Rahal and Sato Return to the Streets of St. Petersburg for the Firestone Grand Prix

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing
Pre-Race Notes
Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg – Streets of St. Petersburg
Round 2 of 17 in the 2021 NTT INDYCAR SERIES

DATE:     Friday – Sunday, April 23-25, 2021

PRACTICE BROADCAST:     Live on Peacock Premium on Friday from 4:15–5:00 p.m. ET, Saturday from 9:45–10:30 a.m. ET and Sunday from 9:05–9:35 a.m. ET.  Also live on the INDYCAR Radio Network (IRN) and www.indycar.com (timing & scoring + live analysis).

QUALIFYING BROADCAST:     Live on Peacock Premium, the IRN and www.indycar.com (timing & scoring + live analysis) from 1:45 – 3:10 p.m. ET Saturday. Same-day, tape delayed on NBCSN from 10-11 p.m. ET.

RACE BROADCAST:     Live on NBC Sunday, April 25 from 12-3 p.m. ET. And also on Peacock Premium, IRN, Sirius 211 and XM 205.

TRACK LAYOUT:     1.8-mile, 14-turn street course
RACE LENGTH:     100 laps / 181 miles
2020 WINNER:     Josef Newgarden
2020 POLESITTER:     Will Power (1:01.0369; 107.914 mph)

RLL’S TOP START / FINISH AT ST. PETE:     5th by Sato in 2018 / 2nd by Rahal in 2018; will be team’s 14th event here

RAHAL’S BEST START / FINISH IN ST. PETE:     1st in 2009 / 1st in 2008 – both with Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing; will be his 14th race here

RAHAL’S HIGHEST SERIES START / FINISH:     3 poles – Pole at St. Pete (street) 2009, Kansas (oval) 2009, Detroit Race 1 (street) 2017 / 6 wins – 1st in St. Pete in 2008, Fontana & Mid-Ohio 2015, Texas 2016, Detroit Race 1 & Race 2 2017

SATO’S BEST START / FINISH IN ST. PETE:     1st in 2014 with A.J. Foyt Racing / 5th in 2011 with KV Racing; will be his 12th race here

SATO’S HIGHEST SERIES START / FINISH:     10 Poles – Iowa (oval) 2011, Edmonton (street) 2011, Houston Race 1 (street) 2013, St. Pete (street) 2014, Detroit Dual 2 (street) 2014, Detroit Dual 2 2017, Pocono (oval) 2017, Barber (road) 2019, Texas (oval) 2019, St. Louis (oval; Race 2) 2020 / 6 Wins – Long Beach (2013), Indianapolis 500 (2017), Portland (2018), Barber (2019), St. Louis (2019), Indianapolis 500 (2020)


The 2021 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg will mark the 14th INDYCAR SERIES race for Rahal Letterman Lanigan (RLL) Racing in St. Petersburg. The team has entered the No. 15 United Rentals Honda for Graham Rahal and the No. 30 Panasonic / Shield Cleansers Honda for Takuma Sato.  The team prepared Indy cars for Danica Patrick (2005, 2006), Buddy Rice (2005, 2006), Vitor Meira (2005), Jeff Simmons (2007), Scott Sharp (2007), Ryan Hunter-Reay (2008), Takuma Sato (2012, 2018-20), Graham Rahal (2013-2020), James Jakes (2013) and Spencer Pigot (2016) prior to this year. The team led 11 laps with Takuma Sato in 2012 and four laps with Hunter-Reay in 2008 (G. Rahal won w/NHLR) and has earned five top-10 finishes with the best being fifth by Meira in 2005.  The highest starting position by the team is fifth place by Sato and highest finish is second by Graham Rahal – both in 2018.

In 2021, Graham will make his 14th Indy car start at this track.  His best start here is pole in 2009 and best finish is a win in 2008 in his IndyCar Series debut – both history-making moments at the time as he became the youngest race winner in series history (2008), and youngest pole winner in series history (2009). Both records were eclipsed in 2019 by Colton Herta but he held them for 10 and 11 years, respectively.  Overall, he has earned one top-five and six top-10 starts here and has two top-five and five top-10 finishes. Year-by-year details are available upon request. Graham is looking forward to the opportunity to get a second win in St. Pete.
           “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.”

In 2020, Graham started 17th and passed Palou, Ericsson and Pagenaud on the start but was passed by Ferrucci to run 15th. As others made their pit stops, he was able to stay on track longer and cycled up to third before his first of two stops on Lap 34 and returned to the track eighth.  He moved into seventh when polesitter Power had trouble and into sixth after an alternate strategy driver (VeeKay) pit on Lap 44. On the third restart from caution, he lost a position to O’Ward and ran seventh. He lost another to Andretti, who was on a different strategy, on Lap 55. As the next round of stops began, he cycled to the race lead and had just set his fastest race lap on Lap 69 on his in-lap for his final stop when previous race leader Rossi crashed and brought out the caution and closed the pits. He led two laps and when the pits opened, he made his final stop on Lap 72/100 and, because his strategy was negated, he returned to the track in 15th place. Two more caution periods drive thru and other penalties and heavy sprinkles ensued, and he ultimately finished in ninth place.

The 2021 race will be Takuma’s 12th here.  In 11 races, his best start is pole in 2014 with AJ Foyt Racing (AFR) and best finish is fifth place in 2011 with KV Racing. Overall, he has earned five top-five and six top-10 starts here and has two top-five and six top-10 finishes. Year-by-year details are available upon request.  St. Pete is one of Takuma’s favorite INDYCAR SERIES venues and he hopes to have a competitive weekend.
               “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.”

Last year, Sato started 13th and passed Pagenaud on the start for 12th. He cycled up to fifth place before his first stop on Lap 33 and returned to the track in 13th place. He later lost a spot to Ericsson, who was on an alternate strategy. He pit from 12th for his second stop on Lap 66 and worked his way up to ninth by the time the fourth of six restarts happened on Lap 74. He had passed Harvey but the two made contact and put Sato in Andretti’s path and his wing cut Andretti’s tire. Second-place runner, Hinchcliffe, also had problems and Sato was running sixth when he was told to go to the back of the pack. He was in 15th place but two more caution periods, a drive thru penalties by a competitor and heavy sprinkles ensued before the checkered flag and he ultimately finished in 10th place. Takuma believe the team’s baseline street course set up should be competitive in St. Pete.
           “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.”

“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.”

“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,” said Rahal. “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.”
           “I think St. Petersburg has a great atmosphere for the fans and also for us too,” added Sato. “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. 

Half of Takuma’s 10 pole positions have come on a street course, including his pole in St. Pete in 2014. He enjoys the level of commitment needed to set the fastest lap in the tight confines.
           “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.”

Graham Rahal is ranked seventh in NTT INDYCAR SERIES point standings with 26 and Takuma Sato is 13th with 17 points.