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Marino Franchitti: Sebring, Spyders and Sunglasses

The initial excursion of this season’s ALMS opener at Sebring had it’s share of surprises. The Lion of Peugeot sending a four alarmer to the Audi squad that the game will be different at la Sarthe this year, the self destruction of the Maranello mounts and of course, the triumph of the Porsche LMP2’s claiming the top spots on the podium, overall!
Then there was the usual weirdness that Sebring always manages to conjure up, only this time it was not the usual revelers but the officials with the mess they made out of qualifying. That has to be a column on it’s own lack of merit. One of the standout performances of the race unquestionably was that of the Dyson team and who else would make the impression but Marino Franchitti.
Typical Marino. From the first time I saw him race years ago to this round at Sebring, he seems to approach every stint as if it was Christmas morning, this wild streak of enthusiasm, that can’t wait look. It wouldn’t surprise me to see him look over at a competitor who he has passed from the outside where a pass was only possible from the inside and say, “pretty good, huh?
While Marino’s enthusiasm may be infectious, it also covers up a stone cold professional attitude towards the job and the sport. He is well schooled in giving thought to his answers and walks that fine line between answering and going the route of the all too prevalent “no comment” from many top line drivers. But enough, here’s Marino….

Let’s start with most obvious topic – the major differences between your ride last year in an Acura powered LMP2 to this season’s Porsche RS Spyder. And don't go politically correct on us.

MF: I'm going to have to I'm afraid. It's not right for me to compare two cars that are (completely in the case of the Acura) very different this year. It just would not be a valid comparison.
KM: That is an unbelievable answer and of course I could repeat it for hours and get nowhere.
MF: Really, they are very different to compare.
KM: The Porsche must feel much more like a complete car as tub, driveline and motor are all from one place, does that translate in to a more secure feeling as far as drivability?
MF: Well, I think your underestimating the job that Acura have done and what they have achieved with a chassis that is not their own and they will be a very formidable opponent this season, especially at certain types of tracks.
Porsche are just amazing at providing a customer team like Dyson not only with a complete and refined package in order to go racing, but also support that makes you feel like a true partner.  They really are the benchmark for manufacturers providing a usable product for a customer and I guess that is why so many other marques' customer programs so closely follow the lines of Porsche.

KM: You appeared much more confident in the Porsche at Sebring than most of your drives last year in the Acura? Is that simply getting a season under you in the LMP2 class?
MF: I certainly didn't feel that way. Last season I started every race in which I competed in the Acura and (mechanical issues aside) I came into the pits in the top 3 in nearly every race. There were some mishaps, but I used them as a positive and learned from every good and bad experience I had. I think some of the starts I made last season showed the confidence I had, or at least I hope they did!
Of course, the experience I gained last year also helped to improve me hugely as a driver. I had never before been a part of the development of a car from the word go through to it being a race winner, and technically I grew and learned a huge amount.
KM: Last year you had a great drive going at St. Pete and then had a coming together with another prototype which didn’t appear that was your doing, how do you make the adjustment from a proper circuit with a runoff area to the temporary walls of a street track? This has to play a major part on how you attempt a pass.
MF: Ah, you remembered that? I think you need to set the scene properly. I was taken out by a car attempting a pass that was hugely optimistic, to say the least. The fact that his team boss apologized to me at the next race says it all.
For me, I love the challenge of the street circuits where any mistake is severely punished. I think if you're only “attempting” a pass then you shouldn't be making it in the first place, but you are right that passes happen differently on the street tracks. You need to be sure you can make the pass cleanly and be ahead by corner exit as there is very rarely room for two cars later in the turn on street tracks.

KM:  You have had a lot of success in GT cars, especially Porsches. What about the jump from GT to prototype? After all, now you avoid traffic and pass it whereas before you were the traffic.
I was very lucky that the step up to prototypes was something I got to experience early (the second year) in my sportscar career. The first time was 2002 in the Phoenix Grand Am race in a SRPII Lola. I had minimal testing but I managed to get pole position, fastest lap, and with my team mate, Nic Jonsson, won the race. So, I found driving a prototype very, very natural and the increased downforce really seems to suit me.
 I feel really fortunate to have driven GT cars and have the understanding I do of how difficult it is sharing the track with prototypes. It's so hard driving a GT car flat out, you need to use all the track while trying to work out how you can help the LMPs to pass you and loose the minimum time in the process for both. A lot of prototype guys just don't have a clue what you go through as a GT driver, so it's a big bonus for me and I find that I get through the traffic better because of it.
The game's changing, as the organizers continue to give us smaller and smaller restrictors in the prototypes it becomes harder to pass GT cars (especially the Corvettes and Aston GT1s) on the straights. The GT cars have unbelievable mechanical grip these days so in slow corners they are nearly as fast as we are. It's not easy getting by them, but again, I love that part of sportscar racing and I work hard at giving the GT guys respect and hope they give it back.
KM: Using, say exiting turn one at Sebring and setting up for two, how would you approach it in a GT car during the race compared to hustling the Spyder through them?
MF: Not hugely differently. The nimbleness of the LMP allows you to pick and choose how you approach the braking area of turn 3 after the exit of turn 1 and I have noticed GT cars trying to do the same, but all that looked to do from my perspective was cause some LMP drivers to get frustrated with the GT cars sweeping across in front of them and take away what is a good passing opportunity that would loose minimum time for both. Then again, I have not driven the new generation of GT car at Sebring so maybe it's something that gains lap time for them?
KM: The Dyson team has been around for a long time and are well known as solid competitors but keep their sense of humor too. How did this gig come about for you?
MF: They are such a great bunch and I'm loving being a part of the team. I still get a bit of a surprise when I look in the mirror and see myself in their legendary team colors. They have such a great family atmosphere.
On getting the ride, it was just a case at the end of last season of seeing what opportunities were available in the LMP class and I had always had a good rapport with the Dyson team so as their plans came together we started to talk more seriously and in the end it was an easy deal to do. It was a new experience for me, having more than one good option on the table for this year, but this always felt right.
 I knew they had been working closely with Porsche in choosing a new driver and subsequently I have been made to feel very welcome by everyone involved in that process.
Take us through a typical race lap at Sebring during one of your stints, and don't forget the traffic. And isn't that McNish coming up behind you?
MF: Actually, I had to pass Allan on the entry to turn 10 after he had just come out of the pits during my last stint. That was fun! It seemed to take the Audi a few laps to gain tire temp, but he motored on past on the back stretch once they did. Again, that was a good example of him and I working together (he was a lap or so behind after mechanical issues) to lose each other the minimal amount of time which was very important at that stage as I was closing in on Collard and pulling away bit by bit from Diaz in the Acura.
As for typical race laps, they just do not exist! Every lap is unique in some way and I really enjoy that.
For me, the tough part of a lap of Sebring is catching slower cars in the faster corners (Turn 1, 11, 12, 13, 15, 16 and 17) as you are trying to not loose too much momentum. A huge amount of lap time is won and lost here and your forward thinking as a driver is what keeps the loss to a minimum and your average lap time for the stint looking good.
I find that in the slower corners it’s much easier to pass cars in a consistent manor. If you catch them on entry then you out-brake them. If not, you try and carry the momentum through the turn and get a run at them on corner exit.
KM: Did the Dyson team double stint your Michelins? How were the tires over the long haul?
We did double stint and the Michelins were first class throughout. Our Michelin tire engineer, Robbie, was on top of the situation all race and in my last stint the tires went from the heat of the day into the cool of the dark and performed very well in both.
That's hugely impressive and it's why Michelin have won Sebring 10 years in a row
KM:  What was your reaction to getting tagged with “The Drive of the Race Award” from Speed TV? Are you wearing sunglasses in the shower now?
MF: Not quite!! Though my long term sponsor Oakley would love it if I did!  It was a lovely surprise and very touching to receive it, especially when I looked at some of the amazing sportscar drivers I was competing with. As I said then, I accepted it on behalf of the whole Dyson racing team, and especially my team-mate Butch Leitzinger, as they deserve it very much for all their hard work.
One big thought I had was I hope we can continue to improve and put ourselves in the position to be considered for it again.
KM: The ALMS schedule is a good mix of circuits, which ones are your favorites in order of preference?
Wow, tough one. Ok, here goes!
Mosport, Road America, St Petersburg, Mid Ohio, Road Atlanta, Salt Lake City
I love all the tracks, just those above more than the others.
KM: How much testing time did you have in the Porsche Spyder? Race conditions are always far more difficult than a test. Do you come to the track on race day in any particular mind set or have a standard routine you follow? Or is it just get in, belts on and nail it?
MF: Not a huge amount, but enough that I knew which button/switch did what! I did the ALMS winter test, which lasts 3 days, but we only had very few on-track sessions and then the test sessions in the race week.
Of course race day feels different, but I prepare each time I drive the car, practice or race, in the same way. I do a lot of stretching and have my own mind management routine, but it is for sure much more than jump in and nail it for me.
KM:  OK, it’s a cliché but as you have an older brother who I hear also races and has had some success, what are the goals you would like to achieve, on the track and off? Your Dyson teammate, Guy Smith hasn't done too bad for himself you know.
MF: You're right, it is a cliché! I don't really see what my brother's achievements have to do with what I want to achieve in my career. Our careers have traveled very different roads.
First things first, I'd love to win the ALMS championship. For me, I got into sports cars to compete and win at Le Mans. It's been so frustrating to only have one start at Le Mans so far in my career, but I think the financial state of the world has had a lot to do with that. That aside, I want to go out on that podium at 4 pm on Sunday afternoon and look over the sea of people and lift up that legendary trophy. I've got an amazing picture in my mind when I think of that and I'll keep giving my all until I can make it a reality.
KM: With all that enthusiasm you have, as of this moment, list your five favorite race cars of all time.
MF: Can't do it, I'm going to have to go with ten:
Porsche 917/30 Can Am, Porsche 956/962, Ferrari 250 GTO, Porsche 3.0 RSR, 1999 Toyota GT1, Maserati T61 3 litre birdcage, Ferrari 333 SP, Porsche 908/2 and 3, McLaren MP4/8 and the Jaguar XJR14.
KM: Last of all, you finally had enough of those Marino cleaning up with a Dyson vacuum cleaner jokes ?
MF: No chance! Everyone thinks they are the first one to come up with it so who am I to burst their bubble??!!

Kerry Morse, April 2008

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sportscarpros Not that it's any of my business

Features and pieces by Kerry Morse