Take a look through Graham Rahal’s body of work over the last seven seasons in the NTT IndyCar Series and you’ll find his best championship finish was fourth and worst was 10th. Since 2015, his average placement in the final standings is an impressive 6.5.
Compare that to his current position of 15th in the championship as he enters Road America, then add his new teammates Christian Lundgaard (pictured to Rahal’s left, above) in 17th and Jack Harvey (at far left) in 20th to the mix, and it speaks to a greater issue at hand with the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team. Among the bigger surprises in 2022, all of the immense promise held within RLL and its retooled driver and engineering roster has not been realized as the NTT IndyCar Series approaches the halfway point in the season.
Expected to factor in the championship, RLL’s precipitous drop into the midfield — despite heavy investment in its long-desired growth — comes with plenty of questions as to why the outfit has gone backwards.
With new race engineers introduced for Lundgaard’s No. 30 car and the No. 45 for Harvey, time was always going to be needed for the upsized squad to bond and find the chemistry required to become an effective trio. After four months of racing across every type of circuit, however, the team finds itself waiting for its first breakout event where its drivers are able to run and congregate somewhere near the podium.
There have been glimpses of promise during RLL’s expansion to three full-time entries; Rahal opened the year with a seventh at St. Petersburg, produced another seventh at Long Beach and capped it with an eighth in Alabama, but as a whole, the Honda-powered squad has been surprisingly uncompetitive. The Indianapolis 500 served as the biggest disappointment where Rahal, Lundgaard and Harvey were slow from the outset and never factored in the race.
Consider the distant finishes last weekend of 14th, 15th, and a lap 2 exit for Rahal that left him 26th in Detroit after clobbering the wall, and the Ohio-based team is scrambling to find its way out of its competitive slump.
Is the root of the problem something wonky like a data correlation issue — calculations being slightly off from chassis setup computer simulations to what’s being seen on the racetrack — or have wrong directions being taken with Driver-In-The-Loop testing? Rahal says none of the above.
“It’s pretty simple,” he told RACER. “I don’t think it’s DIL or any of that. The truth is that we do not have enough people for the amount of cars that we have. In the engineering room, we are very, very thin across the board. We lost guys like Tom German, who — Tom was a valuable person. And when push came to shove last year, we were not able to attract all the new engineering employees we needed for various reasons. Most of which were because they simply couldn’t leave their current positions.
“So now, when you expand a team, you obviously need more people. And not only do you need people, you need people times two because with the current rate of engineering development, the other teams are doing everything at a much faster rate than we’re capable of at the moment. Don’t get me wrong, our engineers are exceptional people and exceptionally talented, and they work as much as they can on side projects, but there’s only so many hours in the day.”
Rahal points to the comparatively diminutive Dreyer & Reinbold Racing team and its performance at the Indy 500 — it’s only event of the year — as a team to emulate over the summer months.
“It’s not for budgeting reasons or anything else; we can spend what we want to spend to improve,” Rahal said. “But you can’t spend what want to spend in 20 different areas if you don’t have enough people to look after those 20 projects. That’s why a team like Dreyer & Reinbold can show up at Indy and frankly, do a better job than a lot of us because they’re focused on what they know and yeah, they may have a smaller crew of engineers, but they are focused on Indy and not trying to focus on everything else.
“We’re doing our absolute best to be the best on the speedways, the short ovals, the road and the street circuits, and every place we go to in IndyCar, but we’re thin. We’re just not at a place where we have all of the people to fully dedicate themselves to all those areas. We can do a little bit in a lot of areas, but what we need to commit ourselves to doing is being great in a few areas with the people we have and then open it up to more projects when we have all the people we need. That’s why I mentioned Dreyer & Reinbold. They know what they have to work with and put a ton of emphasis on the main engineering things that are within their reach.”
In a series like IndyCar where almost every aspect of the chassis is barred from modifications, the series’ open policy on damper development has made the customization of each team’s shock absorbers one of the most critical areas to master. With dampers making the greatest difference in the handling characteristics and lap times throughout the field, RLL’s cars have looked nothing like those from Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing, Andretti Autosport, or other front-running entries in the corners. On the team’s wish list, building out a deep damper development program with dedicated staff and possibly a move to making its own damper internals as the other big teams do is a short-term goal.
The difficulty in extracting serious speed from RLL’s cars can be found in how a newcomer like Harvey has struggled so far in the No. 45 Honda.
In his final season with Meyer Shank Racing, the rapid Briton qualified inside the top seven at seven races, with the best coming at St. Pete where he started on the front row next to polesitter Colton Herta. Fast forward to 2022 and Harvey lined up 23rd at St. Pete on debut for RLL, and while his qualifying run to start ninth at the Indianapolis Grand Prix showed promise, his average starting position for the year is 19.8 among the 26 full-time cars.
Beyond the need for more engineers to carry out more speed-producing work, there’s something adrift in the team’s approach to vehicular performance — when compared to IndyCar’s biggest teams and even some of its smaller entrants — that awaits discovery and resolution.
Mid-season turnarounds are nearly impossible to execute, but that doesn’t mean RLL is waiting until the offseason to search for improvements. Catching the Penskes and Ganassis won’t happen between now and the September 11 season finale in Monterey, but with a well-known need to deepen its engineering department and to take its damper program in a new direction, the rest of the summer will be spent recruiting and looking for reasonable performance gains.
“Therein lies the issue because we’re a racing team and racing teams aren’t good at being patient,” Rahal said. “Of course, we want everything to be good right now, but I think we all have to understand that this isn’t going to be solved today or tomorrow. One thing I know is that certainly, for anybody at a high-level team that’s looking for a job, we’re hiring.
“Everybody knows it’s a long and involved process to get the ship pointed in the right direction. We’ve got great sponsors who are fully behind us and believe in us, and the team owners are all backing us 100 percent to get this figured out as quickly as possible. It can be painful, but we’ll get there. I know we will because we’ve been really competitive for a really long time. I know we can do it because we’ve been in this spot before in 2013 and 2014 and had to change what we were doing, which showed starting in 2015. We can do it again.”