Where Lies The Problem At KV?

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This past Saturday, Marshall Pruett of SpeedTV.com had an excellent article about Rubens Barrichello and how he has started talking to other teams about his plans for 2013. Who could blame him?

There are three races left in the fifteen race schedule for 2012. We have no idea what will happen in those three races, but one thing we do know is that no driver for KV Racing Technologies is in contention to win the IZOD IndyCar Series championship. With only three races remaining, I think it’s safe to say that one of the biggest disappointments of the 2012 season is the underperformance by KVRT.

Following the Mid-Ohio race, Tony Kanaan is the only KV driver in the top-ten in points, sitting in the seventh spot. To be fair, Kanaan is only nine points away from fifth, while he is a safe thirty-sixth points away from falling to eighth. Barrichello is next for the KV trio, sitting ten spots behind Kanaan in the seventeenth position. Their third teammate, EJ Viso is not far behind in twentieth.

I think it’s safe to say that all three drivers had much higher expectations. So did most fans. If any driver deserves a pass, it’s Barrichello. He has been a rookie at every track this season and had no prior experience in these cars or the previous Dallara before signing with KV in the spring. That’s not to say I’m blaming any of the drivers. I‘m not. The team consists of a former series champion in Kanaan, a world class driver from Formula One in Barrichello and a fifth year driver that has quietly shown steady improvement throughout most of this season (aside from his performance at Belle Isle when he slowed up most of the field). So the problem must lie elsewhere. But where, is the question?

I don’t think team personnel is the problem either. I’m not going to sit here and pretend to know who all of the members are for each team, but I do know that they are quality personnel for the most part. Most notably, this year Tony Kanaan was reunited with his longtime engineer Eric Cowdin, who many consider to be the finest engineer in the IndyCar paddock. Cowdin was with Kanaan at Tasman Motorsports in Firestone Indy Lights, when Kanaan won the 1997 championship. He moved up with him in CART and followed Kanaan to Andretti-Green in 2003 and was Kanaan’s engineer when TK won the championship in 2004. Cowdin and Kanaan separated in 2009, when Cowdin moved to Team Penske to serve as Ryan Briscoe’s engineer. Cowdin came within a Briscoe brain-fade at Motegi of winning the 2009 championship. He stayed for two more years before moving to KV this past offseason to reunite with Kanaan. Some would say the results haven’t been pretty. Instead, I’ll submit that Eric Cowdin’s presence may be why Kanaan is doing so much better than his teammates.

Can money be the problem? You wouldn’t think. Each team seems to be well funded, although I have no knowledge how much money is behind each sponsorship program. Kevin Kalkhoven represents the “K” in KV Racing. The Australian is a venture capitalist and fiber optic mogul. Without getting into his personal worth, suffice it to say that it’s a lot. Former driver Jimmy Vasser is the “V” in KV. While Vasser obviously doesn’t have the personal wealth behind him that Kalkhoven does, he has a wealth of racing knowledge and experience. In his driving days, Vasser was always one of my favorites. He had a California style about him, on-track and off, that vaguely reminded me of a combination of Parnelli Jones and Dan Gurney. Money and leadership are not the problem.

The engine isn’t the problem. Unless Scott Dixon can jump up and steal this championship for Honda, Chevrolet will more than likely win the 2012 championship, whether it’s with Ryan Hunter-Reay of Andretti Autosport; or Helio Castroneves or Will Power of Team Penske. Chevrolet was the manufacturer that boasted of the strong team lineup featuring Penske, Andretti and KV; along with non-contenders Ed Carpenter Racing, Panther Racing and since Indianapolis – Dreyer & Reinbold and Dragon.

Of the three “contender” Chevy teams, I considered Andretti the weakest going into the season. But Andretti has won three races this season, while Penske has won five. KV Racing Technologies has never won a race in this series, including this year. This season, they have had a few decent moments courtesy of Kanaan and Cowdin – but the team has appeared to regress as this season has gone on. That was evident at Mid-Ohio when the three-car team qualified fifteenth, nineteenth and twentieth. Fortunately, Kanaan performed well enough in the race to finish sixth, but Barrichello and Viso were both underwhelming with finishes of fifteenth and twentieth respectively.

So what is the problem at KV? To an outsider like me – that only leaves team chemistry, which I guess really falls under team personnel. You can amass all the talent in the world; but if they can’t work together, the results can be abysmal. Witness some of the Washington Redskins or Dallas Cowboys teams of the past decade to see how money can buy talent but not championships. I’ve got no reason to think that this is the situation at KV, but what else is there? Their poor performance this season is baffling.

Tony Kanaan and Rubens Barrichello are lifelong friends. They are practically brothers. Barrichello turned forty in May and Kanaan will turn thirty-eight on New Year’s Eve. They are both nearing the end of their great careers. One would think they would both like to ride off into the sunset together. But neither driver is one to settle for just riding around. They are both still very talented and each has a strong competitive streak. Winning is still why they race. Neither driver needs the money. They do this to win.

While it would be preferred for both drivers to close out their careers as teammates – it’s not a requirement. Barrichello obviously still thinks he stands a good chance to win next year or else he would just go home to Brazil and retire. Instead, he is putting his friendship with his childhood buddy on the backburner and exploring all of his options for 2013 – which may or may not include KV Racing Technologies. After their poor performance this season, can you really blame him?

George Phillips

Please Note: Since the IZOD IndyCar Series now has a three-week break between races, I am going to take some time off as well. There will be no post for Friday Aug 10 or Monday Aug 13. I will return here next Wednesday Aug 15. Thanks for your patience. – GP

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18 Responses to “Where Lies The Problem At KV?”

  1. Carburetor Says:

    In my comment on Monday, I mentioned how puzzling it was that Tony K keeps qualifying so far back in the field, then drives the wheels off it to get up into contention. I am totally ignorant when it comes to the personnel of the teams and their qualifications, but would observe that if the team’s drivers consistently qualify so deep into the field–and then at least one of the drivers can move up so significantly, that there must be a breakdown between the driver(s) and their engineers in getting the car set-up consistently; or the engineers/techs do not have the capability/knowledge to properly respond to the driver’s input. Whatever the reason, this team seems better funded than many, but consistently underachieves. I wouldn’t be so certain that it isn’t a leadership problem (it certainly is with the two NFL teams you cited) because if a world-class driver like Barrichello is looking to move, he most likely would not be doing so without good cause.

  2. billytheskink Says:

    Kanaan has really struggled in qualifying since Indy in 2010, his final year with Andretti.
    I don’t know what is fair to infer from the fact that these struggles have followed him from one team to the next. The problem has not been exclusive to him. Outside of a couple of flashes from Sato/Andretti/Hunter-Reay, his teammates during these years have struggled with qualifying as much, if not more, than Kanaan has.

    I’m starting to believe that KV’s struggles are some combination of everything listed in the poll. They certainly look the part, but the results continue to indicate that the drivers, personnel, money, and/or chemistry do live up to this appearance.
    This is, of course, a complete assumption on my part.

    • billytheskink Says:

      Kanaan’s average qualifying position in the unification era was 8.6 before the 2010 Indy 500, it has been 14.2 since. That’s curious.

  3. I think it’s just the racing justice Jimmy Vasser deserves.

    He had no business being the 1996 champion, he was fortunate to have already been on the TCGR team when the lightning bolt that was Honda/Firestone took off, by the end of the season it was clear he wasn’t even the best driver on his team. He only had 1 podium and one other top 5 after the US500 (which he should have been PARKED for) while Zanardi forged to the front with three wins and two 2nd’s in the 2nd half of the season.

    As for Tony Kanaan, obviously he’s just a terrible qualifier. No one to blame there but himself.

    • billytheskink Says:

      If you’ll let me subtract the final lap at Road America, I’ll give you 14 cars taking the green at the US 500…
      …and we can declare Al Unser Jr. the 1996 PPG Cup champion.

    • So…Jimmy’s four wins in the first six races don’t count because they happened early on in the season? Funny, but I thought races at the start of the season paid as many points as the races at the end of the season. Guess I better brush up on my racing history.

      • He took advantage of them before zanardi got settled,.

        The us500 victory was total bullcrap.

        I also laugh at how Jensen button became a word champion in 2009.

        • The Speedgeek Says:

          I don’t see how Jimmy in ’96 or Jenson in ’09 is any different from Tracy in ’03 (sputtered down the stretch, only real competition was Bourdais, who was a rookie), Rahal in ’92 (not exactly dominant down the stretch), Montoya in ’99 (nearly choked away championship, won on tiebreak), Hakkinen in ’99 (beat Eddie Freaking Irvine by 2 points after Michael broke his leg), Prost in ’89 (clinched by turning into Senna, outpaced more often than not all season), Prost in ’86 (won after freak tire issues for Williams guys), Rosberg in ’82 (basically won because Ferrari drivers had career- or life-ending injuries), or about 15 other champions I could list. The point is, so long as it’s not through putting up a ton of top 10s in a BS points system (I’m looking at you, NASCAR and GrandAm), the champion is the guy who scores the most points. Each race pays the same. Scoreboard! Scoreboard!

          • Well. Because Jimmy and Jensen suck.

            I never said they were the only ones.

          • Ah. Well. For what it’s worth, I probably don’t like your favorite driver, either.

          • My favorite BS Champion looking back in the books is Terry Labonte in 1996. Jeff Gordon won 10 races to Labobte’s 2 and finished second.

          • billytheskink Says:

            Poor Jeff Gordon, would have won 2 more championships (04 and 07) if the Chase had never been established. Of course, had the Chase been established earlier, he would have been only a 3 time champion, ceding his 2001 title to Sterling Marlin of all people.

            And this conversation makes me wonder if ‘Your Favorite Driver Sucks’ is still around…

  4. JB hates Vasser. I am just amused someone has an opinion of him. 1996 was about the beggining of my dark period as a fan. I refused to follow IRL since all the good drivers were in CART, and I did not get cable until I went to college in 2000 so I couldn’t watch. I’ll take JB’s word on JV’s karma.

    I missed on Rubens. I had him running up front all year. Robin Miller made the point that Nigel Mansell had all the testing in the world. Rubens hasn’t had that. I would also guess those old CART machines were much closer to the F1 cars of their days than the current cars are. I hope his lack of success is not a deterent for future F1 drivers. I would love to see Felipe Massa over here next year once Ferrari dumps him. “Fernando is faster than you” is something IndyCar drivers never here.

  5. They have had some bad luck. I am sorry about Rubens car as well as TK’s. Obviously, you can’t run a washing machine at the track and expect good results no matter who is driving it.

    • Brian McKay in Florida Says:

      – but John, it’s a spec-car series with same chassis, aero kits, and tires. And some other Chevy-powered drivers aren’t sucking wind, so the engines aren’t the KVRT problem…
      I didn’t make a choice in the poll, because I have no way of knowing what’s amiss. Maybe Penske and Ganassi spend far more money behind-the-scenes on R&D …
      Maybe other racers better understand how to setup the DW12 …

      • Yes, it is spec, but Penkse and Ganassi don’t treat it as one and, besides testing, R&D and finding speed, they do the little things like keeping a clean garage area and they don’t treat their racing programs like their weekend toys. Winning is that important to them. I can say the same about Andretti and you will see the Rahal team come on because Bobby Rahal wants to win. KK and Vassar don’t want it as bad and it shows. It is too bad because they have two of the best drivers a team would want and they are being wasted. Rahal could use them.

        • The Lapper Says:

          Bryan Herta is also a winner and I am sure that he would love to find a way to have TK or Rubens working for him.

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