Dan Wheldon and Panther Racing officials are both excited about the veteran driver returning to the team that gave him his break in the IndyCar Series, and both believe that his experience can be the catalyst for a return to Panther's glory days.
Wheldon, now 30, made his IndyCar Series debut with Panther in 2002, getting two starts before signing with Andretti Green Racing. No doubt with a touch of envy, Panther officials then watched with interest as Wheldon racked up Bombardier Rookie of the Year honours in 2003, both the Indianapolis 500 and IRL title success in 2005, and two race wins in each of the 2006, 2007 and 2008 seasons, having moved on again, this time to Target Chip Ganassi Racing.
When the opportunity arose to bring Wheldon back to the Panther fold, therefore, there was no hesitation on behalf of the team, and a deal was struck in late August that would see the Briton installed in the #4 National Guard entry campaigned, with moderate success, in 2008 by Vitor Meira. The challenge, following an early reunion in Surfers Paradise, is now to get a team that has 15 IndyCar Series victories, and won back-to-back titles in 2001 and 2002 with Sam Hornish Jr, back into championship contention after two seasons finishing outside the top ten.
“Rejoining Panther is something I'm very excited about,” Wheldon said, “The team seems to have a good energy right now. It seems to be heading in a very positive direction. They've come off a couple of lean years, but I think everything is there - with some additions that have been made over the winter period - to be, hopefully, what I would consider a very competitive year.”
So competitive in fact that Wheldon believes Panther can compete with his two former teams and Team Penske for the 2009 championship.
“I wouldn't be here if I didn't think we could win it,” he insisted, “It's going to take some hard work - I think the team finished 13th in the championship last year, so it seems like a big jump - but it's not somewhere that is certainly out of the realm of possibilities. The team has shown that they can win championships before, and so have I, and I think, with the combination and hard work and determination, we can definitely do it.”
The team has shown improvement during the two pre-season Open Tests. Wheldon was eighth overall on the oval at Homestead-Miami Speedway and eleventh on the road course at Barber Motorsports Park in the build-up to the season-opener on the streets of St Petersburg - where Wheldon won the inaugural race in 2005.
“Are we as prepared as we would like to be? Probably not,” he admitted, “Do I think that we're in a reasonable position? Yes, I do. And I think we're going to get better as the season progresses.
"Our programme really ramped up at Homestead. With these two days [at Barber] and some [private] testing at Sebring, there's been very limited running, so I think you're going to see us get better and better and better.”