Scott McLaughlin learned “an absolute tonne” in his IndyCar Series debut and says he’s well placed for a strong return to the St Petersburg streets in 2021.
Off the back of a fifth place in this year’s Supercheap Auto Bathurst 1000, McLaughlin flew from Australia to the United States to make his competitive debut in the single-seater series.
The 27-year-old set the 10th fastest time in the sole 90-minute practice session in his first hit-out in the #3 entry by Team Penske. The Kiwi went on to qualify 21st after struggling to get the softer compound tyre up to temperature.
McLaughlin and the team opted for a three-stop strategy, allowing the Kiwi to run at maximum pace and avoid fuel saving.
Speaking with Speedcafe.com, McLaughlin said he was happy with his pace as he approached the halfway point.
“Our plan was always for me to get out of the traffic, out in clean air for me to learn,” said McLaughlin.
“We were always leaning toward that three-stop strategy because I didn’t have to save fuel and I could just use it as a big test session and that was working really well.
“The first couple of laps I held my own and then Marco (Andretti) got past me and it got pretty hairy there.
“I was on the black (hard compound) tyre and all the guys around me were on red (soft compound) tyre.
“Once the black tyre warmed up and got going, I was definitely starting to come on strong and they pitted me early because I was getting held up by (Max) Chilton.
“When I came out, I was in clean air, so it was just push, push, push. I was able to tag along with (Felix) Rosenqvist for the next stint basically and we were punching out some pretty good lap times, which was helping us.
“We jumped a few people in the pits and we were looking really good. Our race pace on the red tyre was really strong.
“I was pretty happy with that and made some moves. I used push-to-pass. I think I passed three or four cars, which is really cool and had a lot of fun doing that.”
“Then the caution came out when I had been in the groove for the last 20 laps. Then it was caution after caution after caution, and then the problem I had.
“So it was a bit unfortunate how it all ended, but I learned an absolute tonne in that first half of the race, which only bodes me well for next year, for sure.”
McLaughlin’s day was brought to a premature end when he spun out of the race just shy of the halfway mark.
That came on the third restart of the day on Lap 47. On cold tyres, McLaughlin drove deep into Turn 1 and into the side of Marco Andretti, spinning to the inside of the corner.
With nowhere to go, Dutch driver Rinus VeeKay ran into the stranded Team Penske pilot.
VeeKay was able to continue. However, in the confusion of the melee, McLaughlin was told his day was done despite having only a puncture and minor front wing damage.
As it turned out, McLaughlin would have been able to continue had he known the correct procedure to get his car restarted.
“It was a bit of a mix of me kind of maybe not knowing the protocol and not understanding the officials,” said McLaughlin.
“(I got) the signal that I was done, but later we found out that the IndyCar officials really wanted to get the race going and were worried about delaying the caution anymore if we blew that right front to pieces down the straightaway or something like that – that would have delayed the caution even more. They’re quite strict on the TV times here. It is what it is.”
McLaughlin says he’s already eying the first event of 2021, which takes place on March 7 on the same part-airfield part-street circuit.
In between now and the start of next season, McLaughlin will conduct a winter testing programme with Team Penske on road courses and ovals.
“Yeah, it’s not a bad spot for me to start,” said McLaughlin.
“I’ll know what to expect when I go to the street track and which is exciting. And for me to know that we’re going to go back there straight away, it’s a good thing.
“Knowing that I’ve got the time to test them and learn the car even more in this period it’s going to be very beneficial.
“I certainly think if I could’ve qualified today or again tomorrow I’d definitely be better or have a bit more confidence, like I said, in the proximity to walls and what the car is like at the limit.
“Just looking at my footage, you could see, I was just building up to the mid-corner speed and trusting the aerodynamics, every lap.
“For me, it was just a learning weekend. I learned plenty. It was fantastic.”