While both Graham Rahal and Takuma Sato picked up top five finishes this weekend at the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix, the Honda-powered teammates weren’t without their respective struggles during the doubleheader.
For race number one on Saturday, the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing duo lined up alongside each other in row four with Sato 7th on the grid and Rahal, the 2017 Detroit GP defending champion, 8th.
As the front end of the Detroit doubleheader passed the halfway point, Rahal was shining on an alternate tire strategy while Sato had subtly making improvements following a difficult day of practice on Friday.
On lap 46, disaster struck when Rahal’s No. 15 United Rentals Honda twitched on corner entry to Turn 13 and the car darted swiftly into the concrete barrier. In one of the hardest hits seen in the series on a street course in recent memory, Rahal’s chance at a third-straight Detroit victory had vanished.
“It was about the worst hit you could take around here,” Rahal said. “I think the car did its job. Obviously, we were going to finish third, at worst, and it looks like a lot of our competitors are struggling today. I’m disappointed in myself.
“We’ve got to go back and look at what happened. I just lost it before I even really turned in. I don’t really know what happened. It was shaping up pretty good for the United Rentals team so it’s disappointing.”
Just as the second-generation driver had exited the race, his teammate was ready to pounce on a 25-lap sprint to the finish. Sato had been hovering around 10th place for much of the race but the car had slowly been coming to him and the Japanese-born driver was able to make the most out of his day when it counted.
By the race’s end, Sato had snuck his way into the top five and was just a lap away from nipping Marco Andretti for fourth place when the checkers flew.
“It wasn’t the best day for us, but at least it was a solid result,” the 2017 Indy 500 winner said. “After last year’s result for the team, obviously we had high expectations, but we struggled a little bit and had a technical issue on the first day and I think we came back really strong.”
On Sunday, the roles had been reversed as Rahal made amends for his mistake on Saturday and Sato faced a challenging ride all day long.
It started in morning qualifications for Sato as the wet conditions puzzled the No. 30 team and left them with a 20th-place starting position. That was a far cry from the 1st- and 3rd-place starting spots Sato bagged one year ago, and was the second-worst qualifying effort for him in his 13-race career at Detroit.
When the green flag dropped following a nearly 30-minute delay for a parade lap pace car crash, Sato’s luck hardly improved as he struggled in the back half of the field for much of the race.
While the team made attempts to play the strategy game and snooker their way up the finishing order it had seem their luck had dried just as the track did with the increasing sunlight. Sato would place 17th, a defeating result after such a promising start to the doubleheader.
“It was a tough day. I think everything was against us; the strategy, timing and when we caught the traffic,” Sato explained afterwards.
“At one stage, we were competitive, but it was not so long. Once we caught the tail of the group, it was so difficult to overtake. I tried really hard. It’s a shame there were no yellows, so today was really tough to have that aggressive strategy work.”
A man that did not need any help from cautions or an alternate strategy was Rahal. The Ohio native was on a mission to make up for a lost result the day before, not to mention the desire to secure a strong finish for his team who were working past midnight on Rahal’s back-up car.
In a race that had only one yellow flag for the stalled machine of Spencer Pigot on lap 1, the second race of Detroit Grand Prix weekend seemed to be an everlasting contest with more varying strategies than the day before.
Rahal and his crew stayed committed to a two-stop pit strategy and were able to improve from their 9th-place qualifying effort to finish 5th, just as his teammate Sato had the day before.
Still lamenting the missed opportunity from Saturday, Rahal was pleased to see his team flash its character and resilience on Sunday.
“I’m definitely proud of the performance and the effort that everyone on the United Rentals team put in,” Rahal boasted. “The guys did an amazing job last night. We had to switch to a backup and they were here until 12:30 in the morning. Luckily it was a bit of a late start today, but the guys got very little rest, but again, they put a car on the track that had no mechanical issues, no problems whatsoever.
“It was a decent points day. We should have put it all together yesterday, but that’s on me. I’m obviously still a little upset with myself from yesterday, but overall it was a good rebound today.”
From here, the Rahal Letterman Lanigan crew and the rest of the Verizon IndyCar Series will travel to Fort Worth, Texas for the DXC Technology 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on Saturday, June 9.
After a double-dip of races in Detroit, Sato leaves the Motor City one position better in the championship standings than he was following Indianapolis. The Tokyo native is currently 14th in the points, 166 marks behind Will Power.
For Rahal, he finds himself as far from the point in the championship standings now than he has at any time this season. Rahal is currently 7th on the leaderboard after being as high as 3rd following the Barber contest in April. He stands 88 points back of Power.
As with any oval race, handicapping a team’s chances at Texas will be a crap shoot. With that being said, it is a safe to say that Rahal could use a repeat of his thrilling 2016 victory at TMS this weekend – and Sato needs a win even worse.
Look for both of these Honda hard-chargers to be pushing the envelope when INDYCAR reaches the Lone Star State on Friday.