The three-time and reigning Supercars champion carried out his oval Rookie Orientation Practice at the 1.44-mile course near Dallas-Ft Worth in February 2020 and last November he carried out a further ROP test at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
However, McLaughlin comes into the 2021 NTT IndyCar Series season with just one IndyCar race under his wheels – the season finale on the streets of St. Petersburg – because of last year’s shuffling of Supercars and IndyCar schedules due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 27-year-old New Zealander will be the only fulltime rookie on the IndyCar grid this season, as both ex-Formula 1 star Romain Grosjean and ex-NASCAR legend Jimmie Johnson are set to compete only in the 13 road and street course races. Today, McLaughlin completed 233 laps of the Texas venue that will host Rounds 3 and 4 of the season, on May 1-2.
“We started the day with a really good baseline setup,” he told Motorsport.com after finishing 12th in the speed charts, “and then just tuned it from there. Most of the afternoon was traffic running.
“Setup-wise, I didn’t start off too far away from the other boys [Penske teammates Simon Pagenaud, Will Power and Josef Newgarden]. Pretty much straight away I got up to speed and then I was asking for more front wing. We’d done quite a lot of work in the simulator so I felt pretty strong about where we were.
“I felt really at home pretty quickly. We’d done quite a lot with driver-fit, trying to help me feel more comfortable in the car, so that just helps speed up the whole process too.”
McLaughlin said he has made a lot of progress since his initial foray onto an oval at TMS last year.
“I got up to speed a lot quicker, within two or three laps,” he remarked, “and that’s just because I understand the speed now, I’ve done laps at Indy.
“I’m still attacking it with respect and understanding that things can go wrong, but I was just having a lot of fun! You know, it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do – try something different – and that’s the whole reason why we’ve made this move. This is the first step in that process – oval running, something I’ve never done before – and I’m really enjoying it.”
McLaughlin ran in the all-yellow Pennzoil livery that he will carry on his #3 Penske in May’s 105th running of the Indianapolis 500. It’s a colorscheme made famous by Team Penske’s four-time Indy 500 winner and three-time Indy car champion Rick Mears, who drove those colors to Victory Lane in 1984 and ’88.
McLaughlin said that Mears, who has been Penske’s driver adviser since he quit the cockpit in 1992, had been a big help through the oval learning process – particularly with the peculiarity of turn-in point for Turn 1 at TMS.
“Thankfully, I’ve got Rick Mears helping me, so I understood about timing [the turn-in] and how long it was going to take,” said the rookie. “That’s one of the things I like about oval racing – the details and intricacies. You’ve really got to start the turn early and how you start the turn is how you end it. I really enjoy how precise you have to be and I can only imagine what it’s like on a quali lap, especially at Indy. I’m super-pumped.
“Rick was just awesome all day. Anything I wanted to talk about, even olden days stuff, he was there. He’s a really cool guy who knows how to simplify everything when he’s explaining it.”
The group running allowed McLaughlin to experience the effects of running in dirty air – the tow down the straights but then the reduced downforce in corners – and he said he was surprised to discover that he’d already gained some useful knowledge from his eight years in Supercars.
“Doing the traffic running all afternoon, I had a couple of little moments, caught out by the wash,” he said. “I was in a pack with [Alexander] Rossi and Will [Power] and I turned in a little bit too late behind Rossi, got caught up in the wake and pushed out wide.
“But that’s good, that’s all stuff I’ve got to learn and the important thing is I never made the same mistake again. It’s all about getting the nose in and getting clean air on the wing. Any clean air you can get on that wing is going to help. And because Supercars have become so aero dependent I’d actually started to learn already how to get the front left or front right out into clear air to help it turn in, so that wasn’t too foreign.
“But obviously with IndyCar, it happens a whole lot faster, and in a mistake like the one I had, you think it’s not affecting you and then ‘Bang!’ you’re a whole car-width out, but 100 yards further down the road and you’re thinking, ‘Man, where did that last 100 yards go?!’
“Honestly, though, that’s awesome and I wouldn’t have it any other way. We did stints that were over 50 laps, so I got used to the fuel load going down, the grip level going down, and what you have to do to the weightjacker, the bars, and so on, to compensate. Learning all the time.”
Although Team Penske’s focus was on sending the rookie out in traffic and getting comfortable in turbulent air, McLaughlin said he also did some pitstop practice.
“The only difference with a pitstop [from roadcourse to oval] is that everything comes at you quicker. You’re coming in 15mph faster, and the steering rack is slower so that makes it more difficult pulling into your pitbox. I made a little mistake in my last stop actually, just carried too much speed, missed my turn in for the box, so I came in a little bit crossed-up. But all good.
“My communication with the boys was good… Speaking with the guys at 215mph came more natural than I thought. The pitcrew would speak to me on the front straight, and then the spotter would get back on.
“But yeah, it felt really good, and everything about the car suited me. It was just a bloody good day.”
McLaughlin talking oval technique with the best, Rick Mears.
Photo by: Team Penske