He has a point, especially when you remember those excruciating qualifying days at Indy, where Kanaan's two crashes and consequent mental turmoil left everyone pondering the very real possibility of T.K. failing to make the field. But Michael's answer doesn't really answer the question of whether in 2010 we've been seeing the best of Kanaan, whose U.S. open-wheel career stats show 15 wins and 14 pole positions.
Kanaan himself answers carefully: “There have been events where I think I've shown my best. Indy, for example: if anyone had any doubts, I proved I can still race. And Iowa was the same thing: it's not like I started on pole and led all the way, or got lucky on strategy and didn't pass anyone to get that win.
“So, honestly, I believe I've shown my best this year, but with all the personnel changes [his engineer Pete Gibbons was let go just after Edmonton in July] and other changes within the team, I also have to raise my game in trying to understand and adapt myself as well. In some of the road and street courses I haven't reached my standards and gotten the car as good as I wanted it.”
Start behind on a road or street course, and only responding to a full-course caution with a strong strategy change will give you a chance to compete near the front. As for the ovals, Kanaan's charges from the back – 15th to third at Kansas, 33rd to second (ultimately taking 11th) at Indy, and 15th to first at Iowa – have been great to watch but have often owed more to driver endeavor and teamwork than the outright speed of the Andretti Autosport cars.
“Yeah, we're lacking some speed compared to the Penske and Ganassi guys on the ovals, too,” agrees Kanaan. “At Kansas, for example, if I had started at the front, we'd have had a cleaner day – not so many moments of putting myself at risk – but I don't know if we'd have finished any higher than third. If you're a couple of mph down, there's no place to hide at circuits like that, and Ganassi had everyone covered that day, I think.”
So can that gap be traversed in 2011 or is 2012 – when everyone gets a do-over with the new car – Andretti Autosport's best chance of recapturing its former glory?
Kanaan's reply is measured. “I think, realistically, we can be fighting for the title next year, but I will be a lot more comfortable when we go back to zero, when everyone has the new car. I'd put my bets on the title in 2012 a lot higher. Next year, I think we're just going to reach the limit of this car that those guys have already got figured out. When we go to the new car, I think we'll be very strong because of resources.”
Michael Andretti is more bullish: “Next year, I think we're going to be capable of going for the championship,” he says. “We're not back where we want to be yet, but we see a lot of areas to improve on. If we were scratching our heads a little, that would be cause for concern, but we see what needs to be done – we'll make some more changes over the winter to make ourselves stronger. Our goal is to be right there with those other two teams next year. I know we're capable of doing it because we've done it before and dominated them. I'm very confident.”
And T.K. will be leading that Andretti Autosport's revival?
“He'd better be!” shoots back Michael immediately. “We're counting on it.”
Kanaan believes his travails at Indy qualifying and at various points in the past couple seasons have made him stronger, and taught him to be less emotional. These days, his energy is channeled toward hard graft.
“To get back will take a lot of work,” he says thoughtfully, “and, as we've seen in the past two or three years, a lot of changes. Michael has now got total ownership of the team, he's brought in Tom Anderson as team manager, and we're slowly changing some of our engineering staff. Essentially, it's the same team that won the title with me in 2004 and Dario in 2007. However, because the competition's increased, we have to do things differently. We have to figure out new ways to become regular winners again. Can we do that? Yes, I believe we can.”
“When Tony has a car under him that he likes, he's one of the toughest guys to beat – fast, loads of experience and not many mistakes. That's a strong combination! So I think there are many more wins to come from him and along with that would be a run at the title again.
We at Andretti Autosport need to step it up and become regular race-win contenders. That's all it would take to get T.K. up there. There are a couple of key developments to be made in the off-season and if they're successful, I believe our team will be contending for wins on ovals and road courses regularly.”
“There's no question Tony can win the title again. He's the same guy he was a couple of years ago. But if everything isn't going your way, it conspires to make you look worse than you are, just as when everything goes your way, it makes you look better than you are and you just ride the wave. The truth is usually somewhere in the middle.
I think he's had more changes in the engineering lineup than anyone else and clearly the team isn't at the level it was a few years ago, but Tony's a loyal guy. His thinking is, “We worked through the good times, we'll work through the bad.” And I believe they will succeed. Andretti Autosport has a lot of good people – including T.K.”
Former race engineer
“Tony's a brilliant oval driver, and plenty fast on road courses, but it helps him a lot to bounce ideas off someone. He was at his best when he'd copy Michael Andretti's setup and, when Michael retired, he followed the setups of Dario Franchitti and Bryan Herta. When they left, the team lost a lot of its setup direction.
After Dario left Andretti Green, I switched to Tony's car and we got along at first, but when it started to unravel, he became a bit of a handful. However, he's also very loyal and I'm not surprised he turned down Chip Ganassi's offer for '09 and stayed with Michael.”