INSIGHT: What’s behind McLaughlin’s IndyCar call-up

Images courtesy of Team Penske

INSIGHT: What’s behind McLaughlin’s IndyCar call-up

Insights & Analysis

INSIGHT: What’s behind McLaughlin’s IndyCar call-up

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Following his 2017 Rolex 24 At Daytona win, IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship ace Ricky Taylor received an interesting call from Team Penske. The Cadillac DPi-V.R driver, a native Floridian from the greater Orlando area, was asked to head down to Miami-Homestead Speedway and take part in a test with Penske’s IndyCar outfit.

Weeks after the overall victory at Daytona, Taylor was being strapped into Simon Pagenaud’s No. 1 Chevy where he shared the Frenchman’s car for the day on the roval circuit. Taylor’s single-seater experience was extremely limited, done at the introductory levels, and many years in the past.

Asked why the team had inserted the relative open-wheel newcomer into the test while having Pagenaud, Helio Castroneves, Will Power, and fresh addition Josef Newgarden to work with, the team explained away Taylor’s Homestead presence with a note about wanting to get an extra opinion on changes to the braking system.

Taylor’s test, for the sake of clarity, took place in Pagenaud’s car, splitting time with the defending series champion whose reputation for technical feedback is among the best IndyCar has ever known. Simply put, the day Simon Pagenaud needs a sports car driver to evaluate his IndyCar brakes is the day the 2019 Indy 500 winner announces his retirement. This leads to Wednesday’s announcement of two-time, defending Australian Supercars champion Scott McLaughlin being confirmed for IndyCar’s open test in the No. 2 Team Penske Chevy and his race debut in May at the Indianapolis Grand Prix, where he’ll fill the road course seat normally occupied by Helio Castroneves.

Ignoring the ‘brake test’ angle, Taylor was brought to Homestead in February of 2017 as part of an evaluation for Penske’s upcoming — but unannounced — return to sports cars in 2018 with Acura. Not only did Taylor lap the roval at speeds that were close to Penske’s established stars, but he also impressed the team with his demeanor and chassis feedback. Later that year, Acura Team Penske was launched in IMSA’s DPi category and guess who was confirmed as one of its lead drivers…

Whether or not it was intended simply to be a “reward,” McLaughlin’s strong form in his Sebring IndyCar test set more things in motion.

This takes us to last month at the Sebring short course where McLaughlin, as the team suggested, was getting his first run in an Indy car as a reward and thanks for success he’d delivered Down Under for DJR Team Penske. Knowing how The Captain doesn’t spend his racing dollars on fun, McLaughlin’s test, where he finished a few tenths of a second behind reigning Indy Lights champion Oliver Askew’s Arrow McLaren SP entry, had all the markings of another ‘brake test.’ With his upcoming IndyCar debut now confirmed, we can start to ponder the Taylor-esque future possibilities of where the relationship could go.

We know the New Zealander is committed to Supercars for 2020, which runs from late February through early December, so barring next week’s visit to COTA and his IMS appearance in May between Supercar events, anything more serious in IndyCar would likely wait until after McLaughlin is finished going for three championships in a row.

Timing is the great question for Team Penske and its 26-year-old phenom. Penske veteran Will Power will be 39 by the end of the season, and with a need for a new contract on the horizon, it’s hard to say what the future holds for the 2014 IndyCar champion and 2018 Indy 500 winner. Pagenaud’s recent success at Indy has the 2016 title winner riding a high with Penske; he turns 36 in May, and is known to have multiple suitors interested in his services, which could make for a compelling silly season.

And there’s Penske’s Josef Newgarden who, with two championships in hand and youth on his side at 29, has a long runway ahead with Penske. After moving Castroneves from IndyCar to IMSA in 2018 and trimming from four full-time IndyCar entries to three, Penske has been firm on sticking with its trio of Chevys. It means that unless Penske changes course and adds that fourth car back to the mix, plucking McLaughlin from Supercars and placing him in IndyCar would require a seat to be vacated.

Three cars, three stars: Newgarden, Power and Pagenaud. Image by Michael Levitt/LAT

All provided, of course, McLaughlin measures up against his teammates, and the beasts at Andretti Autosport, Chip Ganassi Racing, and the other top IndyCar squads at Spring Training and the Indy GP.

There’s no guarantee the DJR Team Penske star will transition to IndyCar — his results will drive that decision. But it’s clear the series’ most successful team is thinking ahead and readying itself for the inevitable changes that age or greater opportunities will bring for some of its current IndyCar roster.

Just as McLaughlin’s Sebring test answered the first question for Penske, COTA will be a telling experience for the Kiwi, who raced on the short version of the circuit when the V8 Supercars made their one and only appearance at the Texan road course in 2013.

If he isn’t among the slowest during the opening session next Tuesday, it will be a surprise, but the greater surprise will come if he’s still towards the bottom of the time sheets by the end of Wednesday. McLaughlin’s results from COTA will give an indicator of what to expect at the Indy GP and if he’s anywhere near the top 10 at its conclusion, it’s easy to imagine a scenario where more open weekends between Supercar events are used to start the education process on ovals.

Sure, there’s a lot of ‘ifs’ to consider, and McLaughlin has plenty to prove. But make no mistake: Like Taylor’s Homestead test that’s turned into three seasons of IMSA with Penske, the Sebring test, Spring Training, and the Indy GP are far from random decisions by the Kiwi’s big boss. Roger Penske doesn’t do random.

If the speed and aptitude is on display as expected, McLaughlin’s career is in for a major change, possibly as soon as 2021. The Captain, and McLaughlin’s many fans, are about to find out if a reconfigured IndyCar line-up is in the cards.

 

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