Will Kanaan Fit At de Ferran Dragon Racing?
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.