Scott Dixon has won his third career IZOD IndyCar Series championship after a controlled drive in the season finale, the MAVTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway. It matches his “years of five” rule, after also winning titles in 2003 and 2008.
Dixon finished fifth as polesitter Will Power won the race. He’ll have a margin of victory of 27 points in the series standings. Attrition played a massive role as only eight of the 25 cars that started finished, easily the fewest this season.
“It was a crazy day,” Dixon told NBCSN’s Kevin Lee in victory lane. “We started back, the car we had to work on all race. It’s a huge credit to Team Target. We had strategy and some overheating problems to the end. Can’t believe we won the championship. I guess the five year thing played out, through the trials and tribulations this year.”
“Dario I owe this to you, a crazy year, hope you’re back in the car soon, thanks man,” he added, to longtime teammate Dario Franchitti.
Helio Castroneves ran in the top five most of the race, but he needed to finish first or second to have any shot at overtaking the points leader and erasing the 25-point deficit.
The crucial point for Dixon, who started only 17th after an engine change and a 10-spot grid penalty, was the second round of pit stops on Lap 73. Dixon gained six positions on that pit stop exchange and advanced to sixth place.
The final blow for Castroneves came on Lap 211, when team boss and race strategist Roger Penske called him into the pits for a stop when pit lane was closed.
Castroneves started at the back of the queue after a restart following a spin by Dixon’s Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Alex Tagliani.
Despite the setback, Castroneves made his restart on Lap 216 a good one. He gained eight spots in two laps, from 11th place to third, even to the lead temporarily. But damage to his right front wing and a pit stop on Lap 227 basically ended his chances. He finished sixth.
“We’re hoping to give Toronto and Ontario and Canadian sports fans in general something to cheer about over the next season,” Hinchcliffe quipped during a teleconference on Wednesday.
Granted, there are likely to be several challenges to overcome, notably for Wickens, who returns to single-seater competition for the first time since 2011, when he was a champion of the Formula Renault 3.5 series and served as test driver for the now defunct Manor Racing (then known as Marussia Virgin Racing).
Having spent every year since then in DTM, where he won a total of six races and finished as high as fourth in the championship (2016), Wickens knows returning to open wheel competition will be an adjustment. However, he explained that the history of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, specifically its Indy Lights history, speaks to their ability to help a driver adapt, and he rates the program they’re putting together very highly.
“I think Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have a fantastic driver development program. They showed that in their multiple Indy Lights championships along the way. I think we will have a strong program in place. I have a feeling that the simulator will be my new best friend,” Wickens said when asked about getting reacquainted with an open-wheel car.
Of course, having an experienced teammate like Hinchcliffe to lean on will undoubtedly help the transition, something Wickens readily admitted.
“I’m very fortunate that I have James as my teammate because he’s so experienced, I can learn off him. Because we already have such a good off-track relationship, I feel like you can just take his word, trust him, kind of move forward with it,” he revealed.
They’ve been teammates before, both in karting where they first met in 2001, and then in the now-defunct A1 Grand Prix series in 2007-2008, a series that pitted nations against each other in spec open-wheel cars. Funnily, that A1GP type of vibe returns as Schmidt Peterson Motorsports now has that with its “Team Canada” mantra while all four of Andretti Autosport’s full-season drivers are American.
For Hinchcliffe, Wickens’ background, even if it hasn’t been in the single-seater realm since 2011, was a big selling point in adding him to the team.
“In Robby, we have a proven winner at a very high level. The level of technical expertise that he comes with from his time in DTM is very impressive,” he said of Wickens’ technical background.
Hinchcliffe revealed that Wickens’ feedback to the team and his ability to quickly adapt to the chassis took everyone somewhat by surprise.
“We did our ride swap. He had two hours in the car, hardly anything even resembling a test day, and his performance was pretty impressive. No doubt the time in Road America helped because that really gave us a better sense of his technical feedback, integrated with the team a little bit more. Everybody was happy to work with him on that day,” said Hinchcliffe.
Further still, Hinchcliffe is firm in his belief that the 2018 aero kit and its reduction in aerodynamic downforce will fall right into Wickens’ wheelhouse, based on Hinchcliffe’s own take after sampling Wickens’ DTM Mercedes earlier this year.
“In all honesty, I was saying earlier today, the 2018 car is probably better suited for him than the 2017 car because of the experience he’s had the last handful of series,” Hinchcliffe asserted.
“The (aero kit) was such high downforce, it would be a big change coming out of DTM. But with the loss of downforce that we’ve seen, the car is moving around a little bit more, brake zones, things like that, it won’t be as big a transition I think. Just based on the experience that I got in our ride swap, I think he’s going to adapt very quickly, be comfortable very quickly, and as a result be competitive very quickly. So it’s going to be exciting.”
As for expectations heading into next year, team co-owner Schmidt did not mince words and expects the team’s performance to resemble what they did in 2012, 2013, and 2014, when they won a total of four races (with driver Simon Pagenaud) and finished in the top five in the championship each year.
“We had a stint in ’12, ’13, ’14 where we finished fifth in the points (or better. I think we want to get back to that level of competition,” Schmidt added. “We felt like we were missing things in having two cars with equal funding and equal drivers and equal capabilities. We think this gets back there.”