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Rahal hopes to start season strong at St. Pete PDF Print E-mail
Thursday, March 27, 2014 8:20 PM

Associated Press

 

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Graham Rahal opened his IndyCar career with a win in his series debut.

Six seasons later, that victory through the streets of St. Petersburg stands as his lone trip to Victory Lane.

But so much has changed for Rahal since that 2008 win, particularly during this past offseason.

He returns to St. Pete this weekend with a high-profile new sponsor in Army National Guard, a veteran engineer in Bill Pappas and big hopes for the breakthrough season that seemed set to happen years ago.

“I think we have a good opportunity this year,” Rahal said. “I feel with National Guard it helps take our team to a whole new level. Of course, with Bill Pappas, John Dick, all the guys we brought onboard, that’s going to help a lot.”

Dick was brought on as head of research and development shortly after the addition of Pappas, who spent the last two seasons as Justin Wilson’s engineer.

It was all part of an overhaul at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, where team co-owner Bobby Rahal knew significant upgrades were needed if his son was going to have a fighting chance. Graham Rahal joined the organization last year but had only one podium finish and his 18th-place finish in the final standings was his lowest since 2010.

“We made the investments in the cars and the equipment and the personnel and it was clear we weren’t giving Graham the equipment he needed to succeed,” Bobby Rahal said.

As they head into the Verizon IndyCar Series opener Sunday at St. Pete with new sponsor National Guard, Bobby Rahal believes he’s got the tools to build a competitive team.

“Signing the Guard is obviously huge, historic, because it gives us the ability to compete at the highest level and build our company,” Bobby Rahal said. “We can give our driver the proper tools to succeed.”

That puts the pressure on Graham Rahal to perform. He moved to IndyCar in 2008 after one season in the Champ Car Series and has just one win, 12 podium finishes and two poles to show for his seven seasons. Last year, when he was supposed to be buoyed by the move to RLL and the opportunity to work with his father for the first time, Rahal instead hit a career-low with just six laps led.

“Everybody feels a lot of pressure, I would say as a team,” he continued. “Compared to last year, it wouldn’t be hard to do a better job. Obviously I’ve had chances to win. I think I finished second like 10 times or something. In my trophy room in my house, it’s all second-place trophies.

“I’ve had opportunity to win from time to time. Unfortunately it didn’t just come together. This year we need to focus on doing all those things.”

It begins with qualifying, a struggle for Rahal last year. Although he qualified on the front row at Long Beach, his average starting spot was 17th last season.

“We have to qualify better. We race very well but when you’re qualifying 14th, 15th on some of these street courses, it’s hard to make up that gap,” he said.

He’d like to make a splash this weekend at St. Pete, where he debuts his sponsorship. He’s used the prolific partnership to his advantage, working through social media this week to attempt to put together a swap of race cars with Dale Earnhardt Jr.

NASCAR’s most popular driver is also sponsored by the Guard and Rahal is hoping the two can partner this year on marketing opportunities that benefit the Guard and both their racing series.

But first comes Sunday’s opener, where Rahal believes he’s got a shot to shine.

“Of all of our races throughout the year, I wish we had more identical to St. Pete,” he added. “Great place, great atmosphere.”

F1 Malaysian GP to honor plane victims

SEPANG, Malaysia — Formula One teams, drivers and officials are preparing to honor the victims of flight MH370 at this weekend’s Malaysian Grand Prix.

Sunday’s race will be held at the Sepang circuit, adjacent to Kuala Lumpur’s main airport where the ill-fated flight took off earlier this month. Authorities now say it is almost certain it crashed in the Indian Ocean, killing all 239 people aboard.

The Mercedes team, which is sponsored by Malaysian oil company Petronas, will have messages of support on its cars and driver helmets. Driver Lewis Hamilton said the tragedy is “just heart-breaking” and that “my heart and thoughts go out to the families and friends.”

Lotus sees light at end of tunnel at Malaysian GP: Having used up its stores of frustration and despair at Formula One’s season-opening race, the Lotus team is drawing on long-term hope at this weekend’s Malaysian Grand Prix.

Lotus’ preseason testing woes continued at the Australian Grand Prix, where they were beset by an array of technical problems, did precious few laps in practice and predictably neither car finished the race.

It was a far cry from the form of 2013 which saw the team regularly fighting at the front. Despite the sharp fall, Lotus is a much more upbeat outfit at Sepang, with bold predictions of points finishes and even podium places in a few races’ time.

“If we put two and two together we are not that far off the Red Bull,” Lotus driver Romain Grosjean said Thursday. “We need to take it step by step and be patient when things don’t go right.

“Everyone wants to believe we can come back and can fight for points …. and get on the podium.”

While podium places are a long way off yet, Grosjean’s teammate Pastor Maldonado believed points were within the team’s grasp in Malaysia.

“When you get on top of the problems you see they are not huge problems, are easy to fix,” Maldonado added.

“If we finish the race, we have a chance to fight for good places.”

Grosjean admitted to some abrupt radio communications with his engineers in Melbourne — joking that he needed pills to calm down after a series of glitches — but said the frustrating start to the season was not fraying team morale.

“Our team spirit is stronger than ever,” Grosjean added. “We are all working together, we are all in the same boat.”

Malaysian GP chiefs wait and see on new contract: The head of the Malaysian Grand Prix says fan reaction to Formula One’s new era, with quieter engines and energy-efficient racing, will play a role in deciding whether the race will stay on the calendar.

Sepang International Circuit chief executive Razlan Razali says talks to extend the contract beyond next year’s expiry will begin this weekend.

He told the local New Straits Times newspaper that F1’s new rules and quiet engines “affect the atmosphere of the race so we’ll want to see more of how this issue develops.”

Razali’s concerns echo that of Australian Grand Prix chief Ron Walker who, after the season-opening race earlier this month, said he was considering suing F1 officials for breach of contract over the lack of sound made by the new V6 turbo hybrid engines.

The engine issue is the latest political skirmish between the sport’s organizing body, the FIA, which introduced the new rules to make F1 engines more efficient and relevant to road cars, and the sport’s commercial-rights-holding body headed by Bernie Ecclestone, who always opposed the move away from the loud V8 engines.

Razali said ticket sales for this weekend’s race were down as expected, with the nation in a somber mood following the loss of Malaysian Airlines flight MH370.

“People are not in the mood to celebrate,” Razali added.

The loss of MH370, with 239 people on board, has prompted the cancellation of some planned activities around the race, including a Christina Aguilera concert and an acrobatic jet show at the circuit.

F1 teams and drivers will display commemorative stickers on their cars and helmets in honor of the people lost on the flight.

Ecclestone has legal bill of $6.6M after case win

LONDON — Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone must pay lawyers’ bills of about 4 million pounds ($6.6 million) despite winning his case relating to the grubby sale of the series in 2005.

In February, a judge at the London High Court dismissed the case but ruled it had nevertheless been a corrupt deal and questioned Ecclestone’s honesty.

On Thursday, he concluded that Ecclestone would have to pay a price for giving “untruthful evidence” by picking up half of his legal bills, despite the “general rule” following trials that the loser picks up the winner’s legal bills.

A former F1 shareholder, German media company Constantin Medien, sued Ecclestone and other defendants for up to $144 million, claiming F1 was undervalued at the time of the sale to investment group CVC Capital Partners.

 

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