The No. 9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing entry has finished the IZOD IndyCar Series in the top three for the past six years (impressive), but we've only taken top spot once in that period. That's the statistic that we've got to try to change in 2013. A couple of our missed title opportunities came down to fuel mileage in the final race, a couple came down to just having unfortunate starts to the season, and having to play catch-up for the rest of the year.
What's difficult after our 2012 season is that you can't just pinpoint one thing you've got to improve to make that final step to P1. If you come close but don't actually win the title, it's usually just little changes in every aspect, not one big breakthrough, that will put you in a stronger position. Last year, we covered the bases pretty well. I tripped myself up at Texas; we qualified badly at Milwaukee but even from where we started, I think we'd have won or at least finished top three if it wasn't for the “phantom penalty;” I had a “cockpit problem” at Iowa (which I can't go into!); and then there were reliability issues at three or four races, which either took me out or slowed me down. Sonoma was just painful, because obviously there was the clash with Helio Castroneves at the start, there was the pitlane penalty when I ran over a wheel-gun and then later when I went to pass Ryan Hunter-Reay, he blocked me which broke my front wing and I went straight on at one of the corners.
We were right there in the championship fight, but we didn't capitalize on all the occasions where we had a strong car. We certainly found some interesting ways to lose points, but when you consider we missed the title by just 35, well, you can't help but think the majority of those went missing at Milwaukee when something went against us that was totally outside the control of myself, the Ganassi team or Honda. Crazy. Still, I know Honda have been working hard on reliability during the offseason to make sure that in future we do make the most of our best days, and then it's down to me as a driver and the whole No. 9 team to do the same.
So what's new in IndyCar for 2013? Well, we have a couple of new (old!) tracks on the calendar, first one being Pocono. I believe my Target Ganassi teammate Dario Franchitti will be doing a tire test there, just before we go to Brazil, and IndyCar has also added a test day there before practice and qualifying. Right here, right now, we don't know a lot about the track except what we've seen on TV, but that's fine: I'm always interested in visiting new tracks – I think they play into the hands of the more experienced drivers, the ones who've had to learn a lot of tracks over the years.
If we find on the test day at Pocono that we're flat-out all the way around because we have too much grip, I hope IndyCar will reduce the downforce to make sure we really have to drive the cars. I was pleased to hear they're taking more downforce away for the Texas race to compensate for the amount of mechanical grip all the teams have found since the last race there, and for the same reason I think IndyCar are going to do the same for Fontana. It's encouraging to hear that attitude. Hope it continues.
A big change this year is having double-headers at Detroit, Toronto and Houston (the other new/old track). Personally, I like the idea because I like racing; since we're there, cool, let's race twice! But does it take away from the Sunday race, that feeling of building up to the main event? Yeah, maybe. I think Randy Bernard, IndyCar's previous CEO, often felt that more was better, which I don't necessarily agree with. The proof will be in the crowd attendance, I guess. If as many people turn up on the Saturday as turn up on the Sunday, then the plan worked. From the drivers' point of view…well, we get full points for both races, so if the No. 9 Target car goes like it did at Detroit last year, I guess I'll love the idea of a double-header there!
The standing starts worry me a bit more, in that I think there'll be an element of pot luck. The equipment we're using wasn't really designed for that; the biting point on the clutch moves each time you're pulling away from the pit box, so I wonder how well the system can withstand a full-blown standing start. If the intention is to mix things up, then fine, this will probably help do that, and sometimes it will work in our favor, sometimes not. But I think IndyCar needs to stop worrying about competition: the racing has been fantastic in this series.
The lack of testing means none of us are sure where we are relative to each other – although I'm writing this before the Open Test at Barber Motorsports Park. Still, the lack of ability to do much except adjust shocks and dampers means I'd imagine the teams will be in roughly the same order as last year. The big teams will have spent money to understand the car a bit better aerodynamically, but on any given race weekend, a member of a small team can just walk down pit lane and see what your aero setup is, so it's not like we can hide what we're doing.
What defines the order over the course of a whole season is consistency; the big teams will mess up occasionally, which allows the smaller teams to shine now and again. But if your cars, your drivers and your pit crew are consistently among the fastest, and your strategies are there or thereabouts at every race, well, that's all going to pay off in the championship. For example, the consistency of the pit crew on my No. 9 car made a big leap forward last season after changing a couple of crew members around. They did a hell of a job. Winning the Indy pit stop competition was a big buzz for them, and they were crucial to my win in Mid-Ohio, jumping me out ahead of Will Power when we pitted together.
Speaking of whom, I'd say my main competition for the championship will, as usual, come from Dario, Will, Helio and the Andretti Autosport guys. I'd also say you should see Simon Pagenaud in Victory Lane – a lot of people make the mistake of thinking that's a small team and it isn't. But it could be interesting to see how Pagenaud responds to having a teammate like Tristan Vautier, who I think will be quick.
However, whatever the opposition is doing, we can't change it, we can only focus on ourselves. And I think if we get all our acts together, we have the pace to win a bunch of races and fight for the championship again. If we've ironed out the little inconsistencies, too, then we have everything we need to take the big prize.
You can follow Scott on Twitter at @ScottDixon9 and follow Target Chip Ganassi Racing on Twitter at @TCGRteams