‘We had the performance': Lundgaard, Rahal Letterman Lanigan rebound from slow start
INDIANAPOLIS – At 21 years old, Rahal Letterman Lanigan’s Christian Lundgaard has the savvy of a racing driver much more experienced than his age.
That is why he was able to put the disappointment of his fourth-place finish in Saturday’s GMR Grand Prix in proper perspective after starting from the pole position for the first time with high hopes of scoring his first career victory.
“Going to bed last night, my one target was to see what we could do today,” the driver from Hedensted, Denmark, told NBC Sports as he sat on the pit wall after the race. “Yes, I was optimistic. But I didn’t believe it was going to be a clear and easy race taking off from the beginning.
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“We had the performance this weekend. We need to keep that in mind. It might not have been on Saturday, but we were much better than in the past.
“It was a positive at the end.”
It was also a sense of relief.
“I have relief that the race is over because the car was really tough to drive today,” Lundgaard admitted. “At least to get a top four, we can be happy with. Shout out to the whole RLL team today. We’ve been quick. To get a top-four is a relief.
Though the second-year IndyCar driver didn’t win Saturday on the 14-turn, 2.439-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, he knows his racing career is a journey, not a sprint.
“To be in the top five is where we want to be, really,” Lundgaard said. “That’s a positive.
“Starting on the pole and not getting the win is disappointing, but overall, it has been a great weekend. We were second in both practice sessions and came away with the pole. To get out of here fourth, I think we can be happy with that today.”
He also knew that he gave it all he had over the 85 laps.
“I think I gave it a little more than I had,” Lundgaard told NBC Sports after he climbed out of the No. 45 Hy-Vee Honda. “We struggled with balance today. The car was, from one run to another run, a different balance. It was very difficult to understand the car.
“There was a point where I didn’t think I was going to make it through on balance. The car was so difficult to drive. If we had started eighth with the car like we had today, we wouldn’t have finished fourth.
“But we are in the top five and that is a positive.”
Despite a car that was difficult to drive, Lundgaard led 13 laps in Saturday’s race. He lost the lead at the end of the first lap when eventual race winner Alex Palou (the only driver in the top seven to start on the alternate faster tire) passed him in Turn 14.
From that point, Palou’s No. 10 Dallara-Honda was able to control the outcome of the race, which featured 12 lead changes between eight drivers.
“Alex’s car had grip,” Lundgaard said. “That was the edge. Their car was strong on tire management today. Sure, there was some strategy that we could have done better, but they were just quick.
“It just wasn’t our day today.”
The driver from Denmark wrestled with a car that change dramatically from one run to another – a nature of the difference between the Firestone black (primary) and red (alternate) tires and whether they were new or used.
The blacks are more durable and last longer but are a harder compound with less pace. The reds are faster but softer and don’t last as long.
Also, engineers and team members try to determine the best setup for the car based on what the track conditions will be on the extremely weather-sensitive Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The driver can make certain adjustments with the controls inside the car, but other changes to the wings are done during pit stops.
“We are trying to adjust to the balance with the wings on the pit stops, but I don’t think we got it right today,” Lundgaard told NBC Sports. “I don’t think the setup of the car was optimal for today’s race conditions and the tires.
“But it’s great points for us. I would rather be happy to say now we finished fourth, than cry over a 10th.
“We’re in the mix.”
It was a stint on used tires that kept Lundgaard from contending for the victory.
“I told the crew, ‘What are we doing?’ Let’s get off of these,” Lundgaard said. “That car was horrible to drive at that point.
“It was a tough day. It wasn’t as quick today unfortunately, but to come home fourth, there was a point in this race where I thought we weren’t going to finish in the top-10 with that pace and balance of the car. To end up fourth is a win right now.
“But we have to look at the perspective of how great performance wise we were all weekend. That’s the positive we can take away from this weekend.
“Now, we have kick-started the ‘Month of May.’”
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing finally had a moment of success after a terrible start to the 2023 NTT IndyCar Series season.
Entering Saturday’s race, the team owned by 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner Bobby Rahal, former late night host David Letterman and Southside Chicago industrialist Michael Lanigan was contending with Meyer Shank Racing for underachiever status in IndyCar.
Veteran driver Graham Rahal had a promising start to the season with a sixthin the March 5 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg but followed with finishes of 24th at Texas Motor Speedway, 12th at Long Beach and 17th at Barber.
Jack Harvey had struggled all season with a 22nd at St. Pete, 18th at Texas, a decent 13th at Long Beach and a 24th at Barber Motorsports Park.
By comparison, Lundgaard had become the leader of the team based on finishes.
He started the season ninth at St. Petersburg but dropped to 19th at Texas Motor Speedway and 14th at Long Beach. He rebounded at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama, by starting and finishing sixth.
Friday on the IMS road course provided some hope for the team. Lundgaard won his first career NTT IndyCar Series pole, Harvey qualified fourth, and Rahal was 14th.
The race was a different story for Harvey after he locked up his tires and lost several positions on the track. He finished 20th. Rahal was able to fight his way to a 10th.
Contact early in the race put us on our back foot. We led some laps and came home a solid P10. Solid effort by the @rllracing #15 group… excited for an extra dose of speed on Tuesday. #Indy500 practice up next🤘@FifthThird | @UnitedRentals | #WorkUnited | @fleetcostcare |… pic.twitter.com/KumAs9QVT3— Graham Rahal (@GrahamRahal) May 13, 2023
Lundgaard was in position for a podium finish before Arrow McLaren’s Alexander Rossi raced him hard in the infield section of the course and took third.
Lundgaard still held off another Arrow McLaren driver, Felix Rosenqvist of Sweden, for fourth in a “pick me up” weekend for the team.
“Absolutely,” Lundgaard said. “A shoutout to the whole team. We were competitive across all three cars. Graham was there in qualifying but struggled in the practice sessions. But Jack and I were there all weekend.
“We got the pole and two cars in the Fast Six. It’s the closest RLL qualifying in a long time so we can be satisfied with that.
“These are the things we need to learn moving on, but we will try our best.
“We fought in the top all weekend. It’s a huge relief for the team to have the performance for once. I wish we could have won the race today, but we were up there with the pole.
“The whole weekend has been a pleasure.”
Rico Nault is the team manager at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and oversees the entire operation for all three cars. The team moved into a spectacular new shop in Zionsville, Indiana, during the offseason.
It may be the best of any IndyCar team at the moment because of its layout, spaciousness and amenities.
Unfortunately for the team, there has been little to celebrate in 2023.
That is why Lundgaard’s performance was so important on Saturday.
“Honestly, we’ve been bad the last couple of years,” Nault told NBC Sports. “We’ve historically been quite a bit better than that and we haven’t been doing good.
“It’s been a disappointing couple of seasons and was really surprised when we started off as bad as we did. I’m glad we had some good results here, and hopefully, this will push us forward to more results in the future.”
Nault and his crew had Sunday off and will reflect on Saturday before getting ready for Indianapolis 500 practice on Tuesday at 9 a.m. ET (the session will be broadcast on Peacock as part of more than 60 hours of NBC Sports coverage from IMS in May).
“It was a solid weekend as far as our pace,” Nault said. “Unfortunately, our race strategy leaves something to be desired today. All three cars had issues. Jack Harvey locked it up and went off once and Graham Rahal had an issue and had a flat tire.
“There are a lot of positives to be said here. It’s really good when you super (angry) that you end up fourth, but I’m super (angry) that we ended up fourth.
“If you’re not winning, you want more. Fourth place from the pole is disappointing but still a great weekend for Rahal Letterman Lanigan. My God, the team really needed this.”
They realize in order to win, first they must return to being competitive. Lundgaard led a return to competitiveness over the weekend and Nault hopes it’s the start of the team’s return.
“The guys did a great job this weekend,” Nault said. “All three cars were solid, but we have to do a little bit better. When you get up there, it’s a whole new level, and we are out of practice.
“We have to get back in practice.
“I’m happy for the team. Think the guys did a really good job. I’m impressed by the engineers what they have been able to do.
“We just have to finish the deal.”
Lundgaard grew an offseason mustache on a bet that he would shave it off when he won his first NTT IndyCar Series race. He told NBC Sports on the grid before the GMR Grand Prix he had planned to shave it in victory lane later that day.
The ‘Stache lives on, for at least another two weeks. His next chance to shave it off is May 28 -- the Indy 500.
“The next race will not be a bad one to shave off the mustache,” Lundgaard said. “Right now, it’s how can we improve more off this race.”
The 107th Indianapolis 500 on the 2.5-mile oval will require a completely different skillset than what was needed on the IMS road course for a talent such as Lundgaard who has vast experience racing similar circuits in Europe.
“We’ll be going the other way around and a lot faster so we will definitely need to bring some new underwear for that,” he said. “I’m excited. It will be my second Indianapolis 500.
“Now, I know what it is all about. I’ll take it all in and enjoy it as much as I can.”