Imagine for a moment you are Dario Franchitti. Or, for argument's sake, Will Power.
You have spent the best part of 2010 racing each other, in 17 events, to determine the IZOD IndyCar Series championship. One has been the class act on the ovals, the other has been that and more on the road courses and street tracks. The season ends at Homestead, the Scot snatching a narrow points victory, to claim his third IndyCar title. So how do you start your off-season? You travel halfway around the world, to race each other again, but this time in the unfamiliar environment of V8 Supercars.
Welcome to Australia's Gold Coast in Queensland. CART (which became Champ Cars) and then eventually IndyCars, too, have made the journey across the Pacific Ocean in the past to race on the streets of that country's sun-blessed playground for almost 20 years. When A1 GP stepped into that role a year ago but failed to show up at the last minute, the V8 Supercars were promoted from support act to headliner. This year, the government of the state of Queensland wanted its considerable backing to be spent, still, on international drivers. But, with the IndyCar Series finished for 2010, how to make that happen?
The solution was to give air tickets to Franchitti, Power and a cast of 16 other internationals, and get them up to speed as V8 Supercar co-drivers for the Armor All Gold Coast 600.
Simple, really. Except, the V8 Supercars are not like any other racecar. They are a mix of hi-tech rocketships and no-tech dinosaurs. Imagine building a Ford Fusion or Chevy Malibu sedan to the same specification as a BMW M3 GTR,then inserting a small block V8 at the front and a live axle at the back. The mutant hybrid that results would be something akin to a V8 Supercar.
This series sees Holden (GM's Australian brand), racing Fords, and both Franchitti and Power (LEFT) were assigned to Ford teams, each to drive one of the 620hp Falcons. It would be wrong to say that the race was not quite as pressure-packed as a points-scoring IndyCar round might be…but Dario's first words to me, regarding his rivalry with Power, was, “Have you seen Will's trousers?”
The Gold Coast 600 comprises two 300-kilometer races, one on Saturday, one on Sunday. The earlier edition started badly for Power, who grew up in Toowoomba, about 100 miles northwest of this track. In fact, it was a disaster for all three Ford Performance Racing entries, which qualified in the top 10 but got caught up in the inevitable first-time-through-the-hairpin melee. The Australian was out on the spot.
Meanwhile, Franchitti settled down in the 20s, with Power's Penske teammate Helio Castroneves right behind him. Throughout the race, Dario and co-driver Steven Johnson made some ground, but they remained a lap down in 16th by the end of the race.
“A shit start,” Franchitti admitted, though since it was his first standing start in 16 years, you could forgive that.
Power's verdict was less clear. “What happened?” he asked.
Well, you arrived at the first corner, fellow V8 Supercar first-timer Jacques Villeneuve's Ford was sideways across the track with his foot on the gas instead of the brake and, er, boom.
Sunday's race was much different. Power's co-driver Steven Richards qualified on the outside of the front row, and he started the race. The team seemed set for a strong result until a yellow flag set off a flurry of pit stops. Richards headed to pit lane but, in the kind of hilarious pit action for which FPR is becoming infamous, Power wasn't ready. Despite being prepared to pit the car on a yellow, no one in the team had told him to get his helmet and gloves on until Richards was in pit lane.
Worse, in the other FPR car, Luke Youlden was stacked behind, waiting for fuel and tires. By the time the Marx Brothers-like stop was done, first and fourth had become 24th and 26th. “I feel sorry for Steve,” groaned a woebegone Power after the race.
Franchitti (RIGHT), meanwhile, ran just outside the top 10, and was as high as second during a pit sequence, but there was an IndyCar influence in how his race unfolded. Helio Castroneves was trying to get off the racing line for faster cars, after an earlier delay; Dario's co-driver Johnson clouted him, and then was hit, in turn, by Scott Dixon's Holden. The car was out on the spot.
But the verdict was that the IndyCar rivals acquitted themselves well. “They are great to drive,” said Power. “It's great to get a chance to race close and be able to rub panels without crashing.”
Both men were getting faster, too. Franchitti was a bit off the pace of Johnson, but Power was within tenths of Richards – and such was the pace of the car, they should have been a podium threat.
Next year's race promises to bring a full grid of 29 international racers to the Gold Coast. But that race might not see Power and Franchitti face off again, despite the 2011 calendar indicating that the Supercars will race a week after the IndyCar finale.
“I think I'll be busy,” said Power trying to keep a straight face. “The IndyCar champion will have a fair bit of promotional work to do….”
…and trouble in Paradise
Surfers Paradise first hosted an Indy car race in 1991, and when John Andretti scored a surprise victory in that race, it set in motion a fascinating sequence of results. Not until 2007 did the Gold Coast spectators see a repeat winner.
The subjects of our story shone there, too. Dario Franchitti took pole in 1998, only his second visit to the track, but was beaten to the checkers by Alex Zanardi. The following year, Dario took pole and victory (LEFT) on his way to runner-up in the championship.
Will Power, like Franchitti, took pole in his second visit here, driving for Walker Racing under the Team Australia banner. However, a wild maneuver by Sebastien Bourdais bent his suspension and gave him a DNF.
The following season, Power again took pole, but during a pit stop, the team released him into the path of a rival, and the resultant collision sent him to the back. When Champ Car and the Indy Racing League merged in '08, Surfers became a non-championship event and, for a third straight year, Power took pole and saw it all slip away. This time the damage was self-inflicted as he clouted a wall while leading.
That was also the race that saw Dario's return to open-wheel racing after his NASCAR sojourn. Replacing Dan Wheldon at Chip Ganassi Racing, he took fourth on the grid and looked set to finish there until clipping a tire chicane and spinning. Since then, you'll have noticed he's made amends!