Team Orders Absence Delivers Satisfying Mid-Ohio Conclusion
In the midst of an uphill battle for his sixth NTT IndyCar Series championship and second in a row, Scott Dixon wasn’t given an easy path to victory by his team at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course due to a call that proved to be the right one for Chip Ganassi Racing and fans alike.
Dixon and his rookie teammate Felix Rosenqvist attacked the 2.258-mile road course with essentially opposite strategies on race day, given distinct approaches employed by strategists Mike Hull and Barry Wanser. Still, the five-time titlist and the young Swede seeking his first IndyCar victory ended up less than a tenth of a second apart after 90 laps.
The close result wasn’t a function of the surface-level tactics — all of the top-10 finishers employed two- or three-stop strategies. Rather, tire choice and lapped traffic plus the tenacity of a five-time Mid-Ohio winner proved to be key elements in creating the best possible outcome for the team.
Both drivers started on primary Firestone Firehawk tires. Known for their longevity relative to the red-sidewalled optional tire, the harder compound of the blacks demands more use to warm up. With that in mind, Dixon and Rosenqvist held their first-lap positions until beginning their joint advance to the front of the 23-car field on Lap 12.
When Rosenqvist pitted on Lap 28 and Dixon followed one lap later, it looked from the outside as if the team had committed both drivers to two pit stops. That assumption was shown to be incorrect when Rosenqvist pitted again on Lap 45 when was only 17 laps into his second stint. When the rookie peeled off track from the lead, Dixon, midway through a stint on new alternates, was given the opportunity to take control.
Seemingly immune to the falloff that plagued other drivers on similar sticker red runs, Dixon set his fastest race lap 17 tours of the Mid-Ohio circuit into his stint on the softer rubber. Of the other drivers who had their fastest laps of the race on new reds, only Marco Andretti and Takuma Sato were more than 10 laps into their stints when they set their personal best. More than half the field turned their quickest laps five or fewer into new-tire runs.
Dixon’s falloff immunity didn’t extend to used red tires, however, causing the five-time champion much trouble over the day’s final 30 laps. The selection of that tire option for Dixon’s final stint, coupled with Rosenqvist’s use of the fast sticker primary tires for his, allowed both team cars to come together over the final 23 laps when a few lapped cars were all that separated them.
Rosenqvist’s final pit stop on Lap 66 put him back on track nine seconds behind Dixon. The backmarkers stood as a challenge for Rosenqvist but the IndyCar newcomer got by and cut the deficit to his teammate from nearly 10 seconds on Lap 69 to just two by the 85th lap. As the penultimate lap began, just one car remained between the Ganassi Hondas. Once past Andretti, Rosenqvist received clear instruction.
“All right, you got this Felix,” radioed Wanser from the pit lane Rosenqvist visited one more time than Dixon. “Remember it’s your teammate. Make it clean.”
The impact was twofold. Winless in the late stages of his debut year driving for Chip Ganassi, Rosenqvist surely didn’t need to be reminded to not ruin his teammate’s race. More surprising was Wanser’s direction to attempt a pass on Dixon.
Rosenqvist was given permission to go after the championship-seeking veteran, instead of allowing the driver of the PNC Bank Honda to cruise to the win unchallenged. Perhaps shocked by the risk taken by the “big three” team, fans were treated to an extraordinary final lap that illustrated what racing a teammate is all about.
After the two sped under the white flag less than 0.4 seconds apart, Dixon hurtled toward the Turn 2 keyhole with Rosenqvist close behind. Sensing a pass opportunity — and perhaps lacking knowledge of previous incidents at the turn — the Swedish rookie took a shot at IndyCar’s winningest active driver. The two ended up dangerously close as Rosenqvist dived to Dixon’s inside until he was forced onto the curbing and the grass, losing valuable time as Dixon once again gained control. Yet, even with this move and subsequent attempts in the moments leading up to the checkered flag, Rosenqvist obeyed the radio call fans watching the NBC telecast heard loud and clear: Make it clean.
Observers witnessed the third-closest finish in road and street course history after a grueling, caution-free race that culminated in Ganassi’s first 1-2 result since 2015. The response was enthusiastic, judging by the reaction of the capacity crowd on hand at Mid-Ohio; as Dixon embarked on his victory lap, the television cameras caught fans showing their appreciation in nearly every shot.
Those fans and everyone else who watched got to experience pure, unfiltered racing. INDYCAR, Chip Ganassi Racing, Dixon and Rosenqvist gave everyone the finish they were looking for without the need for stages, unnecessary yellow flags and artificial drama in an era of contrivances for the sake of entertainment.
And if surviving his final stint on fading reds to win a fair fight with his teammate wasn’t enough to make this year’s Honda Indy 200 one to remember, Dixon eliminated 36 points from the gap between himself and championship leader Josef Newgarden, helped significantly by a last-lap blunder that dropped the Team Penske driver from fourth to 14th on the final results.
Ganassi’s team orders — or, perhaps, lack thereof — didn’t lead to Newgarden tangling with Ryan Hunter-Reay on Lap 90 of 90, and even if Rosenqvist became a first-time winner, a strong result for Dixon and poor one for Newgarden would’ve tightened the standings regardless as IndyCar heads to World Wide Technology Raceway near St. Louis for its next round.
Fans have that to cheer about, plus the radio call that succinctly proved that Formula One-style “team orders” have no place in IndyCar. At least not before it arrives at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.
Ben was hooked after witnessing Dario Franchitti's victory at the 2009 Iowa Corn Indy 250 and began providing media coverage from IndyCar events in 2015. If IndyCar is on track, he can be found live-tweeting and updating The Apex's Race Reports from his iPad Pro.