A highly unique contingent of rookies combine to form one of many interconnected stories of the new Verizon IndyCar Series season and are being introduced to the series in conjunction with the new car.
It’s the perfect time to be a rookie, the narrative goes, as it’s new for everyone.
The celebrated downforce reduction and other characteristics of the universal aero kit give validity to another narrative: that it’s tailor-made for veterans who drove similar machines that behaved in similar ways earlier in their careers. Sure, rookies aren’t tasked with discarding bad habits brought on by the high-downforce aero kits, but they also don’t have experience to fall back on when learning the new car. Their learning curve is steeper.
Just as soon as the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg weekend began, however, there was indication that the rookies won’t be relegated to the back of the field by default due to their inexperience.
Jordan King, Matheus Leist and Robert Wickens consistently reached the top 10 — or better — in the three practice sessions that led up to Saturday’s qualifying in St. Petersburg, during which they stormed to the front and earned three of the four frontmost starting positions, displaced only by seven-time St. Pete pole sitter Will Power who nearly secured his fourth pole in a row at the venue.
When considering that half of the Firestone Fast 6 group was comprised of these rookies, one may hypothesize that they faced little competition. When Fernando Alonso landed himself fifth on the grid for last year’s Indianapolis 500, that was the response from Formula One star Lewis Hamilton.
But King setting a new track record by two-hundredths of a second early in Saturday’s qualifying doesn’t mean that Power and his fellow veterans are no challenge to overcome. And Wickens swiping another St. Pete pole from Power on his last lap also can’t be equated to a new generation of drivers coming in to replace the existing competition like some sort of real-life “Cars 3” regime.
Instead, these newcomers have exceeded even their own expectations. They’re earning their results in what’s often considered the most closely fought racing series on the planet.
“I don’t think in any way (that) rookies performing discredits the level of IndyCar,” Wickens said during the post-qualifying press conference in St. Pete.
“I think there’s a good crop of rookie drivers here. Matheus Leist has been in the top five in every single session this weekend. It doesn’t mean everyone else sucks — it just means he’s doing a fantastic job. And then if you look at Jordan King and his group in Q1, he was P1 overall, beating (Alexander) Rossi — beating everyone.”
Wickens found positive meaning in the strength of rookies, aligning it with the strength of the series.
“I think the fact that there are so many rookies, if anything, should promote the series and the fact that it’s drawing interest,” the Canadian continued.
“Alonso loved it. I’m here because I love IndyCar, and I’m sure (King and Leist) will say the same thing.
“The series is on the rise, and anyone who tries to put it down, it’s because they’re probably worried about us succeeding more than them.”
In a divide more prominent now than seemingly ever given the influx of newcomers, rookies must learn a new car and a new series while the veterans are focused on remembering how to drive a car that doesn’t generate an excessive amount of downforce.
Entering the first race of 2018, it’s unclear who’s succeeding more at their respective challenges, but it’s more evident than ever that each IndyCar outing is anyone’s game.