Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Graham Rahal, driver of the No.15 United Rentals Honda has fond memories of the Firestone Grand Prix of St Petersburg, the next race on the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series schedule which takes place this weekend has not only made his NTT IndyCar Series debut here in 2008 but he became the youngest ever race winner that day.
“From a race perspective it seems like we are always pretty strong in the races. Our tire degradation is a lot better than most. I thought last year our strategy was playing out perfect, but we got a poorly timed yellow that really kind of threw a wrench in our plans but that happens. I was able to avoid Will Power, who crashed right in front of me, and I think Rossi was right in front of me and there were a lot of incidents that we were able to kind of miss that helped. But this time around I have high expectations and hopes for what we’ve developed in the off season going to Sebring to test and the things we’ve done there, damper changes and things. So hopefully our performance, when it comes to St. Pete, will be better off. It hasn’t been that long since we were there, obviously it’s only been a few months being that we finished our season there last year, and it’s at the leading edge of it this year, which is traditional. We are excited to go back. It will be a great weekend.”
Reflecting on his previous starts at St Pete, Takuma Sato commented saying:
“What makes St. Pete challenging as the first street course race of the season is just the unknown factor. St. Pete usually gives us slow speed, complex sections as well as very high speed (areas) which is quite challenging for the drivers. Regardless of if it’s the beginning of the season or the end, we both really enjoy St. Petersburg and hopefully we can bring the competitiveness. Usually, we are very competitive there. My highpoints for St. Pete are very positive. I started from the front row on pole position and led the race but unfortunately, I haven’t been on a podium yet, but we’ve been very close. Last year we struggled a little bit in qualifying because I scratched the wall in a very important part, but the car was competitive, and we moved up as high as fifth. Hopefully in 2021 starting from front row-ish will be my ultimate target.”
Speaking about his tenth place finish here last year, Takuma Sato commented saying:
The team is trying to prepare every single race, but specifically for the street courses. Its sometimes difficult because you can’t have too many simulator days. I think, generally speaking, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing is strong in street courses. We’ve done two days testing in Sebring so far which is basically replicating a street course. Firestone brings the street course tires over there so we did a lot of suspension and damper work to help us get a good performance for the street course. In fact, last year due to the pandemic, St. Pete was held later in the season so it’s actually very close in terms of dates (to this race) so I think we can bring momentum there and I think we will be very strong.”
Speaking about the 2021 season, Graham said:
From a series perspective this year I think they’ve done a great job adjusting to COVID and delaying things a little bit so obviously St. Pete didn’t start our season, which traditionally was supposed to this year, but Barber did. So now St. Pete being the second race of the year presents a little bit of a different challenge. Normally it’s the hardest race of the year because it’s the first from a physical standpoint of the drivers; you aren’t used to that, and it’s a really long one so typically it wears you out. From a series perspective, the depth of the field is tremendous right now. You look from top to bottom. Obviously, (Alex) Palou won last weekend, (Romain) Grosjean did a great job, Scotty McLaughlin, both rookies did a great job. So, there’s a lot of guys who have come in that are extremely fast and I think when you look at the gap, and all the teams, it’s just that much closer. From a team perspective, for us really this year, there’s not a lot that’s new and that’s a positive. A couple of new sponsors, it’s great to have Hy-Vee come back in a very expanded role compared to last year where we just had them at Iowa. But as far as a team, we really haven’t had any turnover which is what we want, the sponsors are all really the same which is what we want, we like that continuity. We are excited about that, we are excited to get to St. Pete and hopefully, you know finishing seventh at Barber wasn’t too bad, but we’d like to do better this time around at St. Pete.”
Speaking about the popularity of the race in St Pete, Graham said:
St. Pete for me is definitely one of the best races we have all year from a perspective of what the top four races that INDYCAR might have every year. “The Indy 500 is always going to be my Number 1 and Mid-Ohio for me, from a personal level is going to be Number 2. Long Beach is right there, and St. Pete is probably close thereafter. St. Pete has a long history now we’ve competed at a lot of races there. Having won there before personally, I know I take a lot of pride in that and having been on pole there before, I take a lot of pride in that too. But it’s been a while. We finished on a podium three years ago, but we’d like to get back on the podium there and hopefully the top step this weekend.
Takuma Sato commented saying:
I think St. Petersburg has a great atmosphere for the fans and also for us too. “The reason is that usually it’s the beginning of the season, so the season opener is usually really, really exciting. Plus, over the course of winter and preseason testing and then going to nice warm, summerish Florida weather usually is something that makes the atmosphere really nice. And it has a long history with INDYCAR and that is why I think the fans are really loyal and there are great restaurants and people are just so excited for St. Petersburg (race) so that’s why I think it’s always a great atmosphere.
Speaking about what it is like to succeed in St Pete, Sato said:
To get on pole position on a street course, there is no hidden secret, to be honest. You have to manage everything to get on pole; traffic and also tire management, because usually Firestone brings a softer compound for the street course. You really get just one shot technically. You run the out lap and then usually the first time by (the flag stand) in St. Pete is all you have, and in most of the cases its second time by in other street courses. But I think St. Pete is a usually the first timed lap so you get one chance, one shot and you have to manage the traffic and get it right. And also, setup-wise, there are so many blinded, unsighted corners that are completely walled by concrete, so you need commitment and that’s why I usually enjoy driving a street course so that’s maybe a little secret.”