It has the hallmarks of a classic, this Dario Franchitti vs. Will Power rivalry. Franchitti hasn't encountered someone so relentlessly fast as Power since he fought Juan Montoya for the CART IndyCar championship well over a decade ago. In Franchitti, Power finds himself battling one of the most consistently formidable drivers in IndyCar history, one who ranks alongside Al Unser Sr. and Jr. for getting the job done pretty much every weekend.
Add to that these facts: They don't like each other, they drive for rival teams (that happen to be the best on the grid), they differ vastly in both driving style and approach to a race, and their strengths are as disparate as the tracks where each rises to pre-eminence. All they share is respect for each other's driving skills and the goal of becoming the IZOD IndyCar Series champion... every year.
Franchitti is cool, calm, unflappable. He's won the IndyCar title three times, including the last two. He's twice won the Indy 500. In the words of one of his former rivals, Gil de Ferran, "He's like a good wine - he just gets better with age." He sometimes doesn't go to the very edge of his talent because he doesn't need to and experience has taught him that doing that 100 per cent of the time isn't the best way to seal a championship. He tends to drive with a smoothness that belies the speed he's travelling, he's one of the gentlest drivers on tyres, he brakes with the right foot, he's good at fuel saving and to get the best out of him demands a car with a stable rear end. Oh, and as you'd expect from someone who drives within himself, he makes very few mistakes.
Then there's Power. Impassioned though he can be, it rarely translates into a mistake in the car. If he were to let his heart rule his head, he wouldn't be so icy calm when taking the car up to and beyond its limit during qualifying - an ability that has made him king of the road and street courses over the past couple seasons. On those tracks, in direct contrast to his chief rival, Power left-foot brakes late and hard, using the consequent instability of the rear end to help pivot the car into the apex. Like Dario, though, Will is excellent at fuel saving and perhaps even better at preserving his tyres in a race.
They both race clean, too. OK, their collision at Toronto was (to this writer's mind) Franchitti's fault in that he was trying to force open a door that had been only slightly and fleetingly ajar, but generally neither he nor Power go for close-your-eyes-and-pray moves.
A large part of that is that both of them are in control and mentally ahead of their cars.
This move would lead to the controversial incident that sparked the war of words © LAT
That's vital to success in a series where a pitstop strategy that fails to mesh with the way the full-course cautions fall can leave you with a bunch of cars to pass. Power is more assertive at this on road and street courses, while Franchitti is mind-blowingly perfect at oval restarts, whether he's doing it from the front row or farther back.
And for the second year in a row, the IZOD IndyCar Series is pretty much a straight fight between these two and it looks like it's heading down to the wire. What's surprising is that even with five or six rounds to go, no one else really looked in it.
Team Penske president Tim Cindric recalls: "We said at the beginning of the season that, given that we're not really able to make much technical progress with an eight-year-old spec car, there would be more teams in the hunt as they caught up. We've seen that to an extent, in that KV Racing's been more competitive, so has Newman/Haas, and Andretti Autosport has been very quick at times. But with Ganassi going to two additional cars and having [Scott] Dixon there, and us having Ryan Briscoe and Helio [Castroneves], we didn't expect such a similar scenario as last year."
Power observes: "It's not through lack of speed that Helio and Ryan aren't right up there in the championship. They've just been caught up in more incidents, whereas Dario and I have had reasonably clean seasons. Reasonably! Dario's the only one who's been pretty much immune apart from that collision with [Takuma] Sato at Loudon."
Aside from their infamous Toronto shunt, which saw Power eventually DNF thanks to an Alex Tagliani drop-kick, and Franchitti drive on to victory, the #12 got spun out by Castroneves on a restart in Long Beach, and at Iowa he eventually hit the wall in a car already damaged when he was released from his pit box into the path of Charlie Kimball.
In light of those incidents, it's not a surprise to find Franchitti playing the opposite role to last year, having built up a sizable points lead before seeing it diminish over the past couple races.
"To be honest, I don't look back and think about how we came to be in this situation," says the 2007, '09 and '10 champion, "but I think the double-file restarts and the early incidents this year took care some of the guys you'd expect to be challenging for the title. Even despite that, Scott is still in contention. I'd definitely say the side-by-side restarts have made it more difficult than ever to chalk up consistently strong finishes. It doesn't matter if you're at the front or whether your strategy has temporarily left you in the middle of the pack, those restarts can bite you. It's just something new we've all had to come to terms with."
Rick Mears, who like Franchitti, won three IndyCar championships in the space of four seasons, says that whether a driver's in the role of hunter or hunted in the championship standings, his mentality should not change.
"You've got to just keep on doing what got you into that position," he says. "It's like the Indy 500, where it's so easy to let it get inside your head and for you to treat it differently because it's the biggest race in the world. To me the key was to mentally treat it as another race on another track. Well, that's what needs to be done when you're running for the championship, too. Just keep doing what you've been doing.
Reigning champion Dario Franchitti has phenomenally consistent © LAT
"If there are only one or two races to go and you have a decent lead in the championship, then you can allow yourself to think, 'OK, let's not take any huge risks.' But right now, the name of the game remains to win all the races. Don't let other thoughts about point gaps enter your head or there's a real danger of making this way too complicated."
De Ferran wholeheartedly concurs. "If you go conservative now, you will arrive at the last two races in completely the wrong frame of mind - too defensive," he says. "If I were in Will's situation or Dario's situation, I would ignore the point standings and try to beat everyone each and every weekend. If you drive conservative now, it's not just your main rival but every other driver out there who smells blood, you know? Suddenly you're not finishing top three; you're finishing sixth, seventh or eighth. Ignore the points, continue to do what got you there."
Both of this year's title protagonists have taken that on board. Franchitti states: "I'm going to do things the way I have the last four or five years, and that's to try and get the best out of the car and the best out of the situation every race weekend." Power adds: "It's not smart to change how you race. When you try to drive in a way that doesn't come naturally, you start making stupid mistakes - or getting caught up in other people's even more stupid mistakes!"
Oval racing was once (may still be by some) perceived as Power's bête-noire, but he won one half of the Texas doubleheader this year. Mears and de Ferran say he's already good enough to win more and will only get better, and even Franchitti says his rival was good enough last year but "just got a couple of unlucky breaks."
Mike Hull, managing director of Chip Ganassi Racing, observes: "Oval racing may have been a question mark over Will going into last year, but he made amazing progress as the season went on. Now, we wouldn't count him out any place we race. He's enormously talented and he looks like he's a quick study."
Cindric says: "Will's checked that box for us. He's been our strongest guy for a lot of ovals as well as the road and street courses. My concern is that our team probably isn't as good on ovals as Ganassi. For most of last year, I wouldn't say that was the case, but whatever it is that made them stronger than us at Homestead [the finale] last year has carried through to this year."
Before Sonoma, Power didn't just single out ovals. "No question, Ganassi has gained on us on street and road courses. Last year I think we had an advantage over them at some tracks and on the others we were equal. This year, they've got something over us."
It's hard not to agree. You think back to Toronto and Edmonton, where only Power's searing pace got him ahead of the Ganassi cars on the grid, while his teammates were several tenths down. Dixon has described the two-day test at Sebring, pre-Toronto as 'pivotal' although Penske appears to have fought back.
"We clearly made a step forward compared to Penske," says Dario, "although I've not benefited from that test quite as well as Scott. He now seems to have the car exactly how he wants it and I'm still missing a little bit with the balance. But I'm not in the least surprised that Chip is prepared to dedicate the time and money into these old cars. The way the Target team goes racing is that we'll look for gains right up to Vegas."
Will Power has become the king of the streets © LAT
De Ferran has no doubts why Franchitti and Ganassi have the edge. He says: "They have a high level of staff consistency and they have two champions in Dario and Scott, who've now been working with each other for almost three seasons. Speed is never an issue when you get to guys at this level - they're all very fast. It's the other aspects of the game that culminate in a good result at the end of the weekend, and Dario has been perfecting his craft, whether that's down to predicting how the track will change or how a race is evolving, and also aspects like dealing with team personnel. He's highly intelligent and outstandingly complete.
"I think Will is farther down the learning slope but gaining. He's obviously very, very quick, and also very aware of what's going on around him. And, in Penske, he's with a team that knows how to be champions. It's a very strong combination.
"But that's usually the way it is, you know? The best drivers end up driving for the best teams."