Detroit — Chevrolet came to town with the hot engine in the IndyCar series, but that changed in the first race of the Detroit Grand Prix on Saturday.
Demonstrating superior drivability and performance on the long, bumpy Raceway on Belle Isle, Scott Dixon won his first race of the season in a Honda, one of six Honda-powered cars at the top of the field.
“Just being part of the team, this is awesome,” Dixon said.
“It’s always great to be in the winner’s circle, and the competition right now in the IndyCar series is just so tough.”
Dixon drove one of seven Hondas that finished in the top 10 and one of nine in the top 12.
Ryan Hunter-Reay finished second, Alexander Rossi third and the pole-winner, Marco Andretti, fourth.
Andretti Autosport and Chip Ganassi Racing dominated the 70-lap race on the 2.3-mile, 13-turn course, benefiting from the Honda power.
Chevrolet-powered Team Penske finished seventh, ninth and 17th, with Will Power, Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud, respectively.
“I just feel unlucky,” said Power, who won the Indianapolis 500 and the IndyCar Grand Prix back-to-back in May, before coming to what Team Penske and Chevrolet consider their home track.
“For some reason, I think the Hondas just have a different car, kind of, that suits this track. Obviously, we’ve got a good top average (speed) that’s great for Indy and some of these other tracks.
“But I drove pretty hard for seventh place today.”
Graham Rahal, who won both races of the Detroit Grand Prix last year, crashed on the 21st lap.
Immediately after he exited the pits, where he changed tires, the rubber failed to get up to racing heat, and Rahal flew violently into a retaining wall.
With a new model of IndyCar car, featuring less downforce even in the configuration used on the road course on the Raceway on Belle Isle, drivers faced tough challenges on the bump circuit, with varying road surfaces and tight turns.
“This place is physical because on a normal road course you’re going through a corner and you make one or two moves, but in this place, you make 15,” Hunter-Reay said. “You’re constantly correcting.”
Cockpit views of the drivers featured on two broadcasts showed them wrestling with the steering wheels and controls, even more vigorously than in previous years in Detroit.
Dixon said seeing the checkered flag proved a relief.
“I was just hanging on to the car at that point,” he said. “It was very hard to control.”
After winning the Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar Grand Prix last month in Indianapolis, Chevrolet seemed poised for a big weekend, within sight of GM’s headquarters just down the Detroit River.
But it clearly was not to be, either in qualifying or Saturday's race.
The top finishes for Chevy were Power in seventh, Newgarden in eighth and Spencer Pigot in 10th.
Rossi retained his lead in the IndyCar series, with 276 points.
Dixon trails by four, Power by seven, the defending champion Newgarden by 21, Hunter-Reay by 49, the rookie Robert Wickens by 75 and Rahal by 85.
After the second race of the Detroit Grand Prix on Sunday, the 16-event season will be half over.
“That was a lot of work for a ninth-place finish,” Newgarden said. “I’m worn out.
“This place really takes it out of you,” he said. “This is a place where you have to be up on the wheel all the time. If you aren’t, it can bite you.
“We saw that today with Rahal.”
Andretti, who won the pole, said he hoped to dial the car back after qualifying again Sunday.
“I still want to try for the pole,” said the grandson of Mario Andretti and son of team owner, Michael. “But from there I think we need to de-tune the care a little.
“It was a bit too on edge; still almost a qualifying car for the race. So, a bit too aggressive.”
Dixon, a 37-year-old New Zealander, said the wins are not coming as easy as earlier in his career.
“As I look back a few years, you could sort of burn off five or six victories in a row during the season,” he said. “But now, it looks like those days are pretty much gone. To finish third in Indy was nice. But it’s always nice to rebound strong in Detroit.
“Honda has done a superb job. A top-six lockout is great, especially in this city. We’re going to come back and to do it again, and get some rest tonight.”
Dixon has now won races in 16 consecutive seasons, and 42 overall.
That ties him with Michael Andretti for third in the history of the IndyCar series.
“You know, I feel very lucky and very privileged to be in this sport," he said. "Its’s a very tight-knit family group. To be on one team for 15 or 16 years, it’s a very tight group. I feel very proud of them, and to be able to work with some of the very best in the business.
“For me, I love racing. I feel very lucky to be able to do it, and while I’m here, I want to do the best I can. Winning is why we are in this business, and why we’re going to come back tomorrow and try to win number 43.”
As for Power, who has crew chief Roger Penske talking in his ear during races this season, he will try to put Chevrolet back into the fight.
“Our car is pretty good; the handling is not bad so there’s not much I could pick out to gain us some speed,” he said.
“If we could qualify a little better, like in the top-four, it would make a big difference. You could do something there with strategy.”