Scott Dixon

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Pagenaud, Dixon hit different sides of luck for St. Pete podiums

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Simon Pagenaud and Scott Dixon finishing on the podium in a Verizon IndyCar Series street race isn’t a surprise.

But how they did so today in the 2017 season opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg was.

Pagenaud had an uncharacteristically awful qualifying effort, taking the renumbered No. 1 PPG Automotive Refinish Team Penske Chevrolet to 14th on the grid.

Pagenaud started outside the top 10 only once total last season – 14th at Pocono – and had only once started outside the top-10 on a road or street course since joining Team Penske in 2015, when he started 15th and finished third at Mid-Ohio.

Dixon, meanwhile took the blue No. 9 GE LED Lighting Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing to second on the grid and arguably had the car to win before getting caught out on Lap 26 when the second full-course caution flew for debris on course following contact between Dixon’s teammate Tony Kanaan and Mikhail Aleshin at Turn 4.

The caution left Dixon and six others stranded on track before their first scheduled pit stops, while Pagenaud – ninth at the time of the caution – able to leap frog into the lead at that time.

“Obviously at that critical time where you’re trying to push the window for the pit stop, they threw a caution, which I still haven’t seen exactly why they threw the caution,” Dixon said.

“There was a small amount of debris in turn four, which typically race control, if it’s not on the racetrack or going to cause any issues, they’ll definitely let you get through the pit stop cycle, especially at that moment.

“The leaders are trying to obviously stretch the window a bit, then you have all the back markers that are pitting early to try to get lucky with a yellow. The yellow fell, which hurt us.”

Pagenaud, naturally, had a slightly different take on how the yellow helped him.

“It’s funny, it was such a well-oiled machine last year. You throw one new component into it, in this case it’s the brakes, and everything goes back to zero. You got to work on it again.

“That’s basically what happened this weekend. It threw us off. We had problems Friday. Couldn’t really tell what the car was doing because of the brakes. Then we fixed it, I would say, Saturday morning.

“Then we made an adjustment for the problems we were having Friday. Then it was a disaster in qualifying. So we regrouped. That’s where this team is incredible. It’s definitely a champion team for regrouping like they did, understanding the issue we had in qualifying. This morning in the warmup, I was back home in my car. It was great to get that feeling back.

“The race, the car was fantastic. We got very lucky at the start, I would say. We went through the chaos. I think God had something to play with it actually, because he put the car back where it needed to go. Very lucky.”

Both drivers had been hosed by a yellow timing in Toronto last year, which cost them a likely 1-2 finish there. Dixon, too, had felt aggrieved at Long Beach when Pagenaud exited the pit lane and was borderline crossing it early, but was issued only a warning from INDYCAR Race Control.

Anyway, the end result today was that Pagenaud had lucked into second while Dixon was unlucky to end in third. But for both to be on the podium spoke highly of their future prospects for the rest of the season.

Pagenaud used smarts to get through the first lap caution and avoid getting caught up in that.

“I haven’t started there in a long time actually. I was a bit rusty on that, too,” Pagenaud said.

“It actually worked out really well. I just trusted my instinct. The biggest thing is when Charlie hit the wall, and Rahal went spin, the biggest thing was knowing where to go was the biggest decision I had to make.

“I was fortunate in that wreck. I think I got touched in the back actually because I had some damage I saw at the end of the race. But I managed to go through. I managed to get some spots.”

Meanwhile Dixon was happy to end on the podium and fulfill his weekend pace in Ganassi’s first race weekend since switching to the Honda aero kit and engine.

“Generally, we were a little surprised, I think, with how our cars hit the track here, how much speed they had right out of the gate. We knew the car was good at Sebring, but Sebring doesn’t really account for too much,” he said.

“I think we had a pretty decent start with the new brakes, a lot of the development stuff. I think knowing we had to reset and go to a totally different package, we looked at a lot of different things that were in our control, too, mechanically and setups, areas that we can improve.

“It’s always hard to know. I think you set your sights on having the performance and being able to race for a race win, which I think personally we had the car to beat this weekend. It was definitely a very strong car.”

IndyCar returns to NBCSN on April 9 at Long Beach.

Scott Dixon leads morning warm-up while Ryan Hunter-Reay crashes

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Scott Dixon put his No. 9 GED Light LED Honda on top of the speed charts in morning warm-up for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Dixon’s fastest lap was a 1:01.929 and he was the only driver to break into the 1:01 bracket during the 30-minute session. Helio Castroneves, Simon Pagenaud, Spencer Pigot, and Graham Rahal completed the top five.

However it was an accident for Ryan Hunter-Reay about halfway through the session that was the main story line that emerged coming out of it.

In what has been the scariest moment of the weekend to date, Hunter-Reay speared into the turn 10 tire barriers about 15 minutes into the session. The Andretti Autosport driver reported he suffered a rear brake failure, which sent him straight off at one of the fastest parts of the St. Petersburg street circuit.

“Brake pedal went to the floor. One of the scarier feelings you ever had in a car. Needed every bit of the tires,” he told IndyCar Radio afterward.

Times are below. Coverage of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg begins at 12:00 p.m. ET.

Honda teams resurgent in St. Petersburg

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The troubles with Honda’s aero kit have been well documented. And even with Chip Ganassi Racing back under the Honda umbrella, the freeze in aerodynamic development led many to think that things wouldn’t be much better in 2017.

However, if Friday practice and Saturday qualifying were any indication, Honda has found some serious speed. Honda entries led all three practice sessions (Marco Andretti led the first session, and Scott Dixon led the second and third sessions) and Hondas took eight of the top ten spots in qualifying for Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Further, four Hondas made the Firestone Fast Six, their best qualifying performance since the aero kit era began in 2015.

Surprisingly, though, Dixon expressed disappointment. As he explained, an error on his behalf may have cost him the pole. “That was just on me unfortunately. We have a super fast car and should have been on pole,” he asserted. “I just messed up a little on my fastest lap there. I’m obviously disappointed, but the team has four fast cars. We’re working together great with Honda and I can’t wait to start the race tomorrow. Hopefully we’ll have the GE car up front when it counts.”

Takuma Sato, who qualified fifth, detailed that despite a very small window with which to work, Honda has clearly made gains. “It’s really a great job from Honda over the course of the winter. I know it’s a frozen package. We can do very little things, but I think engine development as well as how you try and use the car and the package, I think today is a result that we are really coming back in strong,” said the Andretti Autosport driver.

James Hinchcliffe leads teammate Mikhail Aleshin. Photo: IndyCar

James Hinchcliffe, who qualified third, detailed that, even though Chevrolet held the upper hand, no one within Honda or its IndyCar teams were laying down. “We were always pushing and always trying to improve. Certainly if you look at the results, it was leaning in (Chevrolet’s) favor for a while, but Honda is not one to lay down and just take a beating, so yeah, I think you’ve seen a lot of that.”

The Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Driver also noted that the aero kit freeze actually helped the Honda teams further understand their aerodynamics as the package went unchanged. “Coming into the start of ’16, all the Honda teams were dealing with a brand new aero kit. We were doing a second consecutive year of starting from scratch essentially where the other manufacturer wasn’t going through that. So now that we’ve got a year of development under it, it was natural that we were going to gain more.”

The speed of Honda’s aero and engine package is further exemplified in Alexander Rossi and Charlie Kimball. While neither advanced to the Firestone Fast Six, both enjoyed strong runs to qualify seventh (Rossi) and ninth (Kimball). Yet, neither was satisfied. “I’m disappointed to miss the Firestone Fast Six because I know that we’re quickest on the (Firestone primary) blacks in that second run before going to (alternate) reds. I think the potential is there, we just didn’t put it together,” said Rossi, who actually had his best qualifying result on a road/street course.

Kimball, too, was unhappy with a seemingly strong qualifying result. “I’m disappointed with qualifying ninth,” said he Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing driver. “I think coming into the weekend my goal was to qualify in the top 10 and finish in the top five. We’re obviously already hitting that goal with starting ninth, but after the last couple of days I think we’ve been faster than where we’re starting tomorrow.”

Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg rolls off at 12:30 p.m. ET.

Scott Dixon leads practice 3 at St. Petersburg

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Lap times continued to drop during the third practice for Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Eight drivers were below the 1:01 mark, demolishing Friday’s fastest lap of 1:02.559, turned in by Scott Dixon.

Dixon’s No. 9 GE LED Lighting Honda again paced the field in third practice, turning a fast lap of 1:01.624. Fellow Honda driver James Hinchcliffe was second with a lap of 1:01.666. He was also the first driver to actually break the 1:01 barrier. Alexander Rossi, Max Chilton, Sebastien Bourdais, and Marco Andretti made it a top six sweep for Honda, with Josef Newgarden’s No. 2 Verizon entry for Team Penske the fastest Chevrolet. In fact, Hondas held eight of the top ten spots, with Will Power’s No. 12 Verizon machine the only other Chevrolet in the top ten. He ended the session in tenth.

The session ran without any stoppages, the only incident being a minor off for Simon Pagenaud, who overshot the entry to turn 10 about 30 minutes into practice. However, he quickly spun it back around and re-entered the course without issue and ended the session 11th quickest.

Results are below. Qualifying begins at 2:55 p.m. ET local time.

 

Dixon, Power end 1-2 in St. Petersburg second practice

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Scott Dixon and Will Power ended first and second in the second 45-minute practice for this weekend’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, season opener for the Verizon IndyCar Series 2017 campaign.

Dixon ensured Hondas had the top times in both sessions, with Marco Andretti having ended first this morning.

“The whole offseason has been so busy off the track for people at Ganassi, with a lot of work and trying to get caught up. It’s nice to have a refresh,” Dixon told IndyCar Radio after the session.

“Friday doesn’t mean anything other than mileage. We’ll hope to work with the changes we made today and make it better for tomorrow.”

Dixon’s best time was a 1:02.5591 in his new blue No. 9 GE LED Lighting Honda, with Power second and top Chevrolet at 1:02.8416 in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet. Power, who had a slight incident in the morning, returned from that in that first session and ran fine today in this one.

Ganassi teammates Tony Kanaan and Charlie Kimball were third and fourth with Sebastien Bourdais completing the top five in the session.

The practice session was the first since the introduction of Firestone’s red alternate sidewall compounds that teams could run one set of reds in the second practice session. As such, most fast times in the session were set on the reds, but not Dixon’s. And that time on blacks which was more than a second up on Andretti’s best time of 1:03.7559 this morning.

Another incident occurred in a rather weird spot on course, causing the only red flag of this practice. Takuma Sato ran off going into the Turn 13/14 hairpin but while his front tires locked up, his rear ones didn’t. The driver of the No. 26 Andretti Autosport Honda went hard into the concrete barrier, having just missed the tire barrier at corner entry by a fraction. He was OK but the Andretti Autosport team will have a bit of work ahead of them to repair the chassis for Saturday.

Times are below. Third practice runs at 10:50 a.m. ET and local time on Saturday morning.