IndyCar’s defending champion, Dixon looks for a better start out of the gate

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The scariest part of Scott Dixon’s 2013 championship, his third of his what-is-becoming-legendary IndyCar Series career?

He was only really good for half the season.

It was the common thread in stories recapping his comeback tour de force. From 92 points down after the first 10 races to then overcoming that gap, Dixon’s dominance on the double-header weekends helped propel him back into contention.

He managed to come back even with the two-week double whammy that was the Sonoma and Baltimore races, where contact with Will Power in both races cost him win or podium potential.

Dixon may be better out of the gate in 2014, depending on how well he handles the changes coming to Target Chip Ganassi Racing this year.

For five years, Dixon and Dario Franchitti have been the tandem to beat in IndyCar, since Franchitti’s return from NASCAR in 2009.

Now, Franchitti, Dixon’s partner-in-crime, additional setup ace and great friend is retired following the injuries suffered at Houston. He’ll still be active in an advisory role with the team, but the driver-to-driver change is the biggest jolt to the TCGR system for the first time in years.

“Yeah, it is a big loss, not just for myself, but I think for the team and also for the series,” Dixon admitted during the IndyCar media day in Orlando.

“The positive side is that he’s still going to be involved with the team. He’s obviously very talented. He’s won a lot races, achieved many things. But when it comes down to the engineering side of it, his approach to a race weekend, I think it’s something that will be missed a little bit. Hopefully with his involvement we can keep that going.”

In Franchitti’s stead are actually two new additions. Tony Kanaan was originally signed up for Ganassi’s returning fourth full-time car, yet was shifted over to the No. 10 upon Franchitti’s retirement. Re-enter Ryan Briscoe, who was Dixon’s teammate as a rookie in 2005.

“It’s very different. Some is in Portuguese and then broken English,” Dixon joked.

“But, no, you know, for him there’s lots of change. New team members, new engineer, totally different car setup. The one constant for him was luckily the engine package with Chevrolet. Dario and I were very similar I think in debriefing and the way that we approached the weekend.

“It’s hard to tell with T.K. yet because we haven’t worked together that much. But obviously he’s a big personality. Fun to have him at the team. Just to see how we work on car setups is yet to be determined.”

Kanaan and Briscoe both bring in the expertise of working with Chevrolet, and a developed twin-turbo package, as the team makes the shift from Honda this year.

For Dixon, it’s his first change in engine manufacturer since 2006, when the IndyCar Series shifted to all-Hondas after Toyota and Chevrolet pulled out following the 2005 campaign. The 2006 season marked a team resurgence after two years struggling with Toyotas.

As the team works through the change, Dixon is focused on getting off to a better start. St. Petersburg and Long Beach have traditionally been bogey tracks for him.

Much was made of Dixon’s qualifying outings at those two races last year, the 20th at St. Pete and then 26th at Long Beach after a penalty was issued.

Beyond that, results at those two tracks have been hard to come by out of the gate.

At St. Pete since 2009: 16th (2009), 18th (2010), 16th (2011), second (2012) and fifth (2013). Long Beach? It’s been 15th (2009), fourth (2010), 18th (2011), 23rd (2012) and 11th (2013).

“Personally and for the team, the thing on the 9 car side we need to do a little bit better is start the season off a little bit stronger,” Dixon said. “We’re looking for strong results straightaway in St. Pete. Long Beach has been definitely not a great track for results for us in recent history. I think if we can start strong and carry the momentum through from last year that will be goal number one.”

Ganassi, relative to some of its rivals, hasn’t banked as much preseason testing either. But Dixon, Kanaan and Briscoe have all gotten laps in sports cars. All three have raced at the Daytona and Sebring endurance events of the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship. Only CGR’s fourth driver, Charlie Kimball, hasn’t gotten as much seat time this winter.

But for Dixon in particular, he’s hardly starting his title defense on the back foot. Just a different one, as he continues to add to his illustrious resume.

And he’s not concerned with being viewed as the driver “team leader,” even though on paper for 2014, he is.

“I’m not real interested in who is a one or a two or who is leading the team,” Dixon said. “I think we do it as a team effort. I think each driver on the team is like a quarterback to their own group of guys, and then Chip is the leader of the pack, I guess.”

Herta on pole for second Indy Lights race at Road America

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – Colton Herta rebounded from a tough Friday dogged by persistent mechanical issues where he was barely on track, and a 13th place start for race one, to take the pole for Sunday’s race two (9 a.m. ET online on IndyCar.com; 11:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN) for the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires at Road America.

The 17-year-old excelled in the cooler conditions this morning for qualifying in his No. 98 Andretti/Steinbrenner Racing Dallara IL-15 Mazda to post a time of 1:52.0034 for the top spot at the 4.014-mile circuit. He’ll start only 13th for today’s first race.

Freedom 100 winner Matheus Leist, who enjoyed his maiden IndyCar test here last week with Andretti-Herta Autosport, was back in his Carlin car and is second on the grid, just 0.0223 of a second off Herta’s time.

For Sunday, points leader Kyle Kaiser made it three teams in the top three for Juncos Racing, with Zachary Claman De Melo and Santiago Urrutia completing the top five on the grid.

Americans Neil Alberico and Aaron Telitz are sixth and seventh with Nico Jamin in eighth.

Leist’s pole time for today’s first race was 1:53.1760 with qualifying in warmer conditions, set yesterday afternoon.

Leist, Alberico and Ryan Norman will lead the field to green, which comes online today at noon CT and local time, 1 p.m. ET, online at IndyCar.com.

Weekend results are linked here.

Aleshin set to return to action today at Road America

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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – Mikhail Aleshin is set to return to action today in the No. 7 Lucas Oil SPM Honda ahead of today’s sessions for the Verizon IndyCar Series’ KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America (Sunday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

The Russian driver was delayed by immigration issues in arriving back to the U.S. after racing at the 24 Hours of Le Mans last week with SMP Racing.

Aleshin posted on Friday that he was en route to the U.S. after getting it sorted, and the team confirmed Aleshin’s return on Saturday morning.

Team co-owner Sam Schmidt told the Advance Auto Parts IndyCar Radio Network that Aleshin was en route and was optimistic he’d be back in time for Saturday’s sessions.

Canadian driver Robert Wickens filled in for Wickens on Friday, while facing an abnormal situation where he didn’t know if he’d be able to continue for the rest of the weekend. He posted a best time of 1:44.7085 in Friday’s combined practice, just under 1.9 seconds off Friday pace setter Josef Newgarden.

“I’m really happy with today. Obviously you always want to make as much progress as possible, and you never know if you’ve done enough or if I should achieve more, or whatever the case is,” Wickens said after the day. “The biggest thing for me is the car is still in one piece and I haven’t made a terminal error yet!

“The Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team has done a fantastic job getting me up to speed and making me comfortable. It’s been a strange day because I’m not really sure if I’m doing the next session since I don’t know when Mikhail [Aleshin] is arriving or if he’s arriving. So I’m going to work overnight as if I’m driving tomorrow morning, and if not, then hopefully I can help out the team somehow.”

The third practice session begins at 11 a.m. CT and local time from Road America. Qualifying is today at 3 p.m. CT and local time and airs at 4 p.m. CT/5 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Renault denies speculation Kubica could enter Monza FP1

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Renault Formula 1 chief Cyril Abiteboul has denied speculation suggesting that Robert Kubica could appear in first practice for the Italian Grand Prix at Monza in September.

Kubica raced in F1 between 2006 and 2010, with his final full-season in the sport being completed with Renault before sustaining severe injuries to his right arm that appeared to end his single-seater career.

After a number of years in rallying, Kubica has recently tested a number of different cars, culminating in an outing in a 2012-spec Lotus F1 at Valencia earlier this month.

The reportedly-impressive test has led to speculation that Kubica could be capable of making a full-time return to F1 in the future, with paddock chatter in Montreal suggesting that an FP1 run-out at Monza was being discussed.

However, Abiteboul was quick to shoot this down during Friday’s FIA press conference, saying that it would not be happening.

“No, absolutely not. I don’t know where this is coming from and I can completely wipe that one out,” Abiteboul said.

“Robert has been a family member of the Enstone team, and Eric on my right knows what I mean. He has been very close and very loyal. The team in Enstone, which is a very small group of people, actually have been very loyal to a number of drivers.

“People feel very loyal and feel they owe something to Robert for making something big in their life and there was this opportunity that we give to him, that we could afford to him to drive again, because it was actually a marketing event that got cancelled, so we had a car available at the track and we offered that opportunity to him.

“Robert is going through some form of program to try to understand what he can do. He has been driving a number of cars, Formula E, GP3, F2, LMP2, you name it, so I think he wants to understand what he can do as part of his sort of rehabilitation program.

“We’ll see. There is nothing else that is planned for the time being, apart from a marketing event at Goodwood, where he will be driving the same car, E20, in front of Lord March’s house.”

Kubica’s links to the Renault seat come at a time when Jolyon Palmer is coming under increasing pressure after a point-less start to the year, leading to suggestions he could be replaced mid-season.

“Our situation is very clear: he has a contract with us,” Abiteboul said of Palmer.

“We are completely committed to helping him get through the period, which is a tough period, that’s obvious.

“He has no ultimatum, but having said that he has to deliver, like every single member of the team.”

Bottas tops final Baku F1 practice ahead of Raikkonen

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Valtteri Bottas closed out Formula 1 practice for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix in Baku at the head of the field after edging out Ferrari rival Kimi Raikkonen in the closing stages of FP3.

Bottas led Mercedes to the top of the classification in final practice with a fastest lap of 1:42.742 to finish 0.095 seconds clear of Raikkonen, the pair having exchanged blows in the final 15 minutes in the battle for P1.

After a mixed Friday, Mercedes appeared more comfortable through final practice as Lewis Hamilton completed the top three, four-tenths down on Bottas’ time.

Ferrari, meanwhile, was left to rely on Raikkonen at the front as drivers’ championship leader Sebastian Vettel suffered a setback.

The German driver was forced to pit with 20 minutes to go due to a problem on his car – an apparent hydraulics issue – prompting his mechanics to set to work quickly in a bid to resolve the problem ahead of qualifying.

After finishing both FP1 and FP2 as the fastest driver, Max Verstappen could not complete a hat-trick in FP3 as he was forced to park up at the side of the track late on, citing a shutdown on his car after reporting an earlier engine issue.

Joylon Palmer was another driver to hit trouble, suffering an engine fire in the early part of the session that meant he had to park up in the run-off area. After crashing out of FP2 on Friday, the already-under pressure Briton will head into qualifying on the back foot, if indeed Renault can fix his car in time.

Back on the timesheets, it was Daniel Ricciardo who followed the top three, taking fourth for Red Bull. Despite his stoppage, Verstappen did enough to take sixth in FP3, trailing Force India’s Esteban Ocon.

Felipe Massa wound up seventh for Williams ahead of Daniil Kvyat and Lance Stroll, while Sergio Perez took P10 overall.

Qualifying for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix is live on CNBC and the NBC Sports app from 9am ET on Saturday, with a re-air at 1pm ET on NBCSN.