IndyCar Notes: Franchitti Has The Late-Season Races Circled

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, August 21 2010

Dario Franchitti continued to put the pressure on point leader Will Power on Friday. (Photo courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Dario Franchitti continued his full-court press on IZOD IndyCar Series points-leader Will Power at Infineon Raceway Friday, pacing opening practice for the Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma.

The defending event winner, Franchitti turned a lap of 1 minute, 18.2970-seconds on the 2.303-mile road course. Power, of Verizon Team Penske, was second-fastest at 1:18.3011 _ just 0.0041-seconds behind the Scotsman.

Franchitti, driver of the No. 10 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Dallara/Honda, trails Power by 41 points following his first career victory at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course on Aug. 8. Franchitti lopped nine points off Power’s lead at Lexington, Ohio. Sunday’s event will close out a five-race run on the street/natural-terrain road-courses where Power has been the measuring stick in 2010. Four races on 1.5-mile ovals – layouts on which Franchitti has an experience advantage – will lead into the Oct. 2 season-ender at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Franchitti, a two-time series champion, qualified on-pole at Infineon last summer and became only the second driver to lead an IndyCar race flag-to-flag en route to victory over Team Penske’s Ryan Briscoe in the 75-lapper. Franchitti exited that event four points behind Briscoe in the driver’s championship he eventually won.

FAZZT Race Team’s Alex Tagliani was third Friday with a lap of 1:18.5661 turned as the checkered flag fell on the one-hour session. Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon (1:18.6070) and Dreyer & Reinbold Racing’s Justin Wilson (1:18.6161) rounded out the top five. In all, the top 16 cars were separated by a little more than a second.

Another one-hour practice session is slated for Saturday, followed by PEAK Performance Pole Qualifying featuring the Firestone Fast Six. The Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma is scheduled for 5 p.m., EDT, on Sunday. The race will be telecast live in High Definition by VERSUS and air live on the IMS Radio Network, XM Channel 145 and Sirius Channel 212.

Bernard to pitch engine package abroad: Indy Racing League CEO Randy Bernard is planning an overseas junket to pitch IndyCar’s 2012 revised engine package.

“Yeah, we have some interest _ none that we can really openly discuss but we’ve had a couple companies (inquire),” Bernard said earlier this week in Dallas. “There’s about four of us flying over to Europe at the end of this month/beginning of next month to sit down with a bunch of auto manufacturers and talk to them in detail about what we’re planning on doing.”

IndyCar Series officials announced on June 2 that the 2012 platform will allow manufacturers to produce engines with a maximum of six cylinders and maximum displacement of 2.4-cubic liters. The ethanol-fueled engines will produce between 550 and 700 horsepower to suit the diverse set of tracks on which the series competes and will be turbocharged to allow for flexibility.

“I just hired Tony Cotman, he’s going to come in as project manager,” Bernard said. “We’re bringing in some of the engine manufacturers like Cosworth that we want to sit down with and get their opinions on these rules. We want to make sure we do this right.”

Cotman, a veteran open-wheel consultant, has been hired to coordinate development of the series’ ambitious engine and chassis technical programs set for implementation in 2012.

American Honda Motor Co., the series’ lone current V-8 engine supplier, announced it will build a twin-turbocharged six-cylinder powerplant for 2012. Bernard, meanwhile, is optimistic at least one other manufacturer will be up-and-running under the new specs.

“We will know by mid-October at the latest,” Bernard said. “Honda believes that whoever comes in now it’s really too late. But we’re still hearing out there that there’s a couple of companies that still believe they can get it done if they start by Oct. 15. And that’s our goal, to make sure we can get them the specific rules they need here very shortly so they can make that commitment.”

IndyCar also will introduce a new chassis platform in 2012 featuring an “IndyCar Safety Cell” supplied by Dallara Automobili of Italy, with approved “aero kits” ideally to be supplied by various manufacturers.

“When we looked at this, we actually thought about postponing the new car until 2013 because we were so far late,” Bernard said. “But we also felt that (current Dallara) car’s been out there for eight years and that if we could pull this off, let’s look long-term.

“If we only have one (engine supplier) in 2012, and we have to look at more coming on in 2013, there’s still positive advantages as long as we have three or four different aero kits out there on the tracks by 2012. And we believe we’ll see a minimum of three or four aero kits by 2012. You’ve probably already heard that Lotus is definitely interested in doing it.”

Helio says no Penske aero kit: Three-time Indianapolis 500 champion Helio Castroneves is a fan of the “IndyCar Safety Cell” chassis package set for introduction in 2012.

“I do feel it’s a great opportunity to create a different brand,” Castroneves said earlier this week in Dallas. “Maybe in the eye of the public you’re not going to see the difference, but you definitely create more competition. I’m totally for it.”

However, Castroneves said bossman Roger Penske – owner of the most successful team in domestic open-wheel history – has no plan to manufacture an “aero kit” for use with the basic chassis to be produced by Dallara Automobili. “No, he’s not,” the native Brazilian said. “I heard something around but he said no, he does not want to because if you got to do it for one car you got to do it for all the rest. It’s another thing Roger might not want to be involved in at the moment.”

Unsolicited advice for Sudden Sam: Not that he’s been consulted, but Helio Castroneves believes former IndyCar teammate Sam Hornish Jr. should shelve his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series career and return to the open-wheel ranks in 2011.

Hornish, winless in 95 Cup starts dating to 2007, is losing primary sponsorship from Mobil 1 on his No. 77 Dodge Charger at season’s end. But team-owner Roger Penske, for whom Hornish won the Indianapolis 500 in 2006, said earlier this month he wants to run Sudden Sam in Cup next year and that he is not going back to open-wheel.

“I was his teammate and I know how difficult and tough he was and talented he was on the racetrack,” Castroneves said of Hornish. “I’m a driver. I want to win and achieve my goals and be competitive at the least. Now, three years…if you’re not be able to battle for wins or be competitive…I mean, best advice he’s young, he still has a great career in front of him so I suggest him to come back to IndyCar Series where he was success.

“Certainly, it’s hard for me to say from outside. I’m sure he wants to win again, he wants to be competitive. But I’m not sure what the priority in his direction is right now, so it’s hard for me to judge. Certainly, I know it’s a difficult transition. And you say three years…the team is certainly an incredible team. But I would strongly recommend to come back to the IndyCar Series and he will be another talented driver.”

Hornish, a 31-year-old native of Defiance, Ohio, emerged as “Poster Boy” for the IndyCar Series after winning back-to-back driving titles for Pennzoil Panther Racing in 2001-02. He bagged his third title for Marlboro Team Penske in 2006, exiting the series with 19 wins in 116 starts. Hornish qualified on-pole for 10 IndyCar races, and won six of those.

“He doesn’t want to probably (leave) the (NASCAR) job unfinished,” Castroneves said. ”That’s probably pride and that’s probably the way he’s feeling right now…’I can’t just leave because I didn’t achieve my goals.’ I guess that’s the direction he’s facing. And if he is, I’m still going to cheer for him.”

Conquest’s racers swap numbers: Conquest Racing has flipped the numbers of its two IndyCar entries for this weekend’s Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma.

Bertrand Baguette’s RACB/Conquest Racing Dallara/Honda will carry the No. 34 while Francesco Dracone’s Halkin Jet/LaPasta.biz/Conquest car will carry the No. 36. Baguette is looking forward to the change, which only involved swapping the number decals on the car he has driven for most of the season.

“I prefer the No. 34,” the Belgian rookie said. “I did all my karting with the No. 34 and even a few of my first single-seater (race cars) had 34. I actually wanted to run 34 this year, but Mario (Romancini) already had it.” While team-owner Eric Bachelart hasn’t decided what will happen for the rest of the year, Baguette is hopeful he can put together a strong enough performance with the number to keep it. “I think the change is good,” Baguette said, “and I hope that it is still a lucky number for me.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, August 21 2010
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