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

Herald Sun - Motoring - - Adventure Special -

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.’’

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