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Franchitti looks to future with new DW12

28 October 2011

Dario Franchitti was back behind the wheel of an IndyCar for the first time since the disastrous race at Las Vegas, as he had his first outing in the new 2012 IndyCar Safety Cell chassis for Honda at Sebring International Raceway in Florida on Thursday.

Media reports during the week have quoted manufacturer Gian Paolo Dallara as saying that the new car will bear the production name of 'DW12' in memory of Dan Wheldon, who was killed in the multi-car accident at Vegas.

“I'm really appreciative of Dallara naming the car after Dan; he did put a lot of work into it," said Franchitti.

Dario had earlier made it clear that he has no intention at this point of quitting motor sport in the wake of Wheldon's death, one his closest friends in the series: "I've definitely wondered if it's worth it," Franchitti told The Associated Press earlier this week. "But I believe I still want to race."

Franchitti's cousin, Force India F1 driver Paul Di Resta, echoed Dario's feelings in an interview in New Delhi ahead of the Grand Prix of India.

"I know that Dario is out testing the new car at Sebring this week and he has said in interviews that it has made him think; only time will tell. If he wants to continue we'll support that decision," said Di Resta. "It's hurt him ... Dan was a very close friend."

Instead, Franchitti is channelling his energy into leading the drivers' group inputting into safety reviews of the IndyCar Series in the wake of Vegas, along with Tony Kanaan and Justin Wilson.

"Dario, Tony and Justin have taken the lead in unifying us and we're in a great group," said veteran series driver Davey Hamilton after a three-hour meeting between the drivers and series organisers at Indianapolis on Monday. "We've been exchanging calls and emails in a very positive way. We're doing it for the wellness of our sport."

It means that Franchitti is following in the footsteps of his childhood hero and mentor, fellow Scot Sir Jackie Stewart, who overcame huge opposition to spearhead the transformation of safety standards in F1 in the 60s and 70s.

"The difference we have now that maybe Jackie didn't have is that the promoters and the sport in general were not supporting him," said Franchitti on Monday. "As drivers, we have the support of each other, the support of the IndyCar Series and the fans and everybody."

Franchitti has also been supportive of IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard, who has borne the brunt of harsh criticism from people wanting someone to blame for Wheldon's death: "It's completely wrong to criticize Randy and finger-pointing isn't going to do anyone here any good at all," Franchitti asserted. "You cannot blame one person for this. Motor racing is not safe. We've known that since I started racing."

Franchitti also revealed that it had been Bernard's decision to abandon the race after Wheldon's fatal accident.

"Each person was very confused, and Randy, ultimately, he really as a leader did a good job and took the decision out of our hands," Franchitti told the AP. "He made absolutely the right choice," he added, strongly disagreeing with suggestions from some racing quarters that the event should have carried on regardless. "Especially when I got back in the car and I realised how emotional I was there, and I thought 'Absolutely right decision.' I think most of us couldn't drive because the tears, we couldn't see where we were going."

For now, the focus is on picking up Wheldon's work on testing and developing the new 2012 car and redoubling efforts to improve its safety provisions.

“We're at the beginning of a long development process. It will be a busy couple of months," said Franchitti, adding that Wheldon himself had been notoriously closed-mouthed about the work he'd done on the car during the summer. "He did a really good job of not telling us anything ... He was very secretive about what went on so he didn't give anyone an advantage. And a few of us tried to tap him for information!"

"We used to relax in the off-season, but now we have a new car and we have a lot of work to do," added Tony Kanaan, who will get his own chance to contribute to the DW12's development when he tests the chassis for Chevrolet at Sebring next week. "We're going to be testing a lot more than we used to and speaking about safety and things we need to change. I think we're actually going to be a lot busier now than we were during the season."

Kanaan - another of Wheldon's closest friends, and together with Franchitti one of the pallbearers at Wheldon's funeral last weekend - has also set aside questions about whether he will quit the sport after Wheldon's death, saying instead that "I will try to honour him as best I can on the racetrack.

"If it ever crossed my mind that it was too dangerous, I should go and do something else," Kanaan told CNN the day after the Vegas accident, adding that if Kanaan had announced his retirement and Wheldon were still alive "[Dan] would be the first guy to call my team owner to take my place."

The feeling is understandably not unanimous. Sam Schmidt, whose car Dan Wheldon was driving at Vegas, said that he was having to think seriously about his future in the sport as a team owner. "I'd by lying if I said I wasn't, but you've got to think about it," said Schmidt, who was himself left a quadriplegic by an off-season crash in IndyCar in 2000 and who was inspired by the example of Sir Frank Williams in F1 to rebuild his life as a team owner instead.

In the immediate aftermath of the accident on October 16, Davey Hamilton had been one of those to say that he might finally be done with racing. "It's time for me to rethink and I have some things up the pipeline. Do some team ownership maybe," he told television pit lane reporters at Las Vegas Motor Speedway after the accident, even before news of Wheldon's death emerged. "I have a great sponsor and we are going to re-evaluate."

But for most of the drivers and team members involved in IndyCar, it's simply too soon and the emotions too raw to be making long-term decisions about their own futures or that of motor racing - and that includes making hasty, drastic changes to the IndyCar Series.

"Obviously knee-jerk reactions are not the thing we need," Franchitti told the AP. "It's a difficult situation for everybody. We all still have Dan on our minds and we're going to do everything we can to make this sport as safe as possible."


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