- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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INDIANAPOLIS -- We're not used to seeing Dario Franchitti struggle.
We're not accustomed to seeing the four-time IZOD IndyCar Series champion languish down in 13th place in the points standings, fighting hard just to crack the top 10 in a series he has pretty much dominated for the last six years.
Franchitti isn't used to it either. And he's not especially happy about it.
But over the course of his remarkable run of success, Dario was quick to point out that fortune can turn on anyone at any time. And Lady Luck certainly doesn't appear to be on the side of the driver of the No. 10 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Indy car right now.
Franchitti looked on course for a hard-fought ninth-place finish in the season opener at St. Petersburg, but ran out of fuel on the final lap and dropped to 13th.
He posted his worst road-course qualifying result in five years at Barber Motorsports Park, but felt he and the Ganassi team made progress with the DW12/Honda in the race as he worked up to 10th place at the checkered flag.
Things should have turned around at Long Beach, where engine change penalties for all of the Chevrolet entries elevated the Scotsman to pole position. Yet once the green flag flew, Franchitti dropped like a stone, suffering from handling difficulties and a series of overboost penalties on restarts.
Add in a couple of controversial clashes -- a first-turn bump that left rookie Josef Newgarden in the Turn 1 tires and an incident with fast qualifier Ryan Briscoe on another restart resulting in a broken front wing -- and Franchitti ended up with a 15th-place finish and a 75-point deficit to early championship leader Will Power.
It all left the four-time series champion somewhat discouraged and dejected as he reflected on his Long Beach Grand Prix.
"Terrible," was his initial one-word summation. "We still have some work to do with the car. I think we know what we have to do with it, we just couldn't do it this weekend with the lack of track time. We're all right for the first five laps and then we start to struggle with the balance.
"We had pretty much everything go wrong today," he added. "So off to the next one."
Drivers have overcome bigger points deficits, including Franchitti during his 2009 and 2010 championship campaigns. But it still must be a shock for him to be starting out from the back foot this year.
There are a number of theories as to why Franchitti has gotten off to such a slow start. Here's a list of them, along with analysis of just how credible they may be
1. He's getting old and losing his motivation
Validity score: 1/5
There's a school of thought that says as drivers mature and live a fuller life outside of racing, their desire -- or indeed, their ability -- to constantly push the absolute limit tends to dissipate. But that transition tends to be gradual, whereas Franchitti's recent downturn in fortune happened very suddenly -- and appears to be circumstantial.
Still, there is evidence that shows that nearly every Indy car driver's performance level begins to tail off in their late 30s. From Johnny Rutherford to Paul Tracy, drivers just seem to lose the edge once they approach 40. In fact, Mario Andretti is the only Indy car driver who kept on winning well into his 40s. Andretti's last multi-win season came in 1988, when he was 48. He won just once more, as a 53-year old at Phoenix International Raceway in 1993. A.J. Foyt's last multi-win season against a full field came in 1978, when he was 43.
More recently, Tracy claimed only five of his 31 wins after turning 35, and Michael Andretti's tally was seven out of his 42. Al Unser Jr. scored 31 race wins by the time he was 31, but only three more in the next 11 seasons.
Franchitti will turn 39 in May. Is Father Time catching up to him, burdening him with slower reflexes and poorer eye/hand coordination? There's no way of telling for certain, but Indy car historians will certainly be watching closely.
2. The Ganassi team is struggling to make the DW12 work
Validity score: 3/5
Actually, the Ganassi team has made the DW12 work pretty darn well -- in the hands of Scott Dixon, who finished second in the first two races of the season (and probably should have won at Barber) and was moving up at Long Beach before his car stopped on course with a technical problem. Graham Rahal had a good race at Barber, and Charlie Kimball has recorded career-best start and finish positions in 2012.
I try to keep it balanced, to not get too crazy and excited when we have a big points lead or get too desperate and upset when that lead erodes or we fall behind. That seems to have worked very well.
”-- Dario Franchitti
Dixon often notes that he and Franchitti have very different driving styles, and Dario and his engineer, Chris Simmons, still haven't tuned the DW12 to suit Franchitti's preferences. They have made progress in fits and starts; Franchitti was reasonably happy with the car during the last stint at Barber, and he made it into the Firestone Fast Six in qualifying at Long Beach for the first time this year.
But as noted above, Franchitti's car has not remained balanced over the course of a 20- or 30-lap run. And the roots of that go back to preseason testing and the fact that the two-pedal layout of the DW12 was unable to accommodate drivers who brake with their right foot until a modified pedal set was made available in January.
While fellow right-foot braker Helio Castroneves made the change to braking with his left foot, Franchitti's time trying to adapt was almost a waste of two months of testing.
"It's like trying to tell a professional golfer or tennis player who is right-handed that they suddenly have to play with their left hand," he said. "There's a lifetime of habits to overcome."
Just prior to Long Beach, Dario had a very good test day at Infineon Raceway, where he set the pace using a revised turbocharger housing that reportedly improved the Honda engine's drivability. Which brings us to
3. Honda is at a disadvantage to Chevrolet
Validity score: 3/5
The common wisdom is that the twin turbocharger layout of the Chevrolet (and Lotus) engine is better for road racing because of reduced turbo lag, whereas the single turbo layout of the Honda engine gives a bit of a high-end power advantage for ovals.
Chevrolet has dominated qualifying at all three road racing venues in 2012, and Team Penske has used Chevrolet power to win all three races. But did the advantage come from the Chevy engines or from Penske's preseason preparation?
Andretti Autosport has showed improved form this year with Chevy power, while KV Racing has been inconsistent. Interestingly, EJ Viso has often been KV's most competitive driver in 2012, lending credence to the theory that some drivers just like the way the DW12 handles better than others.
To the displeasure of Chevrolet, the alternate Honda turbo housings were approved by INDYCAR and will be used starting in Brazil. If Franchitti's impressive speed at Infineon had anything to do with that component, then look for him to be back at the sharp end of the grid at Sao Paulo. His next challenge is to come up with a comfortable race setup.
4. He's just having a bad year
Validity score: 4/5
Franchitti didn't just lose the plot. He's not sitting around crying and moping because he thinks the DW12 is to blame. He's trying as hard as ever. He has just gotten off to a bad start in 2012.
Most importantly, he knows not to panic. "I think one thing I've learned is to keep a very open mind," he said. "There was not a point in any of those championships where I thought, 'Yeah, we've got this,' or on the other side, 'We're out of this thing.' I just try to keep an open mind and focus on the next weekend.
"I try to keep it balanced, to not get too crazy and excited when we have a big points lead or get too desperate and upset when that lead erodes or we fall behind. That seems to have worked very well."
It's happened to him before. After nearly winning the 1999 CART title, he was expected to challenge again in 2000, only to suffer a crash in preseason testing. He later said he suffered from post-concussive symptoms and finished a winless 13th in the championship.
He had another winless season in 2006 in the IRL, and he later admitted that his desire had started to wane. But victory in the 2007 Indianapolis 500 rejuvenated him and propelled him on to his first IndyCar Series title; after a fruitless half of the 2008 season soul searching in NASCAR proved to him that his heart was in open-wheel cars, Franchitti has been unbeaten in the IndyCar Series championship since he came back.
He's dug himself a pretty deep hole in terms of a fifth series crown, but don't put it past him. Franchitti could dominate the oval portion of the schedule, and he's too good still not to win a couple of road races.
"What's the point in worrying about it?" he pondered. "Some weeks it just all happens, some weeks it doesn't look good but things go your way, and some weeks are like last weekend.
"We've had a lot of weekends where everything went well for us, so sometimes you have to expect the opposite. Hopefully it ends very, very soon. We're going to keep trying our absolute best."
What's wrong with Dario Franchitti? If he knew, he would already have fixed it. But while the four-time IndyCar Series champ is off to a slow start, he knows redemption can be just around the next turn.