Reinvigorated after an off-season that has seen his 2008 IndyCar Series triumph commemorated in myriad ways, Scott Dixon is raring to get going on the defence of his title.
The Kiwi proved to be a near indefatigable force last year, with only a late-season blip allowed Helio Castroneves to take the title race down to the wire at Chicagoland, but insists that, despite what he expects to be increased levels of competition from the entire field, his chances of taking back-to-back crowns are good.
"I think the prospects going into 2009 are fantastic," Dixon claimed, "I think many series at this point have cut back on off-season testing and even testing during the season so, for us, if we can continue on with the momentum that we had - and, obviously, the cars were very good with Team Target - I think that definitely bodes well for us."
Despite the loss of long-time colleague Dan Wheldon to Panther Racing, Dixon will faced renewed pressure from within the Ganassi camp this season following the hiring of 2007 series champion Dario Franchitti. The Scot beat Dixon to the crown on the last corner of the season two years ago, but the Kiwi insists that there is no animosity that could prevent them from presenting strong opposition to other IRL powerhouses such as Penske and Andretti Green Racing.
"You can see that, from the moment of the first test last [Tuesday] night, I think we were first and third," he pointed out, underlining Franchitti's swift re-acclimatisation to IndyCars after a thwarted year in NASCAR.
"As for the relationship with Dario, we've been great friends for many years. Actually, when I first came in to Champ Car in 2001, I think he's a guy I definitely looked up to. He was someone that had been in the series for a little while and was always easy to talk to. It seems strange to have fought and raced against him for so many years side-by-side and now he's actually on the team. It's going to be even more personal, and probably even closer [on track] because he's got the same equipment now.
"I'm definitely looking forward to it. It was fantastic to have the [non-points] race in Australia [after the 2008 regular season]. For us to at least work on the relationship and see where we like things the same or different and surprisingly we like the cars very similar. It's a pretty big year for us. Team Target, when you look at it, has got two of the last [Indy] 500 champions and two of the last series champions, so we've definitely got the target on our back - but we're going to be trying to push as hard as possible."
It isn't just Franchitti and the regulars at Penske and AGR that Dixon is concerned about this season, however, with the former Champ Car teams and drivers now having a year's experience under their belts.
"That's definitely a good question and something that all of us definitely understand," he noted, "[Unification] was a time that we all had to embrace, and it was definitely harder for them because we were continuing on in a series that we had been in, at least for me, for the last four or five years. I think they had a month - or even just a couple of weeks - to get ready for the first race which was very tough.
"I think that, when the competition is so close and you've got the same chassis, the same engine, the same tyres, it's all the little fine details that takes all the time to actually improve on and make the cars faster. I'd definitely say they were at a large disadvantage on the ovals - the short tracks maybe not so much, because it's more about driving and really getting the cars to work with the driver, but definitely on the bigger speedways, the mile-and-a-halves.
"This year is definitely going to be very tough as you've got a lot of teams that have spent their time in the off-season to prepare their cars better. I'd say, for sure, KV and Newman-Haas and teams like that are going to be very tough to beat. I think you'll see a lot of different winners this year in the IndyCar Series."