A FORTNIGHT after winning the Sebring 12-Hours — the oldest sportscar race in America, and second only in the world in endurance terms to the Le Mans 24-Hours — Bathgate’s Marino Franchitti has rapidly reacquainted himself with the rigours of everyday domestic life. Why? Because he doesn’t know when he’ll race again.
It seems unfathomable that in a sporting world in which decidedly mediocre footballers get paid millions of pounds for occupying the substitutes’ bench, one of the world’s fastest sports-car racers is looking for work.
Franchitti’s most recent demonstration of his ability came in the closing 21 minutes of the Sebring 12-Hours, fought out in the Florida darkness on the notoriously bumpy 3.7-mile circuit.
Sharing the Ganassi Ford EcoBoost Riley Daytona Prototype with Californian Scott Pruett and Mexican Memo Rojas, the 35-year-old Scot had taken over the driving in third place with 90 minutes of the incident-packed race remaining.
Midway through the stint, he pitted for fresh tyres and fuel, and as he exited he noticed the “pit closed” sign being illuminated: another yellow flag caution. Rejoining the field, he and the other cars lapped behind the safety car before darting into the pits when, eventually, they opened. With 21 minutes remaining, Franchitti led as the race went green for the final sprint to the flag. His nearest rival? Fellow Scot Ryan Dalziel. The Airdrie-born Florida-based racer was in a faster LMP2 car but was separated from the rear of Franchitti’s Ford by three cars from other classes.
What followed was a display of impeccable, on-the-edge racing as the boy from Bathgate fought to seal not only the biggest win of his career, but the first at Sebring for the all-conquering Ganassi team, and Ford’s first since 1969.
“I knew Ryan was four cars back in second, and realistically, Ryan’s LMP2 car was a second-and-a-half a lap faster than us,” Franchitti explained. “I knew it was going to be difficult to hold him off, but I thought I’d give it a go. As soon as I saw the green flag, I took off and managed to open a gap, doing the car’s fastest laps in the race.
“I expected Ryan to come right up behind me, but by utilising the cars between us I was able to maintain the gap. Once I got back into traffic, the gap came down a bit, but I was being fairly careful: not too careful, but not taking any unnecessary risks.
“With just a couple of laps to go, we caught more traffic, and thankfully it worked for me and I was able to open the gap marginally. That was the pivotal moment, because I was able to hold it to the chequered flag.”
In the end, the gap to Dalziel was 4.682secs. Franchitti’s controlled assessment downplays the intensity of what was happening within the claustrophobic cabin of the Ford, and — more importantly — within the confines of his race helmet.
Sebring is not billiard table smooth. It has bumps: and with his Ford not being fitted with the third, smoothing damper which the LMP2 cars enjoyed, Franchitti’s car at times resembled a bucking bronco, as the painful deep bruises on his back testified. On four occasions – between 2008 and 2011 – he had finished second at Sebring, and last year he took the LMP2 class win. So the overall win was, for Franchitti, the dream result. Was he conscious of what was on the line over those closing minutes, not just for himself, but for Ganassi and Ford?
“You just concentrate on your job: you’re not thinking about anything else,” he explained. “At that speed, and in those conditions, you can’t allow your mind to waver for a split second. I felt pretty calm. I knew what I had to do, and I was just trying to stay in the moment and take each corner as it came; deal with the traffic; not look too far ahead; and win the race. Of course, when I went across the line, I was thinking about what we’d achieved. But in the race. you’re just concentrating on doing the job.”
Job done, you would assume it would be on to the next race, and Le Mans in June: not so. And at the root of it — as was the case with his cousin Paul di Resta losing his F1 seat — is money.
“I have nothing on my plate for the rest of the year: no more races,” admitted Franchitti, backed at Sebring by Nashville-based Big Machine Records. “Unfortunately a lot of guys seem to be bringing a lot of money to ensure their seats — a bit like F1 — so that’s making it difficult.
“It’s very tough out there in this economic climate, and certainly results aren’t necessarily the currency to get you into a race seat. The advancement of paying drivers has to be a negative for the sport. Of course, you’re always going to have other drivers, but it just makes it difficult for people like myself to make a living from a job that I do well.
“I’ve built up years of experience, and experience comes at a cost to teams. I can only hope there are teams out there that are not willing to compromise on anything, and will continue to give me those opportunities.”
Shortly after his Sebring win, Franchitti received an email from five-times Le Mans 24-Hours winner Derek Bell. It read: “If you can win at Sebring, my boy, you can win anywhere.”
Perhaps Derek Bell should have copied a few teams into the same email.