for RLL was Takuma Sato in 2020 at the Indianapolis 500, and of the three that comprise today’s team, the most recent win came from Rahal in June of 2017 at Detroit. Rahal and Jones are more than capable of breaking the six-year drought, and that’s the high bar of expectations placed on the No. 15 entry. A bunch of podiums will be great, and they’ll help in the championship standings, but Rahal and the good people working on his car need to remind themselves that they can be the best at any given race by reaching the top step and spraying champagne.
Armed with Jones on his timing stand, Rahal made a habit of winning and placed fourth, fifth, and sixth in the championship in consecutive seasons. Their history is real and needs to be matched or exceeded.
Lundgaard and race engineer Ben Siegel make for a great pair, and with a year of experience under his belt and knowledge of every circuit on the schedule, the Dane is poised to start playing with IndyCar’s biggest stars at the sharp end of the grid. I wouldn’t be surprised if Lundgaard gets his first win this year, and if we look at where he might place in the championship, the one area where a big improvement can be made is on the ovals.
Lundgaard performed as expected last season as an oval rookie, but with four of his five finishes ranging from 18th to 26th, his oval education came with very few points to stack on top of his solid road and street course point hauls. I’m confident Lundgaard will be among the biggest risers in the championship, but to do so, he’ll need to take a step forward on ovals.
Harvey’s needs are clear: Get off to a good start, finish somewhere in the vicinity of Rahal and Lundgaard, and all will be well. Harvey put in some impressive drives while learning the ropes at Meyer Shank Racing, and with McDonald on his side, he should pick up where he left off before joining RLL.
What Harvey can’t afford is to stumble out of the gates in the early rounds. There’s no driver I can think of in the IndyCar Series with a shorter leash than Harvey. Not with someone like 2012 IndyCar champion and 2014 Indy 500 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay sitting on the sidelines and waiting for a call from a team in need of instant results.
Harvey has everything he needs to have a great year, so with that part known, I have to believe he’ll live up to his talent and capabilities and put 2022 well and truly behind him. His career depends on it.
As I noted with Andretti Autosport, RLL is primed to do big things this year. If they get the most out of their increased potential, Andretti, Arrow McLaren, Chip Ganassi Racing, and Team Penske will have a new challenge to grapple with.