ST. PETERSBURG — Dario Franchitti has a new role.
Just months after the three-time Indianapolis 500 winner retired because of injuries sustained in a horrific Oct. 6 crash in Houston, Franchitti is back on the IndyCar Series scene as an adviser to Target Chip Ganassi Racing, the team he has been with since taking over for the late Dan Wheldon in 2009.
“When you have drivers like Tony (Kanaan) and Scott (Dixon) and Ryan (Briscoe) and Charlie (Kimball), you’re not really coaching as much as occasionally having a discussion about something,” Franchitti said Friday, the first day of practice for the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
“Responsibilities, that’s a big word, and they vary. It really depends on what the team, what the drivers need. It can be going to a particular corner and watching, or it could be going over data, and it could be just discussing tricks in different corners.”
Franchitti, 40, was forced to retire after sustaining two spinal fractures, a broken right ankle and a concussion in the Houston crash that sent his car airborne into the catch fence.
He gave his blessing to Kanaan, who joined Ganassi late last year, but now takes over the No. 10 as the defending Indy 500 winner. Franchitti, who won the 2011 Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, knows Kanaan must find his own success in the car.
“Well, you know, TK’s a big star,” Franchitti said. “If he wanted to mess himself up, he could think about the pressure of the success of the Target team, the success of the 10 car. But that’s not a good way to think about things. TK will write his own story.”
As he feels out his new role, Franchitti’s health has been good, and he’s happy to be around the sport he loves.
“Sometimes I miss it, and some days I don’t miss it at all,” Franchitti said. “I used to put a lot of pressure on myself and I thought about this all the time — this is all I did, so I enjoy the fact I can just chill out a little bit. But I do miss that little hit of adrenaline sometimes.”
Defending race champion James Hinchcliffe was fastest in Friday’s first practice with a fast lap of 1 minute, 2.93 seconds and a speed of 102.9 mph over 14 laps. Takuma Sato was fastest in the afternoon session with a time of 1:02.56 and a speed of 103.5 mph over 23 laps.
“We get so little track time and need to use every lap of testing and practice you get, so you can’t lollygag too much,” Hinchcliffe said.
St. Petersburg resident Sebastien Bourdais, who lives a 10-minute bike ride from the course, drew a red flag in the morning session when he went off the course in Turn 4. His No. 11 Hydroxycut-KVSH Racing car was not damaged.
Friday was an overcast and slightly windy day, with an on-and-off light drizzle until about 5 p.m., when it rained the hardest.
“We avoided any issues today, so it’s good to get back after a long offseason,” three-time St. Petersburg race winner Helio Castroneves said. “But Mother Nature was messing with us a little bit.”
Today’s forecast calls for more overcast skies with a 30 percent chance of rain at the 10 a.m. practice and a 50 percent chance at the 2 p.m. qualifying.
Rookie Jack Hawksworth will make his IndyCar debut this weekend, having done well in previous St. Petersburg races. Hawksworth won his Pro Mazda debut on the 1.8-mile course in 2012 and his Indy Lights debut in 2013. “It’s been good to me here, so it would be nice to continue the success,” he said. ... Rookie Carlos Huertas was confirmed Thursday as driver of the No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing car.