The year 2020 wasn’t a bad one for Chip Ganassi Racing, it won a championship after all!
But its IndyCar line-up was effectively a one-man band with Scott Dixon, and one that lost over 100 points to advancing title rival Josef Newgarden in the second half of the season.
This year the team is presenting an almost united, dominating front.
In a manner that you may usually think more reminiscent of Andretti Autosport or Team Penske’s bigger line-ups and more widely-spread success, Ganassi has three cars that have won races and are in the conversation for victory each week.
Now it has a new star in Alex Palou who looks every bit the future champion, Scott Dixon who feels a loose-end or two away from going on a rampage and is third in the points.
Then there’s Marcus Ericsson who is really starting to prove some of his doubters wrong by getting the results many expected when he made the IndyCar leap in 2019.
There are more stats to show Ganassi’s dominance. Palou and Dixon have the first and second best average finishing position in the series (the Indianapolis 500 awards double points and skews the actual championship order slightly) for drivers who have done more than one race.
Dixon has led just shy of double the number of laps of his nearest competitor in that category, while Ericsson is second behind Palou in the ‘road and street course standings’, leaving aside the ovals.
His recent run has included reeling in Newgarden and driving 20 seconds beyond his team-mates in a fight for victory at Mid-Ohio, a win in Detroit and an excellent comeback to sixth from a spin at Road America.
For years Ganassi has relied pretty much entirely on Dixon and struggled to assemble a consistent supporting cast, but it finally appears to have done this with what has been an epic 2021 season so far where it has won four of the 10 races. It’s the only team with two or more different winning drivers.
Dixon is believed to be signed through next year, while Ericsson and Jimmie Johnson are definitely. It’s hard to think of a scenario where Palou and Ganassi don’t find mutual ground to keep him in the team, potentially creating an unchanged Ganassi driver line-up for the first time since 2017.
All this is set against the backdrop of a critical last off-season where some – including this writer – raised the concern that adding a leading IMSA prototype attack with Kevin Magnussen and Renger van der Zande, as well as an Extreme E entry, was biting off more than the team could chew.
Especially when you consider the competitiveness of the IndyCar and NASCAR series it already races in and the commitment required to prevail. Dixon had played up the impact of getting personnel back from the Ford GT programme to Ganassi’s IndyCar project at the end of 2019, which he said helped his campaign last year and allowed the team to re-focus.
In an exclusive interview with The Race, Ganassi’s managing director Mike Hull said adding the sportscar programme was a “surprise” as the team had been looking to introduce it further down the line.
“We decided, because it would have legs to it for the future, it [doing IMSA in 2021] would be worth pursuing,” Hull tells The Race.
“So at the front end of that, there was a bit of strain, frankly. But we’re up to speed now and everything’s functioning correctly.
“I think our company is glad that we’ve gone ahead and done that because we’ve always thrived on being able to run multiple programmes, because of the increase in productivity in the building, actually, rather than the other way around.
“Because what happens when you do that is you find more good people and when you find more good people with the projects that continue to come into the door, it seems to create a lot more free thinking.
“So we’re happy about it, and it we’ve got definitely got a beehive going on inside the confines of the building, there’s no question about that.”
It’s very clear now, with hindsight, that the concerns raised over those extra programmes wasn’t necessary. Both of those entries added – especially in IMSA – have been a relative success, and the impact elsewhere on the other teams inside Ganassi has been minimal.
Perhaps the cause of this is that the biggest reason for Ganassi’s IndyCar success wasn’t established in the 2020/21 off-season, but in the one before.
The team – not totally happy with its 2019 campaign (fourth and six in the points with Dixon and Felix Rosenqvist) – set about an internal restructure, which included moving pieces of the jigsaw around but also bringing in new personnel.
The highlights of this restructure were Chris Simmons moving from being Dixon’s engineer to the team’s director of performance, as Mike Cannon (pictured below) came in to engineer Dixon from Dale Coyne.
Ericsson joined the team – creating a three car team instead of two – in that off-season and a number of engineers from the Ford GT programme were installed in his new #10 squad, while there were a number of changes in personnel elsewhere at various levels.
“At the end of 2019, we weren’t really satisfied with our performance as that season went on,” Hull tells The Race.
“A lot of people would be very satisfied with it, don’t get me wrong. But we weren’t satisfied with how it was functioning and we decided we wanted to retain everybody that we had, but change the structure a bit.
“So for the 2020 season, well before the pandemic hit, we moved some people around internally, senior management, senior engineering, middle management, middle engineering, and even the shop floor, we’ve moved that around in terms of the people that had their hands on the cars.
“We brought some people in from the outside and put them in positions to create a fresh approach to refresh and look at what we were doing. Everybody bought into that and worked really, really hard with it in 2020.
“And we won a championship.
“I think in ’21 now, it’s really starting to flow. That whole process is flowing now, well, and so what you’re seeing really is a result of that, 24 months ago.
“I think that’s why you’re seeing these results, we strengthened the teams we had by a realignment of personnel, and the drivers have bought into it. That that makes a big, big difference.
“I don’t want to put the cart in front of the horse to say, ‘it’s been a great season’, because we have six races to go. But I think we’re going in the right direction.”
It’s true that there are six races to go in 2021, Palou hasn’t been to many of the tracks remaining and Dixon and Ericsson face a battle to avoid some of the bad luck they’ve had and work on being as consistent as their new series-leading team-mate if they want to get in on the action.
There’s also the small matter of a motivated cast behind, the likes of Pato O’Ward at Arrow McLaren SP, and Newgarden at Penske.
The season is far from over and Ganassi could still end it without a championship, unlike 2020. But there’s no doubt something special is going on at Ganassi right now and the sustained performance it has brought to 2021 is a sign of things to come.