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Monday, July 26, 2010

Opinion: KV Finally Turning a Corner?

Helio Castroneves' blocking penalty was obviously the big story of this Sunday's Honda Indy Edmonton. Everybody has their own opinion on what happened - whether it was a block or not - and it's sure to remain one of the biggest stories kicking around the IndyCar blogosphere until we race at Mid-Ohio in two weeks.

But looking a little further up the official results than Castroneves' penalty-affected 10th place finish, one can see a pretty solid day for KV Racing Technology - finishes of sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth for the four cars of Paul Tracy, Takuma Sato, E.J. Viso, and Mario Moraes.

This comes in stark contrast to the previous ten races on the schedule, which had seen 20 crashes in 30 combined starts for Sato, Viso, and Moraes. The "KV" in KVRT may as well have stood for "Krash Victims," the way that 2010 had been going.

2009 and 2010 have been like night and day for the team owned by former Champ Car owner Kevin Kalkhoven and 1996 CART champion Jimmy Vasser. For one, 2009 featured a one-car effort for Moraes, a limited-schedule entry for Tracy, and an Indy 500 entry for Townsend Bell. Moraes began to hit his stride at the end of the year with some solid top five finishes, Tracy was generally competitive, and Bell's one start yielded a fourth place finish in the season's biggest race.

This year, the team found the money to expand to three full-time cars. Viso brought his PDVSA sponsorship to the team, Sato came with some Honda support, and James Rossiter was set to run a third car with sponsorship from Marisco Liqueur. Add to this the support of Lotus Cars - stemming from their partnership with engine builder Cosworth, which is partially owned by Kalkhoven - and strong finishes at the end of 2009, and the team looked like a contender.

But Rossiter's funding fell through, leading the team to bring Moraes back in at the last minute with zero time spent testing. When the team went to Brazil for the season-opening Sao Paulo Indy 300, Moraes made a catastrophic and stupid error in the first turn, failing to slow down for an accident ahead and ending up on top of Marco Andretti's car. Sato was knocked out in the wreck ahead.

So it's gone for KV all year. Moraes sits 14th in points with five DNFs, Viso 16th with two, and Sato 21st with six. The only two races before Edmonton in which all three KV cars finished were at Barber and Watkins Glen. The entire team has shown big-finish potential when they've kept the cars off the wall, but with an average of two accidents per race weekend for three cars, that's been hit or miss, so to speak.

Tracy has, despite missing the Indy 500 this year, been the team's most consistent driver in his two appearances. He finished 13th in Toronto but led laps, and of course led the team with his sixth place run at Edmonton.

Unless the momentum from Edmonton can be sustained over the final six races of the year, however, look for changes at KV next season. If I'm Jimmy Vasser, I'm honestly considering clearing house. The team's three drivers have plenty of potential, but potential means little when the team has to be suffering financially from all the torn up equipment. And the drivers' sponsors, as supportive as they have been thus far, can't be willing to finance this much longer.

Perhaps one of the issues is the relative inexperience of the drivers. Sato's eight years in Formula 1 do not necessarily translate to the slower, lower-revving IndyCar. Viso and Moraes both entered the series in 2008. Tracy, on the other hand, has been racing American open-wheel cars since the early 1990s, and to this day remains a threat to win every time he takes to the track.

Another issue stems from the team's relatively quick expansion from one car to three. Yes, the trio worked well at Indianapolis last year, but that was only for one race. Even with experienced drivers in the cars, the team likely would have had some of these same struggles, if not necessarily as high of a crash count.

What would make the most sense, sponsorship dollars willing, would be to keep one of the team's driver prospects for next year, put a veteran like Tracy in a second car, and leave it at that. This would allow the veteran to help show the young driver how to be consistent in an IndyCar, while also greatly easing the burden on the team. Keep in mind that its best years in CART came when they ran two cars, usually featuring a young driver paired with a veteran, and its first, decently successful, year in IndyCar was the same way.

But in a sport where money now comes at a premium, it's not always possible to build the ideal team. Vasser and his crew will have to find a way to work through the team's struggles and turn lessons learned and momentum built at the end of this year into success next year and beyond.

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