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The Way It Is/ Taking a close look at Dario Franchitti and Andretti-Green's IRL championship-chasing season

by Gordon Kirby
In Champ Car, Sebastien Bourdais's run to his fourth title looks inevitable and largely uncontested as the organization's season drifts to its off-shore conclusion with no more races in the United States this year following last week's expected cancellation of the organization's planned Phoenix season-closer and a seven-week break until the next race in Surfers Paradise.

On the IRL side, the Indy Car series has been enjoying an exciting, controversy-filled championship battle between Dario Franchitti and Andretti-Green and Scott Dixon and Chip Ganassi's team which rose to new heights of spectacle and squabbles in Sunday's Belle Isle revival race. After the pair crashed together in a wild, last lap accident, Franchitti goes into next weekend's IRL Chicagoland season-closer with a slender, three point lead over Dixon.

This week, I'm going to take a look at how this championship battle took shape between the duelling drivers and teams. In today's column, we discuss the season with Franchitti's team leader John Anderson while Thursday's column will feature Ganassi's IRL and Grand-Am team managing director Mike Hull.

Known to all as 'Ando', John Anderson is an Australian with more than thirty years experience in the sport. Anderson is a veteran crew chief who oversees the running of Franchitti's car and calls the pit strategy. He says the trigger to a much more competitive and successful '07 season was a poor 2006 season wherein Andretti-Green won just two races and finished a dispiriting sixth (Tony Kanaan), seventh (Marco Andretti), eighth (Franchitti), and eleventh (Bryan Herta) in the championship.

"Last year was a miserable, lean year, and it really put the spur to all of us," Anderson remarked. "We sort of dragged our tails at the end of the season and thought, 'Woe is us. What are we going to do to fix this?' I think with this particular season the groundwork was laid last year in having a miserable season. It's the old cliche, but we put our noses down and it worked.

"There was nothing major, really, but a lot of detail stuff and especially with engineering. We had a few changes and rearranged the team a little when Danica came on board and everything seemed to gell.

"It's a funny deal," Anderson added. "I remember years ago being in the same situation when we had been knocking on the door some times, and then we won a race and one of the guys said, 'Man, what did we do different?' All of a sudden, the door had opened and you think, well, what was so hard about that? But you know you can do it."

Anderson says if there's any key to this year's success it's the old story of unrelenting hard work and attention to detail.

"It's no magic formula," Anderson commented. "I think as far as the team is concerned, it's the first year I've worked with Dario's crew chief, Jeff Grant, who used to be with Forsythe and the guy is magic. He cares so much. I'll be home having dinner and I'll get a phone call from him saying, shouldn't we be doing this or that? He's thinking all the time about how to put the car together.

"After the Michigan crash we had to put a car together pretty smartly and Dario got in the thing at Kentucky and was quick out of the box and couldn't tell the difference. And that goes back to Jeff and all the guys putting in the time and effort. They've done a terrific job, the best I've seen since I've been here at Andretti-Green."

Anderson compliments the team's engineering group but he says an important aspect to the team's racing philosophy is not allowing the engineers to get too carried away. Anderson says team managers Kyle Moyer and Kim Green keep the engineers headed in a practical and effective direction.

"We've got a lot of engineers but it's not engineering-led," Anderson observed. "Kyle and Kim keep a pretty good finger on how far it goes because sometimes with four teams we've got too much information. But I really do feel that each engineer does a very good job with their driver.

"The guys all confer and debrief after every session. Allan MacDonald and his engineering partner Dave Seifert have really gelled together and their relationship with Dario is very good. Allan is particularly good in spending so much time looking at the data and asking, what if I did this or that, or changed this? His track record of what he gives the driver for a setup has been fantastic.

"Obviously, if you can unload quick for the first session you carry that advantage through the weekend and everyone else is struggling to catch up with you. If you've got a good lead with your setup early in the weekend it usually translates into a good race setup. But again, there are so many factors and because it's so close now, every little detail really matters."

Anderson adds that the driver is the key to it all, as always. "The driver is the weak link in the mechanical chain," he remarked. "He's the one who can be up one weekend and down the next as far as his moods go. Sometimes, you're scratching for a setup but you really need to wind the driver up."

Anderson subscribes to the theory that Franchitti is the type of driver who needs to be seriously in the championship hunt if he's to perform at his best throughout the season.

"This is my second year with Dario and I notice a big difference between this year and last year in his focus," Anderson observed. "Again, that was one of the reasons we said we need those early points. That didn't happen last year for a number of reasons, but this year started much better and he was up there in every race and could see that this championship was well within our grasp. I think that was a good kick in the behind for him and it spurred him on.

"This year we said if we can get some good points on the board early, that's the secret to Dario having a good season," Anderson continued. "It was looking pretty good in testing before the season, but when we finished seventh at Homestead the wind dropped out of our sails. We rolled into St. Pete thinking this was a Dario track and we had some unfinished business because we broke the suspension there last year through our own fault.

"So we were going to make up for it this year but we had a first lap disaster and all of a sudden we found ourselves struggling to stay on the lead lap. We had to change the suspension and made myriad of pit stops and he kept his head down and soldiered on. To me, that was the turning point because he ended up finishing fifth. Then I think we were third at Motegi, second at the next race, and then Indy was next and we were thinking, we'll have to win that one!"

Franchitti contended for the pole at Indianapolis, eventually qualifying on the outside of the front row beside Helio Castroneves and Andretti-Green teammate Kanaan. On race day, Kanaan and Franchitti did most of the leading and Franchitti was able to steam back through the field after a pit stop for a cut tire. The cut tire put him on a different pit sequence than Castroneves and Penske teammate Sam Hornish, and after a rain delay and a short restart more drenching rain cut the race short after 166 laps.

Franchitti won under the yellow from Scott Dixon and Penske trio Castroneves, Hornish and Ryan Briscoe. Winning that way detracted to some degree from how strong and impressive Dario was when he came through the field and went to the front.

"At Indy, the rain came in but it was the same for everyone," Anderson observed. "It was a shame that it was rain-shortened but he won it fair and square. We had the problem with the cut tire which made the decision for us but it's one of those things where you make the best of it. Dario had a strong car all day and I'm sure he would have been ready for anything anybody could have thrown at him at the end."

Franchitti also was the man to beat in the Michigan 400, leading most laps and again whistling through the field after getting shuffled to the back after stalling in the pits. Unfortunately, Franchitti was eliminated late in the race in a multi-car accident triggered by Dan Wheldon trying to force his way into the lead. Anderson believes it is supreme self-confidence rather than something in the car that allows a driver to perform like Franchitti did at Michigan this year.

"At Michigan, Dario was dominant and led the most laps," Anderson said. "But I think it's one of those things no matter how experienced you are, you get to that stage where you've won a couple and been up there contending very strongly in most races and you know you can do it. Then you expect yourself to do it and it's that little bit extra that the guys find within themselves that gets them there."

Anderson worries about the hidden effects Franchitti's pair of flying accidents at Michigan last month and Kentucky the next week may have had on his driver. "He's had a couple of launches that frightened the heck out of me. I don't know what they really did to him. The guy has been around for awhile and those are things he's got to weather and get the best of.

"Like I said before," Anderson went on, "the driver is on his game sometimes and he's off his game some other times, and Kentucky particularly was so unlike him. I think unconsciously the pressure was there that Dixon was eroding the points lead, as it was with all of us. No matter how much you say you put that aside, it's always in the back of your mind, and for him to come to the end of that race down in eighth, I think there was a little bit of panic, or paralysis.

"Who knows what he was doing? Only he knows. He's was very upset with himself and it was very uncharacteristic of him. He's the sort of guy, particularly in practice on the ovals, he holds a little back and when he needs to show it, he can put it out there. He's not one to do stupid things very often."

Anderson explained how he recalls the last laps of the race winding-down in Kentucky. "I usually count down the laps. I had given him ten to go and then five, and I remember saying three to go. I might have missed the second-last lap and when Tony crossed the line I said, 'TK's won it.' I don't know what I said after that and then I saw what happened!

"The guy's been around for so long and I don't like to drive the car for him. I just want to keep him informed of what's going on. Maybe I need to be more up front and count every lap down."

Dixon's victories in the three road races at Watkins Glen, Mid-Ohio and Infineon Raceway put a serious dent in Franchitti's championship hopes. "Dixon is a very good road racer and a very good racer all-'round, but we didn't expect him to win all three road races on tracks that really suit Dario," Anderson said. "That was a bit of kick in the butt to all of us, particularly to Dario."

Of course, the collision between Franchitti and Marco Andretti in the closing laps at Infineon Raceway a week ago cost Franchitti the championship lead. "We really stepped on ourselves there, didn't we," Anderson shook his head. "It's too bad because until then, the guy drove a perfect race. He was quick and smooth, and got great fuel mileage. You couldn't have asked for a better job."

Commented Franchitti on TV on Sunday: "August was a tough month for us. It's over now so I'm pretty glad of that. What happened at Sonoma really hurt our championship challenge. But we can still definitely do it."

Added Michael Andretti: "We all know what we need to be doing. Talking about or arguing about [what happened at Sonoma] is not going to fix anything. We've just got to go forward. Dario and I have been friends for a long time and that doesn't affect our relationship and it doesn't with Marco because him and Marco are close, as well. It was just one of those deals and we've just got to try not let it happen again.

"It's crunch time," Andretti remarked. "The pressure's on. We really need to win this championship. All four drivers understand that and they're all going to do what they can to try to make it happen."

At Belle Isle, both Franchitti and Dixon had quick cars and qualified and ran close together for most of the race. But a fierce race was ruined by the great open-wheel plague of not being able to pass when Dixon tried to outbrake a slowing Buddy Rice on the last lap. Rice caromed into the tire barrier while Dixon spun and collected Franchitti, much to the chagrin of Michael Andretti who claimed Dixon deliberately got off the brakes at the right moment to roll directly into Andretti's path.

The IRL couldn't have hoped for a better script to take into next weekend's season-closer at the 1.5-mile Chicagoland Speedway.

And on Thursday, we'll take a look in this space at Scott Dixon and the Ganassi team's view of the season through team boss Mike Hull's eyes.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2007 ~ All Rights Reserved

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