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Dixon, Chilton confident Ganassi will find success with Honda

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Simply put, Chevrolet has dominated Honda during the aero kit era of the Verizon IndyCar Series. In the 32 races contested since aero kits were first introduced, Honda teams have only amassed eight victories, and won only twice during the 2016 season.

However, one of those victories came at the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 and Honda appeared to have the superior super speedway package at Indianapolis, Pocono, and Texas. With that in mind, it may not be a complete surprise that Chip Ganassi Racing rejoined Honda after racing under the Chevrolet banner since 2014.

And while Chevrolet may have held an edge in aerodynamics, Chip Ganassi driver Max Chilton indicated that Honda may have an edge with its powerplant.

“I think with the Honda, I’ve only driven it once, but the lower end, bottom-end torque is definitely a lot stronger than what I was used to last year,” he said of Honda’s IndyCar engine. “And I think that on a street course, that’s important. So, that should help us.”

Still, one cannot ignore the fact that, outside of the three big ovals, Chevrolet has had Honda covered. What’s more, strict testing rules have placed limitations on the amount of development teams can do at the track.

Outside of four series-wide open tests, teams are allowed one additional test between April 11th and September 17th. Running a rookie or an Indy Lights driver will allow for extra test days, but the testing limitations have the potential to hamstring development efforts as the Ganassi organization adjusts to the Honda platform.

As past champion and Indy 500 winner Scott Dixon detailed, this goes beyond the nuts and bolts of the engine and aero kit.

“Chevrolet was more of a turn-key operation and they offered quite a bit of support,” Dixon explained. “Honda’s a little more raw, but can be tailored quite a lot. So, I think that’s definitely a big change from what we’ve had for the last three years.”

However, Dixon also described that changing manufacturers can be a motivating factor (Dario Franchitti thought so), particularly after a down 2016 season. Most organizations would look at Chip Ganassi Racing’s 2016 season and call it a success. Dixon won twice (at Phoenix and Watkins Glen) and the organization placed three drivers in the top ten in the championship (Dixon was sixth, Tony Kanaan seventh, and Charlie Kimball ninth). However, Dixon’s sixth was his worst championship finish since 2006, when he finished fourth, and he was the only Chip Ganassi IndyCar driver to win during the season.

With that in mind, Dixon described the change in manufacturers as a chance to hit the reset button. “With such a bad season for us (in 2016), it was definitely a good year for us to sit down, look back, and understand a lot of areas where we were not as efficient, making a lot more mistakes than we should as a team. So, I think the two of those factor into a lot more focus and hopefully getting back to the basics and doing them better.”

Despite Honda’s struggles, some of its teams ran well and challenged for race wins and podiums on a consistent basis, chiefly in the hands of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.

Given that they both begin their third years with Honda’s aero package and engine, Dixon understands he and the Ganassi team have some catching up to do, made all the more difficult by the aforementioned testing restrictions.

“It’s going to be a steep learning curve (for Chip Ganassi Racing and A.J. Foyt Racing, who also switched manufacturers), and now with how the rules are right now with the limited track testing, it makes it even more difficult,” said the four-time champion. “I think we get four off-season days, which is not much when you get six months of the year off.”

However, while there are technical differences between the packages, Dixon asserted that the baseline setups may not be all that different. “You always think you know a bit about the competition, but when reality strikes, there’s always areas where maybe you didn’t understand as well. But, there’s things we know through the years through using other manufacturers that may help the current program we’re on now. So you can’t throw anything out.”

Undoubtedly, because of the variables in play, the changeover to Honda presents a unique set of challenges to Dixon and the entire Chip Ganassi Racing team. However, they are not running from them, and Dixon is confident that engineering staff will get their heads around it. “Our engineering group and the advanced engineering group: it’s definitely a solid package. I think for them it’s probably quite exciting that they have something new and different to work on.”

And, while Dixon expects things to be difficult, he is not afraid of the challenge. “It’s going to be challenging, there’s no question about it. But, challenges are fun…hopefully!”

What to watch for: United States GP (NBC, NBC Sports app from 2pm ET)

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Lewis Hamilton stands on the brink of his fourth Formula 1 world championship heading into Sunday’s United States Grand Prix (live on NBC and the NBC Sports app from 2pm ET).

The Mercedes driver charged to his 11th pole position of the 2017 season with a stunning Q3 lap at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas on Saturday, edging out Ferrari rival Sebastian Vettel by two-tenths of a second in the final classification.

A recent swing of momentum has seen Hamilton march into a 59-point lead at the top of the F1 drivers’ championship, with an additional 16-point swing on Sunday at COTA being enough to deliver him a fourth crown.

However, with Vettel starting P2 and Ferrari’s race pace seeming competitive compared to Mercedes’, it will take a big turn of events for Hamilton to be crowned on Sunday. You can see the full permutations for both title races here.

The United States Grand Prix is live on NBC and the NBC Sports app from 2pm ET on Sunday. CLICK HERE to watch via live stream.

Here’s what to watch for in today’s race in Austin.

2017 United States Grand Prix – What to watch for

Hamilton seeks history as greatest Briton

Lewis Hamilton may need some divine intervention to skew Sebastian Vettel’s race if he is to become F1 world champion for a fourth time today, but the Briton will know that a record-breaking sixth USGP win would make clinching the crown a mere formality in Mexico.

Hamilton runs 59 points clear of Vettel in Austin and needs a 16-point swing to win the title with three races to spare, making it a big ask. But if Ferrari’s recent run of (un)reliability is anything to go by, it may not be such a far-flung though.

Hamilton is the overwhelming favorite heading into today’s race given his incredible track record at the Circuit of The Americas. The track was his king-maker in 2015 – will it be so again today?

Should it prove to be so, Hamilton would move clear as the greatest British driver in F1 history, breaking his tie with Jackie Stewart for three world titles.

Hamilton would also become just the fifth driver in history to win four F1 titles, following Michael Schumacher, Juan Manuel Fangio, Alain Prost and current rival Vettel.

Ferrari’s race pace still a mystery

Ferrari’s bid for both champions may be all but over, but we have seen glimpses of impressive pace through the last two races that could breathe some life into the final few rounds of the season.

Ferrari appeared to have an edge on Mercedes in the race in Malaysia, and also looked strong in practice in Japan before Vettel’s issue on the grid, robbing us of a fight at the front with Hamilton.

Another issue for Vettel in practice in Austin on Friday meant we did not see fully what Ferrari can do over long runs, but all of the noises coming out of the Italian team are good.

A Vettel-Hamilton battle would be something to savor, as they have been far too rare this season. And you can be sure Vettel won’t back down in this title fight quietly.

How will Verstappen fare from the back?

There have been grid penalties galore once again in Austin, with only the top five set to start the race where they qualified on Saturday.

Max Verstappen is the only front-runner to drop to the rear, with a 15-place drop for a power unit change leaving him to produce the kind of fightback he is becoming rather adept at in F1 (see China this year).

Armed with an upgraded Renault power unit and a super-soft tire for the start that will see him go deep into the race before pitting, don’t be surprised to see Verstappen mixing it up the order come the checkered flag as he looks to continue his impressive run of form.

Hartley hopeful of impressing on debut

Brendon Hartley’s maiden F1 weekend has been a solid one thus far, with the New Zealander finishing just one-tenth of a second shy of a place in Q2 on Saturday.

Engine changes mean he will start 19th at COTA, ahead only of McLaren’s Stoffel Vandoorne, and it will be interesting to see how the Toro Rosso driver fares in his first single-seater race since 2012.

Hartley has also not raced in an event this short for some time, such is the nature of sports car racing, but he has experience at this circuit from his time in the FIA World Endurance Championship with Porsche.

Points may be a big ask, but getting to the checkered flag in one piece and staying in touch with the other midfielders would be a job well done for Hartley on debut.

Also keep an eye out for how Carlos Sainz Jr. does in his first F1 race for Renault, lining up an excellent seventh on the grid for the French marque.

Haas’ hopes of home points rest on Grosjean

Haas has fully embraced its home race weekend thus far, with the ‘Haas Hill’ fan area going down very well as it makes the most of flying the flag for the United States in F1.

However, the team’s hopes of a points finish in its second home grand prix look to rest with Romain Grosjean after teammate Kevin Magnussen had a qualifying to forget, finishing last and then receiving a penalty.

Grosjean will start the race from 12th and could make his way into the top 10 with a good start, but with Verstappen fighting back and the likes of Nico Hulkenberg and Stoffel Vandoorne also appearing to be in quicker cars, the Frenchman may have a job on his hands to stay there.

2017 United States Grand Prix – Starting Grid

1. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
2. Sebastian Vettel Ferrari
3. Valtteri Bottas Mercedes
4. Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull
5. Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari
6. Esteban Ocon Force India
7. Carlos Sainz Jr. Renault
8. Fernando Alonso McLaren
9. Sergio Perez Force India
10. Felipe Massa Williams
11. Daniil Kvyat Toro Rosso
12. Romain Grosjean Haas
13. Marcus Ericsson Sauber
14. Pascal Wehrlein Sauber
15. Lance Stroll Williams*
16. Max Verstappen Red Bull*
17. Kevin Magnussen Haas*
18. Nico Hulkenberg Renault*
19. Brendon Hartley Toro Rosso*
20. Stoffel Vandoorne McLaren*

* after grid penalties applied