Tony Kanaan is wary of declaring himself a potential winner this weekend at Phoenix, despite AJ Foyt Racing’s strong form at ISM Raceway in preseason testing.
The Brazilian finished in the top five in three of the four test sessions around the 1.022-mile oval back in February, but the 43-year-old says that once he factors in the unknowns, he’s uncertain whether he can run at the front this weekend.
“I don’t want to say something about the situation and then discover it’s totally different when we get there this time,” he told Motorsport.com. “You know, it’s two months since we last ran there, and for sure the track temperature will be different in the afternoon for practice compared with afternoon at the test. And then in the evening, the heat will stay in the track for longer in the race than it did back in February.
“I think it’s OK to say we have a good basic setup there for this race, and that is promising. But that was just a test, and we have to keep on top of the conditions. Like a lot of ovals, Phoenix can suit your setup one moment and then it can change all over again, you’re going backward and others are coming forward.”
AJ Foyt Racing’s 2018 recruits – Kanaan, who arrived with race engineer Eric Cowdin from the shrunken Ganassi team, and Indy Lights graduate Matheus Leist – are aiming to score the team’s first win in five years. Given Kanaan’s reputation for being strong on ovals, the impressive testing pace and the fact that he’s won twice at Phoenix [2003 and 2004], he’s been regarded by many as a dark horse to potentially beat IndyCar’s traditional frontrunning teams this weekend.
But as well as uncertainty over track conditions, Kanaan says he also needs to get more practice running in traffic to gain a clearer picture of his potential competitiveness for Saturday evening’s race.
“The Friday evening practice – that’s gonna be a crucial one,” he said. “In the test I got to run a little bit behind other cars on the second night, but I think running in traffic in these cars is something that all of us need to get used to.
“It’s very different this year, and it’s going to be tough. And I don’t just mean closing up to make the pass, but running close while you also try to protect your tires. With the downforce reduced, we use up tires quicker, even without traffic.”
Experience helpful but not vital
Kanaan says the impressive performances shown by teammate Leist in testing and in qualifying at St. Petersburg were to be expected, and says he doesn’t think his own experience will influence their comparative raceday performances.
“Talking about tires – on all tracks, not just short ovals – it’s difficult to keep them under you for a whole stint,” he remarked. “Now, I would like to say that’s where 20 years of experience will help – but kids these days adapt so quick!
“I like the challenge of these tires and I think it maybe suits me, but I’m not saying it will give me an advantage over the younger guys. If you’re a good driver, you’re gonna figure it out if you have one year or 21 years of experience. Same as always.”
Regarding his feedback, Kanaan says he still prefers to just relay to Cowdin how the car feels, rather than suggest potential changes.
He said: “I can do both, but especially with Eric because he’s known me so long and knows already what I want, I always try to stay a little bit out of that and not get too technical.
“I’m the driver, he’s the engineer. I’ll describe what the car is doing, he figures out what he needs to do to the car. If he needs extra input, I’ll give it, but I’m not going to come into the pits and say, ‘We need to drop the rear spring loads by 100lbs.’ I’m not that type of guy.”
Kanaan added that the tighter regulations regarding the new-for-2018 spec aerokits have not reduced the workload for the drivers and engineers, but have instead pushed them to investigate other ways to alter car setups.
“Just because there are a lot fewer options downforce-wise, it didn’t make it less complicated,” he explained. “It means you don’t worry about the downforce so much because you aren’t left with many options.
“So what happens is that you have to come up with different ideas to make your car that little bit better than the other guys’ cars. You end up working just as hard but in other areas.”
As a driver, Foyt won Indy car races at Phoenix in 1960, ’64, ’65, 71 and ’75.