Marshall Pruett, SPEED.com
Marshall Pruett, SPEED.com
With the 2011 season just around the corner, Dario Franchitti shared his thoughts and opinions on a number of topics in a two-part interview with SPEED.com. As IndyCar teams get ready to test at Barber Motorsports Park on Monday and Tuesday, the Scot is clearly ready to get the championship under way.
MARSHALL PRUETT: Fitness. You always turn up at the opening round looking trim and fit, but I never hear you mention fitness training or working out. In fact, you really only talk about sleeping in, eating chocolate and taking it easy…are you an alien, is it genetics or do you actually go hard at the gym?
DARIO FRANCHITTI: I kind of like to lull people into a false sense of security about that because I see a lot of guys talking about their amazing workout routines and all this kind of stuff. I like people to underestimate that side of me. And I work hard at it. I work hard every day, whether it's the cardio side, the strength side. So it's not something I just generally go on about but – and I think some of that is because I do it for its benefit in the car; I’m not some guy that just loves working out. But I do it because of the results I seen the car.
It's a constantly moving target; it’s something you've got to prove every year. Because the other guys are upping their game and you've got to try to stay one step ahead of them. Put it this way, when I went to NASCAR and I didn't really work out for six months I already noticed a big, big difference, and it was hard to get back in shape. I was on the Montoya diet…he was my nutritionist. (Franchitti has a hearty laugh at his old friend’s expense)
So with where my fitness is at today, I try to keep that at a constant high level. Recently, I was in Monaco with (his brother) Marino [Franchitti] and (cousin) Paul [di Resta], and I went running with them and that was interesting because I do a lot of my training on my own and I find it's good for motivation to do it on my own but it was fun to train with them. Just to push myself that extra bit because of that competition side of me was going with the training and that was nice.
PRUETT: What kind of excitement do you or don’t you start to feel as the new racing season approaches? Is it anything like when you were a kid in the 1990s, or has that changed? More business-like, maybe?
FRANCHITTI: I think with IndyCar and with CART before that there was a long time that I was driving for the sort of the same teams and the same championships and the same cars, essentially. The same tracks and stuff like that. So it felt… the excitement was there. But it was a different excitement than maybe like showing up for the DTM for the first time or showing up at Homestead for my first CART race. That was a different type of excitement. Or the excitement coming back from NASCAR and getting back to my first season in 2009, getting back into the IndyCar series. That excitement level was something very, very special.
I suppose the great thing is I still feel that excitement. I still get those butterflies when I think about going to this first test this week at Barber. And then showing up for St. Pete. I suppose the tough part is it's been so bloody long since I got near an Indy car. That's one of the odd things about the testing rules nowadays and I haven't sat – I did 50 laps at Sebring or something – apart from that, I haven't really sat in a car since Homestead. Being out of the seat for so long also helps to build that excitement.
PRUETT: How much of a pre-season planning session do you have with the team? Do you sit down and talk out the strategy for the year, what new challenges you expect to face and how to overcome them, or is it less articulated than that—a bit more free flowing?
FRANCHITTI: Well, I’m a details guy. I love to work with the details of the problems. I like the details and I like the structure. Those things work well for me. So, Scott [Dixon] and I, at the end of last year, we went to the debriefs for the 2010 season and told them where we felt the team could improve, where we ourselves needed to improve. I know where I needed to improve. And (Franchitti’s race engineer) Chris [Simmons] discussed that, where we felt the improvements for this year needed to come from on both sides and we were on the same page on most things. And so we've been working over the winter to address all those problems.
He and I will do that final pre-call before we turn any wheels at Barber just to double check what we’re going to do, and all that sort of stuff. We plan a lot, but ultimately, you still get to the track and whatever planning you do and development, and all that, it still comes down to you've got to eventually drive the wheels off the thing. So there's all that planning and all that science and technology behind it but there's still the fun part of getting out there and working with the engineer and making the car faster, working with the team and getting out there and grabbing the thing by the scruff of the neck to see what you can do with it.
In the off-season we've been preparing as much as possible, but you and I have been around racing long enough, you can't script how things are going to go. You prepare to the best of your abilities, you try and improve your weaknesses, strengthen the weak areas, and then you’ve got to adapt each second, whether it's the driver or the engineer, the guys doing the pit stops, the guys organizing the stuff.
Racing is about how quickly you can adapt to challenges. And so, yeah, I think if you plan too much and you have too much of a game plan you're going to look stupid because you can never predict what other teams are going to do and what obstacles they’ll throw in your way. So it's very much a sport that you’ve got to combine that preseason planning but you've also got to be able to adapt bloody quickly.
PRUETT: You’re heading into your third season with Chris Simmons as your engineer—does a driver/engineer relationship only get better with time, or do you find that you can peak or plateau together?
FRANCHITTI: I think it depends. It can go either way. You can keep improving as you understand each other better or you can become too comfortable. And a lot depends on the personality of the individuals involved. Allan MacDonald and I had our best season together after, I think, it was our fifth or sixth season. Chris and I, we push each other really hard. The relationship can be quite – what is the word I'm looking for? – we constantly strive to improve ourselves and we push the other to improve as well.
That, to me, keeps it fresh and hopefully, we’ll keep improving. I've been just very, very happy with the way our relationship has gone from the very first test.
PRUETT: What’s your take on having two new, young teammates in the mix? The last young drivers you had were Marco Andretti and Danica Patrick, and they seemed to benefit from your input and advisement. Do you see your relationship going any differently with Graham Rahal and Charlie Kimball, or do you see yourself as the leader of the pride who needs to keep the young lions in their place?
FRANCHITTI: I think it's a very different situation we had at Andretti-Green back in the day with the four cars. Whether it was when Dan [Wheldon] first came along or Marco or Danica, that was a single team with four cars. With what Chip has for this season, they’re two separate teams now with the Target team and the other team. I see Scott and I very much focusing on trying to make sure the Target team continues to function at the level it is, and trying to challenge for the championship again and trying to win Indy.
So I think it's very much, other than Chip owning both teams, the other team is very much at arm’s length. Not in a bad way, but that’s how things are structured. Although I think they’re going to have access to most of everything we do, the Target team is pushing ahead like we do to prepare for another championship run.
PRUETT: I’m not sure if it’s a difference on the track or in how you two work with your teams, but have you been able to sort out where the fraction of a second difference between you and Dixie exists over the course of a championship season? You’ve seemed to have that advantage since you arrived at Target Chip Ganassi. And could he gain the same advantage this year—turn the tables a bit?
FRANCHITTI: Well, first of all, you always want to go out and win. You want to beat every single person on the track. And you have to have that belief in yourself that you can go out there and beat everybody; that's a given. I think with Scott and I, with some of the other teammates I’ve had, Tony [Kanaan], for instance, there's not enough of a difference you can't measure. It's so close. Sometimes it's just the breaks. Sometimes it's maybe he's making a slightly different decision or it’s something out with your control. Some days Scott’s better than I am, some days I’m better than Scott. As far as just myself, my team, whether it’s an No. 9 car guy or a No. 10 car guys, the engineers, some days those guys do it better, some days we do it better. It's a very tight thing. Scott, at any point, on any track, can show me the way around.
It's interesting on the type of tracks. As we've discussed before, he, on the ovals, on the bigger ovals, maybe the 1.5-mile tracks and a little bit at Indianapolis--I've learned a lot from Scott. And on the road courses and the street courses he's learned from what I do. And so that's been very interesting.
You go to the track and we do identical lap times and you look at the data and you just start laughing because maybe Scott would nail the first part of the lap and just not do a good job on the second half of the lap. And I would be crap on the first half of the lap and then just nail the second half of the lap. And you think, God, if we could just tie all this together nobody would touch us.
It happened last year so many times. The difference between a pole position or a third position, or whatever – it's so minuscule. It's so difficult to measure. If you think about it too deeply sometimes it can drive you mad.
PRUETT: We know where most of the major players in the 2011 IndyCar championship will drive—do you look at the same title contenders you dealt with last year as your primary rivals, or do you see a few others who could make life tougher for you?
FRANCHITTI: It's always going to get tougher, isn’t it? That's the thing, it’s a constantly moving target. As the years go by, people are closing in on the ultimate set-up, drivers have been getting more experience, teams are getting more experienced.
We, ourselves, and the Penske guys have set the bar and it's giving people something to shoot for. I think that there's a lot of drivers I see, pretty much like last year, I think there’s a lot of guys that can mount a challenge on any given weekend. But I think to do it for a full season is going to be tough for them. And from that point, as a pure championship challenger, I think I look at Scott, obviously, and the guys over at Penske.
Then you look at races and, God, the list is as long as you want to make it. Regardless where he ends up, if he ends with a full season deal, Tony Kanaan is always a threat. The fact that he doesn't have a drive right now and we have the drivers of the caliber of him and Wheldon sitting on the sidelines, Paul Tracy, all these guys, it's not good for the championship.
PRUETT: That’s my next question. What do you think when you see your boys Kanaan, Wheldon and Tracy–past open-wheel champions and all former teammates of yours–fighting hard just to remain in the series? Is that something you ever imagined back in the day? Being your teammate seems to be a risky proposition…
FRANCHITTI: Dixie's always told me being his teammate was a risky proposition!
If you add in [Sebastien] Bourdais to that list, he has decided he'd like to come back and do it, which is great. He and I talked about it in Australia (Franchitti and Bourdais were teammates at the Gold Coast 600 V8 Supercars race last October). I could tell by the questions he was asking, he wasn’t just idly making chitchat; he was interested and I'm glad that he's looking at the possibility of coming back. That would be great. He decided for a while he just didn't want to do it. And you’ve got guys like TK, first of all, and Wheldon, who have been, they've been big stars in our series. They've been big supporters of the IndyCar series. And now they're sitting there on the outside looking in. Dan’s had his struggles but – as I said to somebody the other day, if I was running a car at Indianapolis I would be hiring Dan Weldon.
And then you’ve got Tony, he's won the championship as well, he’s still, even last year, I felt, when the team was just in disarray he managed to win a race. And he's a championship challenger. He's one of the elite-level drivers, as far as is driving ability. And you talk about his stuff with his fans and his interaction. He's one of the stars of our sport. Him and Dan. And Paul Tracy is right there along with them, PT won his championship in Champ Car but PT’s still got it. Whatever his age, I think we need to be looking after them – when I say looking after these guys, we need to be putting them in cars. Those guys put behinds in seats. Those guys attract TV, they attract people to the races.
And I'm not talking – when I say look after, I'm not talking about giving them some sort of pension. I talking about these guys are still guys who can go out and win races and win championships. Come on. At this stage, I'm pretty shocked. I'm pretty shocked by it. With all the great things that are happening in our series, that's one thing we need to try and address. There's no magic checkbook anymore, we just have to find a different way to make it work for those guys.
I’m happy to be in a stable environment with Chip for the season and with Team Target. It’s a big deal. I don't underestimate it at all.