The 2020 NTT IndyCar Series is as competitive as it has ever been. But there is little doubt that a spanner has been thrown into the works by the Covid-19 pandemic. Teams have been unable to test since very early Spring, and the first race at Texas on June 6 was on an oval. Add in compressed weekend schedules that limit track time to one practice session, qualifying and race and there are many unknowns to face and fix in very little time.
Focus therefore, has swayed towards pre-race preparation, and for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing – and for the team’s Graham Rahal – using the Acronis-gathered data in the build-up is a key to being fast straight off the transporter. It’s certainly a good starting point, but he also knows that what they see on screen doesn’t always transfer to the track. In the build-up to the team’s home race, the GMR Grand Prix of Indy on the road course at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway they all worked hard, together.
“It’s just nerve-wracking,” says Rahal. “I don’t care what discipline you are in, IndyCar, Formula 1, NASCAR, whatever, we’ve become so used to testing, and we build up to the season. Now we are in this scenario where we’ve had nothing. There’s been no testing. Yes, we did a day in the simulator, but there has been no real in-car on-track testing.”
This where data gathered from the team’s association with Acronis comes into its own and allowed them to study last year’s set-up and what different changes made to performance on the Dallara-Honda. “Yes, you try to be prepared, but you have no clue what to expect. No clue. You don’t have the peace of mind of ‘are we going to be competitive, or are we not?’, ‘Is this the right move, or is it not?’ Everything we do is an educated guess, but in many ways, it still is. We are guessing what the right set up is to put on the car to start from. And that is when it becomes nerve-wracking.
“We started out pretty quickly, and once we got that first practice session under our belt, we knew where we were at – we definitely felt great. I thought as a team we did a phenomenal job.”
For the Indy GP, Rahal and team-mate Takuma Sato were joined by Spencer Pigot in a third car. The American youngster did three races for the Rahal team in 2016 on the back of winning the 2015 Indy Lights championship. But going into this race, he had had no testing at all.
“As a team all three cars were fast,” Rahal adds. “Did we fulfil our capabilities with the other two cars? Maybe not. But Spencer did an amazing job in the race until he had his misfire which was unfortunate. He was certainly looking to be on the podium with me. I think he did an amazing job in the race. I think the team as a whole did a really, really good job to be in a competitive place.”
Having three cars in a team can be a blessing, but can also be a diversion. Champion squads Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing will run three cars all season, with a fourth Penske at the Indy 500 for three-time winner Helio Castronves. Pigot, so far, is due to do just the races at Indy, the GP and also the famed Indy 500 in August.
How much of a benefit is having data from a third car? Rahal is forthright in his views: “If it works like it did at the Indy GP, it’s a huge benefit to have all that data. But you can also find that you grow too much and have too many cars, and that can hurt you, it becomes a hindrance. But what we had was very effective.”
Pigot was thrown into the deep end, but worked hard with the team, no doubt. “Yes,” agrees Rahal. “He had everything to review, and he spent a lot of time with us discussing it. Remember none of us had gone road racing since last year. He did the whole season in 2019, but he didn’t do any testing in the Spring so we were all still on a very level playing field when we went back to it. I thought Spencer did a great job. He has always been quick at that track and the car was good.
“From the second we got back from P1 at Indy we reviewed the data comparing it to each other, and I could see things I could learn from Spencer about the Indy Grand Prix track itself, and things we could use in qualifying, so we found areas where we could learn from each other.”
Graham qualified fourth, behind Will Power and Jack Harvey, and he and the team opted for a two-stop strategy, while the majority went for three. The plan was working a treat until a until the caution came out for a crash. The timing spiked the Rahal strategy at a time when a win seemed on the cards. After a final few laps holding off 2019 GP winner Simon Pagenaud, Rahal came home second.
“I’m not going to sugar coat it. We had that race in the bag,” he says. “That was our race. Our strategy was the right one. That yellow hurt Will Power too, there’s no doubt. I was disappointed. That is the only way to put it. I was disappointed.
“I have reviewed the data and tapes, and before the second pitstop – after I completed my first stop, Scott Dixon had already completed his second. He was 42 seconds behind me, and we both had one stop to go. There was no way he was going to catch those 42 seconds in 40 laps. No way, particularly at the end of the race when we were back on the faster red tyres. We knew in that middle stint I was going to struggle on the black tyres. But what I found was how the car felt on the black, and my times were still very comparable to Power and Jack Harvey, and all the guys running the same strategy.
“At the same time I want to go and win, but I also really needed a good points day. I haven’t won since 2017, so I was trying to get a monkey off my back too. I’m in the second longest lull in my career so I definitely wanted to get back into victory lane because we know we can work as a team and win.
“We finished second, we really needed a good points day, and that’s what we got, so I can’t be too displeased with that.”