After fielding a one-car team for the bulk of the past four Verizon IndyCar Series seasons, change is afoot at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.
With 2017 Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil champion Takuma Sato rejoining the team for 2018, RLL is preparing for a full season as a two-car operation for the first time since 2013. Sato, who drove for RLL in 2012, will team with Graham Rahal, who has been the mainstay driver since coming aboard full time in 2013.
“I think the most important part is finding the right people. It's relatively easy to go out and get all the equipment you need, but it's really the people that ultimately make the difference,” said team co-owner Bobby Rahal.
“In any good two-car team, the drivers will push each other and that raises their competitive level and that of the team as well. Having been down this road before, we will always treat both cars equally and ensure we have two chances to win every race and not just one.”
It's the second time around at RLL for the soft-spoken Sato, 40. After driving for RLL for a single season in 2012, he went on to race four years with AJ Foyt Racing before joining Andretti Autosport this year and becoming the first Japanese racer to take the checkered flag at the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” He will drive the No. 16 RLL Honda in 2018.
As part of the changes to the team surrounding the arrival of Sato, RLL has assigned Eddie Jones to engineer the newcomer’s car while Tom German will work with Graham Rahal.
While his new team adjusts to having another car and driver, Sato will also need to get accustomed to a “small” two-car team since he is downsizing from Andretti Autosport with its four full-time entries. The transition was made easier by seeing some of the same people in the RLL garage who crewed his car five years ago.
“I feel very comfortable going back to Bobby's team knowing quite a few people who were there in 2012. I am ready to jump in the car,” said Sato, who finished eighth in the Verizon IndyCar Series point standings in 2017.
“It's also a little bit strange because I feel I have gained a lot of experience, grown and have become a more mature driver than I was in 2012. I hope we can translate that to good results in 2018.”
Since Sato’s departure from RLL in 2012, Graham Rahal has been the team's sole full-time driver and excelled in the No. 15 Honda. The 28-year-old enjoyed success in a team built around him, scoring five wins and 26 top-5 finishes since 2013.
While he was always the first to insist that he reveled in the challenge of a one-car team, Graham Rahal feels the introduction of the new universal aero kit for all cars in 2018 means the expansion is well-timed. With practice time limited at most races, having another car on track as the team comes to grips with the new package will help everyone get up to speed quicker, he insisted.
“We will need it with all the new aero and adjustments that will be needed,” Graham Rahal said. “I do think we will have to continue to improve and work together to find a happy balance with two cars, but I fully expect the increased data and information to help us push the team forward.”
Rahal added that he expects RLL to be the top Honda-powered team in 2018. Graham Rahal has been the only Honda driver to finish in the top six in the standings each of the past three seasons.
“It's not necessarily easier, it takes just as much commitment and time, and possibly more,” he said. “Our guys will have to remain focused and every little bit of attention to detail that has allowed us to succeed recently will have to remain.”
But after spending four seasons as the team's center of attention, does Rahal remember how to share?
“Absolutely,” he said. “I am sure there will be an adjustment but I am eager to work with Taku. I think we can complement each other really well, and I fully expect it to be a seamless transition to having two cars. I feel I have always shared well, and I am excited to see how that can benefit our team.”
Rahal and his crew have excelled over the past few years, ending the 2017 season sixth overall in points and the top scorer that wasn't in a Penske or Ganassi entry.
The success the team found as a one-car operation is a testament to the quality of the personnel in the RLL garage, said Bobby Rahal. He believes that RLL's solid technical foundation should give his team a leg up on the competition as it figures out how to make the 2018 car perform for its drivers.
“From an engineering standpoint, we were probably overpopulated with engineers when you look at most teams,” he said. “In most teams it's two people, and we had five for a one-car team.
“Some of that is because we run two cars on occasion, but when we've had the chance to pick up good people, we've taken it. You can never have too much good thinking and too many smart people.”
That engineering strength and strong track record were major selling points that attracted Sato back into the RLL fold.
Simply put, RLL offered a great opportunity because it was already hugely competitive and there was no reason to believe it wouldn't continue into 2018 as a two-car team.
“When you look at Rahal, it has been very impressive as a single-car team for several years – they've probably been one of the most consistent teams from short ovals, speedways, road and street courses. To be able to do that in a single-car team means they have a deep understanding of the car,” Sato said.
“Healthy competition in the team is essential to bring the team forward, and Graham and I get along well on and off the track and we are really looking forward to working together and pushing each other to raise the level of the whole team.”
The 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season opens with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 11.