Franchitti column: We're getting there

That's more like it! Second place for us at Team Kool Green in Japan was reward for a really top performance for my guys in the team, and I was obviously very happy to be back on the podium. I know straight after the race that I said second isn't as good as first - but don't think I wasn't happy with second. It's just that I like to win!

Franchitti column: We're getting there

Really we had a chance, and I tried to pass Michael Andretti on the restart, but I went a bit high, and that was the end of it.
All weekend I felt we had a good car. Honda had introduced some new developments, and I tell you, that was the strongest I've ever seen it. With Motegi being Honda's home track, there's an added incentive, if you need one, to win.

I like the Motegi track, although until now it's not been that kind to us. It's unusual in that turns one and two are flat, but you downchange for turns three and four. The race was scheduled for Saturday, so we began running on Thursday, and right away I was quite happy with the Kool car. We were fairly close on balance, but the car was a bit loose in three and four, and it was also a bit nervous, but it wasn't too far away. What was encouraging for us was that we ran our best time without a tow.

Afterwards I sat with my engineers Steve Challis and Tino Belli and we worked through a list of improvements in various areas. Nothing major, just detail stuff.

Qualifying was a disappointment, and my 17th position wasn't really representative of what we could have achieved. But then my team mate Paul Tracy has had some good results from there this season, so that gave us hope. Paul was actually starting behind me, so on paper qualifying wasn't so good, but we both knew that our cars had the potential, and with the race over 300 miles, we knew that anything was possible.

Then race day - Saturday - dawned cloudy and wet. So we hung around looking at the thousands of dedicated fans sitting in the rain waiting for it to stop so that we could get out on the track. I must say the Japanese fans are incredible. I first raced there in 1996 with the International Touring Car Championship, and even then we were mobbed by autograph hunters. But they mob you in a very polite way! They really are fanatical about their motorsport - just seeing over 60,000 people sitting in a stand with umbrellas up for three hours bears that out. It really is a different culture there. The track eventually dried out, and we had a 15 minute warm up session, just as the race should have been started. Just as we gridded the cars it began to rain again, and then got heavier, and the race was delayed to Sunday. All those soaking wet race fans made their way back to the busses that ferry them in and out of the track, having seen only a 15-minute warm-up session. That's dedication!

Sunday's weather was much more suitable, and I was really ready to race. As I said 17th position seems to be too far back to attack from, and really in a race that length it's best to concentrate on conservation, preservation and staying out of trouble.

At the start I just kept my nose clean, unlike what happened at Rio. The car was pretty good, but it was still hard to pass and make progress without taking risks. By about lap 30 I could see Juan Montoya in my mirrors coming up to put us a lap down. Not a good sight I can tell you! Fortunately we had a yellow, and the guys made some changes to the car during the stop. Even so it was a bloody quick stop from both the Team Green crews. We pitted again on lap 79 on the next yellow, made a few more changes, and made up a few more places, and by then Paul and myself were 10th and 11th.

With the changes my car now was really good, and that just shows that patience pays. We'd just chipped away at the handling each pit stop, and it made a big difference. Passing now was much easier and over the next five laps I passed Paul and moved up from 11th to eighth. We'd also been keeping an eye on the fuel because traditionally Motegi is a fuel circuit. We could run a few laps longer, which could have helped us big time if we'd run green to the finish.

By lap 140 I was up to third, and now really believing that there was a chance to win, although we had run green for so long that I would need another yellow. Juan was 14 seconds ahead, Michael 7 seconds. I could keep the gaps constant, so I knew that if we had a yellow to close up the gaps I would be competitive.

We got the yellow break we needed with 30 laps to go, and that was great because pitting then meant we could run to the finish full chat. I lost a place to Roberto Moreno, but we did get a break in that Juan had a problem, and ended up at the back of the line.

I passed Roberto on the restart and set off after Michael. The car was great, and I was determined to get my first oval win. We had another yellow, which would mean we had a three lap sprint to the flag. I knew I had to get Michael at the restart - there wouldn't be enough laps to build up a 'momentum pass'. I went high to get a run, but it was a bit too high, it was close, but not enough.

It's strange, after the start we've had to the season second place is a great result, but there is still that element of frustration with second place, when you've been so close to victory. I can't say enough for my crew. They have never let their heads drop at all this season, and the performance in Japan shows how determined we all are. I'm happy also for my engineers Steve and Tino. We knew we could do it, and Motegi shows we aren't far away. I'm testing at Milwaukee this week, and that should help us further. But for now I'll reflect on a very satisfying weekend in Japan. In fact, even if I say so myself, it was an awesome race to come from 17th on the grid to within an ace of victory.

Next we go back to Nazareth, and that will be strange, having qualified already! It's a one day event, so there won't be much time to make adjustments to the car. I'm sure the track will have changed since we were there last month, so the pressure will be on to get a car that's quick straight away. But I know my engineers can do it, my crew can do it, and I've got the scent of victory -- in fact we all have...

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