Honda’s saving grace

This past weekend at the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis for the Verizon IndyCar Series, we saw Chevrolet cars dominate practice, dominate qualifying and take a convincing win. Aside from the rain-drenched non-race at NOLA, that’s pretty much been the story of the season thus far.

Indications are that Honda will close the gap on the oval track events, but that doesn’t change the fact that there are five more street or road courses remaining on the schedule.

Some of the Honda drivers have been more vocal than others with their displeasure, but there is one driver with no complaints. The big glimmer of hope in the Honda camp has been Graham Rahal.

The 26-year old driver from Ohio has taken a lot of knocks from the Media in the seven years since his last win. His motivation was questioned, his focus was questioned, and his talent was questioned. Comments ranged from the analytical to the downright unkind.

In 2014, the Rahal/Letterman/Lanigan Team received a windfall as they landed a lucrative sponsorship package from the National Guard. Despite the additional funding, the team only managed a 19th place finish in the season standings, doing nothing to silence their critics.

With the National Guard money gone, and the team scaling down to a one-car effort, the expectations were pretty low for 2015.

In stark contrast to what one may have expected, this team has come on strong becoming somewhat of a David versus Goliath story.

Graham Rahal had a great run at Long Beach going, running towards the top of the order, when a penalty dropped him down the running order.

At Barber, Rahal used an off-sequence pit strategy to gain track position. In the closing stages of the event, he passed four cars en route to a second place finish. With the fastest car on the track, he might have taken the win if there were only a few more laps.

In the Grand Prix of Indianapolis this past weekend Rahal started from the 17th grid position. There were multiple cars spinning in the first turn, and several took to the escape road to miss the melee. Rahal managed to avoid the mess, keep it on course, and jump to sixth place in the process. You can call it luck, but it looked more like brilliant, heads-up driving if you ask me.

From there, Rahal drove another spirited race up to second place. He may have been able to contend for the win, had he not become bottled up behind lapped traffic, most notably Josef Newgarden, for more than 20 laps.

The net result of Rahal’s recent performance has him leading all Honda drivers with the fifth place spot in the standings, just 27 points behind leader, Juan Pablo Montoya. With double points up for grabs at the Indianapolis 500 later this month, Rahal is s serious championship contender.

The thing that defies logic is that the younger Rahal is doing all of this with the Honda engine and aero-kit, which if you believe everything you hear, is inferior to the Chevrolet. How is it that this one-car operation consistently mixes it up with the big teams?

Some are saying that Rahal’s relationship with Courtney Force is a factor. Without taking anything away from the efforts of the engineering department and crew at RLLR, this theory actually has some merit.

Having someone who loves you, supports you, and appreciates you goes a long way. I’ve noticed the same thing over in NASCAR with Dale Earnhardt Jr. He seems to be winning quite a few more races this day and age, and credits happiness in his personal life as a factor.

Some are saying that changes in team roles are a factor. Team principle and Graham’s father, Bobby Rahal has decided to take himself off of the radio and out of the pit box on race day. Indeed, Graham has found great chemistry with his new engineer, Eddie Jones and team manager Rico Nault.

Maybe the Rahal organization has found something in the Honda kit that the others haven’t. Conventional wisdom should tell you that the Andretti Autosport Team, with three, and sometimes four, cars at the road courses should arrive at the solution first.

Perhaps a smaller, tighter-knit group of talented individuals, like we see in the Rahal camp, is more effective. The results on the track speak for themselves.

The one thing that I have noticed, is that Graham Rahal understands the limitations of the Honda package, and has figured out how to compensate for it behind the wheel. Watching Rahal at Barber and at Indianapolis, he was using every bit of the track, pushing the car to its limit lap after lap, setting times competitive with the Chevrolet cars. Combined with well-planned pit strategy, the approach is definitely working.

It’s really a combination of all these factors that has Graham Rahal and the RLLR organization on point this year. I feel certain that a big win for this team is right around the corner.

Graham Rahal summed it up best himself saying, “At the end of the day this tiny little one-car team is fighting with Penske. That feels pretty good. We’re not them yet. Feel like we got a good group. As I keep saying, I’m really proud of the people in this organization because the last couple years weren’t so hot.”

“We got a team together now that I think you guys can see is working really well together.” continued Rahal, ” I’m just proud of ’em. Momentum is on our side here a little bit. We’re kind of carrying the banner, the flag for Honda at the moment. I think once we can get a little more there, we’ll be looking pretty good.”

Drafting the Circuits

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A life-long racing enthusiast, Santoroski attended his first live race in 1978, the Formula One Grand Prix of the United States at Watkins Glen. Following graduation from Averett College, Santoroski covered the CART series through the 1990s and 2000s for CART Pages and Race Family Motorsports in addition to freelance writing for various print and web sources. He produces a variety of current and historical content for Motorsports Tribune and serves as the host for the weekly radio broadcast,Drafting the Circuits,

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