When he spun on a wet track in qualifying at Mid-Ohio last Saturday, bringing out a red flag, Scott Dixon’s luckless season seemed to slip even deeper into the murk. IndyCar’s defending champion and Chip Ganassi’s team arrived in Ohio without a single win to their credit this year but Dixon is considered the man to beat at Mid-Ohio, winning four of the last seven IndyCar races at the track. The team were hoping to score an elusive first win this year at the demanding road course in the rolling hills of central Ohio.
But Scott’s hopes took a dive when he spun on a very slick track in the first round of qualifying. The resulting red flag negated the additional lap Dixon made so he was eliminated from the second and third round ‘shoot out’ qualifying sessions and started the race 22nd – dead last.
There’s a reason, however, that the cool Kiwi is known as the ‘Ice Man’. After Dixon safely negotiated a multi-car, mid-field crash on the opening lap with the help of a little good luck, Ganassi’s team boss Mike Hull set his mind to finding the best strategy while Dixon gave everyone a lesson in how to save fuel and drive fast at the same time.
The race-winning moment came for Dixon and Hull with a mid-race yellow when Ryan Hunter-Reay spun after 37 of 90 laps. Under the yellow everyone save Dixon came into the pits for fuel and tyres and from the restart on lap 44 Dixon was in control, pulling away from the field and maintaining a comfortable cushion through his final pitstop all the way to the chequered flag.
“The door opened wide for us there,” Mike Hull commented. “There was a lot of landscape we could use on red tyres and we’ve got a guy who can run fast laps while he’s saving fuel as you saw at the end.”
Dixon won by 5.3sec from Sébastien Bourdais and ran out of fuel just after crossing the line, pulling off at the first turn. “When I went across the start/finish line they said you probably want to stop because it’ll be a long walk back if you try to get around,” Scott said. “I think we came a little closer to running out than we figured. I was trying to be conservative but the fuel light came on a little earlier than we expected.”
A superb performance from Dixon as he not only scored his fifth and Ganassi’s 10th win at Mid-Ohio but broke the team’s 2014 strike-out and vaulted himself to sixth in IndyCar points, keeping alive his fading hopes of defending his championship.
1. Scott Dixon, Ganassi
2. Sébastien Bourdais, KVR
3. James Hinchcliffe, Andretti
4. Carlos Muñoz, Andretti
5. Graham Rahal, RLL
6. Will Power, Penske
7. Charlie Kimball, Ganassi
8. Ryan Briscoe, Ganassi
9. Simon Pagenaud, SPH
10. Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti
11. Juan Pablo Montoya, Penske
12. Josef Newgarden, SFH
13. Mike Conway, Carpenter
14. Mikhail Aleshin, SPH
15. Justin Wilson, Coyne
16. Jack Hawksworth, Herta
17. Carlos Huertas, Coyne
18. Takuma Sato, Foyt
19. Hélio Castroneves, Penske
Sebastián Saavedra, KVR
Tony Kanaan, Ganassi
Marco Andretti, Andretti
“You can’t underestimate anything in IndyCar,” Dixon grinned. “We decided to switch strategies a couple of times. The guys stayed on it and we got a little lucky with that caution. The fuel number was extremely close but we had the speed. I’m just so happy for the team. This is a huge win. Man, it feels good to be back in the winner’s circle.”
Sébastien Bourdais finished second after qualifying on pole and leading 37 laps. “They were the class of the field today,” Bourdais said about Dixon and Ganassi’s team. “He made an impossible fuel mileage while holding the same pace we were, or even a little quicker. So hats off to the Ganassi team. We had nothing for those guys, but we had a solid run. We keep digging and keep learning.”
James Hinchcliffe drove a very good race to finish third, chasing Bourdais home. Hinchcliffe was another to endure a poor qualifying, starting 17th, but he gained many places in the first lap shunt that eliminated Tony Kanaan and Marco Andretti before making the right strategic moves.
“It was nice to finally get a break and get up on the podium,” Hinchcliffe said. “That wreck on the first lap opened the door for us and we were able to take advantage of it. We had a really quick car in clean air and some good racing with Sébastien at the end. The car was great and the pitstops were great.”
Carlos Muñoz and Graham Rahal finished fourth and fifth, both enjoying good races, well in the hunt all the way. Will Power came home sixth and took the championship lead while Ryan Hunter-Reay had a disastrous day, finishing 10th after a pitlane speeding penalty and a spin. Hunter-Reay inched into third place in IndyCar points, one point ahead of Simon Pagenaud who came home ninth at Mid-Ohio.
An impressive performance came from Josef Newgarden who qualified on the outside of the front row and chased hard after Bourdais through the race’s opening stages. Later, between laps 50-63, Newgarden was the only man able to put any pressure on Dixon but Josef had a disastrous final pitstop. He ran over his air hose with his left front wheel, upending the crewman brandishing the hose which operates the car’s onboard jacks. The result was a bungled stop and a subsequent drive-through pit penalty for Newgarden dropping him to 12th.
“It was one of those days when it’s not meant to be,” Newgarden said philosophically. “We had a great car and really good strategy. You don’t always stick to your plan, but today we did and it fell perfectly. We got the yellow right when we needed it and made a couple of passes when we needed to and caught up to ‘Dixie’.
“I thought we were going to be really good to go because he was saving fuel and holding us up a little bit. But then it all unravelled. That happens. It wasn’t our day but we had a strong car and did a good job as a team until we messed up in the pits.”
Meanwhile, Hélio Castroneves lost the championship lead to Penske team-mate Will Power who moved four points ahead. The Brazilian had to start the race from the pitlane after an electronic gremlin struck as the engines were fired up for the start. Hélio was four laps down when he finally got going and came home 19th.
“Man, that sucked!” Castroneves shook his head. “It’s a shame. I noticed the problem as soon as they said, ‘Gentlemen, start your engines.’ There was something wrong with the mapping. The car was good and boys did a great job in the pits but it’s awful when you’re running four laps behind. There’s not much you can do.”
Nevertheless, with three races to go this year’s IndyCar championship looks like settling into an intra-team battle between Power and Castroneves. The likes of Pagenaud, Hunter-Reay and Dixon must put together a string of wins if any of them is going to stop Team Penske from winning its 13th IndyCar championship and first since 2006.