IRL season review

Four guys won three races during the 2004 IRL IndyCar Series. Of those men, Dan Wheldon and Buddy Rice, had breakthrough seasons. Another, the wily veteran Adrian Fernandez, made the switch from Champ Cars after the season had begun. But, writes Simon Strang, only one truly deserved to take the title - Tony Kanaan

IRL season review

The Brazilian driver has always been consistent. It's what made him a title contender in 2003, despite inferior equipment. This year perhaps for the first time in his top-flight career, he had a performance advantage thanks to Honda, and there was no way he was going to squander it.

Kanaan's worst finish of the year was an eighth place in the season-opener at Miami-Homestead. After that he didn't end a race lower than fifth and completed all 3,305 racing laps. It was a phenomenal run, backed up by unquestionable, unflinching speed.

There is no question that this was Honda's year in the three-way manufacturer fight. Reigning champion Toyota was vanquished, while Chevrolet was kept in little more than a supporting role for its Japanese counterparts.

Honda took 14 victories during the 16-race season, including the one it coveted most at Motegi in Japan, a track that it owns. But tellingly the team that made the most of the engines was Andretti Green Racing.

Between them Kanaan, Wheldon and Dario Franchitti won eight times. While AGR's fourth driver, Bryan Herta, provided vital development information, quite often running new parts during the races for the other three to benefit from in later races.

This unselfish attitude, combined with an unusually close chemistry between the four drivers characterised a teamwork that gave AGR a fortress-like defence against its opposition. The team's pace, particularly on short ovals, was quite simply insurmountable.

Regulations introduced to reduce speeds in the wake of accidents that took the life of American driver Tony Renna and severely injured Kenny Brack at the end of last year, had a dramatic effect on the dynamics of the category.

Engine capacity was cut to three litres from Indianapolis onwards and reductions were made into the aerodynamic capabilities of the cars. Drivers reported a big difference in handling. No longer, they said, was it possible to drive the cars flat-out. Almost by accident the challenge had increased. That, given the quality of the field, only serves to increase the significance of Kanaan's achievements.

Just as in NASCAR, the only other predominantly oval-based prime-time US racing series, the knowledge base between the teams has reached a point that performance gains are found in small increments. Thus the Honda teams tended to hold performance advantages in waves during the season.

There is no doubt for example that Rahal-Letterman held sway mid-season after Rice took the Indy 500 in dominant fashion, then went on a rampant winning streak, backed up by his fast Brazilian team-mate Vitor Meira. Equally Fernandez was judged by many observers to have the fastest and most stable car by season's end. One can only imagine what the Mexican could have achieved had he enjoyed a full test programme in the build up to the season.

For those without a Honda engine the pickings were slim indeed. And of the Toyota-powered teams Penske did the best job. New signing and double champion Sam Hornish Jr won the opening round, but despite threatening to do so, never won again. His team-mate Helio Castroneves, faster and more consistent over the season, was rewarded with a win in the finale in Texas.

Champion Scott Dixon and Ganassi Racing had a difficult season. There was the loss of Renna in pre-season testing, then Dixon broke his ankle at Motegi. Renna's replacement Darren Manning was fast but needed taming, and put quite simply, the team simply couldn't match Penske. It's best result was Dixon's second place at Chicagoland.

The top Chevrolet team, as usual, was Panther Racing. New signing Tomas Scheckter proved phenomenally fast and brave. He also was struck by ridiculously poor luck. Only in the first race of the season, where he placed fifth, did he finish the race unhampered by problems. British driver Mark Taylor was sacked by Panther six races in, but such was Scheckter's misfortune that he finished 19th in the standings, behind the Englishman, despite a clear disproportion in pace between the two.

Next year Toyota will come out guns blazing to beat Honda. After all there are few manufacturer rivalries greater than this. But IRL must be wary for Chevrolet has announced its departure at the end of 2005. When General Motors has gone, there will be just two engine makes left, and they are also providing much of the financial impetus for their franchised teams. A similar situation brought on dire consequences for CART...

For now however, Tony George's brainchild is thriving and is clearly the best-supported single-seater category in the US. Rich in talent and packed full of the top teams in the business, it doesn't lack for either overtaking or action. And next year, just to add to the mix, the IRL will go road racing at Watkins Glen of all places, as well as St Petersburg and Sonoma. Just as they did this year, the dynamics of the category could change completely in 2005.

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