The reigning IndyCar Series champion is taking his #1 plate to the 2003 championship team for next year's 11th season of competition. Yes, Dan Wheldon, who won six races - including the 89th Indianapolis 500 - will join Target Chip Ganassi Racing for 2006.
Chip Ganassi, who never reveals contract terms for his drivers, also announced he will change chassis and engine suppliers for the coming year, utilizing the Dallara/Honda package that has brought Wheldon, and his former team Andretti Green Racing good fortune and finishes over the past three seasons.
This news comes as no surprise to anyone who has kept abreast of IndyCar Series goings-on. Wheldon and his manager Julian Jakobi had been shopping the driver's wares throughout the racing world, hoping to land a Formula One ride or test driver's job. The right deal never showed up and Wheldon decided to take the chance of joining Ganassi's outfit despite a profound lack of results for the Ganassi team over the past two seasons.
"Obviously, we're happy to have Dan Wheldon joining Target Chip Ganassi Racing for the foreseeable future," said team owner Ganassi. "We couldn't be happier with what Dan brings to the team, not only in terms of his ability, but his tendency to run at the front of a very difficult and competitive series."
Wheldon led the 2005 stats with 752 laps led and races led, 15. He had only two DNFs and the balance of his finishes came within the top six. Wheldon is tied with Indy Racing League veteran Scott Sharp at nine race victories while at AGR, second only to Sam Hornish Jr.'s record of 14 race wins.
The 27-year-old Briton earned the 2003 Bombardier Rookie of the Year award and finished second to teammate Tony Kanaan in the 2004 points chase. He came out of the gates with three wins in four initial 2005 contests leading up to the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
"He is a proven champion, and his teaming up with another champion in Scott Dixon is a perfect fit for our IndyCar driver lineup," added Ganassi about his new team driver Wheldon. "We think the addition of Dan ensures Target Chip Ganassi Racing's position as a formidable competitor in the IndyCar Series moving forward."
Target Chip Ganassi Racing was a two-car entrant in 2003 and 2004, yet moved to three Panoz/Toyota entries for the 2005 campaign, with 2003 IRL champ Scott Dixon as lead driver. Ganassi brought Darren Manning back for a second, protracted season and contracted with former Toyota F1 tester Ryan Briscoe to run a third Team Target car.
The ideology of running three cars, while it worked well for AGR and its band of four didn't suit the Ganassi squad, who won only one event, on the historic Watkins Glen International circuit in September of this year, a span of 40 long contests for victor Dixon.
Just past mid-season, Manning was gone and replaced by a rotating duo of drivers, Jaques Lazier and Giorgio Pantano. Briscoe's final shunt at Chicagoland in early September marked the close of his association with the Pittsburgh magnate. After that incident, Ganassi stuck with two IndyCar Series challengers.
The move to a Dallara/Honda package gives some familiarity to Wheldon and new challenges for the Ganassi team, which occasionally experimented with the Dallara chassis during the 2005 campaign.
The change reunites Ganassi with the engine maker that helped him gain four consecutive CART titles in the mid-1990s with drivers Jimmy Vasser (1996), Alex Zanardi (1997-8) and Juan Pablo Montoya in 1999.
"We truly believe that the combination of these two talented championship drivers, along with the addition of Honda and Dallara gives us a very competitive package for 2006 and beyond," said Mike Hull, CGR team manager. "We're always looking to the future with the goal of improving the performance of the team and winning the BIG races."
This coming weekend will be a busy one for new Team Target driver Wheldon, who is competing in the Race of Champions at the Stade de France in Paris on December 3rd. On the other side of the Atlantic, Wheldon is nominated for the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association's coveted Jerry Titus award, which will be announced the same evening. Last year's Titus award went to Kanaan.
On Sunday December 4th, St. Petersburg, FL resident Wheldon will be honored at the Autosport Awards in London, where he has been nominated for International Racing Driver of the Year and British Competition Driver of the Year.
"Looking forward to 2006, a few of my goals include sustaining the momentum I have coming off last season, and returning the Target team to where they're accustomed to running-- up front," commented Wheldon.