The 2021 NTT IndyCar Series kicks off this weekend with the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at the challenging Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama.
It may be almost six months since the series wrapped up its condensed and fluid 2020 season, but for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, partnered by Acronis, those six months have not been a time for rest. The team’s winter included two valuable tests at Barber, part of a 17-car test at Texas and two promising days on the Indianapolis oval, as well as-non-stop work off-track.
“I have to say we’ve had a productive off-season in terms of development from an engineering standpoint,” says team founder and co-owner Bobby Rahal. “The ‘off-season’ has been productive for us, in the wind tunnel and seven-post rig, and then of course on-track testing. We’ve also continued development trends that we saw last year on for this year, which I think had a lot to do with our performances in the tests at Barber and at Indy over the last month.”
The RLL Racing team heads into the 17-race 2021 season with an unchanged driver line-up with Graham Rahal and Takuma Sato, who won his second jewel-in-the-crown Indy 500 in 2020.
The stability in the driver line-up is important for Rahal, himself an Indy 500 winner in 1986. “Absolutely. No question about that, but we also have a lot of continuity in our engineering department as well as within the team itself, the mechanics and staff. When new people come in there’s always a period of time for everyone to acclimate and to get the most out of each other. The longer you have good people together, the better it gets.”
Another partnership, now into its third year, is with technical data partner Acronis. With last year’s Barber race cancelled, having the most recent race data from 2019 wasn’t such a bad thing. Sato and Rahal filled the front row, and Taku went on to win, while technical gremlins robbed Graham of a likely second place, possibly even the win which he believed was in his sights. But, as Rahal Sr pointed out, the team tested there last month adding to the data. They are well-prepared for the opening two-day event in Alabama.
“We had a very strong test at Barber last month, so I think we can be ‘cautiously optimistic’ about the weekend. The event is a little bit more of a compressed weekend in terms of track time, but that’s why we went and did the test to give us as much data and information as possible. But I have to say I think we could be quite strong there. I’m certainly hopeful.”
The team tested twice at Barber since the final race of 2020, the first one in the Fall with Formula E racer Antonio Felix da Costa behind the wheel.
“Antonio did a good job for us, having never having driven an Indy car or having ever been to Barber. We picked up good data from that test as well.”
At the two-day test at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, RLL ran a third car for Santino Ferrucci, who will be racing the Indy 500 for the team. It begs the question, will there be a third car at other events too this season?
Rahal doesn’t say ‘no’: “First off, we were pleased to get Santino. He was NTT IndyCar Series Rookie of the Year in 2019 and was seventh the time there. Last year he was fourth, right behind Graham in third and Taku winning. He’s been impressive at Indy. We would like to run a third car at other races, but that really depends on sponsorship. I think there’s a better than even chance that we will do more races with a third car this year. We haven’t identified which ones yet, and haven’t absolutely committed to it but there’s a strong possibility of a third car at some races.”
Like all sports worldwide, the 2020 IndyCar season was disrupted by Covid-19, with 14 races squeezed in from the delayed season start from June to October.
“Last season Mike Lanigan and I kept everybody on the team, full payroll and benefits, despite all the craziness that was going on in the world,” Rahal adds. “I think we were one of the very few teams that did that, and I think that has paid dividends to for us with our people for this year and beyond.
“We’ve not just been able to keep the personnel we had but we’ve been able to bring in some good people as well.”
Among the new faces at the team’s Brownsburg, Indiana base is engineer Matt Greasley, who joined the team over the winter from Carlin and will be Sato’s lead engineer, as Eddie Jones moves into a more research & Development role within the team.
“Graham’s engineering group is still pretty much the same, still with Allen McDonald who I think is one of the best in the paddock,” continues Rahal. “So yes, not only do we have the continuity of the people that have been here, but we also have good people like Matt come in and take on his position in the team. We continued to add on to the depth of the team over the last year, and I think we are seeing the results of that, for sure.”
It’s a brutal start to the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season, with four races over the first three weekends – three consecutive events that display the breadth and variety of the series. After the opening race on the sweeps and hills of the Barber road course on April 18, the following weekend is on the concrete-lined walls of St Petersburg in Florida, and then they head straight to the fearsome, high-banked 1.5-mile oval at Texas Motor Speedway for a double-header event with races on Saturday and Sunday, May 1 and 2.
“I think we have to feel very optimistic,” concludes Rahal, “it’s just a matter of doing the job, right? We’ve just got to continue doing what we’ve been doing.
“As we all know, everything needs to be working in your favour, on any given weekend, to win races. So, we’re just hopeful that we have that. If we have a trouble-free weekends, I think we can be competitive for the win.”