Franchitti column

Autosport.com's columnist packed plenty into the last few days; a street race, and F1 test and a superspeedway podium

Franchitti column

Third place - a podium finish! It's nice to have some good news to write about for a change. It was a tough race - the 500-mile races are a real challenge - and at the beginning of the race I didn't think we had a top three car. But the guys at Team Kool Green did a superb job, and we worked at it and ended up third. A tremendous result - my best on a superspeedway -- and some useful points in the championship. But more of that later.

As I'm sure you read, I headed back to Europe after last week's race at Tornoto to test a Formula 1 car at Silverstone. It's something I've wanted to do for a while, and it's really an unbelievable set of circumstances that allowed me to do it, especially mid-season. I must say thanks to the people at Jaguar for letting me have that opportunity, and especially I must thank Barry Green, and all at Team Green, Honda, Kool... Everyone who helped in releasing me to do it.

I had a couple of days running in the car, and really enjoyed it. I learned a lot, learned something about the intricacies of driving an F1 car. In some ways the cars compare with CART cars, in other ways they are totally different. Basically they are completely different animals, so a direct comparison is virtually impossible.

It was weird to be back at Silverstone. I raced there a lot in my junior years, in Formula Vauxhall and F3, but amazingly it's the first time I've driven there since 1996, and the track has changed a lot since then I can tell you.

And there were loads of familiar faces in the paddock. It was a full scale F1 test so all the teams but three or four were there. It was a great experience, but come the end of Wednesday, I knew it was time to head for the airport and transfer all my thought to CART, Team Green and the Michigan 500.

In fact, the thought of Michigan on its own is enough to get the thoughts focused! In terms of going from an F1 car to a superspeedway, it's chalk and cheese. But even the difference from the last CART race on the streets of Toronto to the wide open 2-mile superspeedway couldn't be any different. Whichever way, it's a totally different mindset.

In practice the car was pretty good. The thing about Michigan is that quick lap times depend on a tow. I went out on Friday morning and straight away (my sixth lap I think) did a 230mph lap on my own. I thought, boy, that's quick! We made no real changes to the car, and in the afternoon we were doing 228-227mph, then I got a tow and boom! 234.1mph!

My team mate Paul Tracy got two very good tows, and the team were saying that he came out of Turn 4 on the radio saying: "Woohoo! This is one mother of a tow," and did a 238.9mph lap. That's fast, but that what it's about at Michigan.

But it's a 500-mile race, so qualifying doesn't really matter, unless you get that extra point for pole - which Paul did. We worked through practice to make the car good in traffic for the race. You 're almost always setting up for the race, there's never really a chance to try a qualifying run. We qualified fourth, which was good. It was nice to be back up near the front.

After the results we've had for the last three races and incidents we've had, I just needed to get a good finish, and hope for no first lap antics. But 500 mile races are mentally very taxing. For three and a half hours you can't make any mistakes, or get your car in the wrong position behind someone else... It's pretty hard work.

At the start of the race I thought we were going to be in for a long day.
The car was pretty evil to be honest. The car wasn't much good in traffic so we had to work with the car each stop, making the car progessively better. But we just worked at it, and worked at it. We dropped back to 18th at one point I think. The pit-stops, the strategies, and the fuel mileage the Honda engine was getting was great, and in the closing stages we were right up there.

Towards the end the car was actually pretty good, and again patience had paid off. The fact that there were less and less cars in front of me seemed to help us too. Unfortunately we didn't have enough for Juan Montoya or Michael Andretti, and I couldn't catch them. But Max Papis and I were having a pretty good race. I'm not quite sure what happened with Max. About five laps to go he was right with me into Turn 1, and I looked in the mirror and he was gone. His engine went I found out after. That must be really annoying to do 490 miles and then have to retire. It's not Max's lucky track this one. He lost the lead on the last lap here last year when he ran out of fuel...

It was a good race, and it was exciting the whole time. In the press conference after the race they told us that there were 162 unofficial changes of lead, not just at the line. That's incredible! Firstly that in 250 laps you can get that many passes, and secondly that someone was actually counting!

But it shows how great the racing is at Michigan. Because it's wide enough for two lines - well four sometimes! - so there is always space to pass. But also you have to be aware of the guys around you. Even in the race we were averaging 227mph, so really you have to take care of each other, and give each other room.

There were one or two guys that had some interesting lines out there, and weren't giving each other room but with the rest of these guys it was great racing. Christian Fittipaldi was very aggressive all day. He was halfway alongside me out of Turn 2, and turned hard right to try and get in the tow. I had a couple of incidents with Christian in the race. He wasn't really playing the game, to be honest.

There was a lot going on out there with guys making hard contact. I actually ran over some debris a couple of times, which always concerns you. When Kenny Brack hit the wall I had nowhere to go, and there were bits everywhere. We cut three tyres, but fortunately we were able to stop right away and change them.

In the middle section there was this weird period where everyone was saving fuel and nobody wanted to lead! There was a huge draft behind that pack of 8-9 cars. I just sat quietly right at the back in the tow - it was massive! On the straights I was virtually off the throttle! It reminded me of that sequence from the film Grand Prix when they are at Monza and you see him lift off the throttle and still get towed along. But I was just saving fuel. It was fine.

Why the stands weren't full I don't know. You see some other racing here which aren't half as interesting as what we had, and the stands are full. These are fun races, but they are only fun if your car works. If you're car's bad, you're thinking 'If the car's going to be like this for three-and-a-half hours then I'd rather be somewhere else.' As we showed, you just have to keep working with the car, and not give up. In the end it paid off and we were third.

The race between Juan and Michael seemed pretty good at the end. I had a really good view of the finish! It was very close. Michael was pretty close to Juan, and Juan was pretty close to the wall... And Tarso Marques was pretty close in front of them! I didn't think anything was going to happen, they knew what they were doing, even though they were very close. I was behind them when they crashed in Japan last year, and I was kind of hoping for a bit of déjà vu. But those guys were the fastest out there, and they both deserve to be where they were.

This is my second podium of the year, but still no wins. I haven't even led a lap yet! It's nice to start scoring some points and being on the podium, and we just need to keep doing the same to get back into it. As we showed last year, it's never over until the last lap of the last race. Hopefully we'll have as close a championship battle as we did last year, but I'll be one point ahead this time...

And so on to Chicago, a short oval, and the third race weekend in a row. I was second there last year, but the wing package has changed a lot, so it'll be a lot faster this year. Hopefully we've just started a bit of a run, and can keep the momentum going before someone gets too far in front of the championship.

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