UPS and DOWNS
It’s the motoring trip of a lifetime — a two-week odyssey from the highest point in Australia to the very lowest. Craig Duff reports
SNOW still fringes the slopes of Mt Kosciuszko at the Honda Civic Type-R snarls its way to the Thredbo ski resort, but it’s the chill in the air — and the driver behind the wheel — that’s making this a memorable drive.
Indycar champion Dario Franchitti is in his element as the cool temperatures help offset the altitude and let him work the high-revving hot hatch to the redline.
For Franchitti, a 26-race and threetime series winner of the US openwheeled category, it’s a chance to unwind after a hectic season where the Indycar title was only decided in the last race, when he outpaced Australia’s Will Power.
For now, the Target Chip Ganassi driver is dividing his attention between entertaining me and keeping himself amused exploring the handling limits of the Type R.
‘‘I think this has got the trick diff,’’ says the Scottish driver (he’s proud of his Italian heritage, but is a Scot to his sporran), as we approach a tight righthander.
My eyes and his grin expand as he deliberately accelerates entering the turn.
‘‘Yeah it has, it’s a smart bit of kit,’’ he notes as he makes a tiny steering adjustment to compensate for the Civic tightening its line.
‘‘I don’t think they’ve got gearshift in the right spot, it’s too high and forward, but other than that it’s got good balance and it’s fun, which is what these hot hatches are meant to be about.’’
His driving style changes with the vehicle— he’s cruisy in the soft-roader CR-V—‘‘for me, this one’s about being able to get to beach or go camping in the weekends,’’ and progressively lifts his pace in the Accord and more sportsthemed Accord Euro.
‘‘They’re all good cars in their own right and they’re well put together,’’ he notes, ‘‘but it’s hard to buy a bad car these days.
‘‘If you’ve got a bad car, it’s usually because you made the wrong choice.’’
And Franchitti admits to making a few bad choices among his garage of exotic and collectable cars.
‘‘I bought a Ferrari — I won’t say which one — and sold it two weeks later. It was crap.
‘‘I generally like Ferraris though — the F40 and 599 are just precision tools.’’
Franchitti has joined the Honda Adventure— a two-week run from the highest point in the land, Mt Kosciuszko, to the lowest at Lake Eyre — partly to thank his Honda sponsors, but also because he loves Australia. ‘‘I could live here,’’ he says. ‘‘I’m not that keen on the snakes and spiders, but the scenery and people are amazing.’’
Amazing, too, is Franchitti’s laidback attitude.
There’s no sense of the aloofness that often marks world-class motorsport champions.
Honda PR manager Mark Higgins says that’s part of the racer’s off-track appeal to sponsors and fans alike.
‘‘He’s just a guy who likes to have a good time.
‘‘ For Dario, that means driving really, really quickly — and I know it’s a cliche— but out of the car he’s a genuine, regular guy,’’ Higgins says, having counted Franchitti as a friend for the past decade.
Higgins’ job it to promote the variety of Honda vehicles we’re using, but it’s not a big ask.
‘‘Honda makes engines, not just cars,’’ he says before rolling out a pair of Honda lawnmowers on the lawn outside Parliament House in Canberra — and reminding the assembled media the $4.5 million HondaJet will go on sale in 2012. It’s the Honda outboard engines that give Franchitti one of his best memories of the trip, though.
He’s flat on his back enjoying the roll the boat — having recently autographed the 150hp Honda four-stroke to the delight of our guides— when we decide to call it a day in our pursuit of the Murray cod In Lake Mulwala and head for the channel among the submerged trees, where the massive fish wait to ambush smaller prey.
Higgins hands him the rod to wind it in and 30 seconds later Franchitti is being photographed with a four-kilo fish.
For Franchitti it’s the perfect end to a relaxing afternoon — though it’s hard to tell whether it’s the fish — or the disbelieving look on Higgins’s face that is giving him the most joy.
I have to leave the convoy the next day in Mildura as the rest of the group gears up to tackle the desert on a fleet of Varadero and TransAlp dualpurpose motorbikes.
Franchitti — whose racing potential was first identified when his father George bought him a minibike — is looking forward to the challenge, if not the mosquitoes.
‘‘I love riding, as long as there’s nothing wrong with the bike,’’ he says wryly, recalling his 2003 crash while riding a Ducati in Scotland.
‘‘I’d just had it serviced and they crimped an O-ring and I ended up with oil on the back tyre — and a broken back.’’
‘‘It’s life — you accept that sometimes things go wrong — and it least it was mechanical failure and not fault.’’