Season Review: 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series – Dixon makes a bid for the history books with his fifth title

by Jordan Groves
Scott Dixon (NZL), Chip Ganassi Racing, 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series, Sonoma

Another fantastic season of Verizon IndyCar Series racing has drawn to a close, with veteran Scott Dixon coming out on top of a title battle that was led at varying stages by drivers such as Alexander RossiWill Power and Josef Newgarden.

As the season rolled into the finale at Sonoma Raceway, the quartet of drivers were all in mathematical contention for the championship. However, realistically it was a straight fight between Dixon and Rossi; with twenty-nine points separating the pair and one hundred points on offer for the double-points race.

Drama on the first lap of the race for Rossi would essentially take him out of contention to challenge Dixon. The Andretti driver recovered from being almost a lap down to be running in the top five within the final ten laps, but he fell back to seventh place by the end of the race.

Dixon came home in second place in the finale to secure his fifth IndyCar championship; with the New Zealander proving that he is perhaps still performing as well as he ever has despite having been racing in the series for eighteen years.

Honda ended a long-standing run of manufacturer’s championship wins for Chevrolet. The Japanese company secured the title at the penultimate round of the season at Portland.

Robert Wickens‘ sensational season saw him crowned as the rookie of the year, despite missing the last few races of the season due to injuries sustained at Pocono Raceway. The other major honour of the year, the 2018 Indianapolis 500 victory, went the way of Penske’s Will Power for the first time; with the Australian also being named the oval champion at the end of the year.

Scott Dixon (NZL), Chip Ganassi Racing, 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series, Sonoma

Credit: Joe Skibinski / Courtesy of IndyCar

Rookies impress as the season kicks off

As always, there was a lot of anticipation ahead of the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series as the season-opening race, the 2018 Grand Prix of St. Petersberg, drew nearer. The dominating topic of conversation surrounded the introduction of the new-for-2018 standardised aerodynamic package; ending the manufacturer specific aero-kits seen in previous years. The 2018 cars boasted much less aerodynamic grip, with many predicting that we would see the drivers having to work a lot harder on the race track.

You might have thought that the harder 2018 cars would prove troublesome for the drivers making their debuts in 2018. However, this was soon dispelled. Robert Wickens, Zach VeachJordan King and Matheus Leist all proved early in the season that they were not to be underestimated.

Wickens, who moved to the series after several years competing in DTM, put in a stunning debut weekend at St. Petersburg to take pole position for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. He was only the third driver in history to have claimed pole on their debut, joining Sebastien Bourdais and Nigel Mansell. Robert would be joined fellow rookies Leist and King in the final session of qualifying, with the duo securing third and fourth respectively; King having set a new lap record in the process of making it to the last round.

Wickens went on to put on a fantastic display in the race, leading more laps than any other driver, but a series of late cautions put him right in the firing line of Alexander Rossi. Rossi would challenge for the lead going into turn one on the final race restart, but the pair would make contact.

Wickens would be spun into the barriers as a result, with Sebastien Bourdais dodging all of the chaos to take the victory despite having started way back in fourteenth place. It was an emotional occasion for Sebastien, with the Dale Coyne Racing driver having not taken a win since before he was injured in qualifying for the 2017 Indianapolis 500.

Despite losing a potential win on debut, Wickens did not let the disappointment get the batter of him. At the second round, his first oval race at ISM Raceway, Wickens put his inexperience behind him to take an incredible second place finish; only losing the lead of the race within the final laps when the eventual race winner, Josef Newgarden, got by using fresher tyres.

Another podium would follow shortly after at the fifth round of the season, the Grand Prix of Indianapolis. Further strong showings came at Mid-Ohio and his home race on the streets of Toronto; where the Canadian would finish on the podium on both occasions. He would follow up his four podiums with a further ten top ten finishes; a statistic he could have easily improved upon had it not been for his horrific accident at Pocono Raceway later in the season. Spinal injuries, coupled with various other injuries, prevented Wickens from taking part in the remaining three races, but nevertheless, he would be awarded the rookie of the year title before the season’s end; such was the advantage he built up during the year.

King and Leist continued to impress in qualifying throughout the season, but both would hit misfortunate numerous times in the races. King would threaten to take strong results and podiums, but numerous issues would strike him that would prevent him from reaching the top ten in any of his 2018 race starts; a huge shame given his fantastic speed.

Instead, it would be Andretti’s Zach Veach would who be the closest competitor to Wickens during the season. The teenager claimed a strong fourth place early in the year at Long Beach and would go on to close out the season with a run of four top ten finishes toward the end of the year.

Robert Wickens (CAN), Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series, St. Petersburg

Credit: Chris Jones / Courtesy of IndyCar

Penske’s Newgarden and Power show strength early on

Alexander Rossi may have taken three consecutive podiums to start off the season for Andretti Autosport, but as the championship reached it’s halfway point, it was the Penske duo of Josef Newgarden and Will Power that were ahead in the standings.

Reigning champion Newgarden began his title-defending season strongly, claiming victories at ISM Raceway and Barber Motorsports Park within the first four races of the year; the Barber race being a great display by Josef in torrential rain conditions. Heading into the all-important month of May at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, his team-mate Will Power began to hit back after a less than satisfactory start to the year.

Power began the month in great style by taking the win at the road course race on the Grand Prix circuit. When the drivers made their switch to the famed 2.50-mile speedway, Power would qualify on the front row of the grid for the 2018 Indianapolis 500.

Power would go on to take the lead from pole-sitter Ed Carpenter, leading fifty-nine laps en-route to his first ever Indianapolis 500 victory. The win would not come easily for Will, either, as the Australian endured a tense final few laps when a number of drivers tried to make it to the end on a fuel economy runStefan WilsonOriol Servia and Jack Harvey were the serious contenders to steal the win, but all would be forced to pit with under ten laps to go; allowing Power to take the win in one of the world’s most historic race events.

Power’s Indy 500 win was perhaps the completion of a long journey he has undergone since starting his IndyCar career. Power was vocal on how tough he found ovals at the start of his career, but he slowly started getting better and better as the years went by. Now, with an Indy 500 victory to his name, he is perhaps one of the fastest drivers in the field on the ovals; as evidenced by the fact that he took the oval championship at the end of the season.

The incredible points haul that Power collected in both races at Indianapolis, coupled with a strong pair of races at the Duel in Detroit a week after the Indy 500, allowed Power to bounce back from a tough start to the season to reach the top of the standings; taking over from team-mate Newgarden. With Penske having just come off of one of their strongest ever seasons in 2017, their pace was looking ominous for the second half of the year.

Will Power (NZL), Team Penske, 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series, Indianapolis 500

Credit: Karl Zemlin / Courtesy of IndyCar

Dixon hits the front with mid-season consistency, Rossi begins his fightback

The mid-season of the 2018 championship was really where the key players in the title fight emerged and where some drivers hoping to be contention ultimately had their chances undone by poor results.

After a somewhat quiet start to the season, Chip Ganassi Racing‘s Scott Dixon took his first win of the season in the first of the two races on the streets of Detroit. He had remained consistently in the top ten throughout the first few months, only finishing outside of the top ten at Long Beach after the New Zealander’s potential podium finish was undone by an ill-timed caution during a pit sequence.

Dixon’s second-place finish at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis would be the start of a six-race streak of top-five finishes. Five of those races would see Dixon on the podium, with Scott following up his win at Detroit with a return to the top-step at Texas Motor Speedway. He took to the podium for the final race of his mid-season run of consistency, taking third place at Road America.

With the Penske’s of Power and Newgarden, as well as Andretti’s Rossi, all having had trouble at some stage during Dixon’s run of great form, the New Zealander was able to leap up into the lead of the championship after his win at Texas, further extending his points advantage when he took what would be his third and final win of the season on the streets of Toronto.

Scott’s lead may have even been much larger had he not had one off-weekend at Iowa Speedway, where his #9 Ganassi Honda looked completely off the pace as he finished a staggering four laps down on the leaders in twelfth place. Thankfully for Scott though, even on his off-day his championship rivals could not make him pay as much as they would have hoped, with James Hinchcliffe putting in a fantastic drive to steal the win from Josef Newgarden in the closing stages.

A difficult race for Rossi in Toronto saw him take eighth place, but the American was determined to get himself back into contention for the title as the championship entered it’s final five races. Dixon may have had a great run mid-season, but it was Rossi that emerged as the man to beat toward the end of the year.

At Mid-Ohio, Rossi regained the speed that had seen him utterly dominate the Grand Prix of Long Beach at the beginning of the season. The American took pole position away from Will Power in the dying moments of qualifying. In the race on Sunday, both Rossi and the #27 Andretti team demonstrated that they had the ability to really take the fight to his rivals in the championship, with both parties executing the perfect race to out-strategize the field. Rossi was the only driver to make a two-stop strategy work instead of a three-stop strategy, with Alexander ultimately taking his second win of the season with a margin of 12.828-seconds over Robert Wickens.

From the technical and undulating road course of Mid-Ohio to the tricky-triangle of Pocono Raceway; Rossi and Andretti did not slow down. Rossi did not quite have the pace to prevent Penske from taking pole position in qualifying, with Power and Newgarden locking out the front row, but he was right on the pace with the duo when the race began.

After the infamous early crash for Robert Wickens and Ryan Hunter-Reay, Rossi got the perfect race restart to take the lead of the race from Will Power. The duo would remain in an intense duel for the victory for the remainder of the race, with Alexander ultimately coming out on top after Power was caught out by lapped traffic in the closing stages.

With Rossi having taken back-to-back victories, Dixon was hoping to stop his points advantage from being reduced any further heading into the final oval race of the season at Gateway. Rossi would not win the race under the floodlights, but he came very close. Rossi and Andretti once again utilized an alternate fuel strategy to bring them into contention for the win in the final laps. This time, however, Rossi was unable to take the victory, but he nevertheless finished in second place; with Dixon taking third place to lose a handful of crucial championship points.

At the penultimate race of the season, the returning Grand Prix of Portland, it looked as though Dixon had been dealt a potentially fatal blow in the championship. The Ganassi driver qualified right in the middle of the pack and was subsequently caught out in a first-lap pile-up.

Five cars were involved in the pile-up, which saw Marco Andretti roll over. Amazingly, Dixon was the only driver to emerge unscathed and was able to re-join the race. A well-timed caution saw Scott jump up toward the front of the pack before the end of the race, with Dixon unbelievably taking fifth place despite all the shenanigans at the start. What was even better for Scott was that Rossi had been caught out by the late-race caution and subsequently finished down in eighth place. This would leave the pair twenty-nine points apart heading into the final race of the season at Sonoma.

Alexander Rossi (USA): Verizon IndyCar Series, Mid-Ohio, Andretti Autosport

Credit: Chris Owens / Courtesy of IndyCar

Dixon fends off Rossi to claim his fifth IndyCar title at Sonoma

Four drivers would enter the final race of the season with a chance of taking the championship. Realistically, it was a duel between Dixon and Rossi, but theoretically, Power and Newgarden still had a chance due to the final race being worth double points, but both would need Rossi and Dixon to not finish in the points to have any hope of stealing the crown.

Rossi looked to not quite have the pace of his championship rival Dixon. Scott just missed out on pole position on Saturday, with a mistake at the final corner of his final lap allowing Ryan Hunter-Reay to steal the top spot. Rossi would qualify sixth, already playing the strategic game by saving a set of tyres for the race.

With his team-mate Hunter-Reay ahead of Dixon, Rossi was hoping that his team-mates would be able to play a tactical game to allow him to get back into the hunt. However, Rossi’s race and championship bid came undone at the first corner of the first lap.

Rossi ran into the back of his team-mate Marco Andretti just after the green flag flew, with the contact forcing Alexander into the pits with a puncture. The Californian was able to re-join the race, but he had to fight with both Hunter-Reay and Dixon to stay on the lead lap of the race.

A caution mid-way through the race would put Rossi back in contention but at the back of the pack. An impressive display saw Rossi charge through the field and into the top five, but at no point was he able to catch and pass Dixon. In the end, Rossi would fall to an eventual finish of seventh place, with Dixon coming home in second place behind the dominant Hunter-Reay who took the win.

Second place would be more than good enough to secure Dixon the 2018 championship. It was a momentous occasion for Dixon, as it would be the fifth championship victory of his IndyCar career; putting him level with the legend A.J. Foyt in the history books. Despite it being his eighteenth year in the championship, his and Ganassi’s performance in 2018 shows that the hugely effective combination is showing no signs of slowing down.

Rossi’s seventh place would see him remain as the runner-up in the championship. Despite the disappointing final race that saw him essentially ruled out of the fight for the title after lap one, Rossi said post-race that he was proud of his 2018 season and that he was ready to come back even stronger in 2019. It’s important to remember that this was only his third season in IndyCar, with Rossi definitely showing the potential to take multiple championships in the future.

Indy 500 winner Will Power would take third place in the championship standings, with Ryan Hunter-Reay using his incredible, dominating performance in the season-finale to leap-frog Josef Newgarden to take fourth in the standings. Hunter-Reay put in a number of great results over the season, he will be one to watch next year if he can keep his pace up.

Scott Dixon (NZL), Chip Ganassi Racing, 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series, Sonoma

Credit: Joe Skibinski / Courtesy of IndyCar

Looking ahead to 2019

Next season has all the potential to be an absolutely scintillating year for IndyCar. We will no doubt see another season with Dixon, Rossi, Newgarden and Power in contention for the title, with added possibilities of the likes of Hunter-Reay, Pagenaud, Bourdais, Sato and Hinchcliffe being in contention after flashes of brilliance throughout 2018.

We will also see a number of exciting prospects join the championship full-time. Indy Lights alumni Patricio O’Ward and Colton Herta made their IndyCar debut at Sonoma finale, with O’Ward making headlines by qualifying fifth and finishing ninth. Both have been picked up by Harding Steinbrenner Racing for 2019 and will be ones to watch for sure.

After a tricky but reasonable first season, Carlin will be hoping to make further improvements in their sophomore year of IndyCar racing. Charlie Kimball took multiple top ten finishes for the British team, with Max Chilton coming oh so close at various points of the year. The team has stated post-season that they could expand to a three-car entry for 2019, but it is not certain that either Kimball or Chilton will remain with the squad next year.

Last and, most certainly, not least, the major speculation surrounding IndyCar for 2019 will be the potential arrival of two-time Formula 1 world champion Fernando Alonso. With the Spaniard announcing his departure from McLaren in F1 for 2019, it looks certain that we will at least see Alonso racing at the Indianapolis 500 to try and complete the historic “triple crown.” Alonso tested an Andretti Honda at Barber Motorsports Park a number of weeks ago, prompting further talks of a full-time effort from Fernando in IndyCar; but no deal has been made as of yet.

There are a lot of unknowns – even surrounding the title sponsor of the championship next year following the departure of Verizon – but one thing that we can be sure of is that 2019 will see another fantastic year of racing for the IndyCar Series. The season-opening race, the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, will take place on March 10.

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