Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing co-owner and IndyCar legend Bobby Rahal will be blogging exclusively for RACER.com throughout the 2012 season. -Ed.
First off, it's great to be sharing these blogs all season on RACER.com. With both the IndyCar and American Le Mans Series seasons approaching, we're very hard at work in preparing and finalizing our packages.
With our IndyCar, we had our first test in a Honda manufacturer test at Sebring in mid-December, and felt pretty pleased with it, even though it was only for one day. That provided the first chance for our new driver Takuma Sato to work with Jay O'Connell, our technical director, and to get to know the car. Everyone was reasonably pleased with the first outing.
Just in the last few weeks, we went to Barber and then Sebring again, and we felt really good about Sebring in particular. It's a little difficult to read the competition, because everyone runs on different types of tire compounds and constructions. While it's difficult to compare times, you have a fairly good idea. We were quickest one day at Sebring, and the next we were only a tenth off.
Still, those two tests gave us the first chance to run our own car, and invariably, there are new car blues that you just don't expect. Fortunately for us, there was very little of that, and I have to give a lot of credit to our team manager Tom Anderson and crew chief Ricardo Nault, who made sure that anything bad was marginal. In the end, we ran a lot of miles, and Takuma feels positive about not just the car, but his association with us.
Now we go back to Sebring this week for the final test, with a few more things to try out. We'll be running Takuma's spare car to make sure there's no problems there. Everything came out from the first two tests as we had hoped, and realistically, a little bit better.
With Takuma, we're just getting to know him within the confines of our team. Up to this point, it's been quite positive. I think he's had what he probably would call a disappointing first two years in the series. He's shown real pace, but at other times he may have been lost, and that's no indictment – we've all been there and know what that feels like, and it's certainly frustrating, to be sure.
We're in the honeymoon phase – the discovery phase of who we are and what we can accomplish. My biggest goal for Takuma this year is to create a lot of consistency. We've seen his pace immediately, and we know he has that. We need to get to the end of the races without any drama, and it's very difficult to do.
I've watched him race for many years, going all the way back to when we were both in Europe, and he was on the Honda fast track at the time. The year he won the F3 championship, he won most of the races. The pace is there, and it's just a matter of bringing it home. We've really worked together to make sure that will happen.
As far as our second car and a teammate for Takuma, it will happen – as I'll get to in a minute – but not at the outset. Simply, we couldn't solidify the funding for the second one in time for St. Petersburg. We could have stretched that out and waited until the last minute, but then to not have the funding and have to come back and say, “Oh, we don't have it ready,” wouldn't have looked very professional, frankly.
We had to bite the bullet and face the reality and, at that point, it was easier for us to help Sarah Fisher in this case. I was very much for that. She was there for Graham at a time when he needed it (in 2010, for a handful of races at the start of the season -Ed.). I think she's just a great lady, and she, her husband Andy and those guys really work hard at it.
For me, it just seemed as though we needed to do this to help Sarah, and we'd put our second program together at a later date. Maybe we could have finalized it earlier, but I didn't want to take the risk, and it wouldn't have been the right thing to do.
So, for our second car, we're very excited to have Luca Filippi on board from Indy on. Like Takuma, Luca has shown his pace in a very competitive series in Europe. His Formula 1 dream didn't quite work out. It takes nearly as much mastering of politics as pace to make it to F1, which is difficult, but now he'll get to take advantage of an opportunity here and come over then.
Additionally, we're still in a lot of heavy discussions about a third car for Indy only, and I would say it's quite possible it will happen. It's not done, but we've done that for several years. It would almost exactly be like 2004, when we started with one car and then had three by Indianapolis, with two for the rest of the year.
Where we will have two cars from the start, as we have since 2009, is on our BMW program in the American Le Mans Series. But trying to match our success last year is gonna be tough, let's face it!
It's difficult to know where everybody is in testing, because although everybody's been running around the same time, you wonder what it really means. I don't know if we've seen the real times, and the real deal or whether teams are holding their cards close. Testing-wise, we really have to look at where we are compared to a year ago, and that's our best guide. Still, we feel there have been some improvements made to the car. Dunlop has made some gains again, which is great for us as the only real leading team on Dunlops.
And, really, that's what we have to go on. The car's better, I think the tires will be better, and that's all I know. I for sure think the Porsche's gonna be fast – it just looks fast! The Corvette will be improved, too, but it's kind of a disappointment that Risi won't be there with the Ferrari 458 at Sebring. It perhaps was the best car last year, just like Ferrari's previous car was in 2010. Ferrari puts together a tough package, but there will be other Ferraris there from the WEC.
I'm hopeful, though, because the good thing about Sebring is it's not strictly about pace. You have to get to the end. We have consistency and continuity with the drivers and the cars.
We prepared to defend our 1-2 finish here by doing another 12-hour test this year, at the end of December. Those tests are really beneficial for us, especially on the tire front. For us, you look at the past few races here and our number of mistakes has been minimal, if any. A lot of the other ones have been self-inflicted. We saw the Corvettes take each other out in the pits a couple years ago, and then last year Patrick Long hit one of the Corvettes, and it really delayed those two cars. They were obvious clear, potential race winners. Staying out of the pits and out of trouble sounds simplistic, but honestly, it's hard to do.
In any event, we have to go about staying focused on doing our job, and see how it shakes out. It's busy times for us but we're excited to get going. I look forward to checking in again soon.
Bobby Rahal and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing competes with Takuma Sato in the No. 15 Panasonic/Interush Dallara-Honda in the IZOD IndyCar Series and with two BMW M3s in the American Le Mans Series. To learn more about the team, go to www.rahal.com. Rahal is also on Twitter at @BobRahal.