Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing duo Graham Rahal and Robert Doornbos head west for this Sunday's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach in confident mood, having both come off successful race weekends in the build-up to round two of the IndyCar Series.
While McDonald's driver Rahal has to look back two weeks to the opening round of the 2009 season for his momentum, Doornbos brings a winning return in the A1GP 'World Cup of Motorsport' to California, having triumphed at the new Algarve circuit in Portugal on a flying return to Europe between IRL commitments.
Rahal, meanwhile, will be looking to add to his personal records tally having, at the age of 20, become the youngest pole winner in IndyCar Series history in St Petersburg. Both he and his Dutch team-mate will be hoping to carry their respective momentum to the streets as NHLR chases a seventh win in 26 consecutive appearances in Long Beach.
While the team has visited eight of the 17 races on this year's IndyCar schedule just once before, Long Beach is like a second home, having provided success - in the shape of podium finishes - for such names as Mario and Michael Andretti, Nigel Mansell, Bruno Junqueira and Sebastien Bourdais, who won three of the past four races there, and both 2009 drivers are cautiously optimistic that that experience will come in handy this weekend.
“The fact that the team has had so much success in Long Beach will really help us but, at the same time, a lot of these other guys have some experience at Long Beach and the teams know the track, whether they raced here last year or haven't in a few years, so its not a huge, huge advantage,” Rahal, who will make his third major open-wheel start at the track, admitted, “I expect it to be more competitive than ever this year. It's going to be a tough fought battle this weekend for sure.”
Doornbos is looking forward to his return after competing at Long Beach in his lone Champ Car World Series season in 2007, but has some unfinished business with the iconic venue. Five of his first six Champ Car races that year resulted in podium finishes, but the only race where he failed to finish in the top three was on the streets of SoCal.
“We had a strong race where I was aiming for my second consecutive podium after Las Vegas, but the gearbox broke in the new Panoz,” he reflected, “It was a big shame, but it's a mechanical sport so things like that unfortunately still happen. It was a great event in 2007, and I'm sure it will be even better with a unified IndyCar Series.
“The fact that the NHLR team has had good results in Long Beach is a great confidence boost and we should be up there again then. I found out [in St Petersburg] that the IndyCar is a different animal to the Panoz, so the set-up we ran in Long Beach in the Champ Car won't be close. Your driving style has to adjust to the car, so the set-up does as well, but we should be strong and I think it's going to be competitive again.”
In the last-ever Champ Car race, held in Long Beach last year, Justin Wilson brought the NHLR team its eleventh pole on the famous streets, but engine failure on Lap 13 ended his bid to take a seventh win for the team. Rahal, meanwhile, qualified ninth before a charge to the front was ended by a Franck Montagny-inspired spin that resulted in an unrepresentative 13th place.
“We had a pretty good race last year despite starting pretty far back," Rahal - who could become the first member of his famous family to win in Long Beach after father Bobby bested with numerous second places, "We made up a lot of positions, and I got past Montagny for third before he hit me in the left rear and spun me out. It was kind of like this year's St Pete race, where it was a catch-up game for us, but then I made a mistake on the last lap, so I didn't finish - which was very disappointing after the progress we made.
"Overall, though, it was a pretty good race for us competition-wise. Historically, Long Beach has been one of my favourites, and I've always had some success there during my weekends. I think that this year will be no different - in fact, I think this year should be our best year yet based on how competitive we were in St Pete.”