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.

Lewis Hamilton sets rapid pace to open F1 2017 in Australia FP1

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Lewis Hamilton kicked off Formula 1’s new technical era in style by heading up a one-two finish for Mercedes in opening practice for the Australian Grand Prix on Friday morning in Melbourne.

Despite predictions from many that Ferrari and Red Bull would pose a greater challenge at the top of the timesheets in Australia, FP1 offered a familiar result as Hamilton led home new teammate Valtteri Bottas.

The added downforce of the new-style 2017 cars had the desired effect of slashing lap times, with Hamilton’s best effort of 1:24.220 being less than four-tenths of a second off his pole position time for last year’s race.

Bottas made a good impression in his first F1 weekend session in Mercedes colors, leading the bulk of the session before Hamilton jumped ahead on the ultrasoft tires with around 30 minutes remaining.

Daniel Ricciardo led Red Bull’s charge, finishing third ahead of teammate Max Verstappen, but Ferrari decided against showing its hand early and limited its running, only pushing for fast laps in the final 15 minutes of the session.

Kimi Raikkonen ended FP1 fifth in the SF70H, 1.1 seconds off Hamilton’s best time, while Vettel was a further tenth back in P6.

The session went by without any major incident, although a handful of drivers did have minor technical issues that are part and parcel of the first session of the year.

McLaren’s difficulties continued from pre-season as Stoffel Vandoorne was limited to just 10 laps, while Jolyon Palmer and Esteban Ocon also had their running cut due to problems. All three featured in the bottom five of the standings.

Times are below:

Sean Gelael set for Toro Rosso F1 tests in 2017

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Formula 2 driver Sean Gelael will play a part in this year’s in-season Formula 1 test running after agreeing a deal with Toro Rosso.

Gelael, 20, raced full-time in GP2 last year before the championship evolved into F2, scoring one podium finish in Austria.

The Indonesian driver also appeared in the final three rounds of the FIA World Endurance Championship, scoring an LMP2 podium for Extreme Speed Motorsports in Shanghai.

Gelael will race in F2 this year with Arden, but will also get his first taste of F1 machinery in the upcoming tests for Toro Rosso.

All F1 teams will get four days of in-season running this year (two in Bahrain, two in Hungary following their respective races) as well as the traditional end-of-year test in Abu Dhabi.

Gelael will feature in all three for Toro Rosso, having undergone a seat fitting at Faenza earlier this week.

All F1 teams are required to allocate at least half of their in-season running to junior drivers who have made fewer than two grand prix starts.

Gelael will make his first appearance for Toro Rosso following the Bahrain Grand Prix, with running set to take place at the Bahrain International Circuit on April 18 and 19.

More speed, but will Formula 1 be more of the same?

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) Faster cars and fiercer competition are the great expectations of the new regulations in Formula One, yet the championship outlook hasn’t altered much ahead of the season-opening Australian Grand Prix.

Lewis Hamilton remains the hot favorite to win another title for Mercedes.

Hamilton won 10 GP events last season and was close to claiming his fourth drivers’ title but was narrowly beaten by his teammate Nico Rosberg, who secured Mercedes a third consecutive championship and then retired.

While Hamilton talked about wanting more drivers competing for the title, and even tipped Ferrari to be quickest this weekend, he’s already lining up a victory he thinks would be unprecedented.

“I don’t believe (any) team has won back-to-back through rule regulation changes,” Hamilton said Thursday during the first official news conference ahead of Sunday’s race. “So that’s our goal as a team. We’re here to win. We’re here to do what no-one else has done.

“I have every belief in my team that we can do that.”

Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel won four consecutive season titles from 2010-13 while he was racing for Red Bull, so he knows what it’s like to be in Hamilton’s position. He has no doubt who is favorite this season, regardless of the rule changes that dictated wider tires, greater aerodynamics, bigger fuel loads and increased downforce and which are expected to make the heavier cars faster.

“Obviously Mercedes has been in a very, very strong form the last three years and even with changes to the rules and regulations, if the team is strong then they will build a strong car the year after, no matter what they do,” Vettel said. “It is very clear who is the favorite.

“For all of us sitting here we are obviously trying our best to catch up. As the season goes on obviously, I’m sure the cars will have big progression.”

Ferrari had good results in the eight days of pre-season testing, and Hamilton predicted Vettel and former champion Kimi Raikkonen would have the fastest cars in the first practice sessions Friday and Saturday.

“I see Ferrari being the quickest at the moment – and I think they’ll definitely be the favorites,” said Hamilton, who was joined at Mercedes this season by former Williams driver Valterri Bottas. “It’s interesting to see, Sebastian is usually a lot more hype. I can tell he’s trying to keep a lid on it. But their pace was obviously great in testing.”

Hamilton said he couldn’t judge the pace of the Red Bulls in testing, saying they were “quite far behind” and he didn’t see many upgrades to the cars.

“I’m assuming they’re bringing something new,” he said, “which I’m excited to see.”

Daniel Ricciardo finished as the highest-ranked of the non-Mercedes drivers last season, winning the Malaysian GP and placing third in the season standings. He concedes Hamilton will start favorite, but is hoping for a shakeup at the top.

“I think for everyone it’s like when Red Bull were dominating a few years ago – everyone wanted to see someone else win,” Ricciardo said. “It’s natural that people like change.

“For us drivers, not being in Mercedes, we want to see change as well. Even for the fact to have more cars fighting for the win makes it more exciting.”

Hamilton wanted more frequent changes to the regulations, to keep the cars getting faster and the competition “spicier.”

That’s something on which all the leading drivers could agree.

If Hamilton “wins a race against four of us as opposed to maybe just his teammate I think that reward is bigger as well,” said Ricciardo, who is aiming to be the first Australian to win the Australian GP since it became part of the world championship in 1985.

“If you can win against more … that feeling of self-accomplishment is greater. Ferrari showed good pace in testing. If they can take a few points away as well it kind of opens up the championship over the long time.”

Faster F1 cars means bigger, stronger drivers for 2017

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) Renault driver Niko Hulkenberg has the kind of name that sounds like big could be his thing.

In Formula One seasons past, muscle bulk hasn’t really been the key requirement for drivers, with work on endurance being the focus of training in the gym. The new regulations in F1 have made the cars bigger and faster, prefacing an era that has the drivers and fans more excited than usual, and so the pilots have to follow suit.

“The cars are like driving a very fast and spectacular roller-coaster and it’s a lot more demanding than before,” Hulkenberg said ahead of the season-opening Australian Grand Prix. “Now you have to wrestle these cars!

“The tires allow you to push harder every lap, so you can exploit and be on the limit. It’s a lot more work and a lot more demanding. There’s a lot that’s new, but the game is still the same.”

Lewis Hamilton has worked out the game, winning three drivers’ titles, so he’s more than ready to up the ante.

“As racing drivers in general you want to drive the quickest cars in the world and I think you always want to go faster,” the Mercedes driver said. “The cars are faster than what they were last year. The challenge of exploiting that speed with your car on the track is a great challenge and it’s more in the direction of how F1 should be in the sense of the physicality side of it.”

Hamilton, who won back-to-back titles with Mercedes in 2014 and ’15 and narrowly missed out to teammate Nico Rosberg last season, considers himself as much an athlete as a driver.

“F1 should be the most physically demanding sport in terms of all the driving series,” he said. “In previous years that hasn’t been the case – it hasn’t been to the level that we train to, is relatively easy for us to do – now you have to really push the boundaries, which I like.”

The F1 rule changes means wider tires, greater aerodynamics, bigger fuel loads and increased downforce, which have made the cars heavier but also significantly faster.

The tires, which are 25 percent wider, have more grip and are more durable, enabling drivers to push harder through the corners.

Even though Mercedes dominated under the previous regulations, Hamilton was a big advocate for the changes.

“Doing drastic changes kind of spices it up,” he said. “I have never seen the fans so excited about a season as they are this season … we don’t know where the cars and teams are, so more of these kind of experiences would be welcome.”

Toto Wolff, the head of Mercedes-Benz Motorsport, said Hamilton and his teammate Valtteri Bottas were in prime shape to make the most of the changes.

“It’s an exciting time for them because these new cars are a real physical challenge,” he said. “Both felt from testing that the G-Forces are enormous and they are embracing the new challenge.”

Four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel expects his ’17-edition Ferrari to be the fastest car he’s driven.

“For us, what really gives us a good feeling is cornering speed – I think we’re back to the level we’ve been 10 years ago, maybe a bit faster,” he said. “Nice to have the feeling that you’re in the fastest cars that you’ve ever driven.”

Vettel is among the drivers who have been working on neck and shoulder strength in particular, to handle the extra load. Daniel Ricciardo finished third in the season standings for Red Bull last year, behind the two Mercedes. He’s put in extra work to ensure he’s stronger physically, knowing that it could make a serious difference. And while he’s no hulking ball of muscle, he’s noticeably bigger than he was in 2016.

“It’s more physical this year,” he said. “We’ve all done our work in the offseason – it’s been fun to put more emphasis on the training.”

Fernando Alonso is one of the veterans of the circuit, having won back-to-back titles for Renault in 2005-06 and having stints at McLaren, Renault and Ferrari after that and before he rejoined McLaren. He’s had two tough seasons, finishing 17th and 10th, so he doesn’t mind doing the extra gym work as long as his car grows with him.

“I’m incredibly motivated and I can’t wait to see what kind of racing this new shake-up of the sport will bring,” he said. “We already know the sport is a lot more physical and the cars are more challenging to drive – from a driver’s point of view this is exactly what we were looking for in the new regulations. I really hope this will translate to good battles on track.”