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.

Steve Nielsen appointed new F1 sporting director

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Liberty Media has continued to bolster Formula 1’s management team by announcing that Steve Nielsen will take up the role of sporting director on August 1, reporting directly to Ross Brawn.

Nielsen has worked in F1 across four decades, most recently as Williams’ sporting manager, but was known to be leaving the team at the end of July, handing his duties over to inbound Dave Redding.

F1 confirmed in a statement on Wednesday that Nielsen would be joining the management team established by Liberty Media following its takeover of the sport in January, working with sporting managing director Brawn.

“I have known Steve for many years and have seen at first hand his skills and ability,” Brawn said.

“His appointment will strengthen the working group we are setting up to work with the FIA and the teams in defining a framework for the technical and sporting regulations for Formula 1’s next phase.

“Steve’s main responsibility will be related to sporting and organizational matters, for example by attending the meetings of the Sporting Working Group.”

F1 Strategy Group introduces Halo for 2018

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The Halo is coming to Formula 1 in 2018, having been confirmed at Wednesday’s F1 Strategy Group meeting.

This brings the first level of additional frontal cockpit protection to being after several years of discussions and a couple years of testing itself. As of August last year, the idea to introduce the Halo was delayed until 2018 at the earliest for a full introduction.

Here was the statement from the FIA:

“Following the unanimous agreement of the Strategy Group, in July 2016, to introduce additional frontal protection for Formula One and the repeated support from the drivers, the FIA confirms the introduction of the Halo for 2018. With the support of the teams, certain features of its design will be further enhanced.

“Having developed and evaluated a large number of devices over the past five years, it had become clear that the Halo presents the best overall safety performance.”

Both the Halo and the Shield concepts have been tried, with an updated Shield tried most recently by Sebastian Vettel in Friday first practice at the British Grand Prix.

But Vettel spoke of a dizziness in comments after the test, and one could figure those comments were taken into consideration when it came to the decision to go with the halo.

The Halo drops over the cockpit and has three prongs with how it’s positioned. A center post has been right in front of the cockpit during the tests.

Hungarian GP tire picks reveals big supersoft preference

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Teams have selected their sets of tires for the Hungarian Grand Prix, the next round of the Formula 1 season.

Pirelli’s supersoft tire, the softest compound on offer, is the popular choice with all 20 drivers selecting between eight and 10 sets of supersofts for the weekend.

The only real variance comes within the soft sets, some opting for two sets and others as many as four.

No one has selected more than one set of the hardest compound on offer for the weekend, the medium.

The full selections are below.

RLL working towards BMW renewal, IndyCar second car

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One of Bobby Rahal and the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s strengths for the better part of the last decade has been the ability to run two parallel programs – one in IndyCar and one in sports cars – that contend for wins and championships on an annual basis.

And the goal is to continue that into 2018 as one of its programs comes up for renewal.

BMW Motorsport has partnered with RLL, under the BMW Team RLL banner, for nearly a decade since 2009. In that time frame, BMW and RLL have combined to launch the M3, Z4 and M6 GTE spec models, winning races seven of the nine years.

There have been 13 combined wins – seven with the M3 from 2009 to 2012, four with the Z4 from 2013 to 2015 and now two with the new M6 this year – along with the 2011 ALMS GT title for Joey Hand and Dirk Mueller and a pair of back-to-back Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring wins in 2011 and 2012.

While the contract is up for bid and as rumors swirl of a possible change by BMW to another outfit, Rahal is optimistic the years of success achieved by the combined unit will be able to continue together for 2018 and beyond as the new M8 GTE makes its debut.

“BMW is our priority – we’ve been with them nearly 10 years,” Rahal told NBC Sports. “Of course it’s a contract year. I would presume given our success that should mean something to them, and that the relationship would continue.”

BMW finally has come to the fore in GTLM. Photo courtesy of IMSA

The pair of back-to-back wins this IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season at Watkins Glen International and Canadian Tire Motorsport Park could not have come at a better time.

Balance of Performance adjustments seem to have adversely affected BMW Team RLL and the M6 GTLM more than other cars within the stacked GT Le Mans class, and through a combination of bad luck, pace restrictions and the heavier car, the M6 was stuck in a near two-year rut from when it got introduced prior to 2016 through mid-year this year.

That was a challenge to team morale, but it was something Rahal was keen and focused to lead the team through.

“It’s been a long time coming as you say. Let’s face it; there were mechanical issues we started out with when the car first showed up, and then BoP came in and knocked the wind out of our sails for most of the rest of 2016,” he reflected.

“Even Sebring this year, we were so far off. I thought it was a hell of a job to finish on the same lap as the leaders almost at Daytona and Sebring, as we didn’t have anywhere near the pace (timing data backs that up; best race lap at Daytona was a 1:44.247, one of only three cars in 11 in the 1:44s while rest in 1:43s and at Sebring, best race lap 1:58.376 more than a second off leaders). That was just good consistent running and pit stops.

“As I told people recently, I think Sebring was the longest 12 hours of my life – it was painful. We didn’t stand a chance. To sit there and pound around there knowing that, the crew pushing on anyway, depressing was a good word.

“We finally got the BoP back starting at Austin as we were on equal ground, and now we actually had a shot. At least you’re in the race with a chance. We saw that in Austin and then it kept going at Watkins Glen and Mosport.”

Both lineups have changed this year with Alexander Sims and Martin Tomczyk joining BMW American veterans Bill Auberlen and John Edwards, respectively, in the Nos. 25 and 24 BMW M6 GTLMs. These two are largely new to the American scene but have adapted rather well.

Rahal also harbors Le Mans ambitions for his team, and while that is highly unlikely to be with BMW given it will have the M-TEK team running the M8 GTE in Europe, he’d one day like to run an LMP2 entry there and have a heavy American presence in the driver lineup.

AVONDALE, AZ – APRIL 28: Graham Rahal, driver of the #15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda drives during practice for the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix at Phoenix International Raceway on April 28, 2017 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

As for on the other domestic front, one of the annual questions that arises with RLL – which consistently overachieves as a one-car team in the Verizon IndyCar Series – is whether it will expand back to a two-car program full-time for the first time since 2013. A second car has run part-time each of the last four years, including this one.

The possibility is greater of that happening with again, rumors of teams switching manufacturers. If Honda has available units in the bank, that enhances the chances that a second RLL car will appear on the grid. Rahal remains adamant though that such a driver would need to enhance the overall competitiveness of the program.

“Having a good two-car team is better than a good one-car team, but the second car has to be a contributor, not just a second car,” Rahal said.

“But I feel pretty good about our opportunities in that respect. We’re talking to several people – and the thing is we’re looking for our own money so we don’t need a driver with money. We’re not there yet, but odds are good we’ll have a two-car team.”

Past RLL veterans Takuma Sato and Oriol Servia would make sense there; Sato if Andretti Autosport shifts from Honda to Chevrolet as is possible and Servia, who’s been off-and-on with RLL since 2009 on several occasions but never enjoyed a full-time season with the team. Servia is undertaking the Honda development on the 2018 universal Dallara aero kit and his setup presence would be invaluable.

“There’s some good teams that could look to improve their lineups, or teams that aren’t doing so well to improve their driver lineup. Then teams will add, like presumably us. It’s interesting to watch.

“As I’ve said all along, whoever is in the second car, it’s gotta be a competitive race car. A guy like Taku, we have a lot of warm feelings having worked with him a number of years ago. Hinchcliffe is on the market. If I look at the driver, you look at what combination works, and there’s other guys out there. Those two would get along. There’s even Oriol, who works very well with the team.

“There’s a number of options, so the goal is to get the most competitive guy you can get.”