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.”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.”