Today on Open-Wheels.com, we conclude our team-by-team review of the 2018 season. Finishing things, we take a look back at the season for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Some offseason additions proved to pay dividends for the long-tenured operation.
Making a Charge
A flurry of changes in the offseason included ones made by the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team. Takuma Sato, who raced for the team in 2012, rejoined the team. Sato’s arrival gave the team multiple full-time entries for the first time since 2013.
The two drivers started the year on a high note, as the two drivers combined to lead every test session at ISM Raceway in February. A month later at the season opener in St. Petersburg, the results were initially a mixed bag of sorts. Sato qualified fifth, with Rahal starting the 110-lap event last on the grid in 24th.
Fortunes changed for the duo once the green flag dropped. Sato overcame Lap 35 contact with Scott Dixon to finish 12th. Rahal completed an impressive charge from last to second, aided in part by Robert Wickens and Alexander Rossi’s late-race contact.
A return to ISM Raceway in Arizona did not yield the same success as the test early on. Rahal and Sato started the 250-lap race in 12th and 13th. Rahal led seven laps before finishing ninth, while Sato climbed up to 11th, the last car on the lead lap.
The following Sunday’s Long Beach Grand Prix proved to be one of the more frustrating races of 2018 for the two-car operation. After qualifying fifth, Rahal made contact with Simon Pagenaud at the start and was given a drive-through penalty.
Despite the early setback, he charged his way back to fifth by the time the checkered flag flew and moved to third in points. Sato, the 2013 event winner, finished 11 laps off the pace in 21st, up from his 22nd-place start.
After a qualifying at Barber where neither Rahal or Sato (15th and 18th), made it to the Fast 12, the race showed signs of promise for the team. Once all was said and done in the 82-lap race, the teammates finished seventh and eighth. For the first time since Houston 1 in 2013, RLLR placed two cars in the Top 10.
Consistency is Key
Following their success at Barber, it was time for preparations to begin for Indianapolis. The month of May kicked off with the IndyCar Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.
For the second time in 2018 and first on a natural terrain road course, Sato out-qualified his teammate Rahal (11th to 17th). Rahal powered past his teammate once the 85-lap race began and led three laps, finishing 9th as Sato brought his Dallara-Honda entry home in tenth.
Sato (the 2017 race winner) and Rahal would welcome a third driver to the stable for the 102nd Indianapolis 500 two weeks later. Oriol Servia was added to the team in an effort primarily fielded by sports car racing champions, Scuderia Corsa.
Early on, the struggles began to mount for the team. Sato would be the team’s fastest qualifier in 16th, with Servia and Rahal starting 25th and 30th. Like many times in 2018, the race played out quite differently. Sato’s bid for consecutive Indianapolis 500 wins ended early after contact with James Davison on Lap 47, he would finish 32nd.
Before the halfway point in the prestigious 200-lap race, Rahal had made his way to the front, leading 12 laps overall. Servia took the lead on Lap 176 and paced the field for 16 of the next 18 laps, but would have to stop for fuel after the last restart on Lap 193. Rahal ended the afternoon in 10th, while Servia finished 17th.
After Graham Rahal’s sweep at the track in 2017, Belle Isle was a weekend RLLR looked forward to. Sato started the first race in seventh, with Rahal alongside in eighth place.
As the latter worked through the field, he crashed in Turn 13 on Lap 46, ending his day in 23rd. Sato turned in his best effort of the season to date, moving up to 5th in the 70-lap race.
Sunday again turned into a race of varying results for the two drivers. Rahal would recover from Saturday’s disappointment by starting ninth and racing his way to fifth. Sato started a disappointing 20th and managed a 17th-place finish, the first car one lap down.
Capping off the frantic stretch would be a visit to Texas Motor Speedway. Despite qualifying 20th, Rahal worked his way through the field. The 2016 Texas winner led five laps and finished sixth. Sato started in ninth and also improved his finishing position, ending the 248-lap event in 7th,
Following a much-deserved week off, the famed Road America circuit beckoned. Sato and Rahal once again turned in another solid effort for the weekend, starting (seventh and ninth) and finishing (fourth and sixth) in the Top 10.
Iowa Speedway would be next on the schedule after a week off for the series. Sato, the 2011 polesitter, made another impressive run at the .875-mile bullring.
Starting 10th, he carved through the field to finish 3rd, his first podium finish since his 2017 Indianapolis 500 win. Although he finished a lap behind race winner James Hinchcliffe, Rahal improved from 12th and finished 7th.
Unfortunately for RLLR, their recent streak of finishes was not sustained the following week at Toronto. Sato (7th) and Rahal (13th) started off solidly, but both drivers were caught up in accidents. The crashes relegated them to 21st (Rahal) and 22nd (Sato) in the final running order, 17 and 19 laps down.
After the street course portion of the season concluded, Mid-Ohio would be next. Rahal, who won at his home track in 2015, started seventh and took the checkered flag in ninth. Sato continued his struggles, finishing a disappointing 17th after qualifying alongside Rahal in eighth place.
Pocono Raceway greeted the Verizon IndyCar Series after two weeks off. At the start of the race, Rahal made contact with Spencer Pigot to bring out an early caution. Shortly after the restart on Lap 7, a multi-car crash broke out that collected Sato. The 2017 polesitter finished 21st after starting 10th.
After two penalties following the opening lap incident and unapproved work under the red flag, Rahal dropped from his 18th-place starting spot. The day would not get much better for him, as he ended the day in 14th, four laps down.
Returning to Form
To finish off the oval portion of the season, the Verizon IndyCar Series moved on to Gateway Motorsports Park. After starting 7th (Rahal) and 13th Sato) via entrant points, the two. made remarkable fuel mileage.
Unfortunately for RLLR, that would not be enough to get their drivers to the front of the field. Sato and Rahal ended the night in ninth and tenth, the first cars one lap down.
A week later, a trip west and the return of Portland International Raceway capped another busy stretch of the season. While Rahal qualified 10th and Sato 20th, things changed in a hurry for the duo.
Rahal was collected in a Turn 2 crash on the opening lap, though he did return to complete 4 laps and finish 23rd.
Sato took advantage of a wild race, charging from 20th to take the win. It marked the first of 2018 for he and RLLR, breaking droughts that dated back to the previous year.
One final week off would be in order before the season finale in Sonoma. Though the end of 2018 got off to a solid start when Rahal and Sato qualified 9th and 12th.
The year would end on a sour note for both drivers, however. Sato’s day came to an end after 15 laps with engine issues. He finished 25th-last in the running order.
Rahal would cause the lone caution flag of the day on Lap 44 when he went off course in Turn 7. By Lap 67, his day ended due to battery issues and he finished 23rd. Rahal would finish eighth in points, with Sato in 11th.
What Lies Ahead
Rahal and Sato are set to return for 2019. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing is also rumored to be considering a third full-time entry. Scuderia Corsa remains interested in competing in the series in some capacity. It remains to be seen if the alliance with RLLR will remain. After a promising second half of 2018, the team will be one to watch going forward.
Header Image by James Black/INDYCAR Media