Franchitti ready for an emotional return
THE preliminaries and pre-season tests have been completed and Indycar’s movers and shakers have assembled at St Petersburg in Florida for this weekend’s launch of the 2012 Championship. But it promises to be a poignant experience for the participants, including Dario Franchitti, the Scot who is defending his title, because there will not be a minute of the event where Dan Wheldon’s memory doesn’t loom large over the proceedings.
The English driver was killed in a horrific crash in Las Vegas when the Indy competitors last joined battle and, unsurprisingly, men such as Franchitti have found it difficult to forget about the grisly circumstances which sealed his fourth championship, amid a vale of tears.
Thus, the season-opener has turned into a mass tribute to Wheldon, in what was his adopted hometown, and where his younger sister, Susie, will drop the green flag and present the winner’s trophy once the racing has concluded tomorrow evening.
Franchitti has struggled to cope with the death another confrere, having already lost one of his best friends, Greg Moore, on the CART circuit in 1999. He said: “There was never that sort of fist-pumping moment with all the guys [from Franchitti’s Ganassi team] and it won’t happen, because, unfortunately, when I think about that championship, I think about Vegas and I think about Dan. And that is all, really.
“I wanted to get away [in the winter]. It was too raw. It is something I went through with Greg and I asked myself the same question, ‘do I still want to do this?’ And, yes, I do.”
Such resilience will be required by the 38-year-old from Bathgate in the months ahead as he regards the 2012 competition as one of the most unpredictable in the sport’s history.
On the evidence of the assorted teams’ testing, there is precious little between five or six organisations. Privately, that will be a relief to those who govern Indycar, such has been the dominance of Franchitti and his Penske opponent, Will Power, throughout the last two years, with the Scot eventually resisting the voluble Australian’s charge.
“I think there are as many as 15 cars that are capable of winning races and eight or 10 legitimate championship contenders,” said Franchitti, who can anticipate stern resistance from the likes of Power, Scott Dixon and the former F1 star Rubens Barrichello, who has made the Stateside switch.
He added: “We have our work cut out for us, but I can’t wait for the season to start. We are going to try to win the first race and, I hate to be boring about it, win the championship by doing the best job that we can.”
Once the action has commenced, the adrenaline will kick in and Franchitti and Power will resume their often fractious battle for supremacy. But, for the moment, the focus of the drivers remains locked on the tristesse-laden scenes from last October.