After starring in 2020 season’s Spring Training at Circuit of The Americas and then passing his oval rookie orientation at Texas Motor Speedway later that week, McLaughlin wasn’t able to make his IndyCar debut until the 2020 season finale due to the COVID-19 pandemic and travel restrictions jumbling both the Supercars and IndyCar schedules.
However, the three-time and reigning Supercars champion made the fulltime switch to IndyCar for 2021, and has impressed despite the results being unrepresentative of his pace.
In the season-opening GP of Alabama, he qualified 12th, dodged his spinning teammate Josef Newgarden at the start and finished 11th. In St. Petersburg, he was disappointed to qualify 14th – although several teams and drivers were caught out by the knife-edge handling switch between Firestones soft and hard compounds in the humid conditions. He went on to finish 11th.
Mears, four-time Indy 500 winner and three-time IndyCar champion, told Motorsport.com that he’s been impressed with everything he’s seen from the 27-year-old New Zealander.
“If you watch St. Pete, Scott was always fighting with someone – he’ll have learned so much from that,” he commented. “He always seemed to have someone right ahead of him and someone right behind him, but he kept his cool, didn’t try anything that wasn’t going to work, and brought the car home in one piece.
“Considering he came from a very different series, he’s doing a great job. The series is so close right now so to be starting halfway up the grid is a great achievement. All he needs are miles, experience of the different tires, learning the tracks and so on.”
Mears said that he was also impressed with McLaughlin in the 34-car group test at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last month.
He recalled: “When he first went there last year [for IMS’s own Rookie Orientation Program], he had already run this place [Texas Motor Speedway] and he told me, ‘I can’t believe how different Indy is. Texas is so wide, there’s a load of different lines,’ and I said to him, ‘Yeah, and at Indy it feels like the line is this wide [pinches fingers almost together]. He said, ‘Yeah, exactly.’
“But he handled it well, kept his head in traffic, ran at the front of packs, at the back of a pack, and just tried to get as much experience of different circumstances as he could, timing his passes and so on. He’s taken onboard the fact that he just needs miles to build up his confidence.”
McLaughlin’s performances have not come as a surprise to Mears, however.
“I knew he’d get after it, from that very first test at Sebring,” remarked Mears, who scored 29 wins and 40 pole positions in his career. “That very first test, you see some drivers and they’re just fighting the car, reacting to it. But Scott, you could tell he was very quickly ahead of it, his brain was up to speed already. Even when his neck got tired in the afternoon, he was focused and still giving feedback.
“What I liked about him was that afterward, he said to the team, ‘Hey, there’s more time in the car. It’s still driving me.’ He recognized that, even though it didn’t look like it from the outside. He had the feel to tell there was more potential in the car, that he could do even better with more experience and once he had his fitness up at the right level.
“And that’s what’s happened. He’s getting quicker the more experience and miles he gets.”
Scott McLaughlin, Team Penske, Rick Mears
Photo by: Team Penske