Scott Dixon believes a strong start to the new season will be a key to his hopes of defending his IndyCar title in the United States.
Dixon was judged as New Zealand Sportsman of the Year after claiming his third title last season and starts his 12th year in this tough domain when the championship opens in St Petersburg, Florida, on March 31.
Last year Dixon had four wins and six podium finishes to top the points table but left his run late to claim the title. It was a nerve-tingling campaign that went right down to the last race. Dixon would like a little more breathing space this time around.
“I think if we can start strong and carry the momentum through from last year, that will be goal No 1,” Dixon said at the IndyCar media day in Florida.
“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 . . . looking for strong results straight away in St Pete.”
St Petersburg hasn’t been a happy hunting ground for Dixon, with just three podium finishes in nine starts.
“The last couple years we’ve struggled out of pre-season development, kind of gone down the long road,” Dixon added.
“Last year was a big showing of that, obviously. I think we qualified 20th or something. To come back with a fifth place was definitely a big race for us.”
That may be tricky this season again because Dixon’s Target Chip Ganassi Racing have limited some of their testing, to keep some days up their sleeves for later in the year. It’s a calculated gamble where they are looking for adjustments over a long season in varying track and climate conditions.
“We’ve cancelled the Barber [Motorsports Park] test we had set for March 4. We want to make sure we keep developing in the areas we need from the offseason, then work on the car for setups during the hotter months.”
The team will look to increase speed for the big oval tracks which were an area of weakness last year. Dixon shone on the road and street courses, regularly qualifying in the top three or four.
Dixon faces some big adjustments with the team. They have switched engines from Honda to Chevrolet with Ganassi wanting to align his IndyCar team with his Nascar outfit.
And Dixon has a new team-mate with Brazil’s Tony Kanaan taking over from Dario Franchitti who retired after last October’s horrific crash in Houston that left him with two fractured vertebrae, a broken ankle and concussion.
Kanaan has had 12 years in IndyCars, winning the 2004 title. He has 15 race wins, including last year’s Indianapolis 500.
Dixon teamed with Franchitti for five years as a strong combination. “Dario and I were very similar, I think, in debriefing and the way that we approached the weekend,” Dixon said.
“It’s hard to tell with TK yet because we haven’t worked together that much. Obviously he’s a big personality and it’s fun to have him at the team.
“Just to see how we work on car setups is yet to be determined. But he’s been quick at the first few tests. It’s nice to have a different driver to look at different areas where he may be quick and areas that the team and myself and the other drivers can definitely work on.”
Dixon didn’t want to compare Kanaan with Franchitti.
“He may be stronger in other areas and maybe a little weaker in others. I think with the team combination, drivers and engineering, we can try to bring that back together and make it a strong 1-2 punch.”
The 33-year-old Dixon has 32 wins and 74 podiums to go with the three championships, but says he isn’t driven by numbers. “I love my job. I love racing. I think that’s what matters to me.
“I’m not a huge sort of stats guy. I think it’s something you can reflect on when you do leave the sport. It’s important to win. It’s important to win championships and Indy 500s, fly the flag obviously for the team. But it’s not something that I wake up thinking about.”
That sort of attitude has been a key to Dixon’s success. Ryan Briscoe, who has been Dixon’s team-mate since 2005, is full of admiration for the Kiwi superstar. “I think he’s just solid, man, like a rock. Even-keeled. He just gets the job done.
“Definitely having the continuity he’s had through highs and lows, he’s just been there the whole time. When he’s had those bad days, he doesn’t say bad things about the team. He just gets down to work and works really hard behind the scenes without publicising it so much. I think that’s what he’s good at.
“He’s a phenomenal driver. He’s fast, he’s consistent. He’s just the same every year. You can always count on him going for a championship again.”
Dixon’s consistency is likely to be reflected in some simple things around his set-up. As the defending champion, Dixon has the option to run the “No 1” on his car. But he says he’ll probably stick to his normal No 9.
“I think for us it’s more the icon of the No 9 and being a Target car, much similar to how the people recognise the cars in Nascar. That’s becoming more apparent in IndyCar, as well,” Dixon said.
“The 9 has been good. It’s a team number. But if they picked the 1, I wouldn’t have a problem with it.”
That’s Dixon… easy come, easy go, but always in the thick of the calculations.