Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team-mates, Takuma Sato and Graham Rahal, are excited to get back on the race track in this weekend’s Verizon IndyCar Series 2018 Grand Prix of Phoenix at ISM Raceway. The team are hoping for good results in the first oval race of the year, having topped all four pre-season test sessions held at the circuit in February.
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing showed good pace in the season-opening Grand Prix of St. Petersburg last month. Despite starting last after spinning in qualifying, Graham Rahal was able to take his #15 Honda from the back of the field to second place after running a strong race and being in the position to capitalize when former race leaders, Robert Wickens and Alexander Rossi, collided. Sato wasn’t able to join his team-mate in the top ten, bringing his #30 car home in twelfth.
“I am very pleased with how the season began,” said Rahal earlier this week, “I would have liked to finish one spot better of course, but I won’t get too greedy! We got lucky there with some stuff, and overcame a lot with strategy, having speed when needed and keeping our heads down throughout that race. I definitely think Phoenix should be good for us. We need to focus hard on areas we were weak at during the test and find a way to make some magic happen for the One Cure team!”
During the two days of pre-season testing at Phoenix in February, four sessions were held. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing topped all four sessions, with Sato leading three and Rahal taking the remaining one. Graham is hoping that the team’s strong form during the test will be a good omen for this weekend, but he remains cautious of other teams running better when it comes to race time.
“I believe we should be very competitive, but always keeping in mind that others will improve too,” said Graham, “There is no doubt about that. I think we needed to focus on chassis balance a bit as we approach the weekend but I am confident Tom [German] and the engineering group will get it right. The new universal aero kit will make it a much more competitive race. Everyone knows the struggles of the past, and somewhat of a split grid. That won’t be the case this time. I think you [as a driver] are in for a long night and a very competitive race weekend.”
Sato was the trailblazer in the February open test at ISM Raceway. The Japanese driver led three out of four sessions and took home the fastest time of the whole weekend. The reigning Indianapolis 500 champion commented that he can’t wait for his first oval race since rejoining Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing:
“We had quite a successful open test in February,” said Sato, “Obviously, the temperatures and conditions will be different but it gave us a very good indication of the new aero kit on the track there and we had a very productive test. The test was something I was looking forward to for a long time. I felt the car was very fun to drive and we looked strong in testing. Phoenix is an exciting track. The sensation of speed and G-forces are impressive. Hopefully, we have a good night and we will be competitive.”
Sato went on to say that he believes the style of racing we see on track at ISM Raceway will be very different from previous years thanks to the new-for-2018 lower downforce aero package. He believes that the lower downforce will make the cars and the circuit harder to drive, which in turn will bunch up the field:
“As we expected for St. Pete, the reduction of downforce affected the racing a lot,” added Sato, “At Phoenix, it is now difficult to go flat [on the accelerator]. In fact, no one has gone flat there yet. Imagine you now have to race with the qualifying level [of downforce] that we had last year. The tyre management is going to be even more important. At the end of every stint, stint-by-stint, is going to come down to who can manage their tyres better because there will be big tyre degradation for sure due to the lack of downforce. I’m sure that will make the racing very exciting. In St. Pete we weren’t fortunate in the race but I think we showed a good competitiveness so hopefully, we will be very strong again in Phoenix.”
Track action at ISM Raceway will begin on Friday evening with practice one and qualifying. The cars will return to the track after qualifying for final practice. On Saturday evening, the teams and drivers of the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series will take to the circuit for their first oval race of the season, the Desert Diamond West Valley Casino Phoenix Grand Prix.