Experience trumps youth on IndyCar’s opening weekend with aero kits

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It took a Twitter exchange from three-time Champ Car series runner-up Bruno Junqueira to me on Saturday evening to realize something interesting about the qualifying results from the opening qualifying session of the Verizon IndyCar Series season, and the first with new manufacturer aero kits.

It was a day – and a weekend – where experience reigned.

Each of Saturday’s top nine qualifiers are 30 years old or older, and all but one made their debuts in IndyCar or Champ Car at least eight years ago.

The veteran movement continued on race day, too, with each of the top seven in the 30-plus club before we came to Jack Hawksworth, just 23, in eighth.

The order on Saturday was: Will Power (34, debuted 2005), Simon Pagenaud (30, 2007), Helio Castroneves (39, 1998), Juan Pablo Montoya (39, 1999), Takuma Sato (38, 2010 in IndyCar, 2002 in Formula 1), Sebastien Bourdais (36, 2003), Tony Kanaan (40, 1998), Ryan Hunter-Reay (34, 2003) and Scott Dixon (34, 2001). Josef Newgarden, the 24-year-old fourth year driver, was best of the “young guns” in 10th.

Sunday’s finish saw Montoya lead Power, Kanaan, Castroneves, Pagenaud, Bourdais and Hunter-Reay before Hawksworth, Luca Filippi, and Marco Andretti, all under 30, completed the top 10. Andretti’s a veteran, but is only 28 in this, his 10th full-time season.

Combined, the top nine in qualifying had an average age of 36, and on race day, the top seven averaged out to the exact same number.

The one commonality between all of those leading runners? At some point, early in their careers, they spent time developing a new IndyCar year-on-year, or adjusting to a new car the following year.

For Power, Bourdais, Hunter-Reay and Pagenaud, who all entered in the waning years of Champ Car, they transitioned from either the old Reynard or Lola chassis into the Panoz DP01 for Champ Car’s last full season in 2007. Bourdais and Pagenaud have also extrapolated beyond the boundaries of IndyCar, carving out successful sports car careers in their intervening years when they weren’t on the IndyCar grid.

Meanwhile the “old guard” of Kanaan, Montoya, Castroneves and Dixon all adapted to a new car every year when they began their careers in what was then the CART championship. Sato did the same for his F1 career, where he was active from 2002 through 2008.

This isn’t necessarily a situation where correlation equals causation, but it is certainly interesting to note the dominance of the veteran hands in the first weekend of IndyCar’s new era of manufacturer aero kits – which marks the biggest change both visually and in terms of technical development in the series in more than a decade.

While the new base Dallara DW12 chassis was introduced in 2012, it was more or less the same for everyone in terms of adapting. Rookies have done well in certain spots, and drivers like Hawksworth and Tristan Vautier particularly impressed in their debut weekends the last couple years.

The younger drivers made most of the mistakes this weekend. Perhaps it was first weekend jitters or driving to make a good first impression that led to all the incidents during the race.

I’d put the weekend down to the first step of a learning process for the younger generation of drivers, and I’d expect them to improve and develop as the year goes on.

In the meantime, it will be interesting to see whether the veterans continue to rule the roost as the first season with the new aero kits rolls onto NOLA Motorsports Park in two weeks.

Ken Roczen signs with HEP Progressive Ecstar Suzuki for 2023

Roczen Progressive Ecstar Suzuki
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ANAHEIM, California – Ken Roczen will make the move from HRC Honda to H.E.P. Motorsports with the Progressive Ecstar Suzuki team, ending a long and eventful offseason that saw his split from his longstanding team after he committed to running World Supercross (WSX).

“H.E.P. Motorsports is thrilled to announce that the team has signed Ken Roczen as its premier rider for the 2023 season,” the team announced on Instagram. “Former AMA Motocross champion Roczen will be aboard a Suzuki RM-Z450. Roczen, who won his most recent championship on a Suzuki, will be reunited with the brand and bring his exciting style, determination, and grit back to the RM Army.

“Ken Roczen will compete in the upcoming 2023 Supercross and Motocross Championship series which is set to start on January 7 at Anaheim Stadium in Southern California.”

For Roczen, it is a return to the bike of his youth and on which he had some of his greatest professional success.

“This thing has been going on for weeks and weeks and weeks in the making, but there was so much uncertainty,” Roczen told NBC Sports during Monster Energy Supercross Media Sessions. “It was a very unique situation. I just finally signed two nights ago, so it’s really only legit once the ink hits the paper. It’s been in the works for a long time, but there were just a lot of questions and a lot of input from a lot of other teams too.

“Good things take time, and I’m okay with that. I grew up riding Suzuki. Ot’s like a homecoming. It’s a special feeling”

Roczen won the 2016 Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship on a Suzuki before making the move to Honda. That year he won nine of 12 Nationals and finished no worse than second as he easily outpaced Eli Tomac by 86 points. He finished third in his next Pro Motocross outing in 2018 after sitting out the outdoor season in 2017.

“I am beyond excited to reconnect with Suzuki for the 3rd time in my career. We’ve had a lot of success in the past and I’m looking forward to seeing what we can accomplish together in our future.” Roczen said in the Instagram post.