In the wake of his brilliant victory at Indianapolis last weekend Dario Franchitti is clearly emerging as the greatest UK driver in the history of the sport outside Formula 1.
Dario is now a rare, three-time Indy 500 winner and a four-time IndyCar champion with 31 wins to his credit, which means he ranks behind only AJ Foyt, Mario and Michael Andretti and the Unser clan – Al Sr, Bobby and Al Jr – on IndyCar’s all-time winners list.
Franchitti has achieved his three Indy 500 victories in only nine starts, fewer than any of the other six drivers to win three 500s – quite an accomplishment – and is the most successful foreign driver ever to race Indy cars. He’s also raced sports cars with some notable success, winning the Daytona 24 Hours in 2008 with Chip Ganassi’s team and finishing second overall, and first in the LMP2 class, at Sebring the previous year co-driving Duncan Dayton’s Acura P2 car.
Dario has an abiding ambition to compete at Le Mans and I’m sure he will before he retires. Of course his brother Marino is a respected sports car racer and will co-drive the Delta Wing in its race debut at Le Mans in a few weeks.
Franchitti may not have raced in F1 but he’s built an outstanding career in America and has emerged as one of the sport’s finest gentlemen, a true model for the way sportsmen of any stripe should conduct themselves very much in the spirit of his hero Jim Clark. Dario is a true Scottish gentleman much like the legendary Clark. Franchitti is a reserved, contained fellow, a parsimonious Scot who is humble, almost embarrassed to talk about his achievements. He’s very respectful of the sport’s history and always says he doesn’t have the talent of Clark or Stewart. But he does.
Dario’s drive at Indianapolis this year showed all of his strengths – smart, smooth, forceful when required. Whereas Jim Clark was famously able to drive around any car’s handling problems, Dario prefers to get his cars absolutely right. He doesn’t like it when he’s not comfortable in the car, but when he gets it dialled-in he’s sublime and silky smooth. And of course, he has the ability to get the car tuned to what he wants, working closely and comprehensively with his engineer Chris Simmons, a former driver, and in a totally open way with his equally talented team-mate Scott Dixon.
After Franchitti’s win at Indianapolis Chip Ganassi’s team boss Mike Hull said he has the best two-driver team anywhere in the world in big-time motor racing today. Franchitti and Dixon are genuine friends who work together amid utter transparency in an entirely unselfish way. It’s rare for team-mates to understand the value of operating like this and there’s no question that Dario and Scott have taken the art to an extremely high level. The results over the past three and a half years prove it.
Some people have criticised Franchitti for putting too much of a squeeze on Takuma Sato and triggering Sato’s crash in turn one on the last lap at Indianapolis. But Dario’s move was entirely correct and within the framework of IndyCar’s rules, which specify that a driver must leave a ‘car width plus an inch’ of room.
Franchitti left Sato all that and perhaps a little more. He was entirely within his rights and Sato lost it on his own, not because Dario touched him or squeezed him unfairly. Franchitti had to move up, out of the groove and into the dreadfully slippery ‘grey’ while keeping his foot flat on the throttle.
“We’re allowed to leave a car width and an inch and I wanted to make sure I allowed him more than that,” Franchitti commented. “My plan from that point was – deep gulp – I knew I had to go around the outside of (turn) one wide-open, up towards the ‘grey’, to stand a chance of winning. Takuma lost the rear on the way in and I felt the hit. The car was sideways but I kept my foot in it, and that was it.”
A racing driver of the very first order to be sure, and as we say in America, a class act.