Archive: The obstacles blocking Dixon's path to F1

After completing three days of testing for Williams at Barcelona in 2004, then-reigning IRL Indycar champion Scott Dixon was linked with a potential Formula 1 switch for 2005. But despite impressing the team, the Kiwi's commitments Stateside with Chip Ganassi Racing meant there were hurdles to overcome

Archive: The obstacles blocking Dixon's path to F1

Forget for a second the lap times, mechanical dramas, wet weather, great soundbites, physical prowess, career record, technical feedback and media hype surrounding Scott Dixon’s recent Formula 1 tests. For those chomping at the bit to know if this highly-rated Kiwi is the fresh-faced man to help fire the Williams team into an exciting future, the message from within is clear: don’t hold your breath.

However harsh a situation it seems, for all of Dixon’s speed, all his efforts and all the interest his outings have sparked, whether or not the 23-year-old will head to F1’s opening round in Melbourne as a Williams driver next March comes down to a brutally simple equation. Is the reigning IRL IndyCar Series champion’s natural ability enough to get him the nod over the greater experience of other stars vying for the seat? Williams’ chief operations engineer, Sam Michael, believes that is the bottom line.

“It is hard to make that decision,” he says. “You really have to ask if someone is talented enough to overcome someone else’s experience, because someone who hasn’t driven on any of F1’s tracks, for example, has to learn them from scratch. It’s going to form part of our post-test analysis. I would say anything is possible, but at the moment it is not a decision as such. It could be a long time before we make that call.”

This is the way modern F1 is; big teams simply cannot take risks on the hype of up-and-coming stars. It is no longer enough to show great promise, as Jacques Villeneuve did when he grabbed a berth at Williams in 1996 after a handful of days’ testing at Silverstone. Now choosing a driver is a risk management exercise, where every input on the steering wheel, every gearchange, every locked brake and every turn of the engine mapping settings is logged, judged and thrown into the melting pot before talks about a contract can even begin.

It is little wonder, then, that you could sense a slight hint of disappointment from Dixon about the way last week’s major run-out at Barcelona had gone. After his pretty sensational performance at Paul Ricard the before – where he ended up just three-tenths of a second off Williams frontline driver Ralf Schumacher – a mixture of poor weather, gearbox problems and other mechanical gremlins, including a broken driveshaft that pitched him off the track, robbed him of a proper opportunity to really impress.

“We had about four and a half hours of downtime on the last day,” says Dixon, shrugging his shoulders after sitting out the final afternoon. “The weather also p***ed me off, but you cannot do much about that. It’s kind of frustrating, but that is part of it. It could happen to anybody.”

Scott Dixon, Williams BMW FW26

Scott Dixon, Williams BMW FW26

Photo by: Sutton Images

The Kiwi’s slightly deflated air about the way the test had gone belied what a good job he had done over the three days. He had little trouble learning his way around Barcelona, not one of the easiest of venues to show off your skills, and ran through as much of the allotted programme as he could.

Michael is never one to get overly excited about the talent let loose behind the steering wheel of Williams’ machinery, but he was in no doubt that Dixon had done himself justice.

“Scott adapted to it a lot better than I thought he would,” says Michael. “His maturity helps, because he has a lot of experience in racing cars and his age helps a lot. He understands why he is here and he wants to do well. You can definitely see that in him.”

"There is no doubt he is good enough for F1. He has got all the right ingredients to be a grand prix driver" Sam Michael

Exactly what Williams is after in terms of drivers next year is difficult to gauge at present. Talks with Schumacher appear to be ongoing, and should a deal be concluded with the experienced German, then there would be every reason to put him alongside a rising star such as Dixon. The dynamics of youth and experience are always a potent brew.

However, should Schumacher decide to move on and the team fails in its efforts to woo Mark Webber from Jaguar, then Dixon’s chances could depend on it being able to attract another experienced star to go alongside him. Whether or not Dixon gets that seat in 2005 is very much out of his hands. And if he fails, it certainly doesn’t mean he isn’t up to the grade.

“Whether or not we pursue something with him or not, he has definitely stood his ground in terms of coming over here and doing a good job,” says Michael. “There is no doubt he is good enough for F1. He has got all the right ingredients to be a grand prix driver.”

That outside chance of firing himself into a Williams seat in 2005 made it all the more important for Dixon to give it his all at Barcelona – although for any rookie the need to impress is always a fine balancing act. On the one hand, the team wants to see what you can do – that you have got the speed, technical know-how and bravery to go out there and put it on the line – but on the other hand, there is no point being super-fast if you then bin the car against a tyre wall. Who can forget the embarrassment of Bas Leinders when he stacked his Jordan just six corners out of the pits on his first test?

Scott Dixon, Williams

Scott Dixon, Williams

Photo by: Motorsport Images

“The team is definitely looking for guys, but I just wanted to make sure that I got through all the data – I didn’t want to throw it into the wall,” explains Dixon. “I know the team has got a tight schedule with the cars – the same as we do in IndyCars – so it was no good wrecking something. But then again, you have got to be fairly flat out.”

Despite a career path that has taken him from New Zealand to the United States, and therefore away from the European racing scene, it is no secret that Dixon’s ambitions are focused outside the IRL. Manager Stefan Johansson has used his F1 contacts to push the driver’s cause quite hard in recent years and both know that if the move is going to happen, it has got to be timed perfectly. Waste the opportunity to move now and another chance with a top-line outfit may not come up for several years – if at all. Make the move too quickly, without the kind of preparation that modern F1 drivers need, and it could all backfire.

“The dream has always been to do F1, and that’s probably because of New Zealand being a bit more European-based in its thinking,” says Dixon. “But it is very hard to break in. It is especially hard because I am doing a full year committed to another championship and certain other races. The time and effort needed for a new programme would be pretty difficult to fit in.

“It would be nice to have a rest in September, and it has been rough with the travel and getting used to things. The team have got plans for what they need to do, but, if you get an opportunity, then you have got to take it. If it works out, it does, if not, s***. You can maybe try again but…”

Dixon trails off, perhaps suggesting that failure does not enter his thought processes. However, his intense schedule – which includes jetting off from Barcelona back to the US, before travelling to Japan for this weekend’s round of the IRL at Motegi – means that there is little chance of any further F1 preparations until the season is almost over.

“I am flat out,” says Dixon. “I don’t think I am done until September now. From May to August, we have a week off, and there is one month when we have four races.”

That schedule adds further reasoning to Williams’ lack of a rush in forcing a decision, because even if it gives him the nod imminently, there is hardly another opportunity to get him in the car before September. And, with F1’s winter testing ban kicking in from the end of October to the beginning of December, there could be too little time to get him up to speed.

Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing G Force Toyota

Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing G Force Toyota

Photo by: Sutton Images

Dixon hints, too, that it may be better for him to bide his time, get more experience and feel that he is capable of doing the best job possible rather than compromising the situation.

“In some ways, ideally I would like to test for a year, get up to speed and physically get better prepared,” he says. “It is hard to say sitting here what the team’s ambitions are, but I would like to be involved next year for sure.”

"He is one of those guys you only come across every 10 or 15 years who has got five percent more natural ability than the rest. He is fully motivated and hungry to win, and intelligent enough to figure out what he needs to accomplish that" Stefan Johansson

One man who is convinced Williams would be foolish to miss this opportunity is Johansson. The Swede, a veteran of 79 GPs, first came across Dixon when he ran him in Indy Lights in 1999, and he believes he is special.

“My personal feeling is that he definitely belongs in F1 – absolutely 100 percent,” said Johansson. “He has all the qualities needed to be there. I’ve not been surprised by how well he has gone. When he came over to the States, he was 17 years old and I saw the same thing there. He has just got an amazing natural ability and raw talent.

“In my view, he is one of those guys you only come across every 10 or 15 years who has got five percent more natural ability than the rest. He is fully motivated and hungry to win, and intelligent enough to figure out what he needs to accomplish that. F1 is another kettle of fish altogether, but he is well aware of how much he needs to raise his game to get to that point.”

Over to you, Williams.

Scott Dixon, Williams BMW FW26

Scott Dixon, Williams BMW FW26

Photo by: Sutton Images

What happened next

Despite Johansson's conviction, F1 passed Dixon by. Williams waited until late January to sign former Sauber and Jordan driver Nick Heidfeld after shootout tests with Antonio Pizzonia, who had made four race appearances with the team subbing for Schumacher following his huge crash at Indianapolis.

Dixon stayed with Chip Ganassi Racing in the IRL Indycar series, which added road courses to its previously oval-only schedule for the first time in 2005. It was a tough year that yielded only one win, at Watkins Glen, and Dixon was shaded by new team-mate Dan Wheldon in 2006.

But for 2007, Dixon reasserted himself as the team leader and only missed out on the title to Dario Franchitti when he ran out of fuel on the final lap of the Chicagoland season finale. However a glittering 2008 in the newly-unified IndyCar series yielded a second title and the Indianapolis 500.

When Franchitti returned from a short-lived spell in NASCAR, he narrowly pipped new Ganassi team-mate Dixon to the 2009 title. He finished third in each of his next three seasons, before becoming a three-time champion in 2013, overhauling Helio Castroneves with a strong end to the year.

He beat 2004 Williams F1 driver Juan Pablo Montoya to secure his fourth title on countback after a tiebreak in 2015, racking up two more in 2018 and 2020 to further underline his credentials as a modern IndyCar great.

Having racked up 51 wins to date and only once finished outside the top four since 2007, Dixon is still firmly at the top of his game.

Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda

Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing Honda

Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images

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