There's a claim I've heard used quite often that greatly frustrates me: that the 22 drivers on a grand prix grid are the best in the world.
It's a nice line, but it's rubbish. Yes, grand prix drivers - even the ones who pay to get onto the back of the grid - are supremely talented. They have to be to drive an F1 car. But breaking into F1 requires money, support, timing and a little bit of luck. It's not a strict meritocracy, and there are many drivers with the talent to star in F1 who have built enviable careers elsewhere.
Dario Franchitti, who was recently forced to retire due to injury, is one of the most successful British racing drivers of his generation and the closest he got to Formula One was a contentious test with the short-lived Jaguar Racing squad. It doesn't matter.
Franchitti started out on the traditional path to F1, in Britain’s junior single-seater ranks. By 1995 he had been picked up by Mercedes and placed in the DTM German touring car series, before the manufacturer helped him move over to America to race in the CART World Series for 1997. The following season he switched to Team Green, winning three races and finishing third in the championship.
A key difference between European and American single-seater racing is the high-speed banked ovals that are used in the USA. Many European drivers struggle to adjust to the art of oval racing, but Franchitti mastered it and became a true all-rounder.
Franchitti finally won the IndyCar Series title in 2007. After a tough year trying to break into NASCAR – a move thwarted by injury – he returned to IndyCar in 2009 and won the title in his first year back. Then won it again in 2010. And then won it again in 2011. That was four titles in four attempts.
To cap that, Franchitti took three wins in the Indianapolis 500, which remains one of America’s biggest sporting events. Notably, only five British drivers have won the event – Dario Resta in 1916, Jim Clark in 1965, Graham Hill in 1966, Dan Wheldon in 2005 and 2011, and Franchitti in 2007, 2010 and 2012.
Franchitti's title run came to an end in 2012 when a new IndyCar chassis eroded his dominance, but he remained competitive. He was injured in a heavy crash in this year's penultimate round on a street circuit in Houston, Texas. On medical advice he has chosen to retire rather than risk potential long-term injuries.
Four IndyCar Series titles, 31 CART/IndyCar wins and three Indy 500 wins put Franchitti in elite company. It’s a record that puts him among the true greats of American single-seater racing.
Franchitti also helped turn America into a viable destination for young British racers. While Nigel Mansell headed to the USA and won the Indy Car title in 1993, he made the switch with great fanfare as the reigning F1 world champion. Franchitti had to make a name for himself in America. Along with his close friend, the late Dan Wheldon, Franchitti helped open the door for young Brits to be given chances on the American single-seater ladder.
It's a great legacy for a great driver. It is easy to describe Franchitti as one of Britain’s best racing drivers never to compete in F1. But it would be better to just call him one of Britain’s best racing drivers.