Will Kanaan Fit At de Ferran Dragon Racing?

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It’s not even Christmas yet and some of the pieces of the puzzle that make up the driver lineups for the 2011 IZOD IndyCar Series are already starting to fall into place. Ryan Briscoe is now secure at Team Penske and apparently has some type of a sponsorship announcement for later today. Justin Wilson has re-signed at Dreyer & Reinbold and Ed Carpenter is now confirmed for nine races at Sarah Fisher Racing.

Graham Rahal appears to be headed to a Ganassi satellite operation, although it hasn’t been announced yet. The biggest name that everyone seems to be waiting on is Tony Kanaan. All signs point to him signing with de Ferran Dragon Racing. In many ways, this appears to be a good fit, though in some ways – it may not.

I would have to say that this team was one of the biggest disappointments of the 2010 season. Perhaps we expected too much when Gil de Ferran joined forces with Luczo Dragon Racing before the season. The combination of Roger Penske’s son and his former driver seemed to be a natural. But something failed to click along the way.

Although this team has been around since 2007, when they were a satellite operation of Team Penske; the 2010 season was only their second full year of competition. Both full-time seasons featured Brazilian driver Rafa Matos in the cockpit. Matos was a rookie in 2009. That year, he showed flashes of great potential along with the predictable signs of growing pains. His rookie campaign is best remembered for putting fellow Brazilian Vitor Meira into the first turn wall in a frightening season-ending crash at Indianapolis.

With Gil de Ferran coming on board to mentor the talented Matos, 2010 carried high hopes at de Ferran Dragon Racing. Instead, the team languished as a backmarker at most races as they struggled to a fourteenth place finish. To an outsider like myself, nothing seemed to gel with this team. Matos won the 2007 Atlantics championship, as well as the 2008 Indy Lights crown – although I would tend to put a lot more stock in the Atlantics title. As is the case with so many Indy Lights champions, something doesn’t translate when converting over to the bigger IndyCars.

But Matos didn’t seem to show much passion this past season. Even during the two fourth places finishes at São Paulo and Watkins Glen, he never appeared to be excited to have achieved or tied a career high. Matos also never seemed too upset at the eight times over the past two seasons that saw him finish twentieth or worse. I realize there is something to be said about maintaining an even keel, but there also needs to be some passion at this level. I could be dead wrong – but to me Matos seemed to be comfortable with losing. That mindset might sit well with the 2010 Tennessee Titans, but not Gil de Ferran or Jay Penske.

I’ve made it quite clear that Gil de Ferran was one of my favorite drivers. In fact, in the forty-five years I’ve followed this sport – I would put him in my personal top-ten all-time favorites. I liked his driving style and the way he carried himself off the track. To me, he was the consummate Penske driver. He embodied all of the qualities and skill of Penske predecessors Mark Donohue, Al Unser and Rick Mears – he just did it with an accent.

Although I was sad to see him step out of the cockpit at the end of the 2003 season, I didn’t blame him. Driving most of that season with the pain of a broken back from a crash early in the season, made him realize that the all-oval series was more of a young mans game. I was glad to see him revive his career as an owner/driver in the American Le Mans Series. Needless to say, I was very excited when he joined forces with Jay Penske at Luczo Dragon Racing earlier this year.

Having a famous last name in racing does not guarantee success – just ask AJ Foyt IV, Al Unser III or Marco Andretti. Graham Rahal is doing a good job at carving out a name for himself, but he isn’t there yet. The same goes for Jay Penske. The youngest son of Roger Penske comes across as a no-nonsense guy, but doesn’t yet have the commanding presence of his father. Like the younger Rahal, he realizes that his name will only carry him so far. He has worked hard to build his struggling team the right way. Hiring a rookie for their first full-time effort seemed the right way to go at the time, but I wonder if they would have done things differently if they had it to do over again.

Now they have the opportunity to hire a former series champion that is one of the most popular drivers in the series, in Tony Kanaan. He is already the most popular driver in Brazil and teaming him with popular Brazilian Gil de Ferran will only strengthen that. Kanaan tested with de Ferran Dragon Racing a couple of weeks ago and then headed to Brazil on a trip to find funding. It would seem a natural fit for Apex-Brazil to pony up the money needed to properly fund a full-time pairing of Tony Kanaan and Gil de Ferran. I’m not sure when Jay Penske partnered with Steve Luczo, that they had an all-Brazil team in mind, but these economic times make for strange relationships.

My question is: Is this really a good match? If Kanaan is hired by Gil de Ferran, it sounds like Rafa Matos is out of a job. It doesn’t sound like there are any plans to have Kanaan serve as any type of a mentor for his younger countryman. Having Tony Kanaan in that seat would give de Ferran Dragon Racing instant credibility. On the surface, it looks like it would be a natural fit because Kanaan and de Ferran are great friends. A strong friendship hasn’t done much to bolster the on-track performance at KV Racing between Jimmy Vasser and Paul Tracy.

What happens if things don’t improve at de Ferran Dragon with Kanaan behind the wheel? Will Kanaan become surly about his friend’s team? Will de Ferran put the blame at Kanaan’s feet? Will either party be able to accept well-meaning constructive criticism from the other? Strong friendships have become permanently fractured over situations like this.

I don’t claim to know either of these men. I’ve had ten-second conversations with each, while getting a picture of them at Indianapolis and Nashville. That’s the extent of my conversations with either of them. But I do know that they are both extremely serious and professional when it comes to racing. It’s my opinion that if any long-lasting friendship could pull this off and make it work – this one can. I hope that it happens.

George Phillips

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16 Responses to “Will Kanaan Fit At de Ferran Dragon Racing?”

  1. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    From a communication standpoint (racing setup/strategy et-al) I think it is a near perfect one. However, I am not certain of what the funding level is at DD…. Without the proper funding, engineering staff and crew that is needed to be competative. It will make little difference who is driving the car. If they cannot get the car in the proper shape for Tony to drive competatively, both De Ferran and Kanaan will wind up equally frustrated.

  2. My hope is that they hire TK and keep Matos on. There were incidents this season that were not the team’s or Rafa’s faults; sometimes it was an issue out of their control or Rafa got caught up in someone else’s mess.

    And I don’t think he’s “comfortable with losing.” Everybody deals with losses in their own ways. He might wait and express his frustration later. As for the two top 5’s, I’m not

  3. chrisleone Says:

    I don’t know that the Jimmy Vasser-Paul Tracy comparison is necessarily the best one to make here… it’d be one thing if PT was driving the lead KV car, but he’s running about three races a year in a fourth car that definitely won’t have the same caliber of crew member assigned to it as any of the first three. And when you’re only running a handful of events per year, you won’t be as adjusted to the car, and less able to drive it to its fullest potential.

    Meanwhile, Kanaan and de Ferran would be working together all year, the dFD car would have the best possible crew assigned to it, and TK’s no slouch in the current Dallara. I think it would work a lot better than it has with Matos, who has nothing to compare dFD’s setups to from another team and thus no information to provide them with. That’s a luxury that TK can provide them with, and it can make them a top-10 team in 2011.

  4. When Tony Kannan tested for de Ferran-Dragon a few weeks back the word was that Matos’ 2010 feedback on set ups was CONFIRMED. Tony told the team the same things Rafa was telling them :idea:

    Also, Gil & Tony have said this was just a test. Sure it might be off season speak, but de Ferran stressed Tony would have to bring $$$ to secure a ride & even the current sponsors were still talking about returning in 2011.

    As for Matos “seeming to accept losing” :roll: Please, the guy won 4 OW championship in the span of 5 seasons. Add a Rolex 24 win (in his 1st attempt). Rafa does NOT like to lose & he sure as h*ll did NOT forget how to win. Being a one car team in Indycar is a tough deal.

  5. Trick Dickle Says:

    Matos is vastly overrated as a talent, sells no tickets and won’t be missed when he is gone.

    If it comes down to a choice between TK and Matos, this would be the easiest decision ever. See ya, Rafa.

    TK and Davey Hamilton (for 3-5 races) would be a fun team to root for.

    • [Resigned sigh] Welcome back, Trick.

    • Vastly overrated by someone who sits behind a keyboard as opposed to slipping into a racing cockpit. If this was an easy decision than deFerran & Co. would have dumped Matos a helluva long time ago.

      Kanaan confirmed to team engineers that DRIVER FEEDBACK was not the teams problem… but $h*t-can the driver as some knee-jerk, feel good “fix” :roll:

      • AZZO, you and I don’t agree on everything (actually, we probably agree more than disagree, but I digress), but you and I are of the same mind here. I’ve been a Rafa fan since his Star Mazda days (yep, I’m pulling the old “I’ve been a fan of that band since waaaaayyy before they were cool” routine), and he is one of the top-3 talents to come out of the American ladder system in the last 5-6 years. Given his feel-good “arrived in the States with one set of clothes and $200 in his pocket” story and his utter domination of the junior formula, I’d say that he’s EXACTLY the type of driver that we’re looking for in the IndyCar series. Yes, we’re looking for great American drivers, but when Randy Bernard says that we’re looking for the most talented drivers in the world, Rafa is the exact guy who fits that bill. Really, he’s TK circa-1998 or 1999, before TK had won his first CART race. Think about it: bootstrap story (TK famously slept on his team’s shop floor when he ran in Italian F3), stellar record in junior formula, running a year or two for a team that’s not quite there…who’s to say that Rafa couldn’t be a TK-level star in 4-5 years?

      • Well, we AGREE on this issue for sure Speedgeek :) Matos might not be “Mr Personality” to some of the ICS fans but he’s one helluva driver. I think us fans must remember its a team sport & crapping on Rafa is just not fair or reasonable IMO.

        If he is bounced out of de Ferran-Dragon. sadly I don’t think he brings $$$ so no Indycar team will hire him However some ALMS or Grand Am team will get themselves a very skilled driver.

  6. I’m not sure Matos has really gelled with that team. I could be wrong, but some of the body language suggests some potential discontent there. I think Rafa’s talented, but he also needs to show results soon.

    I think TK would be an excellent fit, especially considering his relationship with Gil.

    I’m also looking forward to seeing Davy back for a couple of races.

  7. Kanaan/Matos in a 2 team effort might be the best outcome. If there’s only one car and TK brings coffee money, it’s a no-brainer. Matos must be bringing some cash to the deal, he could turn up elsewhere, right?

  8. [...] Andretti Autosport is down to three drivers — Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Danica Patrick — for 2011 after Tony Kanaan’s release when 7-Eleven didn’t return as the primary sponsor of TK’s car for 2011. Kanaan’s future destination is the hottest topic in the IZOD IndyCar Series silly season, and blogger George Phillips looks at how TK might fit at DeFerran Dragon Racing. [...]

  9. DOUG BERNARD Says:

    I HAVE BEEN AROUND RAPHAEL SINCE HIS ARRIVAL IN THE USA, AND CAN STATE THAT HE DOES NOT, AND I REPEAT DOES NOT LIKE TO LOSE. FOR A YOUNG MAN TO COME TO THIS COUNTRY WITH VERY LITTLE AND TO ARRIVE AT THE TOP IS NOT A LOSER. THIS IS A TEAM SPORT AND AS WE ALL KNOW IT TAKES MONIES TO DO IT RIGHT. SURE HE HAS HAD HIS UPS AND DOWNS, MAYBE HE IS NOT THE GREATEST PERSONALITY, MAYBE DUE TO A LANGUAGE, HE IS NO ONE TO SEARCH THE LIME LIGHT, JUST WANTS TO WIN !!!!!!!!!! WINNING ALL THE SERIES AND GOING UP THE LADDER, ON HIS OWN, WITH NO MAJOR SPONSOR SPEAKS VOLUMES ABOUT RAFA. FROM ALL THE TEAMS HE HAS BEEN WITH, I KNOW THAT IT TAKES A COMPLETE TEAM TO MAKE A WINNER, SO ENOUGH OF THIS RAFA SHOULD NOT BE ON A INDYCAR TEAM. HE HAS WORKED HARD TO GET TO THIS LEVEL, SO GIVE HIM HIS DUE. REMEMBER HE WON A 2 MILLION SPONORSHIP FOR THE CHAMP SERIES AND NEVER CASHED THE CHECK, HE WON A 1OO THOUSANDS DOLLAR SPONORSHIP FOR THE SKIP BARBER SERIES, THEN THAT SERIES WAS CANCELS, NEVER CASH THAT CHECK EITHER. SO THIS WAS A MAN ON A MISSION AND HAS WORK HARD TO REACH THIS LEVLE. I HAVE ALWAYS SAID THAT UNTIL INDYCAR DRIVERS DO NOT HAVE TO BRING MONIES, THEN THE SPORT WILL NEVER REACH IT’S GOALS. THE SERIES SHOULD HAVE ONLY THE BEST THAT HAVE MOVED UP THE LADDER, AND NOT DRIVES WITH ONLY NAMES, OR MONEY, UNTIL THIS IS A REALITY, THEN THE INDYCAR SERIES WILL ONLY BE INTERESTING FOR THE FEW WEALTH FEW, THEY NEED ONLY THE BEST !!!!
    AGAIN I KNOW THAT RAFA WANTS TO WIN, HE CERTAINLY WORKED HARD TO REACH THIS LEVEL, SO I LOOK FOWARD TO SEEING IN A CAR NEXT YEAR !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • I can’t think of one driver who doesn’t want to win. Hopefully Rafa can continue to run for dFD and TK will join the team. It would be a big boost to everybody.

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