The tantalising prospect of an all-British line-up at the IRL’s Panther Racing team was floated by Dan Wheldon and team boss John Barnes at the pair’s first interview since the announcement of the Englishman’s move there.
Panther gave a test to GP2 racer Mike Conway before the Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma County after their first choice, Anthony Davidson, injured himself falling from a mountain bike. Both drivers have also been guests of the team at races.
Since then, however, Panther made the shock announcement that it had recruited 2005 champion and Indy 500 winner Wheldon from Target Chip Ganassi. This left existing driver Vitor Meira out in the cold, and also seemed to scotch talk of a second car next year.
But not completely.
Interviewed by indycar.com, Wheldon said the likelihood was that the team would run one car, but the possibility still existed of two – with Davidson still in the frame for it.
He said: “Anthony is someone that I grew up with. We were racing go-karts together when we were eight years old. So he’s somebody that I’m very familiar with. In terms of Panther running two cars, I think that they haven’t closed the door on that, but right now the focus is on the one car.
“But if he was to come along and be a teammate, you’d definitely, definitely like to work him into the team. He’s a great guy and obviously a very accomplished racing driver and somebody that I know very well.”
Barnes explained how Davidson had suggested Conway for the Infineon Raceway test after he was injured: “We did a test at Sonoma, and he was scheduled to do the test for us. He fell, I think, mountain biking and separated his shoulder and couldn’t make it.
“He actually put us in touch with Mike Conway who did the test and was the fastest there with our car. When he left after Sonoma I think we’ve gotten about 25 emails and texts saying – keep in touch, keep in touch, keep in touch, keep in touch. So he did a great job for us, and what a great young man.
“He actually came to the race at Kentucky when we finished fourth and was blown away by the ovals. He couldn’t wait to get a test and see how that came out.”
Panther’s association with Davidson came about because of its links with Auguri Suzuki, whose Super Aguri operation is a former sponsor of the team as well as the source of Davidson’s recent F1 experience.
Barnes said: “Anthony was our guest at Detroit. We talked a lot about getting him in the car sometime and doing a test on the oval, and seeing what his thoughts were and going from there.
“I actually spent quite a bit of time with he and his parents at a Formula 1 race last year, got to know them because we have an association with Aguri. Just thought he was a great guy.
“So we were looking for someone to test our car at Sonoma. Reached out to our engineering staff and said, hey, give Anthony a call because I think he could give us some help and guidance and would definitely bring some experience to the test. So that’s why we reached out to him.
“Anthony and the sporting director at Honda Formula 1 mentioned that we should talk to Mike Conway afterwards, and that’s what we did.”
For the time being, however, the focus is on Wheldon and his surprising move to the team. This weekend sees the final race of the season, in which Wheldon’s team-mate Scott Dixon is likely to wrap up the championship.
Meira, a main-stay of the team for three years and credited with helping it survive its troubled 2006 season by bringing in crucial sponsorship, will drive his final race for Panther despite reported unhappiness at his unexpected abandonment.
Meanwhile, Wheldon has made it clear he intends to fulfil his obligations to Target Chip Ganassi Racing and do his best to help Dixon to the title. After that, he is expected to switch to his new team for October’s exhibition race in Australia.
It seems likely that his replacement at Ganassi, Dario Franchitti, will take over his car in Australia, but if that doesn’t work out then Englishman Alex Lloyd is waiting in the wings.
Barnes said: “We’re excited at Panther, I tell you. To have Dan join us and be part of our programme and lead our programme, we couldn’t be more excited. Just can’t wait for the season’s start.”
Wheldon agreed: “I think like J.B. said, it’s an incredibly exciting opportunity, not only for myself and Panther Racing, but for the IndyCar Series.
“I think 2009 is looking like an incredible season. Whoever wins the championship in 2009 is going to be rewarded well because it’s going to be very, very difficult. So I think we’re certainly up for the challenge, and can’t wait to get started.”
* ESPN’s Indy Sports Centre has a 100-minute podcast of a radio interview with Wheldon, Franchitti and recent race-winner Justin Wilson available for download on its site – follow this link and then look for the September 4 show in the right sidebar.