ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – A.J. Foyt holds the record of seven season championships (all under USAC sanctioning), with Mario Andretti, Sebastien Bourdais and Dario Franchitti ranking second with four each.
“You don’t think I know that?” Franchitti says matter-of-factly.
He also knows that to tie Bourdais for most consecutive championships at four will require consistently strong results on a diverse set of racetracks against what many competitors have projected as the deepest IZOD IndyCar Series field of talent and ability since the series’ inception. Franchitti is tied with Ted Horn (1946-48 under AAA sanction) for consecutive championships, while Bourdais’ title from 2004-07 were under Champ Car sanction.
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The Target Chip Ganassi Racing driver begins defense of his IZOD IndyCar Series title this week in the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, which he won in 2011 to light the path to the championship that featured a season-long duel with Team Penske’s Will Power.
“I think there are as many as 15 cars capable of winning races and eight or 10 legitimate championship contenders,” Franchitti asserts. “We’ve got our work cut out for us, but I can't wait for the season to begin.”
The Scot contends that winning a fifth overall title – his first came in 2007 with then-Andretti Green Racing -- is only a number.
In the blog: How St. Petersburg got its name
“I don’t think about it that way,” says Franchitti, who is one victory from tying Bourdais and Paul Tracy (31) for seventh on the all-time list. “We’re going to try to win the first race and – I hate to be boring about it – we’re going to try to win the championship by doing the best job we can. That’s the way we go racing. There’s no point getting carried away with the number. It could be the team’s fifth championship in a row. That’s not the way you go racing; not the way you think about it.”
He does concede: “Five would be nice, I would say.”
Power topped the driver list with a series record-tying six victories in 2011, and accumulated additional points by earning a series-record eight pole starts. For the second consecutive season, however, the Aussie came up tantalizingly short in the title chase. He overcame contact in consecutive races at Iowa and Toronto to take the points lead with a runner-up finish at Twin Ring Motegi. But 19th place after starting from the pole at Kentucky – combined with Franchitti’s runner-up finish – left him 18 points arrears.
“I had a very close look at once again why we lost the championship last year because we won more races and more poles than anyone,” he says. “I don’t sit back and say it’s bad luck because I don’t think it’s really ever about luck. If you’re doing your job properly you tend to have good luck. Having another year with the same crew and then going into the year with (race strategist) Tim Cindric having worked with him for the second half of the year I think we’ll be a really strong combination.”
The unknowns of the new car and engine packages from Chevrolet, Honda and Lotus will accelerate the championship intrigue during the 16-race season. Power agrees with Franchitti that it will “be a different story” with multiple contenders to the end.
Two-time series champion Scott Dixon was third in the title race the past two seasons, while Oriol Servia caught quite a bit of attention with a strong fourth place in 2011. Tony Kanaan, the 2004 title holder, was fifth in the standings. All return, along with Bourdais (Lotus Dragon Racing) running all races but Milwaukee this season, perennial contenders Ryan Briscoe and Helio Castroneves, Graham Rahal, Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay. Each is a race winner.
“The quality of the field has just gotten better and better and better,” Power says. “It’s kind of surprised me that it’s been a two-horse race the past few years because there’s a lot of guys in there who are bloody quick and capable of winning every weekend. It just happened to fall that way that Dario and I have made a bit of a point break.
"I think it’s one of the toughest fields I’ve ever seen. The last two years you could see how competitive it was throughout the field. Usually you had the 26 cars stacked within one second in qualifying on the road courses. It’s just great to see. You want to beat the best guys there not wankers.
"I think this year with the engine manufacturers, new car and all that it certainly will be mixed up. It’s going to be very interesting and unknown until we do the first race and then we’ll get an idea of which engine is the strongest on road courses, and until we get to Indy no one is going to have an idea of what’s the strongest engine on an oval.”