The 2005 season was a period of change for the Indy Racing League side of the US open-wheel split, as road and street courses were added to the schedule for the first time since the inception of Tony George’s series in 1996. And two impressive performances from a series rookie switching over from Formula 1 with one of the series’ grandee names hinted at a bright future ahead.
But although Giorgio Pantano would turn out again for Chip Ganassi Racing after his “unforgettable” two-race deal in 2005, peaking with a fourth place at Watkins Glen after qualifying on the front row, the former Jordan driver had to wait another seven years for the next shot in what turned out to be his final IndyCar appearance subbing for an injured Charlie Kimball.
A total of six outings, completed by three nondescript showings for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing in 2011, make for an underwhelming tally for a driver who won the 2000 German Formula 3 championship in his first full season of car racing. Not least given the Italian’s clear promise as a newcomer to the US scene in a Ganassi team recovering from its lowest ebb.
“I think I did something well, for me, in two races without experience, without knowing any circuits over there, without knowing the cars,” reflects Pantano, who today is a successful constructor of his own karts. “I didn’t understand to be honest why after what I showed, I didn’t have a proposal for the following year.”
Ganassi had gone winless in 2004, and the 2005 season was little better as it laboured with Toyota engines that lagged behind the dominant Honda unit. The horsepower deficit had limited fellow behemoth Team Penske to just three wins split between new signing Sam Hornish Jr and its double Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves, but Ganassi fared even worse.
Its 2003 champion Scott Dixon hadn’t even recorded a top-five finish from the first 15 rounds of 2005, as Andretti-Green cleaned up. Dan Wheldon won four of the opening five races of the season including at St. Petersburg, the first of the year’s three tracks to include right-hand corners, and the all-important Indy 500. His team-mates Tony Kanaan, Dario Franchitti and Bryan Herta all got in on the act too, while Honda power also helped Fernandez Racing’s Scott Sharp to score his final open-wheel win at Kentucky.
Pantano had endured a trying part-season in F1 with Jordan in 2004 and attempting to regain momentum in GP2 before his call-up to Ganassi
Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch / Motorsport Images
Ganassi’s travails led to an abrupt parting of ways with Darren Manning, who had only been signed at the start of the previous year after Tony Renna’s fatal testing crash at Indianapolis. Its third car was driven by former Toyota F1 tester Ryan Briscoe, who had a crash-blighted rookie year that ended no less suddenly when his car split in half upon impact with the catch-fencing at Chicagoland.
Pantano had left Jordan mid-way through a disappointing rookie F1 season in 2004 and landed back in the newly-formed GP2 series for 2005 with Super Nova. Team boss and Pantano’s manager David Sears had previous history with Ganassi – he introduced its 1999 CART champion Juan Pablo Montoya and 2002 runner-up Bruno Junqueira to the squad – and a deal was struck for the two road course events at Sonoma and Watkins Glen. Pantano would drive the #10 Panoz that Jacques Lazier had campaigned somewhat ineffectively on ovals after Manning’s ousting.
“He fit the mould of drivers we’d had in the past with Montoya, Junqueira, [Nicolas] Minassian,” recalls long-serving Ganassi managing director Mike Hull. “We wanted to try him out and so we did, and he did a heck of a job for us.”
“He was really a terrific driver, no question about it. We had to run the car with a lot less downforce to be competitive and so in the road track situation, with the lack of downforce at Watkins Glen, that was a fun ride for the driver!” Mike Hull
After a two-day test at Sonoma, Pantano was quickly on the pace for his debut at the Californian track and clocked the fastest time in opening practice. But “a mistake in the chicane before the last corner” in qualifying meant the 26-year-old only started 13th, thwarting what had until then been a promising run.
“I think at that point I was one-tenth faster than anybody,” rues Pantano. “We didn’t qualify well.”
Pantano found the Panoz “was really hard to drive, especially physically because the car was so heavy on the race when you have a full tank”. But he’d made it into the top 10 in the race and was right behind Dixon in eighth starting the final lap when a move that might be termed speculative from Vitor Meira ended with Pantano in the boonies at Turn 1.
The destructive race for Briscoe at Chicago followed before Pantano’s next outing one month later at the Glen. In the first race for top-level single-seaters at the upper state New York track since F1’s previous visit in 1980, he was only denied pole by 0.021s to Castroneves’s Dallara-Toyota. Dixon was two tenths back in fourth.
“After the [Sonoma] race, they changed my engineer,” Pantano remembers. “Then in Watkins Glen we made the difference with the other engineer because he understood more what I needed.”
Pantano was running in Dixon’s wheeltracks when he was punted out of his debut by Meira
Photo by: Sutton Images
Unfortunately for Pantano, his unfamiliarity with rolling starts cost him dearly and he was swamped at the green, dropping to sixth. Unlike Sonoma, where “pretty much you know when you have to go” in the middle of the pack, he was at the mercy of Castroneves alongside him.
“100% it was just inexperience,” he says. “Starting there, your second race in IndyCar, starting P2 without experience you try to do your best but to be honest I didn’t know what to do. They explained me a little bit but it’s difficult to put it all together in two races. When you are in the first row, it’s not the same as to be in the middle.”
This was compounded when Pantano ran over a wheelgun in his pitstop, which resulted in a drive-through penalty. From 18th upon rejoining, his “good comeback” to finish fourth ahead of newly-crowned champion Wheldon was commendable but overshadowed by Dixon finally ending his 40-race win drought. Pantano’s exploits barely elicited a mention in Autosport magazine’s report led on the end of Ganassi’s slump. It didn’t go unnoticed by his team, however.
“He was really a terrific driver, no question about it,” says Hull. “We had to run the car with a lot less downforce to be competitive and so in the road track situation, with the lack of downforce at Watkins Glen, that was a fun ride for the driver!
“Giorgio, considering the circumstance, people probably didn’t understand what that actually meant for him to finish fourth. We asked a lot of him, but he had the ability to be able to do it. So it probably went undetected what was actually going on there.”
Pantano admits he expected to have offers for the following year and says, “if I had to, I was prepared to do” the ovals that continued to make up the majority of the calendar for the next several years.
“It was probably not my main thing,” he concedes, “but if I had to change and say ‘it’s a new career for me, a new goal, new situation’, yes I would take it.”
But to Pantano’s disappointment, Wheldon was hired to join Dixon for 2006. Hull stresses that the Englishman wasn’t already the preferred candidate when Pantano arrived – no conversations began until afterwards as “we didn’t know Dan was available frankly, and at the very last minute he was”. He says Pantano’s problem was one of timing and the weighting of the calendar towards ovals was key in the decision.
Pantano joined Castroneves on the front row at Watkins Glen, finishing fourth after a penalty
Photo by: Steve Swope
“We had an opportunity which we didn’t really expect we were going to have for Dan, and we took that opportunity,” Hull explains. “At that time, the IRL series was mostly ovals, and very little road track racing at that time. Dan becoming available and being a mostly oval series, that was the decision that was made.”
This reluctance to take a chance on a driver without oval experience it appears was widespread among IRL team bosses at the time. Many more drivers with backgrounds on the European scene were blooded in the rival Champ Car series that predominantly consisted of road and street courses, but its dwindling health relative to the increasingly dominant IRL meant few squads could offer a salary as Ganassi could.
As a result, for Pantano, the door to a more regular IndyCar ride was slammed shut, forcing him back into the F1 support paddock. Six years after he’d been within two points of the 2002 Formula 3000 crown that ultimately went to Sebastien Bourdais, another driver placed Stateside by Sears, Pantano won the GP2 title but by 2008 the ship had sailed on his F1 dreams.
Sears reckons things might have been different if he’d emulated Montoya and Bourdais by winning quickly, but acknowledges that would have been a massive ask.
“I was really quick in the race, but I didn’t have enough practice to understand the red tyres compared to the hard tyres, how to have the maximum from the tyres” Giorgio Pantano
“The others had testing first, and I think throwing Giorgio in the deep end was similar to when Roger Penske asked me for Jan Magnussen for a couple of races [in 1996],” he adds.
But Pantano didn’t give up, not least because of how much he’d enjoyed his first crack. Talks with Panther Racing came “close to sign a deal but they were running just one car, and they didn’t find a financial situation for me”, and most teams “were only looking for money, that’s it”. That explains his decision to spend 2012 based Stateside travelling to races hoping to pick up an off-the-cuff drive, as he had for the Sonoma, Baltimore and Motegi rounds the previous year with minnows DRR when Justin Wilson was injured.
By this point, the two series had been unified, the damaging US open-wheel split coming to an end in 2008 and resulting in a more even balance of ovals and road/street courses.
“I loved the series, I loved the people,” he says. “It was really – with everybody it was like a big, big family. Everyone was friends, what I see, what I understand also with the other teams. I love the way they are doing that championship because the driver was still making the difference. I spent all the year living there, just to see if I can find an opportunity, and [Ganassi] called me because I was over there.”
Wheldon’s unexpected availability meant Ganassi overlooked Pantano, who had to return to Europe
Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images
Pantano made his belated return when a testing accident at Mid-Ohio left Kimball with hand fractures. Having never driven the track or the new-for-2012 DW12 chassis, and with a fair amount of rust to shake off having not competed all season, Pantano was only faster than oval specialist Ed Carpenter in his qualifying group and lined up 24th. But come the race, he posted the second-fastest lap on his way to finishing 14th, ahead of Rubens Barrichello and Castroneves.
Pantano concedes that it was bittersweet to return with Dixon, who added a second title and an Indy 500 victory in 2008, once again as a team-mate after so many years of scratching around for opportunities.
“You have to imagine, one year I was not driving,” he reflects. “The car was new car for me, not even one test, straight to a track I had never seen before and it was quite tough. In the race in the end, we were fast.
“I was really quick in the race, but I didn’t have enough practice to understand the red tyres compared to the hard tyres, how to have the maximum from the tyres. It was hard, that situation. In the race I had more feeling with the car, but it took a little bit of time.”
No further opportunities came at Ganassi, nor elsewhere. He adds: “That was the only opportunity I had. After this, the only opportunity was to find was a minimum €1.5 million to race.”
But his comeback performance impressed all the same.
“I’m really happy that we had an opportunity to have him drive our car,” Hull says. “He did possess what it takes, as a team-mate first and then a team-mate with enormous ability, to be successful.”
Hull has no doubt that if Pantano were to be making his debut in the current landscape, his career would have been totally different – with recent Formula 2 graduates including Christian Lundgaard, Callum Ilott and Marcus Armstrong impressing.
“If he could come out of the time machine to today in IndyCar racing at 24 years old, with the ability he possessed, he’d be right there,” asserts Hull.
Pantano was ring rusty when he got his third outing for Ganassi at Mid-Ohio in 2012, but set the second fastest lap
Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images