CHAMPCAR/CART: Ford Racing - Michael Cannon interview

A member of Player's/Forsythe Racing for the last five years, Michael Cannon has worked closely with driver Patrick Carpentier since they both joined the team in 1998, the last three as his chief engineer. Responsible for working with Patrick to...

A member of Player's/Forsythe Racing for the last five years, Michael Cannon has worked closely with driver Patrick Carpentier since they both joined the team in 1998, the last three as his chief engineer. Responsible for working with Patrick to develop the qualifying and race setups for his Ford-powered Reynard, Cannon has played an important role in helping Carpentier to three career Champ Car victories, including wins this season at Cleveland and Mid-Ohio.

MICHAEL CANNON - Chief Engineer, Patrick Carpentier and the No. 32 Player's/Indeck Ford

TALK A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THE WEEKEND YOU ENJOYED IN MID-OHIO. BY ALL ACCOUNTS, IT WAS A PRETTY DOMINATING PERFORMANCE.

"We were fortunate to have done the Ford manufacturer (test) days at Mid-Ohio earlier in the year and we had a chance to get one or two setups to run. We did a day there with Patrick (Carpentier) and a day with (teammate) Alex (Tagliani) and obviously worked on some engine mapping issues. But at the same time we were able to run a couple of different setups and managed to come off the trailer with a solid car. Our goal beforehand was to finish the race and come out second in the points, but we had no idea that we'd finish as well as we did and that Cristiano (da Matta) would run into some bad luck. And the good thing about winning is it gives you confidence - you know how to do it as a team and you've got the confidence to do it again, introducing new parts and being aggressive in how you approach the race weekend."

HOW DIFFICULT IS IT TO SET UP A CAR AT MID-OHIO COMPARED TO OTHER PERMANENT ROAD COURSES?

"It's similar to some other ones, but in this series I'm finding that the setups are becoming very track specific. The level of competition continues to get tougher and tougher and tougher, and that's one of the reasons that you see the races wind up progressing the way they do with everybody running nose to tail with the only passes you see coming in desperation moves. The teams are very familiar with all the race tracks that we go to and every year you sort of take what you did the year before and hopefully improve on it."

THERE'S BEEN A LOT OF TALK ABOUT THE PERFORMANCE OF THE REYNARD CHASSIS VERSUS THE LOLA. WERE YOU CONFIDENT GOING INTO MID-OHIO WITH THE REYNARD?

"It was the same as it was before Cleveland. Going into Cleveland and Mid-Ohio we publicly stated that there's no reason that the car shouldn't perform well - end of story. For sure, we've been surprised by the Lola's pace early on in the year and it took us a little while. not necessarily to respond, but to get the pieces built to respond to the Lola. We're slowly getting the car to where we want it and we should have some pieces for Montreal and Denver that we think are steps in the right direction. The basic Reynard makes excellent downforce, it really does, and we're very familiar with the package and that helps us tune the car for each circuit. But the Lolas have definitely raised the bar a little bit on the street courses and we've got to keep up."

YOU'VE WORKED WITH PATRICK SINCE 1998. HOW HAS HE CHANGED SINCE HE FIRST CAME TO PLAYER'S?

Honestly, when he first came to us we knew of his ability but I think his confidence had taken a pretty good-sized shaking while he was with his first CART team (Bettenhausen Motorsports). I think they laid a lot of blame at his feet and we tried to break him of a lot of bad habits. When Pat joined us we were just ramping up to run two cars for the first time and it took us a little while to get our feet underneath us, but Pat is a driver and he's got some remarkable qualities. He's an incredibly patient and steady guy, which pays off in a certain amount of calm. He can go out there and really push the thing and every now and then give himself what would be a pretty good sized scare to somebody else before coming back and telling you just what went on. He's a pretty cool character in the car."

NEIL MICKLEWRIGHT REMARKED TO ME LAST YEAR THAT THE BEST WAY TO MOTIVATE PATRICK WAS FOR THE TEAM TO DEMONSTRATE THAT IT HAD CONFIDENCE IN HIM. DO YOU AGREE WITH THAT?

"Yeah, but I think he's the same as everybody else. I think you can get on with the task at hand if you don't think you're under fire so I don't think that's any different than anybody else. To be honest, I think one of the major keys to our team to slowly but surely ramp up to the level of success we seem to be having lately and over the last three years has been the switch to the Ford-Cosworth engine. The first couple of years that we had Mercedes-Ilmors they were just unbelievably unreliable and we lost an awful amount of track time because of problems there. The first year with Ford-Cosworth was sort of a building year and the last two years we've been trying to capitalize on what the program offers us."

THE LAST TWO SEASONS HAVE STARTED OUT SLOWLY FOR TEAM PLAYER'S BUT YOU MANAGED TO GATHER STEAM AROUND MIDWAY THROUGH THE YEAR EN ROUTE TO A STRONG FINISH. IS THERE ANYTHING SPECIFIC THAT YOU CAN ATTRIBUTE THAT TREND TO?

"If you look at the beginning of last year we did have fast cars but we kept breaking the damn things or setting fire to them (laughing)! But once we got all the blazes put out things started to pick up. Several, several good race finishes were spoiled and ruined by accidents, either people running into us or us running into them. This year, if you look at Monterey, Pat started near the back due to a penalty in qualifying but had a fast car in the race. And then due to a miscommunication in the pits (did not stop inside the required pit window) instead of finishing in the top three he finished eighth. Long Beach was a disaster for us and that's where we first suspected that we might have a problem with the street circuit stuff. He was running well in Motegi, got a pit lane violation and finished fourth. Milwaukee we were running second and in our opinion had (race winner) Paul Tracy dead to rights on the next pit stop and the alternator broke. In Chicago we had more electrical problems, if I remember correctly. Toronto was a pretty forgettable weekend, but that was sort of a turning point because that's where we were really able to pinpoint some of our shortcomings and Ford and Cosworth have been really good about stepping up their program in response. And ever since Toronto we've really picked it up."

WHAT HAS FORD-COSWORTH DONE TO IMPROVE THEIR PROGRAM? I KNOW THE FORD TEAMS WEREN'T PLEASED WITH THE PERFORMANCE OF THE TRACTION CONTROL IN TORONTO AND BRUCE WOOD (COSWORTH RACING'S CART PROGRAM DIRECTOR) MADE SOME CHANGES BEFORE CLEVELAND.

"They did and they've been really accommodating. I think Bruce is genuinely realistic. We told Cosworth that in our opinion there was a better way of doing this and they were very accommodating. They were willing to listen and give what we suggested a try and within a period of probably five or six days turned everything around. But it was really just getting the entire package together. We took a new approach to some of the things that we were doing and Cosworth definitely re-doubled their efforts."

THERE WERE WHISPERS BY SOME AT THE BEGINNING OF LAST SEASON THAT PERHAPS PATRICK DIDN'T HAVE WHAT IT TOOK TO BE A WINNER AND A CHAMPION IN CART. BUT SINCE HIS FIRST CAREER WIN AT MICHIGAN HIS PERFORMANCE HAS CERTAINLY IMPROVED DRAMATICALLY. HAS PATRICK PEAKED AS A DRIVER OR DOES HE HAVE MORE TO SHOW US?

"He's definitely maturing a lot more as a driver. You know it's funny, I almost think since the birth of his daughter (in early 2001) his outlook on life has changed. He's a little more relaxed and his focus ... it's not like focus has slipped but his focus... I don't know. It's tough to put your finger on it but he's matured in some ways that are apparent."

IT'S FUNNY YOU SAID THAT BECAUSE HE TOLD ME LAST YEAR THAT BEFORE HIS DAUGHTER WAS BORN HE USED TO HAVE A LOT OF 'TOYS' ON THE SIDE.

"That's what I was going to say. When it comes to maturity it seemed like he was horribly distracted sometimes with all these different projects he had going on. Now he's got two things in his life: he's got his family and his race car, and that's it. I think he's able to focus himself a little bit better now."

PATRICK SAID HE MADE MORE A CONCERTED EFFORT DURING THE OFFSEASON TO LEARN ABOUT THE TECHNICAL ASPECTS OF THE CAR BY SPENDING MORE TIME WITH HIS ENGINEERS AND HAS ATTRIBUTED HIS RECENT SUCCESS TO A CHANGE IN HIS RELATIONSHIP WITH YOU. WHERE DO YOU RATE HIS TECHNICAL KNOWLEDGE AND HOW HAS YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH HIM CHANGED?

"You know, technically, Pat is as sharp as anybody out there. He really is. I don't know if our style of communication has changed, but I've been fortunate. This is my fifth year with Pat - I was with him the first two years as the junior engineer and after a while you just get to know the guy so well in what he wants in a car that it just becomes sort of reflex. And we're doing a better job of maybe not giving him what he wants but what he needs. But it's always hard to say what it is when things get really clicking. We've got a lot of programs that are really paying dividends, too. The wind tunnel program that we've had for a couple of years, that's doing well, but we've really picked up with some of our seven-poster stuff and some other rig testing that we're doing. We're really starting to see some of the programs that we've been nursing along start to bear fruit."

WITH SEVEN RACES LEFT IN THE SEASON WHAT DO YOU HAVE TO DO TO AVOID A 'COLD SPELL?' THREE RACES AGO CRISTIANO DA MATTA COULDN'T DO ANYTHING WRONG AND ALL OF A SUDDEN HE HASN'T SCORED POINTS SINCE TORONTO (JULY 7TH).

"We just need to keep doing what every other team is doing out there. We have to keep working as hard as we can while hoping for the best. As tough as racing is at this level, it's no surprise that Cristiano is running into some difficulties. They can happen to any team and they just as easily could've happened to us. We just have to continue taking steps to make sure that we don't run into those kinds of problems. If we qualify fifth then we need to finish fifth in the race. If we finish better than that, great, we get points that we didn't anticipate. We just have to keep doing a solid job, keep it on the island and finish races."

HOW DO YOU VIEW THE TWO WINS THAT PATRICK HAS SCORED THIS SEASON? SOME PEOPLE LOOK AT HIS WIN AT MICHIGAN AS LUCKY BECAUSE THAT'S A RACE WHERE EVERYBODY HAS A SHOT BECAUSE OF THE AERO PACKAGE THAT WAS USED. THE CLEVELAND DRIVE WAS IMPRESSIVE AND THE WIN IN MID-OHIO WAS EQUALLY IMPRESSIVE, IF NOT MORE SO. DO YOU THINK PATRICK VALIDATED THAT FIRST WIN AT MICHIGAN WITH TWO SOLID VICTORIES ON ROAD COURSES?

"Oh, absolutely. When we finished Michigan we knew it could've been anybody's race. The one bit of satisfaction I had from Michigan was that we did have the fastest race lap as well and it was early in the race. For sure anybody that wins one race was probably fortunate, but we won the second race in Cleveland, but Cristiano (da Matta) dropped out. To go to Mid-Ohio and have a perfect weekend where you got every point available kind of validates the guy nicely."

AND HE HELD UP UNDER PRESSURE FROM GUYS LIKE DA MATTA AND CHRISTIAN FITTIPALDI.

"He really did, and the good thing is that now we go to Elkhart Lake where we should have a strong car. If you remember, (Alex) Tagliani has had some very good showings there and that circuit really suits his style. Maybe Patrick's roll might slow down a little bit, but it might be the start of something for 'Tag.' I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to see 'Tag' have a terrific weekend at Road America."

YOU'VE SEEN ALL OF PATRICK'S RACES SINCE HE JOINED PLAYER'S IN 1998. WHERE DOES HIS DRIVE AT MID-OHIO RANK? IS IT AMONG THE BEST YOU'VE SEEN?

"Absolutely. It was a pretty difficult situation because it was a fairly hot day, they extended the race and with the new fuel rules you're running flat out with the points leader on your ass the whole time, so it was a very mature drive. He's actually very good at bringing the thing home. One of the most difficult races I've ever seen him do was Vancouver in 1999 where in just appalling conditions, rainy and slippery, he finished second to (Juan) Montoya. Mentally, I think that may have been the most demanding race he's ever done, but this one was probably the most physically and mentally demanding he's ever done."

HAVE YOU FOUND THAT PATRICK IS STRONGER ON CERTAIN TYPES OF TRACKS? HE'S WON POLES ON SHORT OVALS AND ROAD COURSES AND WON RACES ON ROAD COURSES AND A SUPER SPEEDWAY.

"The super speedways ... the guy is unbelievably calm and brave at the same time so the ovals do suit him well. And his particular style of driving suits a permanent road course quite well. Until we go and have a weekend like we had at Mid-Ohio on a street circuit the jury will always be out on 'Does Pat have a hard time getting around a street circuit or does this team have a hard time getting around a street circuit?'"

HOW INTENSE IS THE PRESSURE THAT YOU'RE UNDER TO PERFORM WEEK IN AND WEEK OUT?

"Everybody is expecting to win. All the teams and their sponsors are out there expecting to win when they show up for a race weekend. And what winning does is make people look at you and wonder if you can do it again."

WELL I'M SURE THAT YOU'LL ENJOY DEALING WITH THE PRESSURE THAT WILL BE PRESENT IN MONTREAL.

"I wish. I'm originally from Montreal, that's home for me, and I'd love to be able to spend some time there but with the race weekends the way they are we charter in on Thursday morning and you're flat out until Sunday night when you fly back out again."

-ford-

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Patrick Carpentier , Paul Tracy