Dario Franchitti has been one of the stars of the SEMA Show, signing autographs on the BorgWarner stand, accompanied by the BorgWarner trophy which this year he won for the third time in that amazing conclusion to the Indy 500. RACER editor David Malsher caught up with the Target Chip Ganassi Racing star to talk Indy, driving styles, age and motivation.
RACER: Given that we're on the BorgWarner stand, we've got to start with Indianapolis 500. How much of a mental challenge is it going to be for you next year, knowing you're going for win number four, your chance to join A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears in the ranks of “500” legends?
DF: Regardless of whether I'm going for the first or fourth, on or off the track it wouldn't help to think about it. And I think that's where the mental toughness has to come in, what [former mentor] Sir Jackie Stewart would call “mind management.” It would be easy to get carried away and tie yourself in knots about it but that wouldn't work in our favor at all. So although myself and the team are thinking about the race already and we're discussing it, we're not thinking in terms of what another win would mean to us; we're thinking just in practical terms of how to achieve it. We're going to have our hands full and we'll be fighting the usual suspects again.
This year, how soon after the yellow flew on lap 200 were you thinking, “Wow, that's victory number three,” rather than just, “We've just won the Indy 500!”
Probably not until I crossed the finish line again, because the adrenaline was kicking in to such a degree during that final lap following the near miss at Turn 1 that even my feet were shaking. It was such an intense last lap, and it had been such an intense race coming from the back, so it takes a long time to come down from that state and let your thoughts expand to what you have or haven't achieved.
A different intensity to what you felt after you qualified 16th, I assume. That day you didn't look worried: you just looked mad.
I was SO angry, yeah, because I knew the car was fine – I know what a good car and a bad car feel like around that place, and I knew we had a good-handling car. So I was mad because I knew it was simply down to power: we needed more.
Honda had told us a month before that the revisions to the engine for Indy would be significantly better, but we were using up the miles on the old engine for practice and qualifying. But, Honda weren't lying, were they? Look at how strong it was. From the moment we got the new engines in for Carb Day, the car stayed as well balanced as it had been but we were just miles-an-hour quicker on the straights. It was great, because then we knew we were at least on equal level with the Chevrolet-powered cars.
The number of lead changes during the race – 34 or 35 – obviously attracted a lot of attention because it created a great spectacle. But did you feel that it was a bit too much in terms of how easy it was to draft? Had it become a bit like a flat-out old-school IRL race on 1.5-milers?
Hmm…well it was great seeing all those lead changes but yeah, the fact that when your car was really working well you still couldn't gap anyone was a bit frustrating. Cars that, when they ran up front, were 2mph slower than you, could also get towed along in your wake and draft past. And I think some of that was down to having slightly less horsepower, so there's got to be a balance. Indy has put on some great races and this year was great for the fans, but still I think when you've absolutely nailed a corner or nailed a lap, you should be able to gain an advantage and have something to show for it. And I think that will happen, because the engine manufacturers are not standing still – the horsepower numbers will be up next year, so that should be represented in lap speed and in separating the best from the others.
How much different a style is there around Indianapolis Motor Speedway between the old IRL cars and the Dallara DW12 in terms of the engine's power delivery? Do you pick up the throttle at different points on corner exits?
It's actually almost identical. On the road courses it's a different style and that's evolving in terms of working with Honda to improve in that area. I think with the horsepower being a bit lower at Indy, what it did do is change your racing style in terms of how and where you dealt with traffic: making passes and making them stick required different timing. And of course I learned that from being spun to the back of the field!
Yeah, and from that perspective, was 2012 the best of your three wins?
I don't know if I could pick one. In 2010, we could just drive away – although I have to say, it wasn't easy. Watch the video and I'm working hard and on the ragged edge. I actually glanced the wall exiting Turn 1 one lap. But the car was mighty quick. So from that point of view, it was a good race. In 2007, I had the flat tire, had to come from the back to get into contention again. And then this last one involved a drive through from the rear. So…I guess what I'm saying is that I'm proud of them all.
When you get three Indy 500 wins, do you quit kicking yourself over the ones that got away? You say, “Hey, I got three,” and think that's awesome in itself?
In the famous Green Room before the 500, I tend to sit off to one side and try to get my head in gear, and maybe Tony [Kanaan] will come and sit next to me or I'll be pretty much on my own. But before the 2011 race, A.J. Foyt came and sat next to me. Now, I look up to A.J., but just before the biggest race in the world, it's a bit… “Wow”…to have one of the four-time winners come and sit next to you. And he said to me, “You know, I've won a lot of these.” I say, “Umm, yeah, I know…”. He continues: “There were a lot more I could have won, and there were ones I won that I shouldn't have won. At Indy, when it's your day, it's your day.” And after that race, A.J.'s point really sunk home.
There are ones that I think got away from me, and there are others that I won that other people think got away from them! In 2010, we dominated, but in '07, '11 and '12 there were two or three of us that I felt could win. So I don't want to say, “I should have won this one, I should have won that one,” because you can't change it. It's cast in stone, the results sheet says it all and I'm very happy. You look at someone like Tony or Michael Andretti and…it's incredible how they haven't won there. Tony, I think, can still win at least one. Michael never won one and it had nothing to do with talent or speed; it just never happened. I mean, I also think it's amazing that Mario Andretti and Parnelli Jones only won Indy once. That kind of sums the place up: when it's your day, it's your day, like A.J. said.
Obviously the results show that as being the only high point of your 2012 season. But from where you were in the first couple of races, you must be very proud of how you picked your game up thereafter, at least in terms of pace.
Yeah, Barber we made a bit of a breakthrough in the race, but Long Beach we made a breakthrough in qualifying and started to see the benefits of that; and then Brazil was a real turning point, qualifying on the front row. I thought, “Yes! We are on it here.” And from then on, our qualifying was better than it had been in years, but for a million and one reasons we couldn't translate that into race results. I was happy the pace was there, and the rest was stuff that either we couldn't do anything about or there were situations where we made mistakes, whether it was me, the strategy, the pit stops, whatever. But yes, the pace was there and that was good.
Now I do apologize that we always end up talking about age – my fault – despite you coming off a season where you showed you were as quick as ever in qualifying! But have you noticed whether there are races when you don't go for gaps that you might have done, say, 15 years ago?
Ha! Well there are some gaps I've gone for and thought, “What the hell did you do that for?!”
But at Detroit this year, where you came through from deep in the field, there were restarts where you made one or two people look like beginners, too busy watching their mirrors and you just drove around them.
Yeah, we did have some good restarts there and also in Fontana, but there were other restarts through the year which were just terrible! Some of the Long Beach problems were due to the overboost penalty kicking in, but other times it was me not getting the timing right with the turbo boost pressure or slightly misjudging the rate of acceleration.
Trust me, I had far from a perfect season. I went testing at Barber this past Monday, and I learned so much about myself, about how to get the best from this car, and I think that will put us in good shape for next season. So I look back on 2012 and consider there were a lot of things that we – the Target Chip Ganassi Racing team – and I did well, and a lot of things that we and I didn't do well.
Does it surprise you that after 16 seasons in Indy car racing you can still learn so much in a given season or even in a given test session?
Nah, not really. When I did Petit last week, I learned so much from my little brother [Marino] – a bit of a role reversal. As long as you're humble enough to accept that you can improve your game, the opportunity to learn is always there, every time you're in a car. You can't say, “Oh, I know this track, why are we testing here?” The thing is, the game constantly moves on, so you have to learn more about the car and stay ahead of the pack.
And you're confident your motivation for doing that will continue beyond 2013?
Well, let's take 2013 first! I'm out of contract at the end of the year but I love what I do, I love what I get to do…
And there aren't days when you drive into a circuit and think, “Damn, we're here again,” or days when you're just not quite 100 percent up for the fight?
No, there are some tracks I prefer, but I just make sure I do the best job I can even on circuits that I don't like as much; I try to give everything I can, every time out. I've even won on tracks I don't particularly like. So I think it's pretty clear the motivation is still there. It's something Chip and I will talk about some time next year regarding if I want to continue and if he wants me to continue with the team.
I've been lucky to drive with just three teams. Carl Hogan gave me my chance to come into CART IndyCar back in 1997; I drove with Barry Green which then became Andretti Green Racing – a great team with a great bunch of people; and then I joined the Target organization and soon after that I thought, “OK, now I know why they've been so successful.” And I'm not deluded enough to think that I could do this and enjoy the success that we have without them: it's a team sport and those guys have been amazing. So if I do continue beyond 2013, I'd choose to be with Ganassi.