Fast approaching a silly season that involves more teams than it doesn’t, the NTT IndyCar Series may soon welcome a new car to its paddock from Bobby Rahal’s fleet.
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing is one race away from completing its second season as a two-car operation after adding Takuma Sato for 2018. The Japanese pilot’s first three race wins since the 2017 Indianapolis 500 — and, before that, the 2013 Grand Prix of Long Beach — have been the team’s highlights since the expansion.
Equal in car count to “big three” member Chip Ganassi Racing, former racer Rahal and his team are interested in growing to the size of Team Penske by fielding three competitive cars in hopes of breaking into that group and relabeling it the “big four.”
Gathering funding for a third Honda alongside the Nos. 15 and 30 of Graham Rahal and Sato is ongoing and, while adding a funded driver is not being ruled out, Rahal is keen to bring aboard a trusty team sponsor so the entrant he co-owns with David Letterman and Mike Lanigan can continue controlling its own destiny.
“For us, we like to find our own sponsorship because then we’re free to do what we want to do,” Rahal told The Apex before the start of IndyCar’s recent contest at World Wide Technology Raceway. “Roger Penske — the school of motor racing, right? You go find your own money, then you get who you want.”
Noting that RLL has no interest in adding a third car “just to say we have a third car,” Rahal shared the team’s approach to giving his son and Sato another teammate.
“There’s nothing like another opinion, right?” he said. “I think it’s a value to have three strong cars. Look at Penske; three really strong drivers in their cars. Their first goal, individually, is to beat the other two guys. And that competition kind of just drags a team up with it.
“That happened with me and Al Unser Jr. when we were at Galles-Kraco in ’90 and ’91 and Galles-Kraco was, at that time, the best team and I think it was because of that: because I wanted to beat Al and he wanted to beat me, and that competition just pulled the team up with it.”
While Bobby Rahal can use lessons learned during his driving days when guiding his team, second-generation driver Graham Rahal can offer detailed insight on how the team he drives for could change from the inside out if something like a third car came to fruition.
“It would help,” Rahal said, responding to a question asked by The Apex at Gateway. “I don’t think we’ve been good enough at maximizing the two cars, to be honest. Something from even practice today, we were emphasizing that we need to divide and conquer. We show up to a racetrack every weekend and we have 20 different things to try. There’s no way that one car can get that done. We weren’t good enough before at just splitting that task up and staying committed to it, making it happen.
“This morning was definitely a really good improvement with that. So, for sure, three cars would be better.”
Given that RLL’s growth from one to two cars aligned with the introduction of the universal aero kit in 2018, identifying specific areas at which the team has performed better since expanding is difficult. Notably, Rahal’s average finishing position has risen from 8.7 to 11.1 during the final two seasons with manufacturer aero kits and the first two with the universal package.
Across three teams during the same period, Sato’s average has gone largely unchanged. A third car could be a difference maker and propel the Piers Phillips- and Ricardo Nault-led team to new levels of success.
Possibilities Abound for Third Driver
McLaren Racing’s foray into IndyCar, in partnership with the existing Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team, sent a shock wave through the paddock that remains unsorted. Arrow McLaren Racing SP will aim to knock on the door of the “big three” just like RLL, which could pick up the pieces of drivers and engines lost in the alliance’s formation.
RLL was quickly identified as a possible landing place for current Arrow SPM drivers James Hinchcliffe and Marcus Ericsson, should they be forced to look elsewhere for a 2020 drive — especially for Hinchcliffe, given his Honda backing that becomes a complication amidst SPM’s switch to Chevrolet power.
But with the McLaren-SPM team reported to be honoring Hinchcliffe’s contract that stretches through the 2020 season, the combination of Hinchcliffe and RLL is likely crossed off, increasing the chances for recent SPM tester Felipe Nasr or even Colin Braun, who will be without a ride when CORE autosport leaves the DPi ranks of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship in October.
“Trust me, every available driver in this pit lane has called me as if, like, I’m a decision maker,” Rahal joked. “The door of my motorhome was like a round-robin coming in last week (at Pocono). ‘What is going on here?'”
“Yeah, that’s not my department. It would be good if we can figure it out.”
Even if it’s not Hinchcliffe or Ericsson, the possibility still exists for a former SPM driver to head to the Rahal team as a result of the McLaren shakeup. SPM operates the car driven by Jack Harvey and entered by Meyer Shank Racing — a dedicated Honda team — and will no longer be able to do so when its time with Honda concludes after the 2019 season.
Unprompted, Rahal took the concept of a third RLL car in the direction of an alliance with a team seeking support before perhaps one day standing on its own in IndyCar.
“As you guys know, what has worked well and will continue to work well are these partnerships,” Rahal continued during a press conference near St. Louis.
“As long as IndyCar allows it and doesn’t crack down on it, these partnerships like a Harding and Andretti — which is really just Andretti all the way around — what it’s allowed them to do is Colton could come here and test last week because he’s not considered Andretti while the Andretti cars were out in Portland testing. They can double up on their data and testing, which we cannot do. We weren’t able to test at either place because of the way our testing rules are.
“We need to look at partnerships like that, too, because that’s a big benefit. Until they crack down on it, that’s a big benefit.”
Harvey has continually impressed as a part-time driver, landing on the podium at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and even making Colton Herta, Will Power and Scott Dixon the only drivers to qualify ahead of him at the Grand Prix of Portland. Rahal and Sato were 15th and 17th.
SiriusXM CEO Jim Meyer has been a co-owner of Michael Shank’s team since April 2018 and could bring the funding component needed to make a third RLL car a reality, but the team will have to beat Chip Ganassi Racing to the punch.
Add soon-to-be-crowned Indy Lights champion Oliver Askew into the conversation and it becomes clearer that Rahal, Letterman and Lanigan are not lacking talented options.