Left turn to another close title race

Andrew Longmore meets the Scot on the brink of oval superiority
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The Independent Online

Eddie Irvine is not the only driver from the United Kingdom with his eyes on a significant prize this weekend. Across the Pacific from Suzuka where, in the early hours of this morning, the Ulsterman's wild ambition could have reached unlikely fulfilment, Dario Franchitti will take an altogether more choreographed step towards the top in the final race of the Cart championship, America's premier single-seater series, at the Fontana Super Speedway in California. Within 24 hours of each other, Belfast and Edinburgh could be toasting homegrown world champions.

Eddie Irvine is not the only driver from the United Kingdom with his eyes on a significant prize this weekend. Across the Pacific from Suzuka where, in the early hours of this morning, the Ulsterman's wild ambition could have reached unlikely fulfilment, Dario Franchitti will take an altogether more choreographed step towards the top in the final race of the Cart championship, America's premier single-seater series, at the Fontana Super Speedway in California. Within 24 hours of each other, Belfast and Edinburgh could be toasting homegrown world champions.

Franchitti, a Scot of Italian ancestry, takes a nine-point lead into the last of the 20 races and has only to finish on the podium to become the first British Cart world champion since Nigel Mansell in 1993. Like Irvine, Franchitti has seen a dramatic turn in his fortunes over the past month. Unlike Irvine, he has not had to rely on another's accident nor on the Byzantine politics of his sport to come within touching distance of the title.

In early September, an elementary mistake in Vancouver left Franchitti trailing his great rival, Juan Montoya, by 23 points with just four races remaining. It seemed the season-long duel between the hottest properties in the sport had taken a decisive swing in the Colombian's favour. "We never lost heart," Franchitti reflected last week. "We kept working hard, but that was the lowest point in the season."

Three races later, the last a dominant victory on Australia's Gold Coast, and Franchitti is contemplating the triumphant end to a season of emotional swirls. It would not quite be the way a charger like Franchitti would have planned it, but the consistency that has been a notable feature of Franchitti's driving this season is a tribute to Jackie Stewart, who once rang the Franchitti household, asked simply: "How can I sell a Scot with an Italian name to the Scots?" then took young Dario under his wing.

While Montoya has blown away the rookie record books, winning an extraordinary seven races in his debut season in the Fedex series, Franchitti has just about hung on to the coat-tails of the Chip Ganassi Team's young star. The pair have won 10 of the 19 races so far, yet the instinctive recognition that they are fellow travellers has fostered friendship and mutual respect.

"I knew Juan from my time at Paul Stewart Racing," said Franchitti. "We've always got on well. Down in Australia, we had dinner together and, though it's very much business on the track, I think we have respect for each other's ability. We've had some good close racing this year. He's passed me, I've passed him, he's aggressive, I'm aggressive."

Franchitti, in his second season of Cart racing, had left Long Beach last April aware that a new young contender had entered a title race already competitively balanced. On a tight Monaco-like road course which suited Franchitti, Montoya had simply driven away into the distance. "I knew he was quick anyway, but I knew after that just how quick," Franchitti recalled.

Most eyes outside the good- ol'-boy world of US auto racing will be clamped on the bizarre conclusion to the Formula One season. But if Irvine wins in Suzuka and Franchitti follows suit at Fontana, Formula One will for once not be in possession of necessarily the most glamorous or saleable champion. To the obvious delight of the Cart series, Montoya and Franchitti are not Formula One cast-offs, but talents nurtured in the friendlier, less precious, world of US racing.

Montoya began racing karts at the age of five, graduated through the European series to become Formula 3000 champion and a test driver for the Williams team, yet preferred to pitch his emerging talent into the newly formed Fedex series in the States. Franchitti's education, sponsored by his father George, who sold his ice-cream business in Glasgow to pay the tuition fees, has been even more liberal, a season for Mercedes in the German Touring Car series pre- ceding a move across the Atlantic to the Hogan team.

Franchitti is 26, Montoya 24, both are contracted for another season in America, neither profess any particular wish to switch to Formula One just for the sake of it. Time and talent are on their side. And, for the moment, there is a personal score to be settled over the 250 laps and 500 left-hand bends of the two-mile oval at Fontana, east of Los Angeles.

"I'm trying not to think too much about the championship," Franchitti says. "If we get this race right, the title will follow." Speedways are, as the Americans say, a crapshoot, a matter of luck, good set-up and stamina. "It's a case of rolling along for 450 miles and then seeing what happens," says Montoya. "I don't need to go out and win the race," counters Franchitti. "But I want to be right up front. So I'm going to be out there pushing."

Both would be wise, though, to heed the advice once given to a rookie by the legendary AJ Foyt: "Just don't turn right, boy, or ya'll eat concrete."

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