The image of Tony Kanaan is a strong one: part champion, part advisor, part fitness freak and part underdog. All icon.
There's none of the showtime glam of Helio Castroneves, yet the cheers for Penske's three-time Indy 500 winner at the Brickyard each May are matched in volume by those for a guy who hasn't yet had his unmistakable facial features carved on the Borg-Warner trophy. As much as for his ill luck in the world's biggest race as for his heroically aggressive driving style around every track on the IZOD IndyCar Series schedule, Tony Kanaan has become the people's champion.
He's more than that, though. He is an IndyCar champion. OK, that was 2004 – an amazing season in which he finished every lap – but even his current rivals have a lot of respect for his ability. Current points leader Will Power states: “No question, Tony's still got the talent. He was up front at Brazil, St. Pete and Long Beach this year. He's got a very aggressive driving style which suits some circuits better than others, but look at how fast he is on ovals and you've got to say he can do smooth, too. Actually, the way T.K. can race through the pack on ovals should be a lesson to all of us! Pretty awesome.”
Dreyer & Reinbold Racing's Justin Wilson observes: “T.K. really throws himself into the job. Fitness-wise, he's our benchmark, and I'm guessing he puts a similar amount of effort into technical debriefs. He's not just turning up to enjoy the lifestyle of being a racing driver. He's absolutely serious about this and he can still do the job. Tony's won an IndyCar title before so he knows how to do it. It's just a case of getting the environment he's in pointed in the right direction again.”
So, the big question regarding Big Tony is, “Does he have another championship in him?” Predictably, the man himself says: “If I didn't think so, I'd be doing something else by now.” And to be fair, any doubts tend to revolve around the Andretti Autosport team, rather than the driver of the No. 11 7-Eleven car. The bald fact is that Kanaan's win at Iowa this year was his first for two years. The bald truth is that he's been driving for an outfit that was thrashing for most of that winless period.
Yet this year, the team has made a step forward, displacing the once promising KV Racing and Newman/Haas Racing as “best of the rest” behind Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing. Kanaan and Ryan Hunter-Reay have a win apiece, Marco Andretti has become more consistent on the days when he can't show his ultimate pace and Danica Patrick was runner-up in Texas. The problem is that some of this improvement has been disguised.
“We've had effectively the same car for the last seven years,” says Kanaan, “so even the smaller teams have figured it out. The field is packed together now. At Mid-Ohio, we had 20 cars within one second in qualifying. In the past, if you had a top-three car in qualifying and you made a mistake at one corner, you'd start seventh. Now that same mistake will leave you 16th!
“Then you add an extra Penske car – and I mean the Penske car because Will has been smoking everybody, including his teammates – and the quality of the drivers and teams as a whole has improved. Justin Wilson, even with a fairly small team, is doing well. And KV, who came from Champ Car, took a year to figure out the Dallara, but they're quick now.
“So there's no place to hide. The competition is at its best now since the 1999/2000 era when we had Montoya, Dario, Zanardi and so on. That's great for the series. But, just like then, you take bigger risks, so the possibility of making a mistake is that much higher.”
Especially if you're carrying the fight to superior cars. One area where Andretti Autosport people believe their cars suffer on road and street courses is traction, implying a shock and damper issue.
“It's tough to say it's one thing like the dampers,” says Kanaan, “because if it was that easy, why don't we just go and buy a different set of dampers?! But Penske and Ganassi have what I describe as a more controlled car, so definitely damper setup is a big part of it. Those drivers can fight much less and be smoother. We can probably be as quick but not for long: we might do it for three or four laps and then slow down by three or four tenths per lap.”
Much press has been given to how the very similar driving styles of Hunter-Reay and Kanaan have allowed the pair to save time during practice sessions by trying different avenues of development, pooling their feedback, arrive at one conclusive setup that they can share. Yet one surprising statistic from this year is that, over the course of nine road/street course races and five ovals, Kanaan has been top Andretti Autosport qualifier only once. Allowing for anomalies on circuits where the driver can make little difference in qualifying pace – Kansas, Texas and Iowa – it's still a surprising trend.
Michael Andretti states simply: “I don't think our cars have been qualifying as well as we like, so I'd say that's a team thing, not a Tony thing.”