New Zealand’s love affair with the IndyCar Series continued in 2023 with various levels of success for Scott Dixon, Scott McLaughlin and Marcus Armstrong in North America’s most competitive open-wheel competition.
While it was Spanish driver Alex Palou who ultimately stole the show and cruised to a crushing 78-point victory, Dixon and McLaughlin were in the championship fight right until the final rounds, while Armstrong claimed Rookie of the Year honours, despite not competing on ovals.
Dixon would finish the championship as runner-up, with three wins to his name, while his compatriot took a sole win and was runner-up on three occasions.
Following a sublime 2022 season, where they were championship contenders until the final round, Dixon and McLaughlin entered the new season among the favourites, the former searching for his record-equaling seventh crown.
The six-time champion was immediately on form in the opener on the Streets of St. Petersburg, finishing third in a chaotic race that saw McLaughlin and Armstrong caught out in separate incidents.
McLaughlin had led 37 laps under pressure from Romain Grosjean, and the two came together at Turn 4 after the Kiwi exited the pits on cold tyres and tried to defend the position. He received a drive-through penalty for the accident but recovered for 13th.
Armstrong was collected by David Malukas early in the race, receiving a rear puncture for his efforts, but would return to the pits and charge home in 11th.
The first oval round of the season at Texas saw Dixon qualify on the front row and come home a credible sixth, one spot ahead of McLaughlin in seventh, from 15th on the grid.
Armstrong was the best of the Kiwis in Round 3 at the Grand Prix of Long Beach, achieving his first top-ten result, with eighth, before coming home in eleventh place at Barber and 15th place on the Indianapolis Road Course.
McLaughlin was tenth at Long Beach but recovered to take his sole season win in Alabama shortly after finishing 16th on the Indianapolis Road Course, while Dixon featured in the top ten at all three.
That brought about the iconic 107th running of the Indy 500, of which, despite all his accolades, Dixon has won only once. He was on form in the build-up, topping the first practice before qualifying sixth for the great race. McLaughlin was left starting from 14th.
Three red flags over the final 16 laps created a tense finish, and Josef Newgarden would claim the spoils with a last-lap pass on Marcus Ericsson.
Dixon struggled with vibrations early and dropped back to 21st before recovering to finish sixth, while McLaughlin was caught in late carnage and finished 14th.
Both full-time Kiwis achieved top-ten results over the next seven races, with Dixon finishing as runner-up in Mid-Ohio and McLaughlin achieving the same result in Iowa and Nashville.
Armstrong featured in a season-best seventh in Toronto, stamping his mark over the rookies in the field. There had been heartbreak weeks earlier for the 23-year-old, who had led laps at Road America after qualifying eighth before a poor strategy call put him to the rear of the field.
The second race of the season on the Indianapolis Road Course in Round 14 saw Dixon claim his first win while celebrating his record-breaking Iron Man record for most consecutive race starts, at 319. It was his 54th race win, meaning he had achieved a race win in the past 19 seasons.
He had only qualified 16th for the race and immediately dropped to the rear of the field with a spin on the opening lap, which also caught out Armstrong and several others. Boxing under the following caution, Dixon ran an alternate strategy and led at points during the pit windows, slowly creeping his way forward and emerging with a 5-second lead after the final round of stops played out.
Graham Rahal reduced the gap as the laps counted down, but Dixon held on to take a half-second victory. Rahal could only admire the efforts of the icon of the sport, giving him a thumbs up as he crossed the line. McLaughlin finished eighth, while Armstrong battled for 24th after his Lap 1 incident put him a lap down.
This one was very special, especially breaking the Iron Man record of 319 straight races,” Dixon said after the race. “This was the way to do it.
“The competition in this series is tough, and this is a testament to the team and what they bring to the table. We’ve had a very successful year, and to get one with the No. 9 PNC Bank team feels very good.”
Dixon doubled down at the World Wide Technology Raceway the next round, taking his 55th career victory in much easier circumstances than his previous outing. The gap stood at 22 seconds at the chequered flag, off the back of a fuel-saving masterclass where only three cars finished on the lead lap.
Palou wrapped up the 2023 Indycar title with victory in Portland the following round, taking an unassailable 91-point lead into the season-finale at Laguna Seca. Dixon finished third, losing a place to Felix Rosenqvist following a late Safety Car.
Kiwis were back on the podium in the season finale, and in spectacular fashion, with a one-two for Dixon over McLaughlin at Laguna Seca. It was another remarkable victory for the former, who overcame a six-place grid penalty, Lap 1 contact and a drive-through penalty to run an alternate strategy for a famous win at the Grand Prix of Monterey.
In a race plagued by eight Safety Cars, McLaughlin also kept his nerve under pressure to finish as runner-up and jump to third in the season-ending championship standings.
Armstrong came home in eighth, having been in contention for a podium until spinning on the final restart. His top ten result saw him claim Rookie of the Year honours over Agustin Canapino.
Canapino ran every round of the championship but was still outscored by the Kiwi, who competed in five fewer races in 2023.
All three New Zealanders will drive in the series full-time in 2024, and with the form shown in 2023, there’s still plenty more celebrations to be had.
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