Graham Rahal's relationship with Chip Ganassi Racing appears to be drawing to a close, having never quite gelled in the way everyone involved had hoped and expected. The so-called G2 operation doesn't seem any closer to the Target cars in terms of results than it was last year, and while Rahal is often on the pace of Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti, there are days when it's not like that at all – qualifying at Mid-Ohio and Toronto are the most recent examples.
Yet, a year ago, he frequently was one of Power's strongest threats, and only this year Rahal battled hard but safe with Castroneves for third at Barber, with Power for third at Edmonton, emulated Tagliani's impressive through-the-field drive at Detroit, and almost won the Texas race. Those kinds of performances are noted by Penske – as is the fact that Graham owned up to the error that cost him the victory at Fort Worth.
What Rahal does not bring to the table is Service Central sponsorship – that company's affiliation with Valvoline and Penske's relationship with Shell kills that idea. But that shouldn't have an effect: Roger prides himself on not asking drivers to pay for a ride. What he does demand, aside from talent, endeavor and teamwork, is that a driver works well with the team sponsors, and Rahal has long had that side of the business handled superbly well, which is why it's hard to believe he's not even 24 yet.
There's no question that Rahal would jump at the chance to join Team Penske. It's also worth remembering that Graham used to beat Pagenaud more often than not in their Atlantic days, even though it was the Frenchman who ultimately took the crown, and with the cautionary note that that was six years ago and both have done quite a bit of learning since then, it does at least show the potential of Rahal.
This sounds unlikely and yet I don't know why. The more you think about it, the more it makes sense. Alex Tagliani turns 40 in November, but he's driving better than ever in 2012, and that's a fact. He's the only driver to have reached the Firestone Fast Six for every race post-Indy, and from the moment Bryan Herta Autosport got the Honda engines, Tag has been in the mix, fighting with the highly rated Simon Pagenaud, who replaced him at Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports, for the status of best of the rest.
But it's more than that: count up the number of Ganassi, Penske and Andretti cars Tagliani has outqualified this year. Then think of his drive at Detroit, where his car faltered on the warm-up lap so he couldn't take his rightful (third) place on the grid. Once he got going, he put on a clinic that demonstrated it is very possible to pull off passing maneuvers around the Belle Isle circuit. Then think of his pole at Texas, all those laps led at Edmonton…. Then throw in his major car-sorting abilities, his race smarts, his excellent relationship with Power, and the fact that in two or three years, he would make the perfect candidate to drive for Penske in sports cars. Or NASCAR. Tagliani would be a surprising choice, but certainly a logical one.
There's also something very logical about signing Sebastien Bourdais, who has done great things with the Dragon Racing entry this year, even when it had the recalcitrant Lotus engine. Since gaining a Chevrolet, he has frequently mixed with the top runners, consistently enough that you know he'd be a winner in a Team Penske car. Attitude-wise, it would be interesting to see how he fitted in with Penske, especially if he failed to restrain some of his brilliantly outspoken comments which we've all come to relish. But… he could adapt and he has the experience of working with big teams, too; that is important because 1) you know he wouldn't be overwhelmed with the sense of responsibility that comes with working for Penske, 2) he'd be able to exploit all the facilities and resources that Team Penske offers, and 3) he knows how to win and won't get overawed by any sense of occasion.
Seabass can come across as quite a cold fish, but in fact he was genuinely loved, not just respected, by Newman/Haas Racing when they were dominating the final years of Champ Car. And you know he'd be held in high regard by Team Penske if, every time the No. 2 car was put away in the truck, the crew felt its potential had been maximized. They rarely get that feeling these days.
A winner waiting to happen, everyone sees that. Simon Pagenaud has more than raw driving skills in his favor; he has a good technical understanding, an ability to adapt to changing track conditions and handling characteristics and he works well with his engineers. Put alongside top-class teammates, as opposed to his current situation where he has no teammate, there's no question he could flourish.
However, his long and strong affiliation with Honda may preclude him from even considering an offer from Roger and so the more likely scenario is that Pagenaud will stay where he is at Schmidt Hamilton or go to the Service Central Ganassi car, before ultimately winding up in car No. 10 when Franchitti retires.