Scott Dixon's new IndyCar season started Friday with a modest 12th-place position in the opening official test session on the Phoenix International Raceway oval, but the Chip Ganassi Racing driver felt the times and speeds were less important than the data collected in his team's first short oval run with new engine partner Honda.
"For us...it's the second time in the Honda-powered car, so first time on a short oval, which as we know is maybe not the best package to have, but all in all, it ran fairly smoothly," said Dixon, a dominant winner at PIR last year with his Chevy-powered Dallara. "We didn't do new tires. It looked like a bunch of people did new tires at the end and did a couple of different aero adjustments to try and get an idea on some of the data that we've been looking at through the off-season.
"But, as for right now, the engine feels really good, and lap times I thought for what we were doing were actually fairly decent. It's always hard to tell in preseason testing, especially with manufacturers, how tuned up they are, and we'll just have to see how it plays out once we come back here for the race."
Dixon noted that there are a number of differences to adjust to with the team's new partner.
"I think it's definitely a polar opposite or polar difference between how manufacturers – these two manufacturers at least – run their program. As a team we've achieved a lot with HPD and Honda, so it's nice to be back working with a lot of those people and, as I said, they run the program vastly different. So I think the program in itself actually fits our team a little bit better, but you know, we'll have to see.
"Obviously performance is what you really look for. I think this year is probably the hardest time to do that transition just for the sheer fact that we almost have no off-season testing with four days now in a stagnant year of development, ourselves and AJ Foyt are probably the only two teams that are on a very steep learning curve trying to figure out what the other side has had for two years.
"There's a lot to learn, a lot to take in. It's exciting, it's a new challenge, and definitely happy to be behind the No. 9, and we'll see what we can get this season.
While acknowledging some concern about the limitations on Honda's effort to gain ground in the aero war from the decision to freeze aero kit development, Dixon said he was hopeful that the series' return visit to Phoenix this year will yield a more competitive show.
"I think it'll be better. It's always a fine line and something that's very tough to achieve and takes multiple attempts, I think, at doing it," he said. "Right now is a very tough time, too, because this is a non-development year and everything has stayed stagnant, it's very hard for Honda to change any of the parameters – basically, nothing is meant to change. I expect larger changes for next year when we go to a single aero kit configuration, and because next year IndyCar will have the power over the whole car.
"There have been some smaller changes. I think Firestone brought a different tire here, too. For me it actually felt like the track grip was up over last year, so that's kind of interesting. Not sure why we're kind of getting that read yet. But to be honest, right now I couldn't tell you either way. We're doing what we can as the drivers to make the show better, and we'll have to wait and see whether it turns out that way.
"There's a lot of pieces to the puzzle. It's never that easy just to make one change. In that moment you're going to annoy or anger somebody. I think IndyCar in the off-season have done an amazing job of going to these tracks, testing configurations. The changes might not be as quick as we would like to see, but there's also got to be a methodical change period for both."
Phoenix will certainly be in for significant change anyway by 2019, when the track's $178m makeover is completed. Dixon admitted he wasn't sure what effect the significant track changes, which include relocation of the start-finish line, will have for IndyCar but he indicated support for what the track is trying to achieve.
"Yeah, it'll be quite interesting. Obviously with the restart zone and stuff it could be pretty tough. But it could also open it up a little bit instead of all barreling down into Turn 1. The short answer to that is I'm not really sure how it's going to change our racing, whether it will at all. But yeah, I think it's definitely exciting to see Phoenix International putting in all the money and going through the transition, updating the facility. Obviously much hasn't changed since I first came here in maybe 2000 or something. It's good to see it going through an update."
Asked whether any news would be forthcoming about the other big change facing Dixon and Ganassi for 2017 – the absence of Target branding on his car and driving suit, both of which appeared in plain white at the Phoenix test – Dixon declined to speculate. "That's above my pay grade, man," he replied.