Graham Rahal’s face and body language told the story as the look of dejection and defeat was present in all of his mannerisms. The worst aspects of the Indianapolis 500 had visited themselves upon the 15-time starter and his team.
He’d just wrangled an oversteering monster at 230mph during qualifying and the ultimate reward for his supreme effort was P34. Slowest in the field and slowest of the four Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing cars, the team’s most successful driver was mystified as to how a bad situation managed to get worse.
“We’re just perplexed by the balance, but in qualifying here, you gotta go for it,” Rahal told RACER. “So you hang on, and you just try to make it but the oversteer was not what I expected. Certainly it’s not what’s fast here. And so, it’s just one of those days. We’re gonna have to go to battle here.”
The RLL team spent the last two days of practice at the worrying end of the speed charts. With teammate Katherine Legge owning the fastest car of the quartet by 3:30pm, she sat P29 in the field of 34 entries after every driver made their first qualifying run.
Behind her, it was RLL’s Christian Lundgaard in P30, but with the top 30 being the only guaranteed cars to start the race, the team went into the final 2.5 hours with Jack Harvey and Rahal outside of the 30 fastest and on the verge of relegation to Sunday’s Bump Day group where one of those four drivers will be bumped from the show.
The big question RLL was looking to answer is how and why it missed so badly at the Texas oval, at the Indy Open Test, and again in practice and qualifying for the Indy 500.
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A major offseason engineering shuffle brought in an aerodynamic specialist from Formula 1 as their new technical director, reunited Rahal with the race engineer who helped produce his greatest results, and paired Harvey with Rahal’s former race engineer. Only Lundgaard’s entry remained unchanged, but as a whole, the team’s performance across the first two ovals of the year has been a disaster.
Having worked through a long list of potential speed remedies throughout the week, Rahal was asked whether he or the team had any ideas left to try to drag RLL’s cars up from the bottom of the scoring pylon.
“No, the answer is there’s nothing at all,” he said. “That’s the biggest disappointment. There’s no speed tokens around here, there’s no magic bullet that we’re going to find. Where we are is where we are. And as I said to everybody last night, we are not going to get in on speed alone. If we get in, it’s gonna be on consistency. And we weren’t consistent at all there, so it’s pretty disappointing.”
Rahal would try to get inside the top 30 at 4:15pm, but went slower and had the attempt waved off. At 4:23pm, Dale Coyne Racing with HMD Motorsports’ David Malukas took Lundgaard’s P30 spot, making it three RLL cars outside the guaranteed spots.
Lundgaard fired out at 4:31pm and edged Malukas by 0.026mph, reclaiming P30. He was back in. Malukas would return the favor in the waning minutes of qualifying, rising to P23 and relegating Lundgaard, Harvey, and Rahal to the dreaded P31-P34 LCQ session on Sunday. Only Legge was safe in P30.
“I mean, it is what it is,” said Lundgaard.