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.