By: Tanner Watkins
November 29, 2018 | 12:06 PM
While 2018 wasn’t a disastrous season by any means for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, the Brownsburg, Indiana-based team surely left Sonoma Raceway wishing for more at year’s end. What the organization has done this offseason signals a continued commitment to climb the IndyCar Series ladder in 2019.
As RLLR shifted to a full-time two-car operation for the first time since 2013, the team still managed to place two drivers inside the top-12 in points with a few podiums to their name in 2018. Sure, the Honda-powered group won only once last year. With that being said, the pairing of Graham Rahal and Takuma Sato still led laps in eight of the 17 races, while Rahal himself was often commanding the attention of ABC and NBCSN for dazzling passes while rebounding from poor qualifying positions.
Sato made his mark by winning that lone race for RLLR last season, taking victory in IndyCar’s return to Portland International Raceway.
The fact remains, though, that the qualifying was indeed a glaring issue in 2018. Really a debilitating one, at that, causing both Rahal and Sato to record inferior championship finishes in 2018 than they did in 2017. For Rahal, his result of eighth at the end of the year was the lowest the 29-year-old had finished in the standings since placing 19th in 2014.
Constantly trying to claw their way to the front from midpack or worse qualifying positions put Sato and Rahal in danger throughout the past season. For a team that had experienced modest success in the manufacturer aero kit era, 2018 was a wake-up call punctuated by a strenuous week at Indianapolis.
On Bump Day, Sato (29th) and Rahal (30th) squeezed into the 33-car field where they narrowly avoided the same fate James Hinchcliffe and Pippa Mann experienced that afternoon. So while 2018 wasn’t a full-force meltdown for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, it was simple to see that changes were in store for 2019.
The first domino fell when RLLR poached veteran engineer Allen McDonald from Ed Carpenter Racing in October. Taking into account McDonald’s pedigree, the team not only strengthened its full-season engineering corps but also added a voice that has two Indianapolis 500 wins and last May’s “500” pole under his belt.
The McDonald hire carries weight for a 2019 month of May in which we anticipate more entries that the 35 that showed up for this year’s Indianapolis 500. Teams can no longer afford to play it safe in May so stockpiling talent at each and every stop in an operation is a sound strategy.
Rahal Letterman Lanigan continued with this line of thinking when it hired Piers Phillips in November.
It took just a couple October conversations to convince Phillips to join Bobby Rahal’s team in a newly created role of team president. In this capacity, Phillips takes a step up from his role of general manager with SPM to overseeing not only IndyCar Series operations but also sports car competition with RLLR.
Phillips demonstrated a knack for re-building and leadership while a member of the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports staff and his diverse background should pay dividends for the Rahal operation in 2019 and beyond.
By retaining both drivers for next season, RLLR is adding two experienced pieces (McDonald and Phillips) at key supervisory roles while keeping the core of the team intact. This continuity paired with an injection of fresh, insightful talent will bode well for Rahal and Sato entering their 12th and 10th seasons respectively in IndyCar.
Both drivers regressed from 2017 to 2018 in statistical categories such as average start, average finish, laps led and championship finish. Improvement in 2019 will be paramount for the motivated pairing, even more so for Sato as his ride in 2020 likely hinges on success next summer. Rahal isn’t taking matters lightly, either, as he plans to shed 10-15 pounds this winter to minimize his large frame in the car.
All things considered, though, it has been quite the proactive approach towards a new season for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.
It would be rather difficult to make an argument that Bobby Rahal’s organization isn’t serious about improvement in 2019. Taking into account the additions we mentioned above, a year’s worth of data and a re-energized driver combination, RLLR is poised for renewed success next season.
None of this will begin to matter until the team experiences real change on the track, but for now, it is full steam ahead on a 2019 redemption tour for Rahal, Sato and company.
Header image by Joe Skibinski/INDYCAR.