TORONTO — Well, that didn’t take long. Less than a week after suffering through his toughest race of the season — an uncharacteristic 12th-place finish at Iowa Speedway — Scott Dixon climbed right back atop the Verizon IndyCar Series mountain.
The Chip Ganassi Racing superstar paced both of Friday’s practice sessions on the streets of Toronto ahead of Sunday’s Honda Indy Toronto, and he did it with relative ease. Dixon’s top lap time of 59.0751 seconds was nearly a half-second faster than the next quickest driver, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Takuma Sato (59.5117).
In his post-practice news conference Friday, Dixon revealed that he was relieved that his tough day in Iowa didn’t cost him much in the championship standings. With none of his prime competitors recording a podium finish, Dixon’s 12th didn’t hurt much. He maintains a 33-point advantage over reigning series champion Josef Newgarden (411- 378).
“We had so many issues with Iowa,” Dixon said Friday. “We started really loose. Then we had the gearbox issue where it would get stuck in gear for three or four laps and then it would cool off and I could start shifting again, and then we had the tires on the wrong side of the car.
“It was just one of those races where everything was going to happen and it did, and fortunate for ourselves, a lot of the competitors, at least that are pointing in the championship, had a bit of a rough day, too. Some of them not so much, but yeah, to still maintain a sizable or at least a good amount of points from Iowa is good. But we’ve got to concentrate on this weekend now and try and rack up some more.”
For Sato, Friday’s P2 was yet another step forward in what has been an outstanding past four weeks. In that time, Sato has rebounded from a sluggish start with his new team to deliver some of his finest results of the season.
At Texas Motor Speedway, he finished seventh, his best finish at the superspeedway since a fifth-place run back in 2011. He turned that positive momentum into what was then a season-best finish of fourth at Road America before topping himself the following week at Iowa. There he finished third, his first podium of the season and RLL’s first podium since Graham Rahal’s runner-up at the season-opener in St. Petersburg.
Now it doesn’t look as if Sato has any plans of slowing down.
“I think I was really happy from Practice 1 to Practice 2,” the 2017 Indianapolis 500 winner said. “There was a little bit of balance issue for me in Practice 1 that could improve a little bit, but Practice 2 it was much more liking the way, and I know the lap times are very close and very competitive with everyone else. So it’s a very tight field, but it’s nice to be ahead of them.
“Obviously Dixey did quite a stunning lap in the red tire. Seems to be everybody a little bit is kind of finding grip and struggling to improve the time, including myself. Nevertheless, I think it was a very positive session, both two cars in Rahal team showing quite good speed, so I should be happy today.”
Sato’s teammate, Rahal, finished P4 in Friday’s practice session, wedged between a pair of Andretti Autosport drivers in Marco Andretti (P3) and Alexander Rossi (P5). The three of them, in addition to Dixon and Sato gave Honda a lockout of the top five positions.
Honda’s early dominance doesn’t necessarily guarantee them an edge Sunday, but it does seem to fit the early-season pattern of the Japanese manufacturer’s cars owning an advantage on street circuits. Honda-powered drivers have won all four street races this season (Sebastien Bourdais at St. Pete; Alexander Rossi at Long Beach; and Scott Dixon and Ryan Hunter-Reay at the Detroit doubleheader) and claimed 10 of the 12 podium positions.
Despite Honda’s recent excellence, Dixon wasn’t ready to admit its drivers own a distinct advantage for Sunday’s race, though he was undoubtedly pleased by the performance of his car.
“I think (Honda has) done a really good job with drivability, and especially on these street courses and road courses,” said Dixon. “I think the torque the engine has and the way it just puts it to the pavement is really good. I don’t know, I think each driver complains a little bit about different things from the engine side, but I think from the Honda side everybody is a lot happier than the competition. We’ll see. Some are tuned out more than others on Sundays, so it depends.”