BACK TO SCHOOL
With their roles reversed, Franchitti has focused his energies on turning Johnson’s 20-plus years of Cup sensibilities into the style needed to excel across IndyCar’s road and street courses races.
Where the Cup car’s high weight and lack of downforce befuddled Franchitti, Johnson’s challenge is coming to terms with the opposite dynamics. Encyclopedic knowledge gained while herding stock cars around ovals won’t help in a light and powerful Dallara DW12-Honda that buries its Firestone tires into the ground with nearly 5000 pounds of downforce.
“So with Jimmie, we formed these different plans, where were we going to go testing, what’s going to happen. Then we talk about the big things and then we sort of focused down onto the more the minutia,” Franchitti says.
“We realized with IndyCar’s limited testing, we had to get him on track more often, so we got a F4 deal together. And then he’s been doing prototypes in IMSA, so it’s the repetitions that have really mattered. Every time he gets in the car, we’ve narrowed that focus down to finding smaller and smaller things, and he’s gotten closer and closer to the ultimate pace by doing it.
“Then we do a debrief after every test, and then another with his race engineer Eric Cowden, who’s been just an absolute gem in this program. He’s been so good for Jimmie because he’s just so patient and the way he explains a situation; there’s just no ego with Eric. He’s bloody amazing. So we have those chats about, ‘OK, this is what happened last time here, what do we need to learn this time?’”
Trips to the site of this weekend’s season-opening IndyCar race at Barber Motorsports Park, and a pair of trips to Laguna Seca, where the penultimate round will be held in September, proved to be extraordinarily valuable for Johnson.
“With this new surface that they’ve put down in Barber, it’s a massive commitment track,” Franchitti says. “He went right at it at that last test; then we went to Laguna, and it’s night and day difference where the car’s sliding around the whole time. The track surface there is older than me! And he’s got to learn how an IndyCar deals with places with lots of grip and also with no grip.
“You’ve got to bear in mind that in a stock car, the tires have got those big sidewalls and there’s a lot of movement in the sidewalls, a lot of movement in the rear suspension. And the IndyCar doesn’t have those soft and squishy things. So he’s getting used to the signals that the IndyCar is giving him, and interpreting those signals correctly. But don’t forget the car is talking to him one way at Barber and in a totally different way at Laguna. It’s not one thing to learn; it’s new variables at every track he goes.”
As Johnson’s IndyCar knowledge base continues to grow, Franchitti has become accustomed to keeping both of his phones charged and ready for incoming calls at odd hours.
“I’ll be somewhere in Europe, and he’ll phone me at 10 o’clock in the morning – my time,” he says. “I’m like, ‘Jimmie, it’s 5:00 a.m. your time… go to bed,’ and he’ll go, ‘Yeah, I couldn’t sleep, so I’m in the gym. Can we talk about…’ He wants to know everything about the car. And then we have these long conversations about ‘What does a race weekend look like?’
“He’s used to a NASCAR race weekend and the flow of, ‘When do you get there? Where should we stay? How do the meetings happen? When do we do the track walks? What can I expect from session to session with the track evolution?’
“In NASCAR, when the track rubbers in, you want to go where the rubber isn’t. ‘The Goodyear tires don’t like rubber.’ I’m like, ‘Ooh, but the Firestones love rubber, mate. You’re going to get an extra set as a rookie. You’re going to go out first, you’re going to sweep the track, and you’re going to be on a different plan in learning where your tires are happiest out there.’ And he soaks it all up, whatever hour it is.”
During his IndyCar training regimen, Johnson has picked up on of the many things Franchitti was known for throughout his driving career.
“In NASCAR, I could see Dario’s work ethic and the brain power, but since we weren’t teammates, I didn’t know about all the note-taking,” he says. “And now, spending more time with him as I have… I mean, you name the year, the day, he’ll pull out notes from Detroit Grand Prix practice session 2 he wrote 10 years ago, or whatever. He has these volumes of **** he pulls out, and you’re like, ‘Holy cow…what is wrong with you?’”
Friendly jabs aside, Johnson’s professor continues to marvel at the rookie’s dedication to a daunting task.
“His level of commitment is unbelievable and it’s brilliant to see,” Franchitti says. “I’ve never questioned it. Just never have to worry. He’s one of those guys who works as hard as anybody in the team. Right now, with his experience level, that’s all you can ask. And he’s getting closer and closer to the limits.
“He’ll tell you, ‘I love to challenge myself every day.’ I really believe that’s what he’s doing, and we as a team don’t give him any breaks. I push him as hard, if not harder, than anyone else, because I know he’s got the mental capacity to digest what I’m telling him. He’s amazing that way.
“You tell him to do something, and he does it. You tell him, ‘Hey, try this at this corner, try that at that corner,’ and he’ll go out and try three different things in five laps. And you’re like, ‘OK, which one worked?’ He’ll say, ‘Well, if I did this, this happened. If I did this, that happened. If I did this other thing, this happened, and I prefer the second option.’ The more times he’s on track, the more he’s learning from what we tell him, but also from what he’s discovering on his own. It’s so cool to see.”
NOT BEHIND, OR EQUAL, BUT AHEAD
If you strip away everything Johnson needs to learn this year as an IndyCar driver, he’s left with one goal: To get ahead of the No. 48 Honda.
Watch onboard footage from his teammate Scott Dixon, or a young star like Pato O’Ward, and there’s nothing about the car’s behavior that surprises either driver as they rocket into and out of tricky corners. Their cars might understeer, or start to slide, and thanks to their skills and vast road racing experience, both know what to expect before it happens and apply countermeasures with their hands or feet to prevent it from becoming a problem or hurting their lap times.
It’s referred to as being ‘ahead of the car,’ the intuition of knowing what’s to come and reacting before it happens. It’s also what separates the goods from greats. And it’s not something a Hall of Fame NASCAR driver is going to master in a handful of pre-season tests.
“I want to say I’m probably halfway there,” Johnson acknowledges. “The reason I say halfway is because I was able to get within five or six tenths of my teammates at the last Barber test. So, backstory: We wanted to end the day on two long runs so that I could run the car out of fuel, practice a pit stop, go through the whole routine. So when we all put new tires on mid-afternoon, I was five to six tenths off. That, to me, was such a massive victory.
“I was two or three seconds off my own teammates at my first Barber test. So going back there, I was so damn happy that I had closed the gap and was in the same bracket with those guys, running by myself. But I still haven’t done a race start, (or) done a restart. I’ve never been on Firestone reds. I’ve never had a qualifying session. I’ve never driven on a street circuit. I still have so much to discover yet. I feel I’m getting closer to the single-lap pace, and it’s coming. But there’s still a world ahead of me to figure out before I feel like I’m on top of the car.”