Perspective, overcoming adversity fuels Dixon’s third IndyCar title

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For Scott Dixon, a third IndyCar championship was always a question of “when,” not “if.”

The obvious storyline for the driver of the No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Honda is that it follows his “rule of fives,” having taken his first crown in 2003 and his second in 2008.

“I hope (Chip) doesn’t lay me off for four years then I’ll come back on the fifth,” Dixon deadpanned in the media center after the race.

But this one comes after fighting through adversity all season, compared to a five-car shootout in 2003 and a dominant 2008 season where nearly everything that could go right for Dixon did.

In 2003, Dixon beat Team Penske teammates Helio Castroneves and Gil de Ferran, Andretti Green Racing’s Tony Kanaan and Panther Racing’s Sam Hornish Jr. in a crapshoot at Texas, a race marred by a last-lap accident where Kenny Brack’s car got airborne and went into the backstraight catch fencing there. It muted the celebrations even though Brack recovered from his injuries.

Meanwhile in 2008, Dixon won six races, including his thus far only Indianapolis 500, and beat Castroneves again for the title. He also tied the knot to his lovely wife, Emma.

“My perspective is different now,” said Dixon, who’s driven with Ganassi since midway through 2002. “When I was 22 or 23 to what I understand now is totally different. The competitiveness of this series has gone through the roof since the ’08 merger (of INDYCAR and Champ Car).

“But ’08 was a dream year. I got married. We won the Indy 500 and championship. It’s a hard year to beat. Midseason this year, we didn’t think we had a shot.”

Indeed various setup pitfalls and a struggle to adapt the car to this year’s Firestone tires at the outset made things a bit more difficult. A midseason surge of three straight wins in eight days (Pocono and Toronto twice) followed, but then back-to-back disasters at Sonoma and Baltimore left him 49 points back of Castroneves heading into Houston.

“The changes were a bit sporadic I think,” Dixon explained at championship media day on Thursday. “The 2012 tire was better for myself and Will (Power), where we like a loose car, but I think (Firestone) compensated for the rear of the car this year. The Sebring test was huge. We identified some issues from St. Pete … it was mostly the street and bumpy circuits. But to turn that development program around, with only one of our six test days, it took a while to get the real world stuff going to where we needed to go. That and the engine spec change at Pocono was huge.”

Now as champion, Dixon will have to carry the IndyCar banner. It’s not a burden, per se, but Dixon’s more known as something of a silent assassin – not overly vocal but absolutely dynamic on a race track.

Still, the Dixon now compared to the Dixon of either 2003 or 2008 is a better individual. He’s a father now, with Tilly and Poppy growing up and beginning to appreciate their father’s achievements. He’s got a great heart, for all his and his family’s support and care for the Wheldons since Las Vegas, 2011. And at the track, he has a great penchant for dry wit and humor and rarely misses the chance for a good one-liner.

Whether that translates to the public sphere beyond the borders of the IndyCar paddock remains to be seen.

“I’ve spoken out a bit more recently now than I used to … but not about stats or results,” he joked last night, paying tribute to his $30,000 fine for comments after Baltimore.

“I think when it’s said and done, and I can look back and say we achieved this, that’s the time for that,” he added. “I love racing. I love waking up and training for it.

“I think I think I have evolved as a person from the 2003 championship. And right now, it’s very important for the sport especially. First and foremost, it’s about being a competitor, best I can. Very important that IndyCar gets the recognition it deserves. It is at the elite level.”

And Dixon’s performance in 2013 – through trials and tribulations – was indeed an elite effort.

Hamilton fastest, Mercedes gaps field in opening USGP practice

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 21: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during practice for the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 21, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton made an impressive start to the United States Grand Prix weekend in Austin, Texas by topping the first Formula 1 practice session on Friday morning at the Circuit of The Americas.

Hamilton arrived in Austin trailing Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg by 33 points at the top of the drivers’ championship, having not won a race since the end of July.

The Briton is a three-time victor at COTA, as well as claiming the last F1 win at Indianapolis Motor Speedway back in 2007, making the United States a happy hunting ground for the defending champion.

Hamilton and Rosberg came out of the blocks early in FP1, immediately pulling clear of the field with laps on the super-soft tire.

Hamilton enjoyed an early edge over his teammate, only for Rosberg to go fastest upon switching to the soft compound Pirellis and going for a lighter fuel run.

Rosberg’s spell at the top of the timesheets did not last long, though, as Hamilton bounced back with a lap of 1:37.428 that was good enough to give him P1 come the end of the session.

Rosberg finished three-tenths of a second further back, but it was the gap to third that was most indicative of Mercedes’ strength at COTA: 1.5 seconds separated Rosberg in P2 and Max Verstappen in P3.

Kimi Raikkonen finished fourth for Ferrari, trailing Red Bull’s Verstappen by just 0.028 seconds, while Nico Hulkenberg led Force India’s charge in fifth.

Valtteri Bottas was sixth-fastest for Williams ahead of Daniel Ricciardo in the second Red Bull, with Sebastian Vettel following in P8 for Ferrari. Daniil Kvyat and Carlos Sainz Jr. rounded out the top 10 for Toro Rosso.

It proved to be an eventful session for Vettel, who narrowly missed hitting Jolyon Palmer early in the session before almost losing a wing mirror, only to grab it with his left hand so he could return it to the pits.

Renault’s Palmer was one of two drivers to have an off-track moment, spinning out at Turn 18. Toro Rosso’s Kvyat made a similar error later in the session, finding the limits of adhesion through the long right-hander.

Haas’ first outing on American soil ended under a cloud as both Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez stopped at the end of the pit lane with a couple of minutes remaining. They were ultimately classified P14 and P15.

Second practice in Austin is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 3pm ET on Friday.

Kvyat stresses ‘respect’, ‘loyalty’ to Red Bull as 2017 talks continue

SUZUKA, JAPAN - OCTOBER 08: Daniil Kvyat of Russia and Scuderia Toro Rosso sits in his car in the garage during final practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Japan at Suzuka Circuit on October 8, 2016 in Suzuka.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Daniil Kvyat has stressed his “respect” and “loyalty” towards Red Bull’s Formula 1 programs as talks regarding his plans for the 2017 season continue.

Kvyat was demoted from Red Bull’s senior team to its junior outfit, Toro Rosso, following the Russian Grand Prix in May.

The Russian driver struggled to get to grips with life further down the grid, scoring just two points in the run to the summer break, but bucked the trend by qualifying seventh in Singapore before finishing ninth.

Toro Rosso team boss Franz Tost has long expressed a desire to keep Kvyat with the team for 2017, but Red Bull chiefs Helmut Marko and Dietrich Mateschitz will make the final call and may elect to promote GP2 driver Pierre Gasly into a seat.

Kvyat has been linked with moves elsewhere on the F1 grid, but said on Thursday in Austin ahead of the United States Grand Prix that his focus lay with remaining in the Red Bull setup.

“My aim is to be in F1 next year, but it’s too early to comment. We will have discussions behind closed doors,” Kvyat said.

“I have a lot of respect for and loyalty to Red Bull. Sooner or later I would like to have more details.

“Red Bull has managed me through my junior career and it is still number one on my list. I am looking for a drive where I can show what I can do.

“Toro Rosso is a fantastic team, we are one family and I feel very comfortable here.”

WATCH LIVE: USGP FP1 at 11 a.m., FP2 at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 20:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP walks into the paddock with his dog, Coco, during previews ahead of the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 20, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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AUSTIN, Texas – Free practice kicks off today for the United States Grand Prix from Circuit of The Americas in Austin, and you can see both sessions LIVE on NBCSN and streamed via and the NBC Sports App (for participating providers).

First practice runs from 11 a.m. ET to 12:30 p.m. ET, leading into the premiere of Off the Grid: Austria at 12:30 p.m.

Then second practice runs from 3 to 4:30 p.m. ET.

Austin is on CT, so local times are 10 to 11:30 a.m. and 2 to 3:30 p.m., respectively.

Leigh Diffey, David Hobbs and Steve Matchett are in the commentary booth with Will Buxton patrolling the pits and paddock for today’s coverage.

Again, that’s 11 a.m. ET and 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN for LIVE coverage of free practice from Austin.

Full times and details for the weekend are linked here.

Hulkenberg: Renault move ‘the right step in my career’

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 20: Nico Hulkenberg of Germany and Force India walks in the Paddock during previews ahead of the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 20, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Nico Hulkenberg believes that his move to Renault for the 2017 Formula 1 season is the “right step” for his career after deciding to leave Force India.

Hulkenberg had been set to remain with Force India next season, but Renault announced last week that it had signed the German driver for 2017 after agreeing a deal to release him from his contract.

Speaking in Thursday’s FIA press conference ahead of the United States Grand Prix, 2015 Le Mans winner Hulkenberg said he is looking forward to taking on a new challenge.

“I believe that it’s the right step in my career at this point,” Hulkenberg said.

“I feel I have come a long way with Force India – it’s my fifth year with them. We’ve had some good success together. But I felt that it’s time for a new challenge.

“Since I’m in F1 I’ve always wanted to race for a manufacturer team and this is a really good opportunity. The timing was pretty good too. So I think it was a good decision I think from my side.”

Renault has struggled during its first season back in F1 as a constructor after six years away, scoring just eight points to sit third-from-bottom of the teams’ standings.

However, Hulkenberg is confident that, given time, Renault’s might as a manufacturer can help him score his first podium finish in F1 and his first victory.

“I think them being a manufacturer, they are under some expectations to eventually be successful and be at the front and compete for wins and that’s obviously what I’m looking for,” Hulkenberg said.

“We know at the moment there is still a long journey ahead of them, to climb back to the top because it’s been a difficult year and where they’ve come from.

“When they bought Lotus last year was not the easiest it will take time to rebuild the team and to get back to the top but obviously what I see there is a good future, definitely a big challenge, a massive challenge.

“But I’m very much up for that – and why not build a new success story with them?”