HPD Blog

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Prodigal Son Returns

Dario Franchitti's Return to IndyCar Racing Starts a Chain Reaction of Team Changes for 2009

From 1998-2007, Dario Franchitti was one of Honda's favorite sons. He won races and pole positions, charmed the media, entertained the corporate clients and schmoozed with his growing legion of fans.

But, after winning the 2007 Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar driving championships, the speedy Scot decided to try stock cars. An uncompetitive ride, an injury and a trip back to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during May combined to make Franchitti long for a return to IndyCars.

And when team owner Chip Ganassi offered him a chance to come back in 2009, Dario didn't hesitate.

"When I went to NASCAR, I shut out everything and I just focused and said, "This is my new career and I want to be successful at it", said Franchitti, who also drove for Ganassi in the Sprint Cup. "When I broke my ankle [in a Nationwide Series race in April], I kind of came up for air, and that's right when Indianapolis was happening. I came to the Speedway and watched rookie practice and that's when I first realized, "I'm not going to run at Indy this year". Then, I got back to focusing on the Cup thing, and while our results were awful, we actually started to run quite well. And then, the team shuts down [due to a lack of sponsorship] and I come back up for air again, and that's right at the point in the season when IRL is doing some of the short tracks, and the road and street tracks, and I'm watching that. Chip started to make noises about, 'Would you come back to IndyCar?' and it got me thinking.

"It all culminated in Detroit. Chip and I went there to discuss the [Number] 41 Target car in [Sprint] Cup. There was a bunch of stuff on the table. But I could see Chip was really excited about the possibility of me coming back to drive in IndyCar, and I was really intrigued by it."

The Detroit weekend sealed the deal.

"I did the track walk, saw a bunch of my old friends - I was walking around with [brother and sports-car racer] Marino and spent some time going around with Danica [Patrick]," he continued. "On Friday morning, I stood at Turn 1 and it was a done deal: "That's what I want to do."

"I knew going down the stretch last year [2007], I'd given it everything. I knew I wasn't going to be 100 percent for another year, so I wanted to go do something else. But when I went away, I realized how much I missed it."

Ganassi's team figures to be the most formidable in the IndyCar paddock since it has the last two driving champions and Indy winners in Scott Dixon and Franchitti.

Franchitti, who inherits the No. 10 entry from former Andretti Green Racing teammate Dan Wheldon, doesn't expect a prolonged transition with his Kiwi teammate.

"I've watched and raced alongside Scott for quite a long time and I would say we have very different driving styles," said Franchitti. "Hopefully we'll both learn a lot and push the team forward.

"Everybody has a slightly different way of doing things, and when looking at data over a period of time, you really learn how certain drivers do certain things. The longer you work with a driver, the more you understand what they do, and certainly at first, you have the 'Oh, my God, he does that?' experience.

"And then you start to understand it more. Looking back on the experience I had with Tony [Kanaan at Andretti Green Racing], for instance, he and I have very different driving styles, and there were a lot of corners - especially on road and street courses - where he would pick what I'd done and translate that, and I would pinch his techniques as well.

"The biggest thing for me to look for is trust. Whether you get on with that person or your personalities are completely different, it's the 'trust' thing. It's something that we're aiming for. I've been lucky that I've had teammates that I get along with and also that I've trusted. I think Scott's a great character. He's going to push me for sure." Dario's domino started a chain of events few saw coming. Wheldon, who had scored six victories during his three years with Ganassi and never finished worse than fourth in the point standings, immediately took a job with Panther Racing.

"John Barnes and Panther gave me my start in IndyCar," said the 2005 Indy 500 winner and IRL champion. "They tested me, and I ran my first race for them, so this is a homecoming for me.

"I think it's the perfect time for a change for me also. We'll have a one car team, and having everything focused on you is what a driver likes. This has always been one of the strongest teams and I'm excited to get 2009 started."

Despite several strong showings the past two years for Panther. Vitor Meira was out. But not for long. A.J. Foyt hired the quick Brazilian for the ABC Supply car.

"I like that boy. He stands on the gas and I think he's going to be real good for my team," Foyt, the Indy 500 legend, said of his new driver.

Meira, winless in 93 starts, is more motivated than ever.

"A.J. has had a lot of his success at Indianapolis and I think this could be very good for my career," said the two-time Indy 500 runner-up. "I know it's a business and I don't have any bad feelings, but there is definitely one team I want to beat next year."

The other driver change came at Luczo/Dragon Racing, where rookie Rafael Matos, the 2008 Firestone Indy Lights Series champion, replaced veteran Tomas Scheckter.

"After winning the Atlantics and Indy Lights championships back-to-back, Rafa has shown he's got a lot of talent and that's why we hired him," said co-owner Jay Penske. "We're a one-car team, but we think we can grow a lot together."

Matos, who came to this country with $400 and big dreams, said this was the culmination of his journey. "My whole goal when I left Brazil was to get a good ride at the top level of American open-wheel racing. This is so good I can't explain it."

Making IndyCar Racing More Fan Friendly

The best thing about the IndyCar series? Close competition.

The worst? Oftentimes, it's too noisy to tell the person sitting next to you how exciting it is to watch Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan battle wheel-to-wheel.

Since its inception in 1996, the Indy Racing League has been known for great racing and loud engines. Real loud. So loud, the noise is almost painful.

But Roger Griffiths of Honda Performance Development intends to have the normally-aspirated V-8s that power the entire IndyCar lineup singing a different tune in 2009.

"We're going to put a silencer on the engines next year and give them a much sweeter sound," said Griffiths, the race team technical leader for HPD.

"I have been pushing for it, and IRL management finally said 'Go for it,' so that's what we're doing."

A native of the London suburbs, Griffiths spent five years working with Formula One engines and chassis for Sauber and Minardi, and even designed a Le Mans entry before coming to America in the 1990s, when CART ruled with turbocharged engines.

The IRL engines have always made a piercing noise, and when Honda joined the League in 2003, its power plant was just as ear-splitting as all the others, thanks to the rulebook. Griffiths said he never considered lobbying for a change until the Acura program started in the American Le Mans Series in 2007.

"I never thought about it until we went into the ALMS, and they have a noise restriction," said Griffiths. "Our Acura engine was so loud that we got busted by the Series, and suddenly, we had to put some real effort into fixing this situation.

"So, we came up with our own silencer system."

HPD has now taken that system and applied it to the IndyCar engine.

"We ran the silencer for the first time back in February at Phoenix, and it worked so well, I immediately called [former HPD President] Robert Clarke, who was in Japan. It was 3 a.m. [there] and I woke him up. I held my cell phone out by the track and asked him if he could hear it, and he said he couldn't.

"I hadn't been around Indy Cars since they ran turbos, and this now sounded like they did in the mid-90s, you know. It had that pretty whine."

The next test came at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway last May.

"We ran it on Hideki's [Mutoh] car during his rookie test at Indy last May, and it was 12 decibels quieter. You could actually carry on a conversation in pit lane with your headsets on.

"It was so refreshing."

In addition to sounding like an Indy Car should, the 2009 Honda V-8 will have an all-new exhaust system that will bolt on the car, but as far as adding more 150 horsepower on road courses, as had been discussed, Griffiths doesn't think that's feasible.

"It's extremely difficult to make those kinds of power changes to a normally-aspirated engine," he explained.

"Our hope is that the power will be about the same, because using the silencer will likely cause a hit in performance.

"But, I think we can make it quieter and keep the performance."

Talk lately has been centered on Audi, Porsche and Alfa-Romeo possibly joining Honda in the IndyCar Series in 2011. HPD would very much welcome the competition but, until then, it's status quo for good reason.

"We're not going to have any competition for two more years, so there aren't going to be any significant [development] changes [to the engine]," said Griffiths. "I think we'd all like more power, but we're almost on the edge of being too fast at [Indianapolis Motor Speedway], so we'll just concentrate on performance and reliability."

So, even if the engines aren't any faster in '09, at least they'll be much more pleasant to the ear.

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