The LMP2 championship may have gone to the Fernandez Acura, but the Dyson Lola-Mazda package has got stronger and stronger as the American Le Mans Series progressed.
Yesterday at Road Atlanta, Marino Franchitti not only took his third straight class pole, but beat the rest of the class field by 1.2s. He told AUTOSPORT about the great strides his team has been making, and his hopes for 2010.
Q. Were you expecting to get pole here or were you expecting it to be harder than that?
Marino Franchitti: I was expecting it to be closer. We are 1.2s ahead of the next car and I did not expect that at all. I hoped we could get pole but I thought be one or two tenths either way. So that was just amazing. It was one of those laps though, it was a blinder.
Q. The track seems to have come to a lot of people today, was that the case with you guys?
MF: We only ran last night. We had an issue on Wednesday, so we only ran in night practice. We only ran one session on Wednesday too, but from lap five of that first session on Wednesday, the car was quick out of the box having never been here before. We haven't touched it really. We've tried stuff but we ended up going back to where we began.
Q. So you've gone with the set-up that you rolled out of the truck with?
MF: Yep. And that's happened a couple of times this year. Our technical director Peter Weston and my engineer Vince Wood, between the two of them they just give us amazing set-ups. At the last race in Mosport, we had an issue with ten minutes to go, and unfortunately we didn't win, but we got pole position, fastest lap and again we hadn't adjusted the car for the race.
Q. The goal is obviously to win here but what are the things that concern you the most about tomorrow?
MF: This is still the first year of this programme. We don't have a big budget and you don't get to do a lot of testing here so we are improving the car on race weekends. That's not an easy thing to do. Sebring was obviously a low point for us, so if we get past the same point tomorrow, we are into the unknown. This year was all about learning and improving the package and that is what tomorrow is about.
Q. So even though you are on pole, you would say the target is to finish?
MF: Absolutely, to keep the car out of the pits as much as possible. And run our race. We are not going to baby anything, we are going to go as hard as we can. We are just going to keep learning.
Q. There are some rumours of rain tomorrow, does that effect your plans?
MF: Some cars you have to, but though I haven't driven this one in the wet, my team-mate has at Mosport and all we did was bolt wets on it and sent him out and it was fantastic. Obviously we have got the windscreen to worry about and that is just something you have to deal with whether you are in a GT car or whether it's just your visor.
Q. You seem very popular in this team, everyone seems pleased for you.
MF: It's a family here. When I was joining this team I tried to speak to people that had been with this team and it is hard to find people that have been with Dyson, because they never leave! James Weaver was here for 20 or something years, Butch [Leitzinger] has been here for 15 years. It's a family. What's important about this team is that no one is treated differently from anyone else. We all have the same level, we all do our job, and if one of us doesn't then we don't win. You can see it.
Q. Does that put more pressure on you tomorrow if it comes into the last hour and you are in the lead?
MF: No, not really. We have been there already this year. We have led the whole race and with 10 minutes to go, and then we ran into a problem. It would just be great to get to the end in a strong position, whether we win or not is not as important as actually just making another step in the development of this car. We are here doing this on our own. Okay RML are in Europe and we are close with them and there is a lot of crossover, but in North America it's us and that's it. Really from where this programme was in Sebring to where it is now is just because of the effort of everybody in Dyson, Mazda and BP. And obviously we are running the bio-fuel in the other car and that is pretty amazing. There are not many series that would even let you do that, so we are running the bio-butanol.
Q. Is that what both cars will be running next year?
MF: We hope to.
Q. For next year, what's the target because you can't keep having learning years can you?
MF: No. For me the idea would be to stay here with Dyson Racing, continue with this programme and hopefully take that next step which is not just competing for race wins but putting it together for a championship and that is going to take another step up in every part of the programme. I would really love to be a part of that.
Q. You raced a GT car at Le Mans with Drayson Racing. Would you like to do that again or would you prefer to go back with an LMP car?
MF: If I go back to Le Mans I hope it's with an LMP car because it really suits me. I love driving the LMPs, they are a huge amount of fun. But also I really benefit a lot from driving the GT car. I think every LMP driver should be made to do it so that they could understand what you go through and to know how difficult it is, without the downforce and the power and everything else. I really like the way it keeps you grounded. Coming from GTs makes sure that you don't forget how difficult it is. I would say I'm better in traffic because of that experience.
Q. Do you feel your career is blossoming now, and that you are becoming the driver you always thought you could be?
MF: Yeah, I am definitely getting where I want to be. The great thing about the tough journey that I've had up to the last few years is how hard I keep working. I see other drivers get to a point, and I don't know if they think they have made it or whatever, but they just stop or they lose that hunger. And for me, given the journey I have had to get here, that will never be a problem. I always feel like I am fighting for my next race. I think I always will because of those challenges on the way up. I'm definitely doing the things I always dreamt I could, pole positions, fastest laps, race wins. Driving an LMP car and developing it. Even just being a part of a team. This is the first time I have been with a team for two years, and this is only my third full year of sportscars.
Q. Which is the best car you have driven of the three LMP2 cars?
MF: That's tough. Obviously I have had the most success in the Lola so that has a special place in my heart. But I would have to say there were bits of each of the Porsche, Acura and Lola that I have really enjoyed and I would like to put them all in one mega car. I think for me the Acura programme, I really became a part of the development of that car. I went from the original Courage through to the development of the Acura, from the first test along. That was a huge learning process for me. With the Porsche it was very reliable and really fun to drive. And although we had some input it wasn't like this year. From the drivers, engineers and mechanics you can see with this year that our signature is on it.
Q. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the Mazda engine?
MF: The last two years I have driven 3.5-litre V8s, but this is the first time I have driven a turbo-car. This is a four cylinder two-litre turbo. But the electronic wastegate controls that you have now, you sometimes don't feel like you are driving a turbo at all. It is quite amazing. You don't feel lag and the gearing is done very well. It's a very light engine, it's about 80 kilos or something. It's a very small compact unit which helps the balance of the car. From where the engine started this year, we have developed and developed, with the TC and mapping and everything else. It continues to make huge strides, and though I wouldn't look at it now and say we are where we want to be, but...
Q. So next year you think you could actually be a frontrunner next year?
MF: We should be. If we continue with it we expect to be battling for wins overall which will be fun. The good thing is the programme has never stood still. We find something, we learn about it, fix it and move on. And that is just the process, but we are here doing it in public because we don't have the resources of a Porsche or an Audi. That's a hard thing to do but also very satisfying when we get it right.
Q. Is today's pole one of your best achievements so far?
MF: Yeah. I got pole at Sebring, which was my first ever ALMS pole, but yes. The thing for me is that the poles have come at Sebring, Road America and Mosport and here!