It’s been a big weekend for Kiwi racer Scott McLaughlin at the start of his first full season in the prestigious Indycar Series in the USA.
Scott has been trying to break into the big American scene for some time and was recently given the chance to shine by the man who owned his Australian V8 Supercar team, Roger Penske.
Penske runs some of the biggest, and most successful race teams in history and runs only the very best drivers. Scott ran one race during last year’s aborted season but has shown great promise in pre-season testing, recently completing a massive 195 laps at the famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway in anticipation of next months Indy 500.
Heading into qualifying yesterday for the Honda Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsport Park, Scott was sounding a little nervous but, as Kiwi athletes are wont to do, he knuckled down and got into it.
Barber is a fantastic road course on the outskirts of Birmingham, Alabama, and is the sort of track that McLaughlin is more familiar with. Very picturesque and very challenging; Scott tested there recently too so at least he hits the ground running.
Indycar qualifying is done with two groups going out, the fastest six drivers from each group then progressing to the top 12 who go out again. The slowest six of that group are then eliminated and the ‘Fast Six’ then head back out to see who will claim pole position.
Scott was in the first group out and put in a solid first few laps but after coming in to change tyres just before the final shot at setting a hot time, his car couldn’t be started again due to a faulty starter (which is a separate motor-driven shaft which is inserted into the rear of the gearbox to turn the motor over).
Unusually for Penske who are normally all over such things, they did not have a spare starter in the pitlane. Scott was forced to sit for two to three minutes while a crew member ran to get a spare from the paddock, but that person couldn’t get back in time.
Fortunately for Scott a rival team ran across and started his car, allowing him to get out for one final flying lap. This was fortuitous as Scott was able to smash out a quick one, ending up fourth fastest in the group, securing himself a place in the Top 12 and outqualifying a few big names such as Indy 500 champs Simon Pagenaud and Takuma Sato, ex-champion Ryan Hunter-Reay and the man who is probably the world’s most experienced ‘Rookie’, Nascar’s Jimmie Johnson.
Rumour has it that McLaughlin has trimmed down a full 16 kg in his quest to rise to the top of Indycar, knowing that it is a much more physical game than what he is used to, with these cars reaching speeds of nearly 400 km/h and pulling over 5G’s on some tracks!
Fellow Kiwi racer and current Indycar Champ Scott Dixon went out in the second group but his runs were compromised firstly by racer James Hinchcliffe, who ran into a wall, then by Dixon’s own teammate, Swedish ex-F1 driver Marcus Ericsson who left the road becoming beached which forced the session to be stopped.
Dixon himself had to bring all his skills to play when he very nearly crashed while pushing for a fast time, locking all four wheels in a very tricky part of the circuit in a lurid slide which flat-spotted all his tyres. Despite this, Dixon still managed to pull off P5 for that group and also progressed to the Top 12.
Due to the damaged set of tyres Dixon had to wait and just have one crack at setting a pole time which naturally hampered his attempt. Dixon eventually set a very reasonable time ending up in P5 again and will start the race from that position.
McLaughlin meanwhile was unable to improve with a skittish car and settled for P12. His goal for the session was to make it into the Top 12 so he claimed success, but you could tell he would have preferred to be a little higher.
Pole position was won by a young Mexican Pato O’ward who is an up and coming talent who particularly shines on road courses such as Barber.
The race is on Sky Sport 5 (channel 55), with coverage starting at 7 this morning, and promises to be a cracker. Commentary and scoring can usually be found on the Indycar website too.
Here’s hoping both Kiwi lads can put in a good showing and fly the NZ flag with pride. I’ll keep you posted.
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