Robert James Frančević, (born on 18 September 1941 in Auckland, New Zealand) is a retired racing driver who featured prominently in New Zealand and Australia during the 1970s and 1980s. His biggest wins were the inaugural Nissan-Cue 500 (later Nissan Mobil 500) street race in Wellington, New Zealand in 1985 driving a Volvo 240T, and the 1986 Australian Touring Car Championship, also in a 240T. Francevic's win in the 1986 ATCC was the first and only ATCC win by a non-Australian resident.
Robbie Francevic started his motor racing career in 1966 when he and his team designed and built the “Colour Me Gone” Custaxie in which he won twenty races and the 1967 New Zealand Saloon Car Championship. During the 1970s Francevic was also a regular competitor in Formula 5000 racing, racing in the Tasman Series as well as the Rothmans International Series.
Robbie Francevic was the winner of the 1983 Benson & Hedges touring car series in NZ.
Following the 1985 Nissan series, Francevic, while still living in Auckland, contested the 1985 Australian Touring Car Championship driving the Volvo 240T for owner and friend Mark Petch. Despite the speed he had shown in the NZ series, and that the Volvo's were winning races in the European Touring Car Championship, Francevic shocked the established stars Peter Brock, Dick Johnson and Jim Richards by winning the third round of the ATCC at Symmons Plains in Tasmania before going on to dominate the final round at Oran Park in Sydney. Other than Richards, Francevic was the only multiple race winner in the championship (Richards won 7, Francevic 2 and Brock one). On Francevic's insistence the Mark Petch team recruited 1984 and 1985 Australian Drivers' Champion John Bowe to partner Francevic in the 1985 Castrol 500 at Sandown in Melbourne. After a strong showing, he car finished its race with Bowe at the wheel at the entrance to the pits with a seized diff (the car was pushed into pitlane with a jack holding the rear tyres off the ground).
In 1986 Francevic became the first New Zealand resident to win the ATCC, becoming the second New Zealander (after Jim Richards) to win the series, and recording the only series win to date for Volvo. Francevic won the first two races of the season at Amaroo Park and Symmons Plains, finished 2nd at Sandown to the Nissan Skyline of George Fury, and won again at Adelaide. This would prove to be his last win for the series and coincided with new team management. Gone was team was owner Petch and in charge was former Holden Dealer Team boss from the late 1970s John Shepherd. The Volvo was overtaken in speed by the Nissan turbo's and despite a newly built 240T appearing mid-season, Francevic was often slower than Bowe in qualifying but still scored enough points to win the championship from Fury by just 5 points.
Following the ATCC, Francevic wasn't happy. He was happy to have won the championship but wanted to win from the front and driving for points like he was forced to over the latter part of the championship didn't suit his flamboyant, hard charging style. Tensions between Francevic and team boss Shepherd came to a head at the 1986 Castrol 500 at Sandown, the traditional lead up race to the Bathurst 1000. With the Volvo he was to drive with fellow Kiwi Graham McRae not having run in practice or qualifying due to the late build time, Francevic refused to race the car believing it (and the team's second car which was in the same situation) would not be competitive. While the John Bowe / Alfredo Costanzo Volvo failed to finish, its fastest race lap was identical to the winning Nissan Skyline of George Fury and Glenn Seton. Following his refusal to drive the car and his public comments about the situation on the morning of the race, Francevic was fired from the Volvo Dealer Team on 15 September 1986, the day after the Sandown 500.
At the 1985 James Hardie 1000 in Bathurst, New South Wales, Francevic teamed with John Bowe in the Volvo and qualified the car an excellent 5th, his attempt at pole position in the Hardies Heroes top 10 run-off was thwarted by a flat tyre on his second run while trying to improve on his first run. With a very quick car and a strong diver pairing (Bowe, who like Francevic was on his first visit to The Mountain, was matching the Kiwi's times), the pair considered one of the pre-race favourites along with the Tom Walkinshaw Racing Jaguar XJS', as it was thought the turbocharged Volvo was the only car capable of matching the speed of the V12 powered Jaguars. After a strong early showing in the race in which Francevic had held 2nd for some time behind early leader Tom Walkinshaw, a failed alternator diode put them many laps down. The car finally retired on lap 122 when it ran out of fuel on the run up Mountain Straight.
After winning the 1986 ATCC and his much publicised falling out with the Volvo Dealer Team, Francevic drove a Ford Sierra XR4Ti for long time friend and former Volvo team owner Mark Petch to little success in the 1986 James Hardie 1000 with fellow Kiwi Leo Leonard, the car suffering terminal electrical problems on lap 26. Francevic publicly predicted the Ford would take pole position for the race but the Kiwi pairing could only manage 21st on the grid with a time of 2:23.05 after a troubled practice and qualifying trying to get the car to run properly. The time was 5.89 seconds pole winning time set by Gary Scott in the Nissan Skyline, and was 6.89 seconds slower than Allan Grice's provisional pole time in qualifying. Francevic made his bold claim after the speed that the 2.3 litre turbocharged Sierra's had shown in the FIA Touring Car Championship in Europe under the guidance of Swiss tuning ace Reudi Eggenberger.
After sitting out most of 1987 Francevic was drafted by Frank Gardner to co-drive the second of the JPS Team BMW's M3's at the 1987 Castrol 500 at Sandown and the James Hardie 1000 at Bathurst, which for 1987 had become a round of the inaugural World Touring Car Championship. Driving with the teams engine builder come driver Ludwig Finaur, Francevic finished 5th at Sandown before going on to his best ever Bathurst finish with 6th outright and 2nd in class at Bathurst. During the race rain storms that hit late in the James Hardie, Francevic, unable to see through a fogged up windscreen, accidentally ran over a pit lane marshal when coming into the pits, thankfully without any injury reported. The marshal wrote an official complaint to the race stewards over the incident, but due to the circumstances no action was taken against Francevic.
For 1988 Francevic and long time backer Mark Petch secured a Ford Sierra RS500 from Walter Wolf Racing in Germany to run in the 1988 Australian Touring Car Championship, but only started one race (Round 3 at Winton) and was excluded before practice of Round 5 in Adelaide due to illegal build components on the Sierra and the championship run was abandoned in the effort to get the car right (Wolf racing had built the Sierra to European Touring Car Championship (ETCC) standards which allegedly included a more liberal interpretation of the Group A rules than the Confederation of Australian Motor Sport (CAMS) allowed in Australia). At the time Francevic claimed that CAMS were trying to drum him out of the championship and that his sponsorship deals were only valid if he raced. As a result of not racing, the team did indeed lose its major sponsor and another needed to be found. The problems with the Sierra were fixed and a new major sponsor in New Zealand confectionery company Whittaker's was found in time for the Tooheys 1000 at Bathurst where he teamed with Wolf Racing's lead driver and 1985 Bathurst winner Armin Hahne. Overheating finished their race on lap 103 while running well in the top 5 for most of the race after qualifying 14th.
Robbie then teamed with 1985 ETCC champion Gianfranco Brancatelli in the Petch owned Sierra in the 1989 Tooheys 1000. The car was qualified 15th, but Francevic didn't get a drive after the right front wheel fell off the car under Brancatelli on lap 14 when going across the top of the Mountain. Having to drive the car back to the pits for over half a lap resulted in too much damage being done to the car's axle and front suspension. His last start at Mount Panorama was in 1990 with fellow Kiwi racer Andrew Bagnall in Bagnall's Sierra RS500. Bagnall qualified the car 17th and the pair drove well all day to finish 7th outright in a race in which many of the more fancied big budget teams failed to finish.
Robbie Francevic was an inaugural member of the MotorSport New Zealand Wall of Fame in 1994.
Despite being a resident Kiwi, and being known for driving one of those "bloody Volvo's", Robbie Francevic was generally well received by Australian race fans
|Winner of the Australian Touring Car Championship