When it was pointed out to Romain Grosjean after his spectacular run to third place at Laguna Seca last Sunday that he was only 20 points behind Scott McLaughlin in the IndyCar championship, and therefore the Rookie of the Year battle was still on, the Frenchman was gracious in his response.
Rather than point out that he had missed two races at Texas Motor Speedway, and the double-points Indianapolis 500, the Dale Coyne driver was quick to raise the scale of his Penske counterpart’s challenge in switching from the Australian Supercars tin-top series.
“It’s OK, Scott can have it,” he said. “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 the three-time Supercars champion impressed with his performances in IndyCar’s virtual simulator battles 15 months ago, and by setting the third fastest time in testing at the Circuit of The Americas in February 2020, it was hard to tell whether the Kiwi would reach a certain level of competence and then plateau. Now, the biggest question is just how high that plateau may yet prove to be.
His sector times during practice for his official series debut at St. Petersburg last season provided a true wake up call – if he could learn to string his best sectors together, McLaughlin threatened to have a similar impact on the series to that of previous rookie standout Robert Wickens in 2018.
And unlike the Wickens, McLaughlin didn’t have the pre-touring car heritage of vast open-wheel experience. Almost none at all, in fact. F1 veteran Grosjean’s point was well made, as 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 tells Autosport. “I’m very competitive and I’ve always liked beating my team-mates. So when I’m not, that upsets me. I’ll never change.
The respect between fellow rookies McLaughlin and Grosjean has been mutual this year
Photo by: Chris Owens
“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 realised, ‘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.
“You can look at that pitlane error I made at Indy and say that’s what’s allowed [Grosjean] to still be in this rookie battle. But, you know, it’s of my own doing, and that’s all part of the experience” Scott McLaughlin
“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.”
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 compatriot Scott Dixon, and then eighth the following day. And it’s fair to say that he could have put the rookie title way beyond Grosjean’s reach with his Indianapolis 500 performance. A likely top six finish was dashed by a late drive-through penalty for pitlane speeding that dumped him back to 20th position.
“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.”
McLaughlin’s speed on pitlane cost him a strong finish on his Indy 500 debut that would have put the rookie title out of Grosjean’s reach
Photo by: Sam Cobb / Motorsport Images
Another requirement that can catch out IndyCar rookies 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 team-mates 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” 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 ‘red’ tyres, newcomers often struggle to exploit their heightened grip level through a dozen corners while they are still at their peak.
Allowing drivers to brake later, turn-in faster and increase the throttle input sooner on corner exit, it’s a matter of fine margins – especially so on a street circuit where going over the limit can carry a heavy penalty, yet a hint of hesitancy can make the difference between making the top six who progress to the second segment of qualifying and a Q1 exit.
Balancing that particular risk and reward is hard enough for the veterans, let alone a driver in McLaughlin’s position veering between perception-damaging underperformance and car-damaging overconfidence.
“I’ve never really had to run a different tyre 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 tyres 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 tyre.
Lack of running on the softer compound ‘red’ tyre has been a frequent bugbear for McLaughlin in his rookie year
Photo by: Chris Jones
“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 now does know what to ask for when switching from the primaries to the alternate compound tyres and reckons he’s “become a lot more comfortable” in asking for precise changes from engineer Jonathan Diuguid, who at the start of the year “was doing that for me, kinda pre-empting a change”.
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.
“I’m not going to use my team-mates’ issues – or days when we as a team aren’t right up there – to explain my problems. 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” Scott McLaughlin
“Qualifying’s been tough, but actually, understanding the tyres has been tough to learn too,” he says. “There’s different configurations between road courses and street courses, but also between different road courses.
“At Portland, Jonathan said, ‘We’ve been on this tyre 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 set-ups with whichever tyre construction or compound is fitted can throw even his vastly experienced team-mates Josef Newgarden, Will Power and Simon Pagenaud. At Portland, none of the Penske quartet graduated from their Q1 segments.
“I’m not going to use my team-mates’ 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.”
Mix-up with his engineer in qualifying led to another Q1 exit at Laguna Seca, albeit by a slender margin
Photo by: Jake Galstad / Motorsport Images
Indeed, he is getting better, and his latest Q1 exit at Laguna Seca wasn’t especially representative of his upward trend. Having topped an IndyCar session for the first time with the fastest time in second practice, McLaughlin mistakenly thought he heard his team call him to the pits after his sixth lap. In fact, he had enough fuel for one more flyer. Finding just 0.138s would have put him through to Q2 and bumped out champion-elect Alex Palou, who went on to qualify fourth…
McLaughlin has moved on from the aggravation of that miscue, because his race pace was spot on, even if that isn’t reflected by finishing 12th. Gambling on a yellow when Dixon spun into the gravel by pitting immediately, only for the six-time champion to dig himself out and and the race to stay green, ultimately lengthened his third and fourth stints and required him to fuel save before “I blew through my pitbox trying to make time – typical rookie error!” Still, he was encouraged.
“My laptimes were good and I was able to pass cars,” he continues. “It was a race where I felt, ‘Man, I actually belong here.’ 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.”
As for the rookie of the year battle with Grosjean, McLaughlin admits he hasn’t been giving it much thought.
“I’ve done three more races than Grosjean so I don’t want to lose it, just from that perspective!” he says. “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 to hear Gateway winner Newgarden credit the work that McLaughlin and Diuguid carried out during his rookie day at the Illinois oval with contributing to the team’s baseline setup for the race last month. All four Penske cars finished inside the top eight, with McLaughlin an encouraging fourth.
“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.
A strong run to fourth at Gateway underscored McLaughlin’s progress and growing role in the team
Photo by: Barry Cantrell / Motorsport Images
“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.
“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… 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 honour in 2021, but Grosjean was right – McLaughlin is much more of a rookie than he. And if, come Sunday evening, the series’ newest New Zealander has that title in his grasp, he’ll have truly earned it.
McLaughlin grew up watching Dixon win in IndyCars and now is New Zealand’s next big hope
Photo by: Barry Cantrell / Motorsport Images