INDIANAPOLIS — Scott McLaughlin knows that there’s a tall task to be had in 2021. The NTT IndyCar Series is not an easy series to compete in. Arguably, it’s the toughest in the world. So, to come here as a rookie this season and challenge for wins against some of the best drivers on the planet is going to be no easy feat. That’s why McLaughlin has tempered his goals for the upcoming year.
“I’m very competitive, but I’m realistic at the same time,” said McLaughlin. “I’ve got a lot to learn. Yeah, I’d love to try and beat them (his Team Penske teammates) a few times throughout the season. I’m not putting off that I can’t. I think if I feel the car and work with my engineer well enough and get better and better, there’s no reason why we can’t be at the same pace as those guys, if not better.
“But I’m very lucky in that way. I’m trying to soak everything up like a sponge, learn their data, learn how they drive the car, what does Will do, what does Josef do, what does Simon do? They’re three very different guys in terms of driving style. I got best of both worlds. I can pick sort of what I want to do, how I want to feel the car kind of thing.
“Look, it is a learning year. I’m being realistic. I know it’s going to take time. Those guys got experience. Everyone has experience here. I’d love to — yeah, for sure, my competitive instinct will kick on at some point for sure.”
Luckily for McLaughlin, the first few races of 2021 he’s actually been on the track before. He’s tested multiple times at Barber. He did his ROP at Indy. He’s even raced at St. Pete. Does that give him at least some comfort?
“Yeah, it’s definitely nice to head to a track that you know,” he told me. “For me, heading to Sebring, for instance, just for the test, that was one of my first INDYCAR tests. To turn around there about a year later, actually get into it and know where everything goes, know some of the bumps, the curbs, dropoffs off the curbs, stuff like that, just little things you don’t know when you turn up to a racetrack for the first time was invaluable.
“I think for me right now, heading to Barber after testing there twice now, then St. Pete obviously racing there, it’s a big thing for me in my first foray into INDYCAR racing. It’s not going to be like that all year obviously, so I really have to take that in my stride, try to accelerate my learning as much as I can in this period for sure.”
McLaughlin says that he’s not just doing this as a one-off. This is something he’s preparing to do for a long time, so 2021 is all about learning and helping for 2022 and beyond. In saying that, he knows that there’s still a lot to get used to from that one start last year in St. Pete.
“For instance, even just driving a turbo car,” McLaughlin said on what he still can get used to. “I’ve never really done that before in Australia. For me, I’m learning boost levels, aero maps, trusting aero, aerodynamics through corners and stuff. It’s taken me a little bit of time at Barber. Barber is quite difficult. I put Barber at the same commitment level that you need at Bathurst. It’s very tough.
“To build up and not make a mistake in that period, it’s a tough thing there. I’m slowly getting used to what I want from the car, what I can ask for, what I can’t ask for. That’s just going to keep getting better and better throughout the season.
“I think for me it’s learning the pit stops and stuff were very big for me. Like cold tires, hot tires coming in, cold tires going out. Obviously driving the red tire was a good little introduction for me. It’s one thing that I probably struggled with at St. Pete was just getting the most out of that tire. Unfortunately we can’t test on that. That’s all going to be race miles on that tire to get used to it.
“But, yeah, just understanding little things like how to get from the hotel to the track, where the pits are, what it’s like. I didn’t even realize I had a scooter when I got there to get from the pits. Stuff like that. It’s learning not only on-track stuff but off-track stuff to make me comfortable, settle into the series quick.
“I’m enjoying it so far. I’m really excited to head back to St. Pete. I love that race circuit, love the vibe there. Hopefully we can have an amount of fans that makes it really cool.”
“This year for me is a learning season. I’ve got time. I’m planning to be here for a long time, not a short time. Just got to make sure I get through this year, learn the tracks, learn the car, come back stronger, even better in 2022 as well.”