With the IRL IndyCar Series heading to Twin Ring Motegi in Japan this weekend, ESPN's Marlo Klain breaks down what to expect.
How much of a story is Toyota vs. Honda in Japan?
It's a huge story. That's certainly been the story since the Japan track came on line a couple of years ago when it was a CART track. I think that's going to continue there, particularly with how dominant the two engine manufacturers have been over the first couple of races of the year going into the race. It's a huge story there -- they make a big deal of it. They are very proud of their traditions there. I think it would be a shock if either one of them didn't win there.
How much of a role did those manufacturers play -- particularly Honda -- in getting this race put on the schedule?
My personal opinion is that it was part of the deal for Honda to come over to the series. Obviously, at the same time, they made the announcement that Honda was going to make the move to the IRL, they also made the announcement of the track being on the schedule, which is a huge deal because Tony George had always said when he created this series that it was an all-oval American series. It's a huge deal that their first race outside the country is in Japan. You want to appease Toyota and Honda for becoming a part of your series, which was a huge deal.
Dario Franchitti will miss the race due to injuries. How much of a setback is that for him and his team? What's the frustration factor?
It's a huge setback, but talking about Franchitti -- Michael Andretti and Tony Kanaan have gotten off to a better start than he has, so I don't think it's frustrating at all for that team. Tony has won the first two poles of the season and has won a race. That team is off to an amazing start. Will it be any sort of setback for that team? No, because Dan Wheldon (who is filling in for Franchitti in Japan) has been doing a ton of testing for that team. He's done more testing than anyone else for that team. In my opinion, it's not a setback for the team.
Obviously, Dario needed a little more time in the car heading into Indy, but they have plenty of time at Indy for him to get to know that track and to really figure out with these cars. He obviously had the opportunity last year with this team, but it's not a setback at all, particularly with how much time they have on the track when it comes to Indy.
Gil de Ferran is also out for the Japan race. Aren't his title hopes essentially gone?
Maybe his title hopes are done, but does this hurt him for Indy? No. The bottom line is -- and we explored this last time -- is that Indy is all that matters at this point. Once you get past Indy you can talk about the title. Indy is still the race everybody wants to win more than the championship, even. I don't think (his injury) puts him at any disadvantage at this point of the season. He's still going to be in the car for the same amount of time at Indy.
What can we look for heading into Japan? Any surprises?
Going into Japan, this is a huge break for Alex Barron (who is filling in for de Ferran) heading into Indy. Getting this ride in Japan will hopefully be a springboard for something happening for Indy. The only other surprise is that Eddie Cheever made the announcement this past week that he is not going to run Indy. Obviously, he wasn't running the races heading up to Indianapolis, but he has plenty of experience there. It is somewhat of a surprise for him to take a step back because I think everyone expected that this would be his last Indy 500. But he chose not to pull the trigger and not race at Indy.
|Tony Kanaan has won a race and two poles this season.|
I don't think it was a surprise that he wasn't racing up to Indy, but it was a surprise that he wasn't going to try one more Indy. Obviously, Chevy is not where it needs to be and they are a Chevy team. He wants to concentrate on the business side. I think it's a matter of Eddie seeing what his future is and wanting to get his ducks in a row.
The Indy entry list isn't that large. Does this leave door open for CART drivers such as Jimmy Vasser to attempt second-week qualifying?
I think it definitely leaves the door open for Jimmy Vasser. Adrian Fernandez says he's not going to do it with his team, which is a little bit of a surprise because they already have the infrastructure for him to make an attempt because he's running both series. But it leaves open the door for a Max Papis -- he has the inside line with Eddie Cheever because he raced with Cheever last year at Indianapolis. In looking at the car combinations, they don't have a lot of cars on the entry list at this point. To fill out the field, at this point I think they have 34 combos. So to fill out the field, I think the door is open for a lot of drivers.
But there will be 33 cars in the field. The way I see it, there are 34 combinations at this point. However, five of those 34 leave the door open -- an extra Penske car, an extra Ganassi car, an extra Foyt car, etc. They will fill those in. Ganassi has a history over the last couple of years of putting someone in the car at the last minute, which certainly could leave open the door for a Vasser. But I think the opportunity is there for a lot of guys because they need to fill out the field. And they will fill out the field. Between Chevy, Honda and Toyota, they are definitely going to push that.
The race-to-race Chevy/Sam Hornish Jr. watch continues in Japan. What can we expect?
You should expect exactly what Hornish has put on the track in the first two races, where they are doing the best they possibly can with what they've been given. This is the last test before they get to Indianapolis to really figure out what they have before they get the last push in.
Anything else to expect in Japan? Race favorites? Emerging storylines?
Can anyone break Tony Kanaan's hot streak? He is absolutely on a roll and he has talked endlessly about how he feels this is the opportunity of his career. I think Tony Kanaan is the story so far this year with what he has done. He felt coming over to the IRL was going to give him a shot in the arm, and so far that is absolutely what has happened.
Also in Japan, Greg Ray gets back on track with a team he co-owns. He's bounced around a lot over the past couple of years. Is this the best situation for him?
I think it is the best thing for Greg Ray to be a co-owner of a team. Because of his personality and the way he likes things done, it's the best thing for his career at this point, considering his age, to be an owner of a team. Is it a surprise that he's bounced around? Absolutely. I think what happened to Greg -- in some ways, Greg got a raw deal with what happened with Kelley when they put Al Unser Jr. in that car (replacing Ray). It definitely put him at a disadvantage last year, where he had his deal set until that whole thing happened. That's part of the reason he's bounced around. It just put him in a tough situation heading into 2002.
Marlo Klain covers open wheel racing for ESPN.