Considering his appreciation for some of motor racing's heroes and their versatility in being able to drive as many different cars as possible, it's refreshing to see Dario Franchitti driving something other than his usual No. 10 Target Dallara-Honda IndyCar for once.
Add in the fact he's co-driving at Level 5 Motorsports with brother Marino – a rare reunion given their usual schedule conflicts and locked-in roles in years past at different teams – and Dario's homecoming to the American Le Mans Series and Petit Le Mans for the first time since 2009 has been a major benefit to all involved. In two prior Petits, Franchitti estimated only completing roughly 20 race laps.
The elder Franchitti, the four-time IndyCar champion, is now driving his third iteration of HPD prototype. Level 5's HPD ARX-03b is the manufacturer's new P2-spec chassis for this year, although it has roots in prior models that have raced since the original ARX-01 came to life in 2007.
He drove with Andretti Green on several occasions in 2007, in the first P2-spec ARX-01a, then with Highcroft Racing in 2009 in the ahead of its time P1-spec ARX-02a, which was the first P1 prototype to carry wider front tires. As he explained Thursday, getting the handle on the newest HPD, one that has a much smaller rear wing and lower horsepower, takes a bit of getting used to but is no less fun.
“Yeah going back, the first ones with either Andretti Green or Highcroft had the really big back wing, so they had massive downforce. They were probably my favorites to drive,” he said. “They had a pretty good motor, too. This one would be interesting with the right tires, but unfortunately it's not a case where they were able to do one of the right size.
“This chassis is good. The guys have done a really nice job of tuning it. I got a handle on it pretty well. The engine has a very narrow power band but it's really fun to drive. I'd love going forward for the P2 cars to have more power, because we're struggling to pass the GT cars in a straight. PC, we're a lot quicker in the corners but they're closer on the straights.”
The chance to drive this car came as a last-minute opportunity. Franchitti had originally expressed interest in joining a number of the IndyCar brethren at the V8 Supercars' Gold Coast 600 at Surfers Paradise, although team owner Chip Ganassi didn't take kindly to it.
This was a different story – he was going to attend anyway to watch Marino before getting the call to say, “Hey, if you're gonna be here, you might as well drive.” Additionally, the depth in P2 – eight cars with four of them additional entries from the European Le Mans Series – helped convince him of taking this opportunity.
“Chip was OK with this and Marino told me too, ‘It'll be deep with some of the European guys,'” he said. “There's guys like Warren Hughes (Murphy Prototypes), I haven't seen him in a while. There's (Martin) Brundle's kid (Alex), (Tom) Kimber-Smith. Really a lot of good teams and drivers.”
The Franchittis have actually been swapped from the initial car they were in for testing, the oft-considered “second” HPD (No. 95) to the team's No. 055 instead. Although Dario admitted he wasn't exactly sure of the reasoning, he understood the concept of ensuring Level 5 team principal Scott Tucker and co-driver Christophe Bouchut would make the 70 percent mark to score points and clinch the class title.
The change has meant a shift in crew and engineers – Franchitti has known both Jeff Braun (Colin's dad and @jvbraun on Twitter, a very active and engaging follow in the sports car community) and Rick Mayer for years. The car switch meant Franchitti would be working with Mayer, formerly of Risi Competizione Ferrari, instead of Braun.
“I've known them both for a really long time, Rick going back all the way, way back when Marino drove for Risi longer ago than I can remember,” he said. “But that's the fun of it. It's a deep team with a good bunch of people.”
Much of Thursday, aside of the usual practice runs, was spent on driver change practice. Franchitti said he needs to shake off the cobwebs.
“Marino's been very active with it, driving a PC car, so he has a lot of experience with this and I don't,” he admitted. “We're not planning too many driver changes so the ones we do make, we have to get them right.”
Away from the track it's been busy, too. Tuesday was spent with a day trip to New York to celebrate Target's 50th anniversary – Scott Dixon and Juan Pablo Montoya were also present. Last Thursday, he was testing his IndyCar at the Milwaukee Mile.
But perhaps the true star of Franchitti's trip back to Petit, where he's seeing old friends in the paddock (IndyCar refugees Bruno Junqueira, Martin Plowman and Bertrand Baguette, among others such as Patrick Long and Jorg Bergmeister), is his mode of transportation. Before arriving, he tweeted a pic of his 1973 Porsche 911 hot rod he drove down. Leave it to the Scotsman to wax poetic about his set of wheels…
“I brought my old hot rod,” he said. “It was down at the Flying Lizard display recently – Franz Blam, Thomas' (Flying Lizard race strategist) father – he's a good man. If you get someone to work on your cars, it's great when you get someone who was there on the 935s. His history with Porsche goes back however long it goes. It's a funny but great old car.”