Motor racing: Interview - Dario Franchitti: Super Dario driven by the twin forces of ancestry

Andrew Longmore in Long Beach sees a Scot with Latin fire pursue his dream of speed's golden age

The name, memorable as it is, will not mean much to passing acquaintances of motor sport. Nor would his face, dark and angular, encourage instant recognition down Princes Street, though Edinburgh is his home town. Yet such are the claims made on behalf of his talent the question of whether Dario Franchitti will be Formula One world champion is purely academic. Only the date is in doubt.

Franchitti himself would consider such extravagance pleasant and entirely unworthy of a precious tradition. His guiding star might have been Jackie Stewart, but Franchitti's most prized possessions include a bottle of Jim Clark memorial whisky and a 1962 edition of the history of Ecurie Ecosse, the team which launched Clark's extraordinary career.

The spirit of the amateur sits well on the slender shoulders of the man nominated to preserve the lineage. Like Clark, Franchitti would be as happy flinging a battered old Ford Cortina round the scrubby tracks of the Borders as slipping some sleak and expensive machinery through the narrow streets of Long Beach in California, just as long as there was a challenge involved, the whiff of danger and the scent of victory.

A similar instinct for speed characterised the rise of Jacques Villeneuve, the last protege thrust towards Formula One by Barry Green, owner of Franchitti's Kool Green team and one of the shrewder judges of driving talent in the Cart series. "It is scary how similar they [Villeneuve and Franchitti] are in their approach to the job," he says. "This kid is a brilliant test driver, Jacques was too. He's got a lot of confidence in himself and he knows exactly how fast his car is, which is just like Jacques. I'm never concerned when he's not the quickest in a practice session, I'm only concerned if he's not happy with the car. I said time and time again how good Jacques was. But, you know, this guy could be even faster."

As Green was speaking shortly after Franchitti had effortlessly put his green and white liveried Reynard-Honda on provisional pole in the first official practice session for today's Long Beach grand prix, it was hard to summon any semblance of a debate. Though he was first to break 63 and 62 seconds for the newly elongated 1.85-mile street circuit, Franchitti's thirst for perfection was barely quenched. "Too controlled" he termed his flying lap of 1.01.805. "I knew where the limit was at certain points and I stayed well within it. I was a bit angry with myself for not going faster."

Perhaps, he adds, that's the Latin fire. From his Scottish ancestry comes the calculating brain which his team owner equally admires. His helmet is crowned with the cross of St Andrew - the subject of a patent dispute with David Coultard - while the colours of Italy adorn the sides in honour of the Franchitti clan who still live in the town of Casino in central Italy.

When he won a Formula Three race at Mugello, the family occupied nearly the whole of one stand. "I'm Scottish. Both my parents were born there, but I'm very proud of my Italian heritage as well." In a horse, breeders would pay good money for such an impeccably mixed pedigree, but the twin forces of his ancestry are not always comfortably aligned: one half of him craving a return to the "seat of the pants" bravado of his youth, the other urging the caution of a maturing 25-year-old. "When I was a kid I was only interested in going fast and I still love that feeling of speed," he says. "But when you start to go racing, it's winning that's important."

Winning has never been much of a problem. Franchitti has been practising the art since the age of 11 when he won the Scottish Junior Karting Championship, the traditional creche for future champions. His father George owned a chain of ice-cream parlours in Edinburgh and the family lived in enough comfort in Whitburn to afford the bare essentials of an embryonic racing career. Dario's first foray into go-karting ended in a blown engine after two laps but he enjoyed consistent if largely parochial success before his first real break in 1992.

"How can I possibly sell a Scotsman with an Italian name to Scottish fans?" asked the voice down the phone. To this day, George is not entirely sure whether the question was serious or not, but as the familiar tones belonged to Jackie Stewart, no one cared too much. Stewart financed Dario's move up the single-seater ladder. Not for free, mind. Franchitti has just finished paying off his part of the future earnings deal. But what he learned sitting in the passenger seat as Stewart drove him round the tracks could not be easily price-tagged. "Before 1991," Franchitti says. "I just drove every lap as hard as I could. That was it. Jackie taught me to be faster and more consistent over the whole of a race."

Yet, even with Stewart's influence, the next step was not easily mapped. By the end of 1994, Franchitti was ready to move on from Formula Three, but the German Touring Car Championship, though with the backing of the all-powerful Mercedes development team, did not seem the obvious home. Franchitti took pole on his debut and by season's end had shown enough talent for Mercedes to arrange a drive with the Hogan team in the newly established Cart series in the US.

At the end of an inconclusive year, Franchitti had become Dario Speedwagon to his growing band of fans but then left Hogan - and, more importantly, Mercedes - to join Barry Green's team. It was a clash of ambitions as much as anything. In a race at mid-Ohio, Franchitti had suffered from an amateurish pit stop, losing nine places on the road because of a snagged fuel pipe. He found a greater sense of professionalism with Green, an Australian who had begun as a mechanic and worked his way up to ownership.

"He had a pretty reasonable resume," Green recalls. "It was nothing fantastic, but he had been with good teams and driven good equipment which is important. When you're picking a driver it's all about chemistry. Everyone in this team is a racer and we race very seriously. But we do have fun along the way. Dario is a great pro. He's also a great guy to have fun with."

Such fun that the Scot's many admirers in the Formula One pitlane might have to wait for their man. Despite rumours of the "two plus two equals five" variety which have suggested an impending transfer to the Stewart team, Franchitti has recently signed an extension to his contract to the end of next season, a comprehensive rebuff to those who believe there is only one proper home for his talent. "Formula One is what I want to do," he explains. "But I will go there only if I do a good enough job to attract an offer from a good, competitive, team. Whatever happens, I have to have a chance of winning races. I'm not going to be running round at the back of the grid, or even in midfield, just for the sake of saying I've been in Formula One. Take Mika Salo at Arrows, for example. He was working his nuts off race after race for nothing."

Swapping his present way of life for the high-stepping dressage of Formula One will not be a decision lightly taken. Franchitti has a Ferrari in the garage back at his home in Florida, a flat overlooking the sea for the rare occasions he returns to Edinburgh and a luxurious motorhome which allows him some freedom inside the confines of the racetrack. The robust camaraderie of the Cart drivers contrasts with the personality-led soap opera of Formula One as Alex Zanardi, the latest trans-Atlantic recruit to struggle, would doubtless testify. In Formula One, if you're down, people are liable to kick you. "I'm not sure I know how different that world will be," Franchitti says. He will find out in his own time. So will Formula One, who might just get the better of the deal.

"If Jacques can handle the pressures of Formula One outside the team, the media, for example, then I know Dario can," adds Green. "He's a very strong person and his desire to be the best will overcome any difficulties. He wants to be the best and I think he can be."

Coverage of today's Long Beach grand prix is live on Eurosport from 9.15pm.

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