Tuesday's news that the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team made an engineering change on Graham Rahal's No. 15 Honda-powered entry was far from a surprise. In fact, the switch – made well after the second-generation driver became mired in his least competitive season to date – was painfully overdue. Now, with little hope of the 2013 season being turned around, the decision was made to shift the emphasis toward kicking off next year's championship with the competitive momentum that was missing in action at St. Petersburg.
Rahal moved from the Chip Ganassi Racing program after 2012, joining his father Bobby's RLLR team to take over the seat formerly occupied by Takuma Sato. Sato and engineer Gerry Hughes formed an effective combination, but the productive working environment did not carry over with Rahal at the controls.
The first inkling that the chemistry between the two was amiss came to light during preseason testing when the No. 15 was well off the pace. That theme continued during the first two rounds of the championship as Rahal was all but invisible on the track. The elder Rahal gave his team a firm directive to improve its overall performance heading into Round 3 at Long Beach, and it worked: his son was fast from the outset and finished second…ironically, behind the AJ Foyt Racing car of Sato.
RLLR's turnaround, at least with the No. 15 car, proved to be temporary as Rahal started 19th and finished 22nd in Brazil, yet that drop-off in performance would pale in comparison to what awaited the team at Indianapolis. Rahal would start 26th after struggling to find speed all month, teammate James Jakes would qualify 20th after going through a similar situation and the third member of the team, Michel Jourdain Jr., would fail to make the show. Neither driver would factor in the race, either, ending the month of May in the same manner it started.
After Indy, the pressing need for an engineering change on the No. 15 was thoroughly exposed at The Dual In Detroit. Rahal started 23rd and 15th while Jakes qualified third and second, and finished second in Sunday's race. For Jakes, a previously unheralded talent in the IndyCar Series, it was a significant boost to his reputation. For Rahal, who had long been pegged as a future champion, it highlighted the difference in engineering philosophies between Hughes' No. 15 and what engineer Eddie Jones was doing on Jakes' No. 16.
Poor outings for Rahal followed at Texas and Milwaukee, and while the team temporarily found its groove at Iowa, the dark cloud immediately returned for Pocono and again for Toronto. Sprinkle in a bit of contact between Rahal and a few competitors this season, and the 24-year-old now finds himself 17th in points during a forgettable season.
Rahal told this writer earlier in the season that making an engineering change was unlikely to happen until the off-season, but with six races left to run and the chance to get a head start on rebuilding the No. 15 program, the search for a new race engineer became a priority immediately after Toronto. The immediate fix has been to move Hughes to an overarching R&D position while former RLLR engineer Neil Fife, who departed Dragon Racing after Iowa, returns to handle the race engineering on the No. 15 through the season finale at Fontana.
“While things haven't gone in the direction we wanted or produced the results we felt we deserved, Gerry and I were actually making gains,” the junior Rahal told RACER. “Dad decided it was time to move Gerry over to the development side. I've never met an engineer who is more detail-oriented than Gerry Hughes, so I think that side will be phenomenal under him. We've not had a development and R&D guy on the staff, so this should have a big impact and it really fits his expertise and our need.”
It would be easy to paint this personnel moves as nothing but a negative for Hughes; being taken off the timing stand in the middle of a championship is a blow to one's ego, but Rahal's warm comments about his former engineer, coupled with his father's decision to move him laterally rather than release him, shows the respect they have for the Englishman.
The aforementioned need for someone to create and spearhead a dedicated R&D program for RLLR's IndyCar program should also pay dividends with Hughes at the helm. It was a dual role he attempted to fill, but with the frenetic pace to the 2013 season, executing a plan to dig the No. 15 out of its hole while also handling race engineering duties on the weekend was too much to ask.
“I told Dad that Gerry is incredibly good at numbers and development,” Rahal continues. “He comes from Formula 1 and is used to that level of ongoing chassis and aero input. But we can't ask him to do that and be the race engineer. I think Dad felt it was best to move Gerry over now so we aren't behind going into next year.
“I think everyone is excited about the changes because they want to win; they don't want to feel like all their hours of work and dedication weren't going to get the results we're all capable of. The big goals we had for 2013 are kind of impossible to hit, so closing out the year strong and building good chemistry for next year is the right way to go.”
Whether Fife (LEFT) stays with the team in a long-term capacity will be dictated by how well he and Rahal work together and generate results. It took too long for the changes to be made, but if one thing has emerged from the shakeup, it's that the boss is prepared to be more proactive if it's warranted. If the Fife and Rahal pairing don't produce, more changes could take place.
“It's too early to make any predictions; we haven't even done our first day with the car together, but the hope is that Neil can flourish within our team,” says the 24-year-old. “He's worked with Dad before and there's a good comfort zone there. I think he's coming here with something to prove and we all just want to be competitive. We're hungrier than ever.”
The team made a second addition to the No. 15 program with the signing of Mitch Davis. The former Ganassi Racing team manager, who departed that team after winning multiple championships, will assume the role of crew chief and take some of the load off RLLR IndyCar team manager Ricardo Nault.
“‘Rico' was being pulled in a bunch of different directions, so this allows him to focus on his job without a ton of distractions,” Graham explains. “We needed someone to focus on the car, on the crew, so Ricardo can do his job, which is really on a wider scale. Mitch is spectacular at projects, running the [No. 15] team and being a premier mechanic. And he was awesome to work with in the past; we got along great at Ganassi and I have the utmost respect for him.
“It's just great to see the added layers that are coming into the team – guys who can add to what we already have going for us, and guys who can let others be better at what they do.”
With Mid-Ohio on the horizon, the challenge for Fife will be to find his confidence again. His final months at Dragon took its toll on many levels, but when things were working, his track record with Sebastien Bourdais was impressive. It was Fife's setup, albeit with a few alterations by new Dragon engineer Tom Brown, that had the Frenchman on the podium twice at Toronto. Seeing Fife respond favorably in the RLLR team wouldn't be unexpected, but it's hard to predict how long it will take for him and Rahal to establish a rapport.
Fortunes should improve within the No. 15 camp between now and Fontana, but the greatest gains won't be felt until 2014 arrives.