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COUNTERPOINT: Is Dario’s season over?

by
Steph Wallcraft and Paul Dalbey
| Apr 03, 2012

In COUNTERPOINT, MoreFrontWing.com co-editors Paul Dalbey and Steph Wallcraft face off on topics relating to the IZOD IndyCar Series. Neither sees the other’s argument until the two sides are put together. It’s up to you to decide who’s made the better case!

This week: Have Dario Franchitti’s hopes for claiming a fifth title in 2012 come to a premature end?

PAUL says YES:

If the third time is a charm, the fourth time must be, well, one too many. Sadly for Dario Franchitti, it appears his streak of consecutive IZOD IndyCar Series Championships is likely to end at three years. It’s been a good run, but it’s time now for someone else to ascend to the top of the podium.

I know it’s a bold prediction to say Dario’s season is essentially over (at least in terms of his championship aspirations), but the field is just too close and too competitive for Dario to recover from a 49-point deficit after just two races. For the past two seasons, we’ve watched Dario’s teammate, Scott Dixon, make valiant efforts to overcome sluggish starts, coming up just short in both 2010 and 2011. The difference is that Scott looked competitive while being hampered by bad luck. Franchitti, on the other hand, seems completely lost with the DW12 and has openly commented that he is struggling to find a balance in the car that suits his driving style. When Dario is exceedingly happy with a 10th-place finish (gaining that 10th position on a last corner pass), it’s a good indication that Dario is off his game.

There is no doubt the DW12 is a different animal than Dallara’s previous offering, the IR03. Without getting into great detail (mostly because I don’t have the technical background to do so), the new chassis has a significant rear weight bias which tends to make the car understeer much more through the turns than the older, oval-centric car did. While the oversteer tendencies of the previous model suited some drivers particularly well – Franchitti and Will Power, to name a couple – the new car tends to favor drivers that prefer a more “pushy” car, such as Scott Dixon and Ryan Briscoe.

As Dario continues to get more seat time in the DW12, he and his engineers will no doubt hit upon setups that are both comfortable and fast. The problem is getting there will take time, and if he has any hope of again defending his title, time is not a luxury he can afford.

Much has been made about Dario’s reluctance to embrace left-foot braking on road courses, a method utilized by a vast majority of the front-runners in INDYCAR. Even 19-year Formula 1 veteran Rubens Barichello is working to change from right- to left-footed braking, desperately trying to erase nearly 35 years of instinct to better adapt to the new car. His refusal to adopt this alternate method cost Franchitti valuable testing time in the off-season as Dallara worked to develop a pedal system that fit Dario’s needs. Not sitting idly to wait for him, his competitors took advantage of the off-season testing and gained invaluable seat time with the new car.

I certainly don’t think that Dario has lost a step or that his skills have diminished in any way since claiming his fourth IZOD IndyCar Series Championship last fall. However, in the battle for the championship, especially with this field that is so competitive, drivers can’t afford to throw away any points, and Franchitti has essentially given away the first two races and already trails by nearly an entire race worth of points. With another pair of tight street courses coming up at Long Beach and Sao Paulo, where handling and being able to navigate slow, technical portions of the track is paramount to success, it could be a long six weeks before Dario arrives at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and finally gets to stretch his legs a bit with significant amounts of on-track practice time.

I have no doubts that Dario will come to grips with the new car (no pun intended) and be right back at the front of the field by the end of the year. Unfortunately, I think it will be too little, too late for the three-time defending series champion. The competitiveness of this field is just too great to overcome such a large deficit so early in the season.

STEPH says NO:

After two lackluster weekends, it’s evident that Dario Franchitti is behind the curve.

It’s been widely publicized that he got significantly less useful track time in testing than many other drivers while he waited for the right-foot braking retrofit to the DW12. On top of that, the Target Chip Ganassi Racing team simply doesn’t seem to be getting Dario’s car figured out for him as quickly as one might expect.

And there’s a good reason for that: the expectations for this organization are extremely high. Dario and TCGR have come away as champions for the past three seasons running. If there was any one team to bet on being fast right out of the gate, it was this one.

But Dario fans can take heart – trailing performances won’t be tolerated by this group for much longer. TCGR is one of precious few teams in the INDYCAR paddock with nearly unlimited resources to solve its early season woes, and being consistently outperformed by Penske Racing is the only motivation the team needs. You’d better believe they’re throwing everything they’ve got at getting that car to Dario’s liking as quickly as humanly possible. From there, all it takes from Dario is a quick return to his fearsomely consistent form and they’re right back in the game.

In a 16-race season, an early two-race deficit is easily recovered by a gifted driver. (Dario’s teammate, Scott Dixon, has proved that time and again.) Yes, the talent pool in the 2012 field is deep, but with only a handful of exceptions, it’s largely made up of young hot shoes who show flashes of brilliance but aren’t yet ready to pull a full season together, or veterans driving for teams who aren’t likely to pick up the new program quickly enough to put them into title contention.

He’s facing a bit more of an uphill battle than he’s become accustomed to, but it’s never a good idea to bet against Dario’s legendary consistency. Once his team finds him the car he needs – and they will soon – he’ll be stringing podium finishes together and racking up points again in no time.

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Paul Dalbey and Steph Wallcraft are co-editors of MoreFrontWing.com, a website dedicated to helping fans get a grip on INDYCAR news and views. Reach them both at feedback@morefrontwing.com.

3 Comments

  1. 1 Julie 03 Apr
    I think it is too early in the season to say one way or the other. A lot can happen over the course of a season....remember the wild point swings of last season. Bad luck can strike anyone at anytime and that coupled with consistent top finishes for Dario can put him right back in the hunt. As far as I am concerned, there are still 12 drivers that can win this thing.
  2. 2 Julie 03 Apr
    I think it is too early in the season to say one way or the other. A lot can happen over the course of a season....remember the wild point swings of last season. Bad luck can strike anyone at anytime and that coupled with consistent top finishes for Dario can put him right back in the hunt. As far as I am concerned, there are still 12 drivers that can win this thing.
  3. 3 Deke Weinberg 03 Apr
    Hey Paul!

    While I have heard the new chassis is prone to understeer, it prolly ain't the weight bias that causes it. Rear-heavy cars actually are prone to oversteer (see most sports cars) while Front-heavy leads to understeer (see nearly every FWD sedan). My guess (though not an aero-engineer) is that the understeer is based on the aero qualities of the chassis more than weight distribution. Irrelevant to your argument, which I actually agree with. Dashly is cooked in the DW12

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