Feature: Key factors in Scott Dixon's road to a fifth IndyCar title
Ganassi veteran Scott Dixon this year claimed a fifth IndyCar title, moving into second place in the all-time list of champions, just two behind A.J Foyt.
The road to the claiming the Astor Cup was far from easy for the amiable Kiwi, having prevailed at Sonoma off the back of a four-way fight for the crown. How did he do it? Motorsport Week analyses the key factors in Dixon’s triumphant campaign.
No poles, no problem
Dixon achieved a rare feat in motorsport – winning a title without once claiming a single pole position.
He did start from the pole at Gateway, though this was a technicality of being the points leader in the wake of qualifying being cancelled – the usual pole point was not issued.
The New Zealander often made it into the fast-six but was only ever able to manage two front row starts which came at the first race in Detroit which he subsequently went on to win, and the second came at Sonoma.
His nearest rivals also made several appearances in the fast-six, most notably Will Power who made the fast-six at every race bar Sonoma as well as four Verizon P1 awards. Penske team-mate Josef Newgarden also nabbed four poles throughout 2018 while Alexander Rossi could only manage just two.
A rough season of qualifying meant Dixon often had to fight his way through the pack with speed and precision, but also without risking his own car and losing points.
It takes a talented and astute racer to remain calm in such situations – and without knocking off half a front wing.
One of Dixon’s best traits is one that allowed him to truly shine in 2018 – playing the percentage game. He knows when, and how, to fight, and when discretion is the better part of valour.
Through the 17-race 2018 campaign Dixon finished all but two races inside of the top six. Even then he bagged useful points with 11th at Long Beach and 12th at Iowa, the former result compromised by a drive-through penalty for entering the pit lane as it closed, having been among the top five battle beforehand.
It was through the middle phase of the campaign that Dixon was able to stamp his authority on the 2018 championship.
Dixon followed up with victory at the first 'Dual in Detroit' with fourth in the following day’s encounter, a Texan win came next, then third at Road America, and even accounting for his season-low at Iowa he still preserved a 23-point buffer over his opponents.
Toronto, though, proved a major turning point. Not only did Dixon savour the victor’s honours, but his nearest rivals all came to a cropper in one way or another. Then-nearest rival and reigning champion Newgarden tumbled to ninth after swiping the wall at a restart. Rossi was only eighth, Power was classified only 18th.
Rossi, though, hit form, taking two imperious back-to-back victories in Mid-Ohio and Pocono.
Dixon’s consistency meant he still led by 26 points, though that was a precariously slender margin at a critical juncture of the campaign.
Every season has its own defining moment which can swing a championship in either direction and Portland delivered just that for Dixon.
On the opening lap Andretti’s Zach Veach had pinched James Hinchcliffe's car on the exit kerb of Turn 2; as the Canadian spun around he collected Ed Jones, Graham Rahal, and Marco Andretti, who ended his race upside down in the dirt. Dixon was also caught up in the melee, plunging this way and that into the dust cloud, but miraculously emerged with barely a scratch on his car.
He had not only managed to avoid damage but kept his Honda engine running and eventually manoeuvred his car between the wrecks around him to get back onto the PIR circuit, without losing a lap.
Having come straight back to his pit box to assess possible damage, as well as taking on a new set of tyres and fill up on fuel… he only went and sped on the exit of the pit-lane and subsequently got a drive-through penalty for his troubles ending up at the back of the field once again. Oops.
And yet, the race changed drastically once more as Veach slid backwards into the barrier at the final corner mid-way through the race. It handed Dixon a strategy lifeline. He stayed out as the leaders pitted while a further caution to rescue Santino Ferrucci’s stricken car helped cement Dixon’s recovery.
Having been sat in the dirt on the opening lap to cross the line 105 laps later in fifth and leave Portland with three more points than Rossi was single-handedly the most important day in his championship season.
"I thought it was over before it began," Dixon said after the race."Old saying: better to be lucky than good. That definitely played out.
"I had nowhere to go at the start. It was just one of those things. I tried to slow
down, went sideways, hit from behind, off in the dirt. Hit pretty hard actually.
"Luckily I pulled the clutch once the dust cleared. I didn't think there was going to be a left front wheel on it. I looked, the wheel is there. Put it in emergency mode, started to get reverse. Was enough room behind me. Backed up. Got the guy to truck out of the way. Couldn't believe the thing was still driving."
Dixon may be creeping towards 40 but in 2018 he proved that age is just a number – and his 16 years of IndyCar experience was invaluable. He still has what it takes to get the job done.
While he may not have dominated proceedings in the traditional sense with pole positions and rampant race wins, his wise head and talent showed that being consistent and keeping your nose clean can still claim a championship.
Some of his upstart rivals could learn a trick or two from the wise and quiet Ganassi man.