One of the most popular – and talented – drivers in the IZOD IndyCar Series, Tony Kanaan, has signed on to drive for de Ferran Dragon Racing in 2011.
Built like a middleweight prize fighter and tough as nails at 200 miles an hour, Kanaan was cut loose from Andretti Autosport at the end of the 2010 season, ostensibly when the Seven-Eleven convenience store organization dropped its sponsorship of his car.
But there had to be something else goin’ on, as they say, because team owner Michael Andretti opted to sign similarly unsponsored driver Ryan Hunter-Reay to a multi-year contract after telling Kanaan he couldn’t afford to keep him around.
I supposed Andretti’s reasoning was that, a) Hunter-Reay is an American (it’s no secret there’s a push on to get more drivers from North America into that series) and, b) he’s younger. But Kanaan’s contribution to that team is immeasurable because he set up the cars for all the other racers on that team to drive. Yupper, Marco Andretti, Danica Patrick and anybody else who stepped into a car owned by Andretti Autosport was driving a car that Tony Kanaan had set up for them.
Michael Andretti had better hope his drivers and their respective team managers were paying attention because Tony ain’t gonna be around to perform that little task for them anymore.
In any event, although there was some concern Kanaan wouldn’t be able to land a competitive ride in time for the ’11 season, the signing announcement today didn’t really come as any surprise. Team co-owner Gil de Ferran has been a fan of Kanaan’s for years (they also have a cultural connection, as both come from Brazil) and the other team co-owner, Jay Penske (like his father), knows talent when he sees it.
And let there be no doubt, Kanaan has talent. And owners love him because he's easy on the equipment. When he won the Indy car championship in 2004, for instance, he became the first driver in major auto racing history to complete every lap of every race.
“This is a great signing and a major coup for de Ferran Dragon Racing,” said de Ferran, in a release. “It is fantastic that we have Tony on board; he is a proven champion and brings with him a great record of successes on the track. Tony has consistently placed at the sharp end of the field for more than a decade and shows no signs of letting up. I am sure his contribution to the team, both in terms of speed and experience, will be invaluable to our development and future success.”
“I am really excited to be working with de Ferran Dragon Racing,” confirmed Kanaan. "I know that the owners have a passion for the sport and a dream of being among the best in the series and will assemble all the right skills to turn this team into something really special and I want to be around for that!”
Raphael Matos, who drove for the team the last two seasons, is now unemployed. A super nova who arrived at the Indy car level two years ago after spectacular seasons in Formula Atlantic and Indy Lights, Matos was never able to find the magic necessary to do well in the big league. His two best finishes came just this year, when he was fourth in Brazil and again at Watkins Glen.
The 2011 IZOD IndyCar series begins March 27 at the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Fla. The season will include a stop in Toronto for the Honda Indy, July 8-10.