More Pieces Of The Puzzle In Place

We are just now to mid-October and the puzzle pieces are already falling into place to give us a fairly clear picture of what the grid will look like in 2017 for the Verizon IndyCar Series. Earlier this week, Sébastien Bourdais followed through with what had been predicted for weeks and signed with Dale Coyne Racing. As I said a couple of weeks ago, the move seems like a head-scratcher on the surface. However, it seems the uncertainty swirling at KVSH Racing was enough to force Bourdais to take a sure thing at a slightly lesser team than hang his hopes on a team that may or may not answer the bell next season.

But to me, the big story this week was that fan-favorite Tony Kanaan re-signed with Chip Ganassi Racing to return to the No.10 car for at least one more season – maybe more. My hope was that Ganassi’s move to Honda from Chevy would pretty well seal the deal for Kanaan, who is one of Honda’s favorite drivers. Kanaan did much of the testing for Honda when the Japanese manufacturer moved from CART to IndyCar after the 2002 season.

The 2003 season was the same year that Michael Andretti bought Team Green and moved it from CART to IndyCar. He brought Tony Kanaan over from Mo Nunn Racing to team him with Bryan Herta, Dario Franchitti, Andretti for the first four races of the season and then Dan Wheldon from Indianapolis and through the rest of the season.

While Herta did a lot of the testing, my understanding is that Honda really benefited the most from the feedback they received from Kanaan. That was the beginning of a ten-year relationship between Kanaan and Honda.

That relationship lasted through the departure of Toyota and Chevy, leaving Honda as the sole engine supplier to the series beginning in 2006. It ended when KV Racing opted to go with Chevy when Lotus and Chevy entered the series in 2012. Kanaan thought he would be reunited with Honda when he signed with Ganassi before the end of the 2013 season. But a funny thing happened along the way. Ganassi signed with Chevy for the 2014 season, before the season ended and before Kanaan ever even turned a wheel for his future team. He would be a Chevy driver for three more seasons – five altogether counting his last two at KV.

Now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Chevy engines have won the majority of races over the last five seasons. They’ve won four of the five championships in that time span. But Honda won three of the five Indianapolis 500’s in the same span. Some don’t like hearing this, but the Indianapolis 500 is more important to most drivers and team owners than a slew of other races and championships.

Kanaan had a rough last two races to close the 2016 season. He finished nineteenth at Watkins Glen and thirteenth at Sonoma. But before those two clunkers, Kanaan was having a stellar season. So stellar in fact, that I couldn’t figure out why there was ever any hesitancy on Ganassi’s part about bringing Kanaan back. He had three fourth-place finishes and two podiums. Altogether, Kanaan had twelve Top-Nine finishes in a sixteen race season. Had he had similar finishes in the last two races, I think he could have finished as high as third in the championship rather than the seventh that he ended up with.

But whatever hesitation there may have been, Tony Kanaan is back where he should be – in a top ride and with a completely different package than the rival cars from Team Penske, who will still have Chevy power.

One reason why Honda may have struggled over the past few years is that they were not hooked up with a top team. Some would argue that Andretti Autosport is a top team, but they weren’t even the top Honda team since aero kits came out in 2015. Whatever the reason, they have struggled mightily with the setup. Now that Kanaan is back to spearhead Honda’s testing program, I would look for significant improvement among all Honda-powered cars. Historically, Ganassi is a better team than Andretti. They have both experienced down seasons, but Andretti’s down years have been more profound than Ganassi’s. Now that they will have a soon-to-be forty-two year old Kanaan doing a ton of testing, I expect Kanaan’s years of experience to serve him (and Honda) well.

My gut told me that Kanaan would be staying at Ganassi. I’m hoping that is where he closes out his career –hopefully a few years down the road. There were rumors he might go to AJ Foyt Enterprises for a longer-term deal. No offense to the Foyt team, but I didn’t want to see that happen. It would have been painful to witness. It would be like watching Joe Namath playing that last season for the Rams. It just looked wrong.

Tony Kanaan is a former IndyCar champion and an Indianapolis 500 winner. He has earned the right to close out his career with a strong team. His longtime friend and rival, Helio Castroneves will get to end his career with Penske at some point. Tony Kanaan should have the same right.

George Phillips

6 Responses to “More Pieces Of The Puzzle In Place”

  1. Got a chance to see Gateway a week before the IndyCars tested there. Took the family to St. Louis for couple days-I did not realize how long Gateway has been there, ( Wikipedia says opened in1970) We were watching the go kart track between turns 1 and 2. I agree- it has a PIR/Milwaukee feel to it.

    It is still weird to me JPM is looking for a ride and Sebastien Bourdais is in a Coyne car. Any idea when we will get a sneak peak at the aerokits for next year?

    • The aero kits are frozen for 2017 – meaning next year they will look just like they did this year. There will be common bodywork for 2018.

    • billytheskink Says:

      Gateway opened as a dragstrip in the late 1960s but the oval was not built until Chris Pook bought the facility in the mid-90s, first hosting races in 1997. I do not believe any of the original facilities remain in place at the track.

  2. I keep reading that Honda has the faster engine but the worst aero package. All that changes in 2018 when we’re back to one aero package and Ganassi has the stronger engine and a pile of cash to boot.

    Who’s the smartest guy in the room now?

    I also suspect that Kanaan will do a great job for the Chipster and be replaced by Hinch in a year or two, part of Honda’s master plan.

  3. Ganassi does have that secret wind tunnel. Maybe that can help with the current aerokit’s ability to get more speed. Speed costs money and Chip has it. Plenty, too.

  4. I think it’s both; Ganassi is still better than Andretti has been recently. Having feedback from Kanaan will be huge, and Dixon winning races and being in the championship hunt yet again will make the overall battle between manufacturers that much better.

    I think Foyt will improve next year with Chevy and 2 new drivers. They were easily Honda’s worst program last season.

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