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Dixon, Ganassi rebound in evening test session

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A quick look at the time sheets from the first test session of this weekend’s Verizon IndyCar Series Prix View could make one think that Chip Ganassi Racing started off on the back foot. None of the four Chip Ganassi drivers finished the session in top ten, with Scott Dixon the best of the bunch in 12th in his No. 9 Honda.

However, the four-time champion rebounded in the evening session, spending most of the night in top five and ending it in fourth. Teammates Charlie Kimball and Tony Kanaan flexed some of their muscle as well, locking in spots in sixth and eighth.

Dixon never appeared concerned after the lackluster opening session, even offering a reason he and his teammates were not among the fastest early on.

“We didn’t do new tires,” he said of the first session times. “It looked like a bunch of people did new tires at the end and did a couple of different aero adjustments to try and get an idea on some of the data that we’ve been looking at through the off-season.”

Phoenix International Raceway provides an excellent platform for the organization as it transitions back to Honda power and begins working with Honda’s aero kit. Dixon dominated last year’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix, leading the final 155 laps on his way to victory, and his performance that night serves as a benchmark that will help the organization gauge its competitiveness.

As far as Dixon is concerned, in spite of the lap times, the opening session was a positive experience. “The engine feels really good, and lap times I thought for what we were doing were actually fairly decent,” he detailed. “It’s always hard to tell in preseason testing, especially with manufacturers, how tuned up they are, and we’ll just have to see how it plays out once we come back here for the race. But for us and our testing program today, the session went fairly well.”

Dixon was also keen to emphasize the team’s history with Honda. As one of its flagship operations upon entering the sport in the 1990s, Chip Ganassi Racing won nine championships with Honda, including the first for both manufacturer and team in 1996.

“As a team we’ve achieved a lot with HPD and Honda, so it’s nice to be back working with a lot of those people, and as I said, they run the program vastly different (from Chevrolet),” he said. “So I think the program in itself actually fits our team a little bit better, but you know, we’ll have to see.”

While changing manufacturers may not seem daunting, especially if it means returning to one you’re already familiar with, there are many elements that complicate matters. For starters, Honda’s engine is vastly different from what it was in 2013, the last year Chip Ganassi’s team competed under the Honda umbrella. They ran with a single-turbo 2.2-liter V6 that year. Honda switched to a twin-turbo platform in 2014, but Ganassi’s team had already moved to Chevrolet by then. And, of course, there is Honda’s aero kit and its much-documented struggles against Chevrolet’s.

Dixon understands it may be an uphill battle, but he is happy to face a new challenge. “There’s a lot to learn, a lot to take in. It’s exciting, it’s a new challenge, and definitely happy to be behind the No. 9, and we’ll see what we can get this season.”

And, not to be ignored, Dixon’s appearance mirrored that of The Stig, Top Gear’s tame racing driver. The Kiwi’s entry was adorned in a white livery with a driver’s suit to match and did not hide the fact the team has not yet announced a sponsor in the wake of Target’s departure.

“You don’t like it?” Dixon quipped when asked about his all-white attire. He politely declined to elaborate on the details.

“That’s above my pay grade, man,” he joked when asked about the sponsor search.

Testing continues for the man in white, and the rest of the 21-car field, tomorrow at 1:00 p.m. local time.

Schmidt Peterson aiming high with Hinchcliffe, Wickens

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The new Schmidt Peterson Motorsports duo of James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens expressed a high amount of confidence during Wednesday’s confirmation of Hinchcliffe’s return and Wickens’ signing, as the pair looks to return the Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson co-owned team to prominent status within the Verizon IndyCar Series.

“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 added that Wickens’ ability to analyze the car and its setup was evidenced in two outings: one at Sebing International Raceway in March, in part of a “ride swap” between the two longtime friends, and a second at Road America, when he subbed on Friday practice for Mikhail Aleshin.

Wickens sampled Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda earlier this year. Photo: IndyCar

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.”

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