Britain’s greatest Indycar driver had a tricky start to the year, but when he clinched his third Indy 500 win he joined an elite club
Let’s start with the bare facts. Four IndyCar championships, a Daytona 24 Hours victory, a class win in the LMP2 category at Sebring and now two Indianapolis 500 wins have become three. It’s safe to say that Dario Franchitti has chiselled his name into the Indycar history books.
But this was done long before May 27 and his latest Indy victory. After he turned his back on Formula 1 in 1997 – when he rejected a daunting, and unattractive, 60-page testing contract by Ron Dennis – the mild-mannered Scot has forged a record-breaking career in American single-seaters. Fifteen years after his first race in CART he has become the most successful foreign driver ever to compete in Indycars. It took until 2007 for him to win his first championship, and then after an unsuccessful foray into NASCAR he returned in 2009 with Chip Ganassi Racing to win anincredible three titles in a row. It looked like the all-new Indycar in 2012 would put an end to the run of success after a trying start to the season, but come ‘the Big One’ the Motor Sport Hall of Fame member reminded everyone why it pays to never give up, even when you’re facing backwards in the pits on lap 15.
“You’re never sure that the win is possible,” he tells us during the post-race victory tour. “I’m never sure in any race what’s really possible. I try and keep an open mind, to do my best. On lap 15, though, I was facing backwards in the pitlane [after he was hit by EJ Viso in the first round of stops] with the front wing missing. I was a bit concerned then!”
An open mind was certainly what the Scot needed after qualifying. It was dominated by the Chevrolet-powered cars – with only the Honda-engined machine of Josef Newgarden making the top 10 – and Franchitti was left languishing down in 16th on the grid. OK, Honda had performance tweaks for its engine before the race, but would these be enough to close that gap?
“I was concerned with the speed in qualifying, definitely,” he admits. “The balance of the car was good, but the speed just wasn’t there. Honda had said all along that there was a new speciication engine coming, and they believed that it was going to be a step forward… it really was as well. When we put it in the car on Carb Day [the inal practice day] there was a big difference straight away. We had the same balance, but the speeds were up, the fuel economy was better – it really helped us.”
Franchitti edged his team-mate Scott Dixon to place his name at the top of the timesheets and take Carb Day honours. However, despite the new pace it wasn’t going to be an easy job to climb through the ield without incident. “The way the draft works with the new car is that it allowed lead changes because it was quite big, and the leader became a bit of a sitting duck because of that. But further back in the pack it was maybe more dificult to pass because of the bigger weight of the car and the fact that it’s Indy. You’ve only got a one-and-a-half lane race track – you’ve got to get right up on the gearbox of the car in front to make those passes.”
Climb through the field he did and with a late yellow for a Marco Andretti crash, Dixon and Franchitti found themselves behind leader Tony Kanaan. After the restart the Chip Ganassi duo peeled past Kanaan, as did Takuma Sato. Franchitti then found a way past his team-mate, followed by Sato. The field was set with two laps to go: Franchitti in front, a ‘sitting duck’, with the Japanese behind. The inal lap began and immediately Sato tried to dive down the inside of Franchitti, but it wasn’t on – he got too low and spun out. “I definitely gave him enough room,” says Franchitti. “I gave him as much room as I had to give him. I gave him more than I had to! Ultimately, though, the fact that I gave him more room saved me because had I squeezed him more he would have collected me – he actually hit me after he spun. Had I been closer he would have hit me harder and we both would have been in the fence.”
Sato saw things differently and claimed that Dario hadn’t left enough space, despite other drivers – such as Kanaan and Dixon – disagreeing. “I was absolutely fair in what I did,” counters Franchitti. “It’s not my fault that he couldn’t hold it down there. I was as high as I could be without getting into the grey [the slippier, non-racing line].
“My job is not to pull out of the way and give him position, certainly not on the last lap of the Indy 500! I was fine with the move up until he said that I didn’t give him room. I had a bit of a chat with him about that. I don’t have a problem with the move; it was the last lap of the 500 and he had to make it, but he wasn’t even halfway alongside.”
A yellow lag was immediately waved and Franchitti cruised across the line, having escaped incident, victorious again. Beside him were Dixon and Kanaan – three of the late Dan Wheldon’s best friends. “Right after I crossed the line I did think about Dan [who won the race last year], absolutely. I look over and see Scott on one side and Tony on the other, and I just thought… ‘That’s incredible’. When you consider that along with Dan’s brothers, Scott, Tony and I carried Dan’s coffin it’s just amazing. You couldn’t write that script – I’m sure, wherever Dan is, he had a good laugh about that.
“All my Indy wins mean a lot to me and it’s difficult to pick one over the other. But having to battle through the ield, as I had to in 2007, was a great feeling. To do that, and survive that last lap was crazy. With all the emotion of the weekend, and honouring Dan, it made this one really special.”
The three Indy wins have elevated Franchitti onto a level with the likes of Louis Meyer, Johnny Rutherford, Bobby Unser and Hélio Castroneves, but, despite being a huge fan of the history of the sport, the enormity of what the amiable Scot has achieved seems yet to have dawned on him. “It was funny,” he says in reply to being asked how it feels to join the three-timers, “right after the race the first driver I saw was Johnny, then I saw Hélio, and then I saw Bobby Unser quite quickly as well. The three-timers were everywhere! I’m very proud to have won at Indy once, never mind three times…” He swiftly moves on before elaborating. “Funnily enough, Johnny, on the first day of practice, came up and gave me his biography. He knows I love reading about the history of the sport so he gave me his book and inside he had written, ‘I hope to welcome you to the three-time winners club really soon’. On Sunday night the message crossed my mind!”
For Franchitti, sitting fourth in the championship standings following the Detroit race, it’s been a difficult start to the 2012 season, as every team has had to adjust to the new Dallara chassis. There’s nothing like big rule changes to shake things up – F1’s Brawn GP in 2009 was the perfect example – but it looks like the Ganassi team is already recovering from an early season stumble. “You know,” says Dario, “we struggled in the irst three races [at St Petersburg, Barber Motorsports Park and Long Beach], and our pace wasn’t great. We ran out of fuel in the irst one, then we had a failure in the second race. We really didn’t look like we were going to win any of the first three.
“Then we went to Brazil and missed pole by a couple of thousandths. We were running well in the race, but got taken out. We came back to finish fifth, so Brazil was a turnaround.“Obviously, winning Indy really helps [towards the championship], so we’re back in the fight. It’s definitely still possible. Like I say, in the years when we’re up there challenging for the championship, until it’s mathematically impossible for anyone to beat us – or impossible for me to win it – it’s not over so we’re going to
keep on fighting.”
Facing the wrong way in the pits, with a missing front wing, on the 15th lap of the Indy 500 was one such time. And it paid off. Now that Ganassi has got to grips with the new car, Franchitti is a deinite title contender.
He’s now one of the most experienced drivers on the IndyCar grid, but with experience comes age. At 39, Franchitti is by no means in the final years of his racing career, but for a man who has never been averse to racing different types of car there is one hole in his CV: a Le Mans-shaped hole. “I’d love to do Le Mans,” he says, clearly excited about the idea. “I haven’t been able to do it before now, though, because with the IndyCar schedule it’s just not possible to focus on it fully. At some point I’d love it to be the next challenge. I’ve been there once as a spectator and obviously Marino [Franchitti, his younger brother] is racing the DeltaWing, so I’d love to go and have a chance to try and win it.” Typically with Franchitti talk soon turns back to the history of the sport. “I was lucky enough this year that Derek Bell gave me one of his old helmets for my birthday to add to my collection. That was deinitely a highlight of my birthday! But yes, I do love sports car racing.
I’ve won Daytona and we’ve won our class at Sebring so I’d love to go to Le Mans and go for that one at some point.” But IndyCar is his world right now and his focus is on the task at hand. Indeed we chatted only days after his third Indy win and when asked about whether he ever sits down and thinks of his achievements to date he sounds quite surprised. “No… I think about the next race,” he says. “I don’t really think about it in any terms other than that. Now that Indy is over it will be Detroit next weekend [where he finished second behind team-mate Dixon].
“I don’t think about the stats or anything like that yet… In the last two days it did hit me a little bit. It’s incredible, but I can’t quite take it in yet. I try and keep quite a tight focus and just get on with it. OK, we did have a big celebration on Sunday night, but it’s back to work now.”