When a reputable Formula 1 aerodynamicist formerly of McLaren and Red Bull – Stefano Sordo – took over as IndyCar technical director at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, there was a lot of excitement.
The team had a really tough first half of last year but went back to basics mid-2022 and had a much better end to the season. That momentum, combined with a new state-of-the-art factory and a raft of engineering changes including the addition of Sordo, certainly had people excited.
The reality is that the first half of this year has been even worse than in 2022. Really hard struggles on street circuits; the continued trend of Graham Rahal and Jack Harvey not adapting to the car as well as sophomore Christian Lundgaard; and Rahal failing to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 as the team often set times similar to its 2020 winning year while everybody else stepped forward.
Rahal has been the talisman throughout that, though. He’s constantly praising the efforts of the team and its various sponsor-inspired charity packages that raise thousands each year, and he gave an interview filled with gravitas and decorum as he failed to qualify for the biggest race of the year.
Only on a couple of occasions has that slipped, like in May before the Indy 500 when he suggested he could consider his options next year when his contract runs out. But asked about that again last weekend he said he was only focusing on the race.
That was in part owing to his second-place qualifying performance at Mid-Ohio. It was his best in IndyCar since the Barber race in April 2019, and he’s only been in the top five twice since then, so it was certainly a breakthrough performance.
“I’ve joked with you guys many times, but while most of the world probably thought I forgot how to drive or could never drive [to begin with], that’s not the reality. Today is just a nice day to remind people. It’s easy to forget,” said Rahal after his second place in Mid-Ohio qualifying, as he missed pole by 0.0432 seconds and was part of a top three split by 0.0597s.
“But IndyCar racing is the most competitive form of motorsport in the world. It’s the most demanding form of motorsport on the teams, the drivers, utilising the resources that you have, which is minimal, and the teams do make sure that you’re on your game at all times.
“So on a day like today, it certainly is rewarding when you can see all of those things come together finally, and it’s not that I needed reminding to myself because I’ve seen it, I know it, I know I can do it, but it’s nice for everybody to see once again that it takes the full package here to run up front and to win all the time.
“Alex Palou is probably the best guy in the series at this standpoint, but he also has a damned good car.
“You’ve got to put those pieces of the puzzle together to run up front, and I feel like we’re getting better. We are finding our way, and that’s all we can do.”
It’s clear the car is capable of that pace because Lundgaard scored pole for the Indy road course race earlier this year, and it’s honestly baffling that Lundgaard doesn’t get more praise for the performances he puts in for RLL.
He’s been the team’s lead driver in five of nine races so far and sits 10th in the points.
Despite its seemingly poor first half of the year, Rahal had 177 points as the team’s top driver in 15th after nine races last year. Having Lundgaard in 10th with 194 shows it has made steps, especially as the Indy 500 is not double points in 2023 as it was last year.
As a whole, RLL’s bagged 17 fewer points this year though. That shows there’s work to do, and so did the Mid-Ohio race.
Lundgaard drove well and continued to show off his absolutely excellent decision-making in races, knowing when to get risky and when to hold en route to fourth, while Rahal pressured for the lead in the first stint before issues at both of his pitstops dropped him back.
“This is definitely a solid response for us as a team, but we’re going to get our heads down,’ Rahal told NBC after the race.
“Today was a quick reminder – not only do we need to be better with performance in qualifying and everything else but in every phase, and that includes myself.
“We’ve all got to put our heads down and continue to improve, when you want to compete with Palou and guys like that when they’re clicking in every aspect of the game.
“It takes a lot and we certainly have a lot of work to do.”
In another series, RLL might have been given room to work. Moving factories can raise little issues of bedding in and replicating all the parts quality that might have been a given in familiar surroundings.
Sordo might end up the best technical director ever to grace the series in the future, but coming over he had no experience of ovals or the tracks in the US, so he’s had to shoulder a lot of responsibility and adapt quickly. You have to factor in some growing pains there.
The organisation also runs BMW’s IMSA sportscar programme which won for the first time at Watkins Glen last month, but that’s had its impact, including being given as one of the reasons for a recent team personnel shuffle with mechanics, with a simultaneous engineer change on Harvey’s car also taking place.
The upcoming race in Toronto – where, after a Sebring test, the team made a big breakthrough last year, with Rahal finishing fourth – is a place of concern for the team this year given its baffling street course performances in 2023.
Harvey’s and Rahal’s improved performances at Mid-Ohio – Rahal was still seventh despite his pit issues, with Harvey 18th – show the team is making strides, but on ovals and street courses so many of its problems have been things it has struggled to work out what the root cause is.
Toronto certainly is a big race for this team. On one hand, its new factory and personnel changes mean it is owed a certain level of slack but, with IndyCar being as competitive as it is, any lack of performance shows up tenfold.
Last year, a breakthrough came in Toronto. If the same happens this year – and if RLL can then avoid massive upheaval in the coming off-season – it might allow for the kind of typical start to the season in 2024 that it has lacked for two years.