In his understated way, Dario Franchitti scored one of the great achievements of the 2012 motor racing season when he won the Indianapolis 500 for the third time in the past six years.

That feat put him in the company of the likes of Bobby Unser, Johnny Rutherford, Mauri Rose, Wilbur Shaw and Louis Meyer. Dario also won a string of three IndyCar championships from 2009-11 and has established himself in recent years as the gold standard of Indycar racing.

At Indianapolis, Franchitti led team-mate Scott Dixon across the line in a resounding 1-2 for Chip Ganassi’s team. Early in the 500 Dario survived an incident in the pits with EJ Viso, half-spinning after Viso clouted him, but came back through the field in company with Dixon to race for the win at the end. Without doubt, it was as fine as any performance we saw in motor racing in 2012.

The rest of Dario and Dixon’s season didn’t go anything like as well as Ganassi’s Honda engines struggled to compete on power and reliability with the Chevrolets of Penske and Andretti. Dixon won in dominant style at Belle Isle in Detroit the week after the 500 with Franchitti finishing second. Dixon scored an equally dominant win at Mid-Ohio in August but there wasn’t much more to write for either of Ganassi’s drivers.

Dixon hung on in the championship battle but in the end neither Dixon nor Franchitti were serious factors.The title was fought out by Ryan Hunter-Reay for Andretti Autosport and Will Power for Penske.

Will Franchitti, Dixon and Ganassi’s team bounce back next year? It all depends on Honda’s ability to make its single turbo 2.2 litre V6 compete on equal terms with Chevrolet’s twin turbo V6. Drivers, team and engine manufacturer showed what they can do at Indianapois this year, so there’s reason to believe they will respond to the challenge in 2013.

Meanwhile, Franchitti has proven he’s a truly great driver. He’s smooth, precise and thoroughly involved technically. Dario works very closely with his engineer Chris Simmons, a former Indy Lights driver, and Franchitti and Dixon also work closely together in a completely open way as true team-mates.

indycar  Appreciating Dario Franchitti

As everyone knows, Dario also loves the sport’s history. Among so many of today’s disinterested professional drivers, he’s a rare student of racing. Franchitti loves racing for what it is and can’t imagine retiring. He expects to race Indycars for a few more years at least and looks ahead to racing sports cars into his forties. He’s done quite a bit of ALMS with Honda and Acura LMP1 and P2 cars and has always harboured an ambition to win Le Mans. And as he says, beyond that there’s always vintage racing.

Dario is a much more well-rounded driver than most contemporary F1 stars. He deserves our accolades just as much, if not more than the likes of Vettel, Alonso and Hamilton. Dixon is also a first-rate racing driver, although he’s even more understated than Franchitti. Chip Ganassi knows he’s fortunate to have two excellent drivers who work together as one.

New IndyCar champion Ryan Hunter-Reay came on strong through the middle and end of the season after being out of luck at Indianapolis where he qualified on the front row but dropped out early in the 500 with a blown engine. But Hunter-Reay won three races in a row in July and August and beat Will Power to the championship with a clean, smart drive in the final race, a 500-miler at the high-banked California Speedway where Power ended the year against the wall.

indycar  Appreciating Dario Franchitti

Hunter-Reay is one of many drivers whose career was not served well by the long-running CART/IRL war. It’s taken him ten years and half a dozen teams to finally arrive as a champion with Michael Andretti’s multi-car operation and I have no doubt that Ryan and Andretti Autosport will be hard to beat next year in company with Power and Penske’s team.

Other potential winners next year include last year’s top rookies Simon Pagenaud and Josef Newgarden while Graham Rahal has moved to his father’s team where he hopes to turn his obvious potential into results. In the prime of his career at 39, Franchitti will face plenty of competition next year.