Would you believe me if I told you Tony Kanaan and his engineer Michael Cannon have been competing against each other since 1996, but had never spoken a word to each other until two weeks ago? From TK to me to you – it's true. Cannon is a veteran in pit lane. He's engineered in several series, and for several drivers – Jimmy Vasser, Paul Tracy, AJ Allmendinger and on and on.
He was paired with Simona de Silvestro last year at HVM Racing. Just days before the start of Simona's second season – and a promising one – Cannon left the team. He left for Tony and KV Racing. Cannon and Tony met, shook hands, and did a shakedown at Homestead on Tuesday, had an engineering meeting on Thursday, and got on track at St. Pete on Friday.
Meanwhile, Keith Wiggins at HVM Racing scrambled to find an engineer for Simona, and snagged Brent Harvey from Panther Racing. Harvey started in 1993 and has worked with Stefan Johannson, Eddie Cheever, Tomas Scheckter, Vitor Meira, Dan Wheldon, Helio Castroneves...a list as impressive as Cannon's.
Cannon (on the right in this picture, with KV Racing general manager Mark Johnson) had never worked for KV, and Harvey had never worked for HVM. So at the 11th hour – both driver/engineer combos had just a few days to hit it off. Tony – heck, any driver – believes it's one of the most important relationships on the team. It can take years for a driver and engineer to really understand each other's language.
By Saturday night, Tony had qualified eighth, Simona 17th. Simona told me she thought the car was better than that, but she got caught in traffic on her good lap. By Sunday afternoon, the two were disputing the same piece of real estate at the end of 100 laps. Third place.
I was pretty much based at TK's pit from his final pit stop to the end, watching Cannon work in the final laps, and couldn't help but wonder how it felt for him to be working against, rather than for, Simona. I knew I wanted to interview him after the checkered, so I got up on the stand after it was over and asked him to talk. He tried to pawn me off on KV team manager Mark Johnson, but I told him I wanted to talk about Simona and he said that was no problem.
First, I just asked him about the final laps, but after a few sentences, he jumped right into complimenting Simona, saying what a good driver and a good person she is, and yes, he admitted it was strange to be in that position. I was surprised and appreciative at how open he was about what could be an awkward situation. (I think radio interviews can be quite good because often it's just you and the person – not you and your camera person and pit spotter and battery person and jerk cam person and a bright light in their face.)
Despite all the unknowns and a wild few days, both Tony and Simona did so well. So was this a case of two talented drivers in two Cannon-setup cars? What happened here? Tony says a team has a mentality and when you step into it, you kind of have to blend in. KV had a good base setup for his car, and he and Cannon developed around that because neither had the human power to get the car exactly the way they each wanted.
Harvey, by contrast, says Simona did not use her setup from last year. While they did start the weekend with what was developed by the team in 2010 and in off-season testing, Simona didn't like it and so they adjusted all weekend until the final practice session when, at last, she found the balance she liked.
Tony says Simona's car was better than his and he was laughing hard when he told me he said to Cannon, “Hey look, she didn't need you – and now you need me to make you look good!” So Tony gets a place on the podium and Simona gets her career best finish, and that's not a bad start for a bunch of strangers coming together at the last minute. Now we watch to see how they follow up those performances at the Indy Grand Prix of Alabama this weekend.
We are on the air on Versus with a one-hour qualifying show Saturday night at 6 p.m. EST and on Sunday, we are broadcasting five hours of live coverage (12- 5 p.m. EST ), when you can see both the Indy Lights and IndyCar races, and lots of driver interviews.