Tony Kanaan Is Poised For A Big 2012
At this time last year, speculation was running amok as to the direction of Tony Kanaan’s career. Longtime sponsor 7-Eleven had just announced they were ending their relationship as the primary sponsor of the No. 11 Andretti Autosport entry. Kanaan’s $3 million contract was making it difficult for Michael Andretti to secure funding for Kanaan. The Brazilian that had shown so much loyalty just a couple of years earlier by re-signing with the struggling operation he helped bring to prominence, was now out of a ride - although he had been presented an opportunity to sign with Target Chip Ganassi for 2009; currently the best team in the series. That seat went to Dario Franchitti instead, who turned the opportunity into an Indianapolis 500 victory and three consecutive series titles.
There was no shortage of theories and opinions as to where Kanaan might end up. I predicted a pairing of Kanaan and Dan Wheldon at Panther Racing. Obviously, I was a little off the mark with that one. Some saw him reuniting with former engineer Eric Cowdin at Team Penske at the expense of driver Ryan Briscoe; although others said Roger Penske would never hire Kanaan for whatever reason. A few mentioned KV Racing Technologies as a possibility, but I never gave that one much thought. Once again, my abilities as a prognosticator have failed me.
By December, Tony Kanaan’s future had been settled – or so we thought. He was to drive for his friend and countryman Gil de Ferran at de Ferran Dragon Racing for 2011. A not so funny thing happened on the way to the starting grid at St. Petersburg, however. With no sponsorship package and for other reasons I’m still not sure of, de Ferran Dragon Racing imploded by February and Kanaan was left with no ride for the second time in three months.
In this age of ride-buying, this was to be the most hideous example of talent left on the sideline in favor of far less talented drivers with big checks (see EJ Viso) sitting in full-time seats. Wheldon, a former series and Indianapolis 500 champion, had already resigned himself to the fact that he would not be driving full-time in the series. Now it looked as if the 2004 series champion would be joining him.
At literally the last minute, a deal was struck to put Kanaan into a third car at KV Racing Technology sponsored by GEICO. With very little testing, many “experts” saw this as a desperate move that would only prolong TK’s career. I read many opinions that compared this to just another athlete hanging on. Some said seeing Kanaan in KV colors was akin to seeing Brett Favre in a Jets or Vikings uniform. I hate to gloat (not really), but I said then that Kanaan will bring leadership and an air of calmness and stability to the team that set futility records for the number of crashes in a season in 2010.
Kanaan sent the message early on that he meant business when he finished on the podium at the season opener. As it turned out, that was no fluke. He followed it up with a sixth place finish at Barber and an eighth at Long Beach. The only real blemish heading into the Indianapolis 500 was a twenty-second place finish at his home track in São Paulo. At Indianapolis, he finished fourth. He finished fifth for the second race at Texas and was in a position to win at Milwaukee, when he had an uncharacteristic brain-fade and crashed into the Turn Four wall while leading. Kanaan and Marco Andretti had a spirited battle at Iowa that saw the young student coming out on top while the experienced Kanaan finished second.
Kanaan earned fourth and fifth place finishes at Edmonton and Mid-Ohio respectively. Although he had a frightening crash in the morning warm-up at Baltimore, he came all the way from the back of the grid to finish third. He was on the pole and led all twelve laps of the ill-fated Las Vegas race, before it ended prematurely. Although he did go winless, suffice it to say that Tony Kanaan’s 2011 season was not a case of an athlete just hanging on. His fifth place finish in points for a team that has never won an IZOD IndyCar Series race and dwelled in turmoil the previous year speaks volumes. Before anyone complains, I am aware that KV won the 2008 Champ Car finale in Long Beach that was technically sanctioned by the series – but it would be a stretch to count that one.
Although their complete 2012 lineup has yet to be announced, KV Racing Technologies and Tony Kanaan appear poised to make a title run next season. It looks more and more as if Takuma Sato will maintain his longtime ties to Honda and move to a Honda powered team, while KV will switch to Chevrolet for 2012. Many say that Honda has the inside track to early success next season since they have been the sole engine provider to the series since 2006. One thing people tend to forget is that in that time, Ilmor was building the engines for Honda. Next season, Ilmor will be building the engines for Chevy while Honda will be building their own engines for the first time since their days in CART. With that being the case, give Chevy the slight edge in experience – although a turbocharged V6 bears little resemblance to the normally aspirated V8 that Ilmor has been providing for the past several years.
With his experience and his performance as a last-minute signee last season, Kanaan has become the de facto leader at KV. There is some talk that Vitor Meira may join his countryman and fellow Ironman triathlete at KV. There is also speculation that EJ Viso’s large check from PDVSA cannot go ignored and he may return. Personally, I’d like to see KV go to a two-car team with TK and Meira, but then I don’t pay the bills.
I have to think that Chevrolet will be competitive right out of the box. The horsepower from Chevy, combined with a full year at KV under his belt will serve Kanaan well going into 2012. Oh, then there is that little rumor that Kanaan will finally be reunited with longtime engineer Eric Cowdin, who is leaving Team Penske after a three-year stint. The general opinion on why they separated was because Kanaan seemed to be headed to Ganassi for 2009. That was when Cowdin decided to leave the Andretti-Green fold. Nothing is confirmed that Cowdin will end up at KV, but if he does – look out. Eric Cowdin is one of the most respected engineers in the IndyCar paddock. He has been with Kanaan since their Indy Lights days with Steve Horne’s Tasman team.
The planets seem to be aligning for Kanaan to have a magical season in 2012. Although he will turn thirty-seven on New Year’s Eve, Tony Kanaan still has many good years left in him. Age certainly has had no negative effect on his good friend Dario Franchitti. I’ve always been a believer that experience trumps youthful exuberance any day of the week. Of course, I WOULD think that at my age – but I think it certainly holds true in racing.
So don’t be surprised if next fall we see an experienced Tony Kanaan lifting the IZOD IndyCar Series trophy, or the Astor Challenge Cup or the Dan Wheldon Trophy or whatever it will be called. What most are asking though, is will 2012 finally be the year that we see Tony Kanaan drinking milk. We’ll see.