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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ Assessing Graham Rahal at mid-season

by Gordon Kirby
Racing is a tough business and in the past month or so a lot of people have asked, 'What's up with Graham Rahal?' Bobby's eighteen-year old son is in the middle of his rookie Champ Car season with Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing and so far he's been able to led eleven laps (a few of these most impressively at Mt.Tremblant in the rain) and has made the podium just once, finishing second to teammate Sebastien Bourdais at Houston in April. But in a year in which Lewis Hamilton has taken F1 by storm people are wondering if Rahal is the real deal he was touted to be after winning five Atlantic races last year and battling with Simon Pagenaud for the Atlantic championship.

First of all we have to remember that Graham is only eighteen and very inexperienced with just three seasons of car racing under his belt in Formula BMW, Star Mazda and Atlantic, plus a little A1GP and sports car racing. Hamilton is four years older and considerably more experienced with two and half years in Formula Renault, two seasons in Formula 3 and one in GP2--all with Ron Dennis's support.

And the strong field of rookies Rahal is racing against in Champ Car this year--Robert Doornbos, Neel Jani, Tristan Gommendy and Simon Pagenaud--are also older and more experienced coming up through the tough European school of FRenault, F3, GP2 and F1 testing and racing. These guys may be unknown in America, but they're serious racers aiming at careers in F1. "Obviously, it's a strong field and that makes it tough on me because you have to raise your level," Rahal acknowledges. "Doornbos is a rookie too, but he's ten years older and he's got two years of racing and two years of testing in Formula 1 behind him. Gommendy and Jani have run well in GP2 and won races. Those guys are very good and they're rated very highly in Europe."

Graham admits it's been a tough year so far. "For me, it's difficult because a lot of people expected me to come into this year and this team and just be dominant," he remarked. "But the fact of the matter is it hasn't been that way. We've struggled to find a good setup on the car but we've had some good opportunities to do well. We really should have won Mt. Tremblant but we stalled in the pits.

"When you look at the big picture we've had some very good races and we've had a lot of bad luck," Rahal continued. "At Long Beach, for instance, I pressured Pagenaud into hitting the wall but the reward was little to none because we had a fuelling problem so a chance at a top five finish went out the window. So there has been a lot of stuff that's been frustrating, but hopefully, it'll come together.

"Tremblant was a solid race. They told me to save fuel or attack, and whichever they said, I did it, and we did it successfully. We were quick in the dry and quick in the wet and quick in the damp conditions on slicks. On one lap we were quickest by three and a half seconds, but at the end of the day we had a problem with the gearbox in the pits and that's how most of the races have tended to be."

Having Bourdais as a teammate and benchmark has been invaluable but young Rahal and the team are beginning to understand that his driving style requires a different setup than that used so effectively by Bourdais.

"It's good to have Sebastien there as a standard but at the same time it's been difficult for me because unfortunately, we have very different driving styles," Graham observed. "So it's difficult for me to use his setup. He's helped us develop the car but at the same time I've almost had to develop my own car because it hasn't been that we can lean on him. We learn as much as we can from him each and every time we go out. I'd like to think we're getting better and better. That certainly hasn't been the case every weekend, but usually, by the weekend's completion, we're pretty close to it.

"I've certainly been pushing hard to get my way with whatever part of the development and setup," he added. "The guys help as much as they can to make that happen but at the same time they know Sebastien has been successful and they don't really want to sway too far away from what he's doing. That makes it more difficult for me, but I think usually we're okay as far as setup goes by the time it's all said and done. But in Toronto, we were a bit out to lunch, that's for sure."

Commented Newman/Haas/Lanigan's general manager Brian Lisles: "He has the best of worlds and the worst of worlds because he's driving alongside a three-time champion. So immediately everybody is going to say he has the same car and why isn't he just as quick? That's the first thing for him to have to overcome and for everybody to remember who they're comparing him to.\

"On the other hand, of course, it's a terrific advantage for Graham because he can look at the data and see where he can improve. I think if you look back you'll see at a lot of tracks he has substantially improved between the first day and the second day of practice and then actually put in a pretty solid race performance."

New to Graham this year are pitstops, conserving fuel, and dealing with a selection of tire compounds. He says learning to save fuel effectively has been the biggest challlenge.

"Pitstops, no. That's an easy thing to do," he said. "Saving fuel is probably the toughest. In order to do that and be quick is tough. Fortunately the last few races we've been able to match Sebastien on the distance we can go. At the end of the day 'though, I think it makes the racing worse. When all the drivers are pushing hard it makes it more interesting because there are more mistakes. When you're saving fuel you can get into a false rhythm and you just cruise, basically.

"In Formula 1, there's no fuel-saving. Those guys just push as hard as they can. I kinda wish it was that way here, but it's not and we just have to go forward with it as it is. That's probably been the most difficult thing for me to get used to in racing conditions."

Rahal enjoys working with Bridgestone's various red and black tires: "You've got to understand that you've got to push a little harder with the reds. The reds make for better braking, better power-down and you have to maximize that."

His father Bobby is a three-time CART champion and Indy 500 winner, and still a pretty good shoe in historic cars. The senior Rahal is happy with Graham's progress to date.

"He's showing he's got the pace to run up front," Bobby observed. "It's just a process. He's learning all the time. He's had a lot of little problems but I think he's doing a great job. Cleveland and Mt. Tremblant showed he's got the pace. It's just putting everything together for a whole, complete race.

"He wants to win and that's good but it takes time to win. You have to learn. It just doesn't happen overnight, and this is not Formula Atlantic. What you say is true about Doornbos and those guys. The top guys in Champ Car are very good. They've been around.

"Knock on wood, he's not having many incidents," Bobby added. "I saw at Mt. Tremblant under really difficult conditions that he did a very good job. It was unfortunate he stalled in the pits, but he stayed on the track and was fast in difficult conditions."

N/H/L Racing's general manager Brian Lisles is a stickler for details and plain-speaking and he has no complaints about Graham. "Firstly, nobody should forget that he only turned eighteen earlier this year and he just hasn't driven as many miles as people who are twenty-five or thirty years old," Lisles commented. "The second thing is, again because he's not driven for many years he's not been exposed to as many dirty tricks that you find as you go up the ladder. It's an unfortunate fact in motor racing that it gets dirtier the further you go up rather than getting cleaner and I think that's been a surprise to him in the races.

"Would I like him to be running for pole or second place everywhere and first or second in the races? Of course. But I think realistically he's performing up to all our expectations. There are a couple of things he needs to work on to be a more complete racing driver, for sure. But we're working on those things with him. There are also some areas where he's right up to speed without any problems. So in absolute terms, it's too early to tell. In subjective terms, he's probably about where you might expect it all to be with a good driver his age. We're quite happy at the moment."

Lisles and N/H/L's engineering team couldn't be more pleased with Rahal's physical fitness and engineering feedback. "We are very happy with his race performances," Lisles said. "He's extremely fit and never has any trouble with durability. He came second at Houston where a number of mature, experienced drivers were very worried about the race and he just breezed through without any problems. So there are a lot of areas at which he's very capable which are taken somewhat for granted.

"He gives very good feedback and knows exactly what's going on. He's well enough in control of what he's doing that he is able to change when needed to improve himself. He did a great job in the wet at Mt. Tremblant and didn't go off the road when many others did. There's no doubt that he's a very talented young man but we have to remember he is a very young man."

Lisles says Rahal was well-prepared for the technical aspects of his job when he arrived at N/H/L. "He was with a very good Formula Atlantic team last year and he's well able to understand what's required," Lisles remarked. "Obviously, we're able to devote more resources to him than he's enjoyed before because of the budget and engineering team we have. But I think he's soaking it all up like a sponge and learning and putting it into action.

"He's very calm, very mature and a credit to his mother and father. He gets annoyed at some of the antics of some of the less disciplined drivers in our series, but never lets it get in the way of his driving."

Crew chief Donnie Hoevel believes his young charge will put some serious numbers on the board once he and N/H/L's engineers find the right combination for him.

"He's only had three years of professional racing," Hoevel commented. "Like you say, you've got guys like Doornbos who've been beating the wheels off these things for four or five years, at least. I think he's doing fine. He's very smart. He's intelligent, level-headed, very mature for eighteen, and I think he'll be fine.

"He's very straightforward," Hoevel added. "He doesn't carry any baggage and he's enjoyable to be with. It's just a matter of finding out what he likes and what he wants from the car and hitting the sweet spot, and he's going to be fine. Like Mario Andretti always said, you've got to find the sweet spot and once you find it, don't stray from it."

N/H/L's assistant team manager Kenny Siwieck has no doubts at all about Rahal's ability. "He's a pleasure to work with and a gentleman," Siwieck observed. "He's got a huge amount of potential to be realized and this is the place that's going to make him shine. We're going to give him everything we've got and there's a lot that we bring to the table. We've just got to polish him up and make him a star."

Davey Evans probably is the most experienced crewman in the Champ Car paddock. He's worked for Carl Haas's race teams for almost forty years and today, Evans takes care of N/H/L's engines.

"Graham is a very mature young man and very mature young driver," Evans remarked. "He knows what he wants from the car. He's easy on equipment and he's very calm during the races. He has superb car control and is an excellent judge of changing track conditions. He's a really great driver and has a long and very successful future ahead of him. I hope to see him in Formula 1 one day."

Tim Coffeen is another Newman/Haas veteran who's worked in racing for four decades. Coffeen is a lead mechanic and Rahal's right front tire changer and signal man to leave the pits.

"He's remarkably mature for being eighteen years old," Coffeen commented. "He's light years ahead of where I was at eighteen. He carries himself confidently and he's a lot of fun to be around. When he walks in the tent first thing in the morning he's an uplifting type of guy, and that's big to the guys working on the car because the driver is the catalyst in the whole effort.

"He's shown he can run fast and lead races and I think he's going to win real soon," Coffeen added. "I really believe that and I can say the pleasure has been all mine. I've enjoyed working with him so far. It's been a lot of fun. He's a diamond in the rough that we are polishing on and refining."

In the past week the team's engineering group met to discuss how to address the questions of adapting Graham to his car and vice-versa. Team co-owner Carl Haas sat in on the meeting. "We had a meeting with some of our engineers and managers and went through all these issues," Haas said. "Brian Lisles, Craig Hampson, John Tzouanakis and Graham's engineer Todd Malloy were all involved. I sat in on the whole thing and some positive stuff was discussed. Like you say, he's a very young rookie and I wouldn't write him off.

"You can't compare him to Lewis Hamilton," Haas added. "That young man is obviously a very special talent and he's operating in a very different world. Graham has a learning process to go through and there are some things he has to do slightly differently. We're working with him on those things on a very positive note and to our benefit, and we'll just have to see what happens."

Rahal's longterm goal continues to be F1, but this year has taught him it may take a little longer to achieve than he thought. Graham says, other than watching the races on TV, he keeps F1 from his mind, leaving his future in the hands of his manager, former Reynard partner Rick Gorne.

"I never think about it to be honest," Graham says about F1. "That's Rick's job. I just need to do my best and that's what's ultimately going to get me there. So I just focus on doing my best here. Right now, F1 is not in the cards anytime soon. I would imagine it's going to take a little bit longer to get used to these cars and a little bit longer to be successful."

So there you have it. The view on Graham Rahal from inside Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2007 ~ All Rights Reserved

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