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


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.

Ford Mustang GT3 test has Austin Cindric dreaming of Daytona: ‘I want to drive that car’

Cindric Ford GT3 test
Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Austin Cindric wasn’t the “mystery” test driver behind the wheel of the new Ford Mustang GT3 at Sebring International Raceway, but the Team Penske driver desperately wanted to be.

Ford CEO Jim Farley, an amateur sports car driver himself, made the big reveal via a Tuesday tweet that provided the first video evidence of the GT3 Mustang on track.

“I’ve watched the video in question about a million times,” Cindric said Wednesday during a Ford Performance Zoom news conference to promote NASCAR’s first road course weekend of the season at Circuit of the Americas. “Definitely exciting times for sure. I want to drive that car. It suits my experience level and also the relationships that I have.”

Ford will enter the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship next season with its GT3 Mustang, entering a two-car factory effort (that will be managed by Multimatic) in GTD Pro and making customer cars available in the GT Daytona category.

That increases the likelihood of seeing more NASCAR drivers crossing over to IMSA. Cindric has been the only full-time Cup driver in the Rolex 24 at Daytona the past two years, but Ford Performance global director Mark Rushbrook has said the GT3 Mustang will provide more opportunities.

Ford has used its GT4 Mustang as a NASCAR driver development tool in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge with Harrison Burton and Zane Smith combining to win the season opener at Daytona International Speedway in January.

“We’re excited about the Next Gen car and the new architecture there and the similarities between that car and GT3 and even GT4 cars,” Rushbrook said at the announcement of the Ford GT3 program in January 2022 at Daytona. “We think it’s a great opportunity and to do be able to do that in a 24-hour race and get NASCAR drivers even more time is something we need to consider taking advantage of that opportunity.”

Given his sports car background, Cindric probably still would be in the Rolex 24 regardless. He has eight IMSA starts since the 2017 season opener at Daytona, racing a Lexus RCF GT3 and Mercedes-AMG GT3 in the GT category. The 2022 Daytona 500 winner made his second LMP2 start this year with Rick Ware Racing.

But Cindric’s preference naturally would be in a Ford, particularly with sports car racing enjoying convergence and crossovers in both GT and prototype racing.

“It’s an exciting time in GT racing, just as it is now for prototype racing with a lot of new regulations and manufacturers building new GT3 cars,” he said. “And also the opportunity with WEC (the World Endurance Championship) and Le Mans and how that all lines up for that category of car. It’s definitely an exciting time. I want to be as much of a part of that as possible.”

Though those odds seemingly will increase with multiple Ford entries in the Rolex 24 field next year, Cindric said NASCAR drivers still have to put in the networking to land rides as he has in recent years.

“Now how (the GT3 Mustang) relates to specifically NASCAR drivers and how often they want to be in the Rolex, could it be an influence? Absolutely, as far as the tie-in with the manufacturer,” Cindric said. “But the challenge and the drive and the logistics of getting an opportunity for a race like the Rolex 24 will be just as challenging as it always is to find your one-off ride for the race. At least from my experience, that’s what I still anticipate.”

It turned out the “mystery” test driver wasn’t from NASCAR (Farley revealed the driver to be 24 Hours of Le Mans winner Joey Hand after a fan asked whether it was Joey Logano).

But Cindric believes there could be more Cup drivers — and perhaps himself — behind the wheel of Mustang GT3s in the future.

“There’s definitely more of a pathway than I think there would be before as far as Ford drivers are concerned,” he said. “Hopefully, I’ll get the opportunity to drive that thing. It’s obviously a great looking car. That’s the first box you’ve got to check. And it’s cool (to have) a guy like Jim Farley, no doubt he’s a racer just as much as he is steering the ship for Ford. It’s cool to see he’s just as excited as the rest of us about it.”