Franchitti back on track to realise Formula One dream

Ambitious Scot makes miraculous recovery to drive in Sunday's CART championship
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The Independent Online

Considering he has spent the past six weeks recovering from a fractured pelvis and brain contusions, it does seem a might audacious of Dario Franchitti to pronounce: "I'm back to Plan A."

However, in defiance of most predictions, Franchitti will be driving his Reynard Honda today in practice for Sunday's race, the opening round of the CART Championship, at the Homestead Speedway in Miami.

What is more, the Scotsman maintains he will be able to dial into his original strategy, which is to win the series and simultaneously secure a seat on Formula One for next year.

Franchitti was well up the queue when they doled out ambition and determination. Courage, too. By pernicious irony he must begin his quest for fulfilment on the very oval circuit in south Florida where he sustained those injuries in a 193mph crash.

"That honestly doesn't bother me," he said. "I have no psychological problem about racing on this circuit. I can't remember anything about the accident anyway. That's probably no bad thing."

Franchitti smashed into a wall when a suspension part on his Team Green car broke. As he lay in a hospital bed, coming to terms with the consequences, he promised his boss he would be back for the first race. "Knowing Dario, I'm not surprised he's made it," Barry Green, the owner of the team, said. "He's determined in whatever he does."

Franchitti is a man on a mission, and a detour through medical checks and a training camp in Austria was not about to deter him.

"When I got to Austria I was struggling just to walk," he said. "Two or three days later I was doing a sequence of runs up 160 steps - 10 times over." Thirty-nine days and painstaking steps after the accident he was climbing into his car for a test at Nazareth, Pennsylvania, and, by way of a minor miracle, his championship plan was reborn.

"I had no doubt I would prove my fitness," he said. "This is a very important season for me and I had no intention of missing the first race. It was great to be back in the car and I had no problems or discomfort. Not even vertigo, which is something on that oval!

"The only thing that concerns me is that I've obviously had to miss some testing and what you want most of all going into the season is mileage. But my team-mate, Paul Tracy, has been testing and the team have the information we need."

Franchitti was runner-up in last year's championship to Juan Pablo Montoya, the Colombian contracted long-term to the Williams Formula One team. At the age of 26, Franchitti is conscious he cannot delay his move to grand prix racing much longer.

The graduation of 20-year-old Jenson Button - coincidentally with Williams BMW - is evidence enough that the sport is receptive to ever-younger talent. It can scarcely have helped Franchitti's cause that Button replaced Alessandro Zanardi, a double champion in CART but hapless in Formula One.

Franchitti said: "I still don't really understand what happened to Alex because I know how good he is. Formula One did not see the real Alex Zanardi.

"On the face of it his performance doesn't do me any favours but I'd like to think people will judge me on my merits and see for themselves what I can do on the track.

"Formula One is definitely my target and the best way I can stake my claim is by performing this year. I'm confident I can do that. I believe I have a very good chance of the championship."

Franchitti anticipates another intense contest with Montoya, but is wary of contenders from almost every position on the grid. One, he suspects, will be the Englishman and former Grand Prix driver, Mark Blundell.

"I've no doubts Montoya will be strong again but the great thing about CART is that you can't count anyone out," Franchitti said. "It really is a very open and unpredictable championship.

"Mark has had a bit of a rough time of it the last year or two but he has been quick in testing and he could be in for a good season. Michael Andretti is always quick. And so is Jimmy Vasser. And on it goes.

"It's not like Formula One when you know perhaps only two or three drivers have a realistic chance of the championship. Here there are lots of challengers, lots of race winners. That's the strength and appeal of CART."

And yet the strengths and appeal of Formula One are irresistible. "Sure, that's where I want to be," Franchitti said. "But I thoroughly enjoy this series. It's fantastic racing. And now this is what I have to concentrate on. Formula One comes next."

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