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.

George Phillips

12 Responses to “Tony Kanaan Is Poised For A Big 2012”

  1. CrimsonCast Scott Says:

    Good post. Gives me optimism for my favorite driver in 2012.

    Last year I was worried that TK’s best ride was gone and his window to win Indy left with 7-Eleven. Amazing how quickly things can change in 1 year, now as you lay out a situation where he could win the series and maybe Indy.

    Would love to see it!

  2. Im not worried so much about Chevy v Honda as much as i am with the fact that it seems Penske and Ganassi seem to be doing all the testing. Can they keep that data for their own use?

    Kanaan winning the 500 would be desired scenerio #1. It has been for a few years for me anyway. The only better story than the young rookie winning big (Trevor Bayne) is the old vet who has never won before (Earnhardt). Winning the championship however seems far fetched. Ill stick with the 12, 9, & 10 cars.

    • From what I’ve heard, the Chevy teams, as per GM’s direction and following their example set in NASCAR’s Cup series, are going to share data to a large extent during the preliminary testing. Not sure about Honda’s take. So, I’m sure that Penske will pull out some extra tricks by the time we get to St. Pete, but I think that KV, Andretti, Panther and whoever else goes with Chevy will start with about the same baseline as Penske has by the end of 2011.

  3. It would be a very popular win if TK drinks the milk at Indy next year. It would also be very emotional. It’s been a long time coming. Would love to see it.

  4. Very interesting piece, George. I had to vote for “who knows? It’s too early to think about 2012.” Not because I’m not thinking about it, but because there are so many exciting changes coming down the pipe. I hope 2012 shakes up everything. I just can’t wait to hear those turbo V-6’s fire up!

  5. Just as an aside on the Ilmor/HPD issue… Chevy never put up of a fight and Toyota bailed early, so as a spec supplier ever since, Ilmor Hondas have had it very easy. HPD, of course, built the TURBO engines back when there was serious competition between Honda/HPD, Toyota/TRD, Ford/Cosworth, and Mercedes/Ilmor. Toyota started getting an edge toward the end, but HPD dominated most of its time in CART. I am not knocking the new Chevy/Ilmor, I am just saying don’t underestimate HPD.

    • Dick Jones Says:

      The 2.65 liter turbo CART engines were designed and built by Honda Racing of Japan which no longer has a presence in North America with cars or bikes. HPD was formed to handle their Indycar engine and Acura LMP programs, the only in house engine designed by HPD was the 3.4 liter LMP V8, they also built the production based LMP2 engine. In my opinion Ilmor has a much deeper database than everyone else, watch for Chevy to be on top by the end of the year.

      • Wow, I did not know that. Obviously, I was under the impression HPD did the CART engines. Thanks for straightening out my understanding.

  6. In my opinion, If TK gets the team organized and focused by May then it doesn’t matter if it is Chevy against Honda. TK will be up front and I would like nothing better than to see him get his bust on the Borg Warner Trophy and a bottle of milk. He will be my guy this year.

  7. As far as I’m concerned, if KV can sign Justin Wilson for one of their other seats, I’ll pick them to fill two of the top-7 in points at the end of next season, possibly with one of them in the top-3. To boot, I’ll also predict that I’ll own one of each of whatever merchandise items that KV sells. That’ll be my team right there.

  8. It’s obviously been tough for everyone to get enthused about the silly season, considering the tragic conclusion to 2011. But jeez, there are some huge question marks going into next season. What impact will the accident have on car design? How will the schedule be impacted? How many teams/cars? Will the marketing plan for the Vegas race be implemented at other ovals? Will there be any ovals besides the Big Oval? Will Lotus show up at the dance? Will Sarah have a car? It will be interesting.

  9. Robin Way Says:

    How much to you think the Viso PDVSA cheque is worth? How much do you think they sponsored him for through 2011?

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