What Will Ganassi Do To Improve?
As mentioned on Monday, it is pretty well common knowledge that Sage Karam will more than likely replace Ryan Briscoe at Chip Ganassi Racing. I have no problem with planning for the future, but what about the present? By the time the 2015 season rolls around, Chip Ganassi Racing will be almost three years removed from their last Indianapolis 500 win and it will have been two years since their last IndyCar championship. For a team that won four championships and the Indianapolis 500 three times between 2008 and 2012, that is quite a drought.
Granted, it’s not as bad as the streak that Team Penske just ended by going from 2006 until this past season without a championship. Penske has also not won the 500 since Helio Castroneves won in 2009. But by placing first, second and fourth in the past championship and coming within a few feet of another 500 win, I’d say that Team Penske made a statement in 2014 that they are the current standard for the near term.
My question is this – other than jettisoning Ryan Briscoe in favor of a kid who should be enjoying spring break as a college freshman when the season starts; what has Chip Ganassi Racing done to improve their results over the 2014 season?
For the past two seasons, it seemed that Chip Ganassi racing could not get out of their own way during the first half of the season. It was tough to watch Dario Franchitti end his career the way he did, but let’s face it – other than winning the 2012 Indianapolis 500, his results his last two seasons were abysmal. Was that simply because he never came to grips with the DW12, or did it run deeper than that?
Scott Dixon stumbled through the first half of the last two seasons. He was able to recover and put together an improbable run to win the 2013 championship. This year, the hole he dug for himself was simply too great.
Tony Kanaan was signed for the 2014 season before Dario Franchitti’s frightening crash at Houston last October. Ganassi also signed Kanaan’s longtime engineer, Eric Cowdin, as part of the deal. They were slated for the No. 8, before Franchitti’s retirement eventually vaulted Kanaan into the No.10 Target car. Internal politics dictated that Chris Simmons remain as engineer for the car Franchitti had been driving. That left Cowdin as Ryan Briscoe’s engineer on the No.8.
I can understand that to a point, but the relationship between a driver and engineer is vital to the success of a team. Except for a three-year stint that Cowdin spent at Team Penske (as Briscoe’s engineer, ironically), Tony Kanaan and Eric Cowdin had been together since their Indy Lights days at Steve Horne’s Tasman Motorsports. They came into CART together and were together at Andretti-Green, when Kanaan won the IndyCar championship in 2004. The two were reunited at KV Racing Technology in 2012 and won the Indianapolis 500 together the following year.
Obviously, the pairing of Tony Kanaan and Eric Cowdin has seen a lot of success. So why on earth did Chip Ganassi separate them, just so Chris Simmons could stay with the Target car? I thought all four Ganassi cars were considered to be on equal footing.
It takes time for a driver to gel with a new team. It takes even longer to gel with a new engineer. Although Kanaan improved dramatically in the second half of the season (along with Dixon), I thought Ganassi did Kanaan and the entire team a disservice by separating him from Cowdin. What happens for next season remains to be seen. If it were up to me, I would put Cowdin on Kanaan’s car and put Chris Simmons to work with the young Sage Karam, if that’s who will be driving the No.8 – but that’s me.
Somewhere stuck over to the side is Charlie Kimball, who backslid in 2014 after a decent season in 2013 that saw him get his first win. More was expected out of Kimball for this season. At times, he shows promise. Other times, he drives like a driver that has a sweet deal from a sponsor that doesn’t seem to be in much danger of going away anytime soon.
Kimball is a perfect fit for his sponsor, Novo Nordisk. He has been diagnosed as an insulin-dependent diabetic. He is a good corporate spokesperson and works tirelessly to promote his sponsor. He is very fan-friendly and seems to be well-liked in the paddock. He has shown flashes of talent from time to time; but often times, seems mired in the pack – a place that Ganassi cars are not accustomed to being.
Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan are proven commodities. They’ve both won the Indianapolis 500. Dixon has won three IndyCar championships, while Kanaan has won one. They need to prove nothing to anyone. At thirty-four, Dixon is still in his prime. But Kanaan will turn forty on New Year’s Eve and is considered, at least, on the backside of his career. While he could win another “500”, there have not been many champions in their forties, over the years. Kanaan proved this past season that he can still win races, but if Ganassi is going to compete for a championship in 2015, it’s probably up to Dixon.
I think we can all agree that Charlie Kimball will probably not be a threat to win next year’s Verizon IndyCar championship. Neither will Sage Karam, if he is in the No. 8. Briscoe may have been given an outside shot, but it looks like he won’t be there. That leaves the two Target cars.
But what have we seen at Chip Ganassi Racing this offseason, to make us think things will be different for next season? Have they now figured out the Chevrolet engine? Has Kanaan gelled enough with his new team to make a run? Is Dixon stilled mired in his every five year championship cycle, or can he put it all together this season without waiting for 2018? Which car will Eric Cowdin be engineering for?
Right now, there are more questions than answers at a team that is used to winning races, championships and Indianapolis 500’s. Since 1996, the Target cars have won four Indianapolis 500’s and nine series championships. But success has been a little harder to come by lately. Is that bad luck or a trend? There needs to be improvement across the board. I’ll be curious to see what Chip Ganassi does in the next few months to show everyone that this is not a trend.