It’s likely the reigning NTT IndyCar Series champion wasn’t thinking about pit lane at the Honda Indy Toronto when he earned a poor starting position for the previous round at Road America, but an engine failure three weeks ago in Elkhart Lake may make a difference in Scott Dixon’s 15th race on the Exhibition Place street circuit.
Dixon placed fifth in his group during the first qualifying round for the REV Group Grand Prix at Road America, earning the Chip Ganassi Racing leader a spot in the round of 12. White smoke and a sudden loss of power from his Honda engine when returning to his pit box — moments before the start of Round 2 — sidelined Dixon, however, and finalized a 12th-place starting position.
In his 314th Indy car start, Dixon proved why Chip Ganassi keeps him around by clawing from last after a Lap 1 spin to fifth at the checkered flag — all without the aid of a lucky full-course caution, as the Road America race ran without interruption.
The downside of qualifying 12th at Road America doesn’t end at his starting position for that race, though. INDYCAR determines pit assignments based on qualifying at the previous race, resulting in a midfield location for Dixon in the most unique pit lane currently on the IndyCar schedule.
Josef Newgarden, Alexander Rossi and Simon Pagenaud are ahead of Dixon in the championship standings and two out of the three will utilize pit stalls up the road from Dixon during the 85-lap Toronto contest. Pagenaud is four boxes behind Dixon in the Toronto pit lane due to his 16th-place qualifying performance in Wisconsin.
These top four in the championship all participated in the Firestone Fast Six — a six-minute session that unexpectedly turned Dixon’s pit location into an advantage, ironically due to a strategical decision by his rookie teammate Felix Rosenqvist.
Rosenqvist’s pit stall is six behind Dixon’s but the Ganassi rookie from Sweden took to the Fast Six with a one-run approach and thus stayed back in pit lane while his five competitors for the pole position headed out for one of two outings on red-sidewalled alternate Firestone tires. Dixon was fifth, placing him at the back of the group.
Crucially, Dixon avoided the loss of his fastest two laps when he spun at the beginning of what would’ve been his final lap and blocked the track at Turn 10. Had he gone out with the rest of the group, Rosenqvist would’ve been speeding toward Dixon moments after the crash, prompting a red flag and, potentially worse yet, damaged race cars.
“It’s all about timing, right?” Dixon said after qualifying. “We were lucky to be the last car. That’s kind of how we had spaced it out and timed it. We knew we had about a four-second, five-second window before we started that run, including the out lap.
“Luckily we were in some pretty clear air there behind, as well, that the next car was actually going to have to pit. So yeah, super lucky. It could have been sixth instead of second.”
Dixon will roll off with the lead group alongside pole sitter Pagenaud on the front row, but his pit location is unlikely to be as helpful in the race as it was in the final qualifying round.
Rossi and Newgarden, the top two in the championship, will enter and exit their pit stalls at similar angles during the race. Both are located on the left turn that leads to pit exit, offering a worry-free trip out with only Road America pole sitter Colton Herta ahead of them.
The 12th pit stall, to which Dixon was assigned, is at the end of pit lane’s right turn which bends parallel to the circuit’s 10th turn. Dixon should have reasonably little trouble peeling out as the road ahead is straight but the curve at the entrance to his box could prove difficult, particularly if Carlin one-off Sage Karam is in his box when Dixon is coming in.
“It’s definitely not ideal, especially on the curvature that we are in that pit because it’s hard to actually get into the pit and stop and then also to leave,” Dixon said when asked by The Apex about his assignment. “If you’re on a left-turning one, which is kind of like the first six or eight, it makes it a lot better.”
Pagenaud, assigned to the 17th box, will deal with a similar disadvantage as Dixon and certainly not enjoy the advantage Rossi, Newgarden and other top Road America qualifiers will have in the top six or eight spots Dixon mentioned.
“You can’t do anything about it,” Dixon continued. “So I think you just hope that we stay ahead of the car that’s in the box behind us; maybe — hopefully — they can give us space.
“I think if you have a green flag race it’s not too much of an issue because you can kind of pit on your own time, whereas if it’s a full-course yellow, that’s when it’s going to get really tricky, especially with how tight they are here. But yeah, this pit road is probably one of the worst that we come to all season as far as spacing and the curvature of it.”
Fuel Key to Strategy in Toronto
Dixon commented in April that the distance of the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach makes the race bland with a two-stop strategy being easy to achieve, eliminating bold strategies. At 15 miles shorter, the Honda Indy Toronto is similar in this way but the number of times Dixon will visit his unique pit box Sunday is uncertain.
The five-time champion expects tire choices to be the difference in strategy among the 22-car field.
“The fuel window is a lot bigger than what it used to be,” Dixon said of the strategy aspect of the Toronto race. “It used to be quite tough to do it in two but I think with the manufacturers making such large improvements in the efficiency of the engines, it’s pretty easy. You have fairly big windows now to be able to do it in two.
“The hard part is how long you run on the reds. We’ve seen previous races this year, and this is the same tire as what we had at Detroit. You know, I think it was Lap 4 or 5 we saw a caution in Detroit and the whole field pit except for us and maybe one other.
“I think it’s more not so much about fuel racing now, it’s about tire longevity. Plus it makes it pretty interesting, too, because if you get cars off strategy, the speed difference is pretty big. But I think the tire that Firestone brought here and Detroit is much more suited to here.”
Dixon started second and finished first at Toronto a year ago, partly due to an error from race leader Newgarden. The driver of the No. 9 PNC Bank Honda will need a little luck and a lot of speed on both the racetrack and the pit lane to follow his win in Race 2 on Detroit’s Belle Isle with another street race triumph in 2019.