Exclusive – Bobby Rahal reviews Rahal Letterman Lanigan’s IndyCar season

Bobby Rahal should need no introduction. He is a three-time IndyCar champion, and the winner of the 1986 Indianapolis 500. He now runs successful teams in IndyCar and IMSA with BMW.

In Indycar, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing can never be discounted. At the end of the day, Rahal is a racer. As a former driver or team owner, winning is the goal, as is finding the right partners to achieve that goal.

In 2019, RLL Racing won two IndyCar races with Takuma Sato (himself an Indy 500 winner), emotionally with the team on the road course at Barber and later in the year on the oval at Gateway, St Louis. The team also won the prestigious Daytona 24 Hours with BMW.

Takuma Sato celebrated two victories with team boss Bobby Rahal in 2019

“I think if we look at both programmes, we had a fabulous win with BMW in the Daytona 24 Hours, and I attribute that to the skill of the drivers,” Rahal told Motorsport Tech. “It was raining for most of the event, heavy rain, and the drivers really made a difference for us.

“In IndyCar, if you are not fast enough, you have to figure it out and get it done yourself. That’s the way it is.”

In Indycar there are the big three, Penske, Ganassi, Andretti. Rahal is knocking on their door with drivers Takuma Sato and Bobby’s son, Graham Rahal.

“We had races where we were dominant, like Barber, Graham at Long Beach, Detroit, Elkhart Lake, places like that,” adds Rahal. “But next year we need a little more consistency. Some weekends we were up top, some weekends we were in the middle, and we need to stay on the top part if we are going to figure in the championship. As I say there were glimpses of that kind of performances throughout the year but winning two races is not a bad way to describe our season as well.

“We ended up ninth and tenth in the points. Graham had three or four mechanical DNFs, but he had five or six top fives in qualifying. Then we ran into technical difficulties for a number of races and that took the wind out of our sails. Takuma won two races, so that was pretty good!”

Graham Rahal with Bobby Rahal at the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach © 2019 Scott R LePage

While the NTT IndyCar Series runs from April to September, a lot of the focus is on Indy, and the ‘Month of May’, culminating in the Indy 500. Stop and think about 17 days of testing at the famous speedway…. That’s a lot of data for the team’s tech partner, Acronis, to collect, process and share.

“Oh yeah!” laughs Rahal. “Let’s face it. It’s easy to collect data. The real challenge is getting what you’ve got, and what you are going to do with it, and how can it benefit what you are doing on a timely basis. That is the crux of the real challenge. How do you take that data and make it work, and make it work in a very compressed time environment? That’s the real challenge.”

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing engineers at work.

Rahal, as the competitor, runs a small but extremely loyal team. And when it came to data capture, he trusted his team’s decision.

“When we were looking at firms that could provide the kind of resource that would allow us to do that…. I really gave the mandate to our engineering group, because they knew exactly what they needed, and what would really help them. So, they are really the ones that made the choice. I was in full support. They understand the nature of the challenge having them take that choice was important, and we embraced it.”

The 2019 season was RLL Racing’s first with Acronis. It is a long-term partnership that can only reap rewards. Data collected in Year One, will be on hand for 2020.

“Yes, exactly.” Says Rahal. “At Indy we have two weeks of information. Then we go to an oval track and it’s two days of information. In some ways you have to roll the car off the trailer and work out how you can claw your way up the grid for qualifying… And that is studying that data, and understanding what that data is telling you is more important. So that is why we chose Acronis, and why our guys in the team have been very happy. And we now have data for next year.

“Anytime that’s a second time you have more experience. We’ve worked with the people from Acronis. They identify the areas that can really generate the value that they are looking for. So for, ‘quote, unquote’, over the ‘off-season’ right now we’ve been able to further define how we want to move forward for the following year, based on the previous. We are all very enthused about what 2020 is going to bring.”

Bobby Rahal hopes the data gathered in 2019 will lead to greater consistency going forwards

The NTT IndyCar season may have finished before the end of September, but in racing, there is no such thing as an off-season.

“It’s racing,” says Rahal. “We are in the wind tunnel, or…. For instance, we just came back from a series of straight-line testing in California, so, no. There is no off-season. Anybody in racing knows there is no such thing as an off season….”

Rahal, as explained above, is a racer, a champion and a winner. He has a loyal team and they have the same mindset. How hard is it to let other people decide on key partners?

“My role has changed over the years,” explains Rahal. “Frankly, right now, my role is helping, and helping our sales and marketing guys and generating the funding that we need. We have brought new people in over the last six years in our engineering group, and in other areas, so I’m probably a lot less hands on. There’s only so much one person can do! And I recognized that having Piers Phillips coming in as the president of RLL in 2018 was important for the growth of RLL, because I personally could not give it the time that it needed, and I think we’ve already seen the value of that since then. My real role is to go out and help find the money and the relationships that will allow us to do what we want to do.

“We have to be competitive on the ovals, but to win the championship you have to be strong on all the circuits, but particularly on the ovals. It is a real challenge for the teams to be able to run up front at any given race because of the very different nature of the tracks we run on.”

Andy Hallbery