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Q&A: Scott Dixon on his 2013 IndyCar title

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Scott Dixon embarked on a two-day media tour in New York City last week after winning the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series championship. I had the chance to speak with Scott in a phone interview to reflect on the season, and his goals as champion.

MotorSportsTalk: Can you speak first on the different eras of your titles, with the multiple chassis/engines in ’03, the single-spec Dallara-Honda in ’08, and now the DW12-Honda/Chevy era we’re in now. Has this current era leveled the playing field and how much harder is it to emerge victorious from this field?

SCOTT DIXON: Yeah I think the competition is still intense. The first year, with different cars, engine manufacturers, and all ovals at that point, I was 22-23 that season and to win the championship was unexpected. We were fast but had a lot of mechanical DNFs, five or six. The consistency was a lot tougher to achieve in 2003. The cars were really fun to drive, and they still are now but slightly different. That year, we hadn’t really understood what we’d achieved.

Of course ’08 was a storybook year. February got married, won the (Indianapolis) 500 in May, the championship in September and it was the first year of the merger (with Champ Car), so straight up it was definitely tougher. We won six races, almost lost the championship at the last race, but it was clearly a fun year. It was something that doesn’t happen too often.

This year, we never really knew if we were in it. We were eighth going into Indy but the run at Pocono and Toronto was huge. Sonoma and Baltimore were tough. Going into Fontana, you hoped you didn’t have same issue that Helio (Castroneves) had with his mechanical at Houston. Their combination would be very strong at Fontana. Hold on with teeth clenched the whole time. When we did clinch, it was pretty sweet.

MST: You raced Helio for the title and besides him, who did you enjoy racing with most this year?

SD: In the latter part of season, it was definitely Will (Power). We had a lot of close races, but we battled up front a lot. I think if you look at Sonoma, Baltimore, Houston, our cars were fantastic and we could gap the field. Those two cars were the stand outs. It’s always fun to race Dario (Franchitti) too, but the last part of the season, we were fighting for a title and Will wasn’t, so we still had to make the gains and the points. The racing was full-on.

MST: That being said, you and Will obviously had your moments during that run. With the month off between Baltimore and Houston, did that help calm you down or did you wish there had been another race the next week?

SD: Yeah I think when you’re on a roll with speed and you have a competitive car – I mean we still had good momentum – you want to get straight back to the track. That’s about how it always is. I love the back-to-back races. It can get a bit grueling and if you’re down and out it can be a bit frustrating. But, it was somewhat nice to have a week to clear the air, think about what went on, and figure out how to better the situation. For me the situation was just wanting to get back, and I did do the GRAND-AM race the next weekend at Laguna so that helped.

MST: Looking past the wins for a moment, what races do you feel were missed opportunities and were there ones were you felt you overachieved?

SD: I think St. Pete was the tough one. It was a definite eye-opener after offseason testing coming into first race, because qualifying straight up in 20th is not what we expected. We didn’t overachieve necessarily but we did a great race to pull fifth, and just managed that.

The one that disappointed me the most this year was Mid-Ohio. The car was good but we picked the wrong strategy and switched too late. Long Beach, we missed there as well. Brazil, our car was decent but had a bit of trouble there.

One of the funnest races was Detroit. We had the incident in Race 1 with (AJ) Allmendinger going over the back of us, going to the back and racing all the way to fourth spot, was very cool. Then the way Race 2 shook out, we were off strategy, but still managed another decent place.

MST: You’ve been with Target Chip Ganassi Racing now 12 years, since 2002. How have you survived and thrived as long as you have within this organization?

SD: It’s bred into it, man. It’s such a fun team to be involved with. There’s not a huge amount of politics – there are some in every team – but it’s straight up wanting to win. They give you the tools, an engineer, a driver, and you get their best. You can make it happen. It’s the winning atmosphere at the team, upper management to the teams. It’s a fun environment. We forget that we’re out here getting to do something we absolutely love and really enjoy it. We have achieved a lot between Dario and myself over five years, and some great stats.

MST: Two people that have to stand out are Mike Hull, your team manager on your radio, and crew chief Ricky Davis. Can you speak a bit about the dynamic you have with them?

SD: Mike’s a good friend, and that’s the great thing for having 12 years here is building and developing relationships. They’re family. Mike’s been here all but two years on my car, I think except the Darren Manning/(Ryan) Briscoe era (2004-’05) when they came in. We all have the same goals. There’s no alternative situations that people are trying to achieve.

Mike and I, we really work well off each other with banter. He can keep me going or work me up and vice versa. But it’s good to have a calm voice if it’s a bit chaotic. Sometimes he gets wound up. There were a few circumstances this year when it happened. He’s a key part of the operation and Chip’s very lucky to have him.

Ricky’s a solid guy. Been there from the word go once I started my second or third year with the team, after I’d been at PacWest. He works well with the guys, and he’s hugely competitive as well.

MST: How do you rate the years of your teammates Dario and Charlie (Kimball)?

SD: Charlie has come on, leaps and bounds, to get where he is now. Especially with how he did it at Mid-Ohio. They knuckled down, and he raced his way to the front at such a challenging place. Then Fontana the last race, he was driving to win. You could see it. Pocono he gave us a bloody tough run for the win too. It’s good to have great teammates. They all do something a little different. Charlie’s been a huge addition.

Dario had a good year; he won the most poles so he was as quick as he ever was. Some of the races and strategy didn’t go how you like. But he’s always solid, pushes me to the max, and we work extremely well together. He’s one of the best teammates anyone could have.

MST: You now have the role, as champion, of “carrying the torch” as an IndyCar ambassador more or less. What are some things you’d like to do or accomplish over this offseason?

SD: For us it’s just getting us out there in the public eye. We need to do more events and cross into different genres, whether it’s football promotions, tennis or whatever. It’s tougher now because for me, I grew up working on my car and changing things on it as a kid. But in the real world today, kids are into electronics and you don’t see the “boy racer” as much as you used to.

You need to know how the trends are going, and I think IndyCar needs to work on that a lot. Our racing product is not the issue. It’s getting it into the public eye, and seeing how good it is.

MST: Your sponsor, Target, made some memorable and legendary ads back in the ’90s; is that something you could see them bringing back?

SD: Yeah man the Target ads were great, and we did some in the early 2000s when I joined up. It’s trying to make sure it’s valuable for everyone. But the topical ones with Jimmy Vasser and (Alex) Zanardi, everybody loves. I hope it’s on the horizon, and Target’s always pushing with all the billboards and stuff throughout North America.

Rosberg rallies to German GP pole at Hockenheim

HOCKENHEIM, GERMANY - JULY 30: Nico Rosberg of Germany driving the (6) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Germany at Hockenheimring on July 30, 2016 in Hockenheim, Germany.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg bounced back from an electronic issue on his car in qualifying to secure pole position for his home Formula 1 race at Hockenheim in Germany.

Rosberg edged out Mercedes teammate and title rival Lewis Hamilton by one-tenth of a second in Q3 to take pole on home soil for the second time, his first coming two years ago at Hockenheim.

Rosberg and Hamilton were neck-and-neck through their first flying laps in Q3, only for Rosberg to slow in the final sector before pulling into the pits due to an electronic error. Hamilton completed his lap, going six-tenths of a second faster than everyone else to take provisional pole.

With the error resolved, Rosberg emerged from the pits early for his final Q3 run, having the track to himself. The German driver went one-tenth of a second faster than Hamilton to wrestle away provisional pole, piling the pressure on the Briton ahead of his final run.

Hamilton went faster than Rosberg through the first sector, but the rest of the lap fell away from him, meaning he could gain just 0.02 seconds to stay in second place, handing his rival pole.

Daniel Ricciardo qualified third ahead of teammate Max Verstappen, as the two Red Bulls once again defeated Ferrari with relative ease. Kimi Raikkonen finished fifth for the Scuderia, two-tenths clear of Sebastian Vettel in P6.

Nico Hulkenberg led Force India’s charge in P7 ahead of Williams’ Valtteri Bottas, with their respective teammates Sergio Perez and Felipe Massa following in P9 and P10.

Haas came close to picking up its first Q3 appearance in F1 as Esteban Gutierrez qualified 11th, having been pushed out of the top 10 after late improvements from Perez and Massa. Teammate Romain Grosjean failed to match Gutierrez for pace, finishing 15th, but will drop to P20 on the grid due to a gearbox penalty.

McLaren was unable to repeat its double-Q3 run from Hungary as Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso qualified 12th and 14th respectively, split by Carlos Sainz Jr. in the lead Toro Rosso in P13. However, Sainz will have to speak to the stewards after appearing to impede Massa’s hot lap during Q2.

Renault enjoyed mixed fortunes as Jolyon Palmer made his way through to Q2, qualifying 16th, but teammate Kevin Magnussen was narrowly edged out in Q1 after a late improvement from Sainz. The Dane eventually finished the session in 17th.

Pascal Wehrlein finished just one-tenth of a second shy of a Q2 berth in P18, with Manor teammate Rio Haryanto two places further back. Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat split the pair, enduring another tough session by qualifying 19th. Sauber drivers Felipe Nasr and Marcus Ericsson locked out the back row of the grid, half a second adrift from Q2.

Stefan Johansson’s latest blog: On F1’s rule changes, Rosenqvist Indy debut

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - JULY 24: Kimi Raikkonen of Finland driving the (7) Scuderia Ferrari SF16-H Ferrari 059/5 turbo (Shell GP) leads Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (33) Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer on track during the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 24, 2016 in Budapest, Hungary.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Formula 1’s seemingly ever evolving rules and regulations changes – notably the radio communications clampdown – and a highly impressive IndyCar test debut for Felix Rosenqvist are among the highlights in Stefan Johansson’s latest blog, which we’ve been chronicling throughout the year on NBCSports.com.

In his latest conversation with Jan Tegler, Johansson looks back at the Hungarian Grand Prix and Rosenqvist’s test debut in Scott Dixon’s No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, among other items.

Jenson Button spoke out heavily against the radio restrictions when he had his braking issues, and was later assessed a drive-through penalty.

Here’s what Johanasson had to say about the rules, many of which exist, yet few of which seem to have real clarity:

“Unfortunately, F1 is mirroring what’s happening in the real world where more and more rules and laws are added but none are ever cancelled it seems. In the end it becomes so convoluted that the outcome of a dispute in civilian life often depend on who has the best lawyers, really. Sadly, it now seems to be heading in the same direction in racing too,” he writes.

“There are now so many grey areas in F1 that allow conflicts to be argued in so many ways that it’s difficult to follow. The rules should never be enforced by a subjective judgment. In my opinion, one of the major problems with the rule making in Formula One is that they don’t nip some of things in the bud before they become glaring issues. This is why we end up with this endless stream of knee jerk rules to fix a problem that should never have existed in the first place.

“They’ve created their own monster with these ultra-complicated cars. When you have an issue like Jenson had, being advised over the radio how to address it, is clearly not going to lead to a performance improvement. And if there’s a safety issue, I can’t see why you shouldn’t be allowed to relay that to a driver.”

On the Kimi Raikkonen/Max Verstappen battle for position:

“It’s a perfect example. What is blocking? Is it one move? Is it two? Is it a move and a wiggle?

“I can totally sympathize with Raikkonen because he went one way then Verstappen moved, so he went the other way and committed to it but Verstappen moved again. It wasn’t really a big move but it was enough that Kimi couldn’t avoid him. At that point, you’re already 100% committed, you’re braking on the limit and you don’t have even five inches of margin to make another change.

“If the driver in front changes his mind, there’s literally nowhere to go. It’s lucky that Raikkonen didn’t hit Verstappen harder.”

And on Rosenqvist, the talented young Swede’s, maiden IndyCar test at Mid-Ohio and Indy Lights domination in Toronto:

“Felix was amazing, he just cleaned up in both races. So did Scott but unfortunately he got hosed on strategy again. Until the last pit stop he had everyone under control and looked like he was cruising to the easy win on top of the pole he got in qualifying. Unfortunately things have worked against Scott for the last three races.

“Going for the championship title is going to be very tough now. Scott’s had two engine failures that left him with no points – that’s at minimum 80 points that he missed out on, plus the win in Toronto. He probably could have won at Detroit and would have been 2nd at worst at Road America. That’s a lot of points to give away.”

There are several more great nuggets within Johansson’s latest blog, which you can view in its entirety here.

Previous linkouts to Johansson’s blog on MotorSportsTalk are linked below:

Additionally, a link to Johansson’s social media channels and #F1TOP3 competition are linked here.

Mercedes fined for unsafe release, Hamilton avoids grid drop

HOCKENHEIM, GERMANY - JULY 29: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP sits in his car in the garage during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Germany at Hockenheimring on July 29, 2016 in Hockenheim, Germany.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Mercedes has been fined €10,000 for unsafely releasing Lewis Hamilton into the pit lane during the final Formula 1 free practice session for the German Grand Prix.

Hamilton was released into the fast lane at the start of FP3, forcing Haas driver Romain Grosjean to hit the brakes and come to a stop.

The stewards confirmed they would be investigating the incident after the session, meeting with Hamilton and a team representative at 12:30pm local time.

Hamilton entered the weekend with two reprimands to his name already in 2016, with a third resulting in a 10-place grid penalty.

The precedent for unsafe releases was unclear, with penalties ranging from a reprimand to a grid drop and a fine.

The stewards at Hockenheim opted to go with the latter, fining Mercedes €10,000 for the incident, meaning Hamilton avoided any individual penalty.

Qualifying for the German Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 8am ET on Saturday.

RC Enerson stars in first official day in Coyne’s No. 19 IndyCar

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LEXINGTON, Ohio – On Friday, 19-year-old rookie RC Enerson delivered arguably one of the most impressive debut days in an IndyCar in recent memory – if not ever.

With only one day of testing, Enerson took what he learned from his first day last week and translated it into some seriously impressive practice pace for the Verizon IndyCar Series’ Honda Indy 200.

Enerson went from 1.1042 seconds off the pace in the first 75-minute practice session in the No. 19 Dale Coyne Racing Honda, 21st, all the way to within 0.5322 off in the second – all the way up to seventh in that session and second Honda in the field, only behind defending Honda Indy 200 race winner Graham Rahal.

That time in free practice two left Enerson a combined 10th on the day, again second among the Hondas only to Rahal.

It didn’t really surprise those who’ve followed his career in the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires closely. However, it did wow the paddock at large.

It was fitting, perhaps, Enerson was behind Rahal and then was sat next to Scott Dixon in the day end press conference because Rahal also starred as a teenager in his first season in open-wheel – 2007 in Champ Car – while Dixon became IndyCar’s then-youngest winner at age 20 in his first season in CART in 2001… before Rahal beat that in 2008 at age 19.

“I grew up watching a lot of these guys race,” Enerson explained during the post-practice press conference. “My first Indy 500 was when I was three years old, and seeing these guys go around, and now I’m 19 years old and there’s a lot of the same guys still there.

“It’s kind of like I get to race with my idols, really,” he added, to a room full of laughter.

Dixon followed, “We must have had a good generation, I think.”

But putting aside the obvious “yeah, he’s young” line – trust me as the youngest full-time member in the IndyCar press corps I get that joke at least once per weekend – what Enerson did on Friday was take in a wealth of information the team was throwing at him and translate it into pace on paper.

“It was incredible. It’s completely different than anything I’ve driven, and coming from — every time I come here, I always tend to do alright, and it’s one of my favorite tracks,” he said.

“It’s got this thing about it that it fits the driving style really well, and I’m just excited to be here, and this is probably — it’s probably the best track to make my debut at.”

Enerson, as he told me prior to his race debut last week, noted the difference in the step up from the Cooper tires he used throughout his Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires career versus the Firestones now.

Enerson was really good at learning tire conservation there since there are no pit stops. But he noted the change in grip level on the Firestones, especially since the 2.258-mile Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course is one of the highest grip tracks on the calendar.

“These ones tend to — after the first couple laps where you get your fast time, they tend to not fall off very much and you can keep your speeds up, and it’s amazing. It’s a completely different experience, and it’s challenging,” he explained.

On the tire note, where Enerson will have to learn, and learn quickly, is once he gets his first crack at the Firestone red alternates for qualifying later on Saturday, provided the session is dry.

“With the reds, we don’t get to see them. I’ve never driven on them, so the first time I’m going to get to see them is qualifying,” he said.

“So that’s what I think is the biggest thing for the rookies, I guess, is they don’t get to see those until it’s when it counts, so it’s hard to extract all that not knowing going into it, and I think that’s what comes with the experienced drivers where they’re able to know how much grip they’re actually going to gain to be able to push it to the max right off the bat.”

Still though, his debut impressed many in the IndyCar paddock.

Teammate Conor Daly in the No. 18 Jonathan Byrd’s Hospitality Honda told IndyCar Radio of Enerson, “We have RC here this weekend, and he’s new – but he’s doing a great job.”

Daly’s engineer Michael Cannon, himself a key talent evaluator in his long career in the sport, told me Enerson has “taken like a duck to water” to an IndyCar and is handling everything the team is throwing at him with aplomb.

And Dixon, arguably one of the best drivers of his generation? He knows what it’s like to “wow” people when you’re the new kid on the block, as he did some 15 years ago.

“I think it’s great to see young talent coming through. It’s part of the sport. It’s part of what we need to see,” he said.

“We’ve had a good influx of recent, and it’s pretty cool in the fact that we have a series that, okay, so there’s some bigger teams and some more teams that have done better jobs, but in layman’s terms, you pretty much have the similar equipment. So it’s nice that you can come, and if you’re good you can get close.

“The only hard part with rookies now is the testing program. At least this year was a little more open. It was good that RC had the opportunity to test here last week, but still, you’re competing against guys that have been coming here for years and they’ve had a ton of test days.

“It’s so close right now that you’re looking for hundredths and tenths of a second to make the difference.”