McLaughlin deserves Rookie title, but his aim is far higher

Scott McLaughlin should clinch IndyCar’s Rookie of the Year title this weekend at Long Beach, but he’s more interested in the overall standings, and he admits that managing his expectations has not been easy. David Malsher-Lopez reports.

McLaughlin deserves Rookie title, but his aim is far higher

He’s a nice guy, Romain Grosjean. Last Sunday, after his spectacular run to third place at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, it was pointed out to him that he was only 20 points behind Scott McLaughlin in the championship, and therefore the battle for IndyCar’s 2021 Rookie of the Year honors was still on.

Rather than point out that he had missed two races at Texas Motor Speedway, and the double-points Indianapolis 500, RoGro joked, “You’re kidding me! I didn’t pick up more than that? Bloody hell!

“It’s OK,” he went on. “Scott can have it. That’s what I said from the beginning of the year. I’m very impressed with Scott McLaughlin and his adaptation to single-seaters… I think Scott definitely is more of a rookie than I am.”

So true. As much as we were impressed with the three-time Supercars champion’s performances in IndyCar’s virtual simulator battles 15 months ago as COVID delayed real racing, and as much as we were wowed by his P3 time around Circuit of The Americas in Spring Training, we wondered if the Team Penske-Chevrolet newcomer would reach a certain level of competence and then plateau. Now we’re wondering just how high that plateau may yet prove to be.

His sector times during practice in last season’s finale at St. Petersburg, his official series debut, provided a true wake up call. If this guy learns how to string his best sectors together, we thought, the series has found another Robert Wickens barely two years after Fate cruelly knocked the Canadian’s life sideways. And this McLaughlin guy, unlike Wickens, doesn’t even have the pre-touring car heritage of vast open-wheel experience: almost none at all, in fact. Ten-year F1 veteran Grosjean’s point was well made: McLaughlin is a rookie not only in IndyCar but to the whole open-wheel experience.

It’s something to which the man himself seemed oblivious for a while, however. McLaughlin was to Supercars what Marc Marquez was to MotoGP over a similar time-span, and continues to hold himself to extremely high standards – too high, according to his bosses.

“I think if you asked Roger [Penske] or Tim [Cindric], they’d tell you they had to control my expectations, which has been an issue,” he told Motorsport.com. “I’m very competitive and I’ve always liked beating my teammates, so when I’m not, that upsets me. I’ll never change.

“But at the same time, that summer break helped. Since then, regardless of the results, I’ve gone into all of the races with the right mindset because my expectations of myself were in check. I realized, ‘I’m a rookie, I’m just taking it all in this year. And yeah, I’m a “pure” rookie in my first ever open-wheel experience.

“Overseas, I’ve won races, been at the front more often than not, and so this has certainly been a character-building year for me. If you win for five years in some other category and you’re at the top, deep down you’re so competitive you want to be right there as soon as you get into the next category. So I had to knuckle down with the team, pull my head in a little, and continue learning as much as I can, enjoying it as much as I can, and I'll worry about the results a little bit further down the road when I know the tracks and I fully know the car.

“So since the break, I feel like I’ve been in a really good space, dealing with the car. I feel like we’ve made some really good changes. I just need to qualify better. If I do that, I certainly believe my race pace is there or thereabouts.”

Fellow rookies Scott McLaughlin and Romain Grosjean have been impressed with each other in 2021.

Fellow rookies Scott McLaughlin and Romain Grosjean have been impressed with each other in 2021.

Photo by: Chris Owens

Those who consider learning how to race ovals as one of the more daunting aspects for an IndyCar rookie who hasn’t been through the Road To Indy program will have been impressed with McLaughlin. He made a spectacular job of his first oval races – second in the first race at Texas, right behind his former hero, Scott Dixon, and then eighth the following day. And it’s fair to say that he woulda/coulda/shoulda put the Rookie of The Year championship way beyond Grosjean’s reach with his Indy 500 performance. McLaughlin seemed set to finish somewhere between fourth and sixth, mixing it with Pato O’Ward and Ed Carpenter, but in the closing stages the #3 was given a drive-through penalty for coming into the pits a tad too fast. The result was 20th-place.

“Realistically I would have been in that front group,” he says, “because I pitted with Helio [Castroneves, winner] on the same strategy and came out 50 yards behind him. So if I hadn’t gone over the pit speed limit I’d have been right up there. It’s all ifs and buts now, but something in the top five would have been a huge amount of points. I’m not saying Grosjean hasn’t been a star – he’s had some phenomenal performances this year – but you can look at that pitlane error I made at Indy and say that’s what’s allowed him to still be in this Rookie battle. But, you know, it’s of my own doing, and that’s all part of the experience.”

Another requirement that can catch out IndyCar rookies, whatever their résumé, is the necessity for – and methods of – occasionally fuel saving while still going rapidly, but this is something McLaughlin believes he’s learning fast.

“I’m a lot more comfortable with it than I was at the start of the year, he says, “that and understanding fuel codes, what I need to do with the engine maps, and then still working the push-to-pass boost. I’ve learned that along the way.

“Am I optimal, where my teammates are? No, but I’m getting better, getting closer, and that’s what this year is for.”

What’s been toughest for McLaughlin has been qualifying, “by a country mile!” he says. And it’s not hard to see why the 76-time Supercars polesitter has struggled here. Without being able to test on Firestone’s alternate-compound tires, newbies are often caught in a severe predicament come qualifying. They know ‘the reds’ offer more grip, they and their engineers know that they need to counteract the rears being stronger than the fronts by adding a turn or two of front wing. But then it’s a matter of not only feeling that heightened grip level but also exploiting it through a dozen corners while these softer Firestones are still at their very best.

And reds heighten not only the peak lateral load and therefore increase feasible apex speed, but also provide more grip all-’round. The car can brake a tad later, the initial turn-in can be a tad faster and the driver can increase the throttle input a tad sooner exiting the corner. It’s all about judging the size of those ‘tads’.

Now imagine the rookie driver who, like his rivals, has had a chance to run one set of reds in practice but, with 25 or 26 other cars out there, has not found a really clear lap to gauge the difference this tire compound makes in every corner. Suddenly he comes into qualifying, it’s a street course so he knows going over the limit can result in impact with a tire wall or concrete, and yet a scintilla of doubt in just two or three of the 12 corners during his Q1 segment of 12 or 13 cars will leave him outside the top six who graduate to Q2…

Balancing that particular risk and reward is hard enough for the veterans. For newcomers, it can be near impossible without several races spent veering between perception-damaging underperformance and car-damaging overconfidence.

“I’ve never really had to run a different tire in the same qualifying session like we do here,” says McLaughlin. “And the sessions are so short and sharp. The biggest problem is that, if I don’t make it through to Q2, I don’t get another shot on the red tires until the race. And the experience you get there on reds isn’t really usable at the next race, because by then your car is heavy with fuel, heavy with aero downforce too, and so it has a completely different feel. Nothing you do in the race while you’re on reds is useful experience for running reds in quali next time. So if I don’t get through to Q2, I’ve lost the chance to get more qualifying experience of low fuel, light downforce on the red tire.

“When I feel comfortable with the car, we do something like I did at GP Indy in May, and we get through to the Firestone Fast Six. Now, I don’t know why that didn’t work in the second race on the Indy road course [in August], but that’s how qualifying is in IndyCar. If you don’t get everything right, you don’t get in. I’d say that’s what makes IndyCar so hard.”

McLaughlin says he does at least know what to ask for when switching from the primaries to the alternate compound tires.

With race engineer Jonathan Diuguid.

With race engineer Jonathan Diuguid.

Photo by: Barry Cantrell / Motorsport Images

“Yeah, I’ve become a lot more comfortable with that, what direction I want to go with the car,” he says. “At the start of the season my engineer [Jonathan Diuguid] was doing that for me, kinda pre-empting a change. Now I know how much difference a front-wing change is going to make, for example, or if I want a rollcenter change, or if it’s just a tire pressure change that I need, and so on.

“So like I say, the toughest thing is maximizing that new grip level that you find on a fresh set of reds.”

It wouldn’t be so tricky if everyone wasn’t also chasing a moving target: Firestone’s primaries and alternates can vary from race to race according to the track.

“Yeah, that’s the other thing!” he says. “I’m saying that qualifying’s been tough, but actually, understanding the tires has been tough to learn, too. There’s different configurations between road courses and street courses, but also between different road courses. Like at Portland, Jonathan said, ‘We’ve been on this tire at Barber, Indy and Mid-Ohio.’ OK, it’s good to have that information but at the same time it’s weird that it’s not the same for all road courses. But that’s part of the championship so I’ve got to adapt to it.”

McLaughlin takes no solace from the fact that the fine balance of meshing car setups with whichever tire construction or compound is fitted can throw even his vastly experienced teammates for a loop. Will Power, a 63-time polesitter, went through a midseason period where he and his engineer were struggling to find the sweetspot, while Josef Newgarden was shining with three straight poles at Detroit, Road America and Mid-Ohio. Then, over the last few road/street course races, things have swung the opposite way, whereby Power is back on form and Newgarden is struggling to crack the top dozen.

And then there are days like Saturday at Portland where none of the Penske quartet graduate from their Q1 segments…

“Nah, nah, I’m not going to use my teammates’ issues – or days when we as a team aren’t right up there – to explain my problems,” says McLaughlin. “There’ve been plenty of times when I’ve had a car that suited me and felt good and I just haven’t managed to get the most of it. Sure, occasionally we’ve missed it a bit with my car or we as a team haven’t been as good as we’d like to be, but I think at any time, I can be a little bit better. And I think I am getting better.”

McLaughlin could hardly have been more impressive on his oval race debut, scoring a second and an eighth at Texas Motor Speedway.

McLaughlin could hardly have been more impressive on his oval race debut, scoring a second and an eighth at Texas Motor Speedway.

Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images

He is, and the Laguna Seca results were not representative. Last Saturday, McLaughlin topped an IndyCar session for the first time, clocking fastest time in second practice, but come Q1 he thought he heard his team call him to the pits after his sixth lap. In fact, the #3 had enough fuel to run one more flyer, and finding just 0.138sec would have seen the rookie through to Q2 by bumping out champion elect Alex Palou, who went on to qualify fourth…

McLaughlin has moved on from the aggravation of that miscue, because his speed on raceday – as has usually been the case this year – was spot on, even if that isn’t reflected in a 12th-place finish.

“Yeah, my race pace at Laguna Seca was really strong,” he agrees. “If I’d qualified further up, who knows where we might have finished? But also we took a risk when Scott Dixon spun. We thought there was going to be a yellow, so we pitted right away, but he managed to keep his car going and got out of the sandtrap himself so there was no caution. So we made our second stop early, which lengthened our third and fourth stints so we had to save fuel after that. Then we still might have been on for a better result but I blew through my pitbox trying to make time – typical rookie error!

“But like you say, my laptimes were good and I was able to pass cars. It was a race where I felt, ‘Man, I actually belong here.’ Like I said, at Nashville, Portland, Gateway and now Laguna, I’ve felt really, really strong and at-one with the car. I’m really excited for Long Beach. It’s not a place I’ve been to before obviously, and most of the other guys have, but… we’ll see what we’ve got.”

And that Rookie of the Year battle?

“Look, I’ve done three more races than Grosjean so I don’t want to lose it, just from that perspective!” he admits. “But honestly, until people started mentioning it, I hadn’t been focused on that. I’ve been much more concerned with being at one with the car and, like I say, over the last four races I really have been. I feel good about where I am now compared with where I was at the start of the year.”

It was particularly heartening that Newgarden credited the work that McLaughlin and Diuguid carried out during the #3 car’s rookie day at Gateway with contributing to the team’s baseline setup for the race last month. It led to a 1-3-4-8 finish for Newgarden, Power, McLaughlin and Pagenaud respectively.

“Yeah, that was good because it meant that the feel of the car was right,” he says. “What I want from the car correlates to what everyone wants, and the things I’m asking for to set up the car right are the right things to ask for.

“So for me as a rookie, and someone who hadn’t raced ovals before this year, that was a nice feeling. I came out of Gateway thinking the result’s great, but to have the winner making that comment was also great. Josef didn’t have to say that; he’s a great bloke and certainly it gave me a big confidence boost, particularly for ovals. Man, I can’t wait to get back to Indy next year, and have a good go.

“But yeah, back to your question, the Rookie championship isn’t as important to me as where I’m at compared to everyone, which is 13th at the moment. I think we’re probably where the team wanted me or expected me to be in my first year, and we still have a chance to finish in the Top 10. If we can do that… man, that’s a huge goal and it’s a win for us.”

There may have been only two drivers with a realistic shot at IndyCar’s Rookie of the Year honor in 2021, but Grosjean was right – McLaughlin is way more of a rookie than he. And if, come Sunday evening, the series’ newest New Zealander has that RotY title in his grasp, he’ll have truly earned it.

A brilliant fourth place at Gateway – and the four-car Team Penske-Chevrolet's result as a whole – was symptomatic of McLaughlin's progress.

A brilliant fourth place at Gateway – and the four-car Team Penske-Chevrolet's result as a whole – was symptomatic of McLaughlin's progress.

Photo by: Barry Cantrell / Motorsport Images

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