After spending the last two years basically kicking his heels in frustration, Bathgate’s Marino Franchitti admits he’s now “living the dream” as a fully fledged works driver leading Ford’s return to the world’s greatest endurance race, the Le Mans 24 Hours next weekend.
In a strange quirk of timing, exactly 27 months to the day since he powered his Ganassi Ford EcoBoost Riley Daytona Prototype to victory in the Sebring 12 Hours in Florida, the 37-year-old Scot will fire-up his #67 Ford GT for the opening Le Mans four-hour free practice session on Wednesday.
At one time, plans were made for a “Scots Le Mans Dream Team” – Marino, his brother four-times IndyCar champ and three-times Indy500 winner Dario, and cousin, ex-F1 racer Paul di Resta – to tackle the race. Sadly, Dario’s enforced retirement through injury curtailed such plans.
Now Marino – partnered by two fellow Britons, multiple World Touring Car champ Andy Priaulx, and 2014 Le Mans LMP2 winner Harry Tincknell – head-up Ford’s four-car assault in the intensely competitive GTE Pro class. The British trio have already proven their competitiveness by finishing second in the last round of the World Endurance Championship (WEC) at Spa, in Belgium.
Ford has decided after all these years to return to sports car racing because this year is the 50th anniversary of the company’s first victory at Le Mans. Not only was it the first time an American car manufacturer had won the classic 24 hour race, but the Blue Oval giant’s three GT40s filled the first three places.
“This is massive for me,” a beaming Franchitti, who started his motor racing career in Formula Ford at Knockhill, said as he eyed his gleaming red, white and blue Ford GT race car. “I wanted this so badly. To be with Ford returning to Le Mans 50 years after they first won, and the 1-2-3 finish, is a dream come true.
“Ford has been away from frontline motorsport for so many years, so this is very special not just for me, but for everyone associated with the team and Ford.
“Now, to be following in the footsteps of the famous names such as Kiwi Bruce McLaren, who won the 1966 Le Mans with Ford, is very special.
“Aside from that, as a Scotsman, putting the racesuit on and having the Blue Oval on your chest is very special. To be a Ford factory driver following in the footsteps of the legendary Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart is something very special for me.”
Those initial footsteps were taken at Sebring back in 2014. Franchitti had heard whispers of Ford’s planned return to Le Mans in 2016, and an assault on the WEC – a title fellow Scot Allan McNish won with Audi in 2013 – and was keen to be a part of the programme.
The fact he helped Chip Ganassi Racing deliver Ford’s first win at the Florida circuit, fending off another Scot, Airdrie’s Ryan Dalziel in an epic battle over the last 20 minutes, unquestionably boosted his standing.
“When I was fortunate to drive with Ford Chip Ganassi Racing at Sebring in 2014 and Daytona, I already had an inclination that this programme was coming,” Franchitti continued.
“As a result, over the last two years it has been my sole target to be a part of this programme. There’s been things along the way that I’ve said no to that highlighted the fact I was putting all my eggs into one basket, in relation to getting this seat.
“But when the basket’s this good, you have to make commitments and ultimately believe it’ll happen. It was always my focus to be a part of this programme, and I’m very fortunate that Ford, MultiMatic and Chip Ganassi have put their faith in me.”
And while Le Mans, which is fought out over the famous 8.45-mile La Sarthe circuit, remains the Blue Riband race on the WEC calendar, and is undoubtedly Franchitti’s first target, he is relishing the fight to be crowned WEC champion in the season finale in Bahrain in November.
“I’m fortunate to have worked on the development of these cars since early last year,” Franchitti explained, “and we showed, first at Silverstone, the opening round of the WEC, and then Spa, that we have a fast, reliable car.
“I love developing cars but to also be involved on the team side, and watching them build the team, is really interesting. You watch it all gel together. It’s an exciting thing to be a part of.
“Make no bones about it, we’re going to Le Mans aiming to win it. After that, it’s just to be in the hunt for wins as much as we can be and push for the world title.
“It’s a really big ask to go out and win Le Mans. We’re all aware of how difficult that’s going to be and what it’s going to take. But we’re aiming high, and we have to, this is Ford.”