How Supercars legend McLaughlin became IndyCar’s newest star
Last Saturday, Scott McLaughlin scored his first IndyCar pole and the next day took a well deserved victory. His new race engineer Ben Bretzman explained to David Malsher-Lopez how McLaughlin turned potential into form.
Over the past dozen years, Bretzman became synonymous with Simon Pagenaud. They first worked together in 2010 at Highcroft Racing sportscar team, reunited in IndyCar for a three-year spell at what was then Sam Schmidt Motorsports (later Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports) and then moved to Team Penske together for 2015. They won the series title in 2016, the Indy 500 in 2019, and so Bretzman race engineered all 15 of Pagenaud’s IndyCar victories.
Yet when Team Penske elected to shrink its IndyCar arm from four cars to three for 2022, and Pagenaud elected to stay in open-wheel by moving to Meyer Shank Racing, Bretzman didn’t face a career dilemma, because he loves working at Penske. But he admits it was “hard not to get emotional because it was the end of an era for both Simon and I.”
In the mean time, he had become very impressed with this McLaughlin guy, who over a four-year-spell in the DJR Team Penske squad in Supercars had earned three championships and 48 wins including the Bathurst 1000. In 2019, in what would prove to be his penultimate season Down Under, McLaughlin came over to North Carolina to try out Team Penske’s simulator, drove a virtual IndyCar on the virtual Indianapolis GP road course – and was a tad quicker than Will Power and Josef Newgarden!
Scott McLaughlin, Team Penske Chevrolet
Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images
Recalls Bretzman: “I had first met Scotty when him and Fabian [Coulthard, then teammate at DJR Team Penske] came over as guests to the Indy 500, but I didn’t really think much of it, because we’re just so focused on preparing for that race. But we were constantly getting emails of how often the team was winning Supercars races with Scott, so I knew he was really good.
“Then he came over to visit the raceshop in 2019, and because I operate the DIL [driver-in-loop sim] program it was down to me to get him up to speed in the sim, and his talent level was very obvious. And yeah, I’m pretty sure it’s true that he was fastest. Will in particular thought that was very cool, because he’s got some Supercars experience and knows how different the cars are.”
Although Penske’s enthusiasm to run McLaughlin in IndyCar had not yet matched McLaughlin’s enthusiasm to make the transfer, Penske had promised to give his latest multi-title champ a try out in an IndyCar if he won the Bathurst 1000 for DJR Team Penske. That job done, a test date was announced mid-December 2019, and four weeks later, there was the tin-top ace at Sebring, pounding out 140 laps, burning up his unprepared neck muscles, but impressing his teammates as well as Penske legend and advisor Rick Mears. A couple of days later, president Tim Cindric admitted the team was considering running McLaughlin as an extra entry in an IndyCar race that wouldn’t clash with his Supercars commitments and that he hoped also to put him in a car for preseason Spring Training at Circuit of The Americas.
Over the next 30 days, it was confirmed that McLaughlin would make his race debut in May’s Grand Prix of Indianapolis and that yes, he’d take part in the COTA test. Jonathan Diuguid, Penske’s sportscar mastermind who also has a strong open-wheel background, would be his race engineer. But even so, McLaughlin stunned everyone by going third fastest, just half a second slower than pacesetting teammate Power around a 20-turn 3.4-mile course.
“I was very taken aback,” chuckles Bretzman for whom Pagenaud was sixth fastest that day. “The driving style is so different from a Supercars to an IndyCar, and Scott adapted to it so quickly. COTA’s a really demanding track because it’s got high-speed, high-commitment sections that Scott wouldn’t be used to because Supercars simply don’t have that cornering capacity, but he also had the technique pretty much right for the slow-speed technical sections too.”
That amazing test performance at COTA saw enthusiasm for McLaughlin start to snowball.
Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images
McLaughlin then went off with Diuguid to Texas Motor Speedway, thoroughly enjoyed himself, passed his oval rookie test, and that triggered talk of maybe adding to his GP Indy commitment with an oval race, perhaps at Gateway. With his confidence climbing and enthusiasm already stratospheric, McLaughlin headed home, and then…
Nothing. COVID-19 rocked, shocked and locked the world, delays pockmarked the schedules of both Supercars and IndyCar, and even when the two series falteringly returned to action, national and international quarantine rules were by necessity so fluid that McLaughlin couldn’t risk missing a round or two of his ‘day-job’ by returning to the U.S..
Finally, after clinching his third Supercars title, there was enough flexibility in travel restrictions for him to return to America and take part in the much-delayed IndyCar race at St. Petersburg. His chances would be compromised by having only one practice session before qualifying, but he ended that practice mere hundredths of a second behind Newgarden and Power.
A mistake on his flying lap in qualifying left McLaughlin near the back of the grid, and he’d retire from the race just before half-distance after a minor misjudgment led to damage caused by contact with a couple of rivals. But his was the most forgivable of the many driving errors made that day because the rest were made by series veterans. Earlier that weekend, Team Penske had confirmed it would be expanding to four full-time IndyCar entries to accommodate McLaughlin for 2021, and from the evidence we’d seen, that made sense. Given the lack of test days available, he’d face a major learning curve and, given the prominence of the team and the quality of his teammates, he’d be under a harsh spotlight – but there was more than enough evidence for all involved to feel positive about the prospect.
Second place on his oval race debut at Texas Motor Speedway was the highlight of McLaughlin's rookie IndyCar year.
Photo by: Barry Cantrell / Motorsport Images
McLaughlin never looked out of his depth through his rookie season, and at times he looked startlingly good – finishing second in his first ever oval race at Texas Motor Speedway, finishing fourth in his first ever short-oval race at Gateway. But after getting through to the Firestone Fast Six in May’s Grand Prix of Indianapolis, he grew increasingly frustrated that he couldn’t replicate that form on other road and street courses, due to unfamiliarity with Firestone’s softer alternate-compound red-sidewalled tires.
Late in the season, he explained to Motorsport.com, “I’ve never really had to run a different tire in the same qualifying session like we do here. And the sessions are so short and sharp. The biggest problem is that if I don’t make it through to Q2, I don’t get another shot on the red tires until the race. And the experience you get there on reds isn’t really usable at the next event, because by then your car is heavy with fuel, heavy with aero downforce, and so it has a completely different feel. Nothing you do in a race while you’re on reds is useful experience for running reds in quali next time. So if I don’t get through to Q2, I’ve lost the chance to get more experience of low-fuel/light-downforce on the red tire.
“When I feel comfortable with the car, we do something like I did at GP Indy, and we get through to the Fast Six. Now, I don’t know why that didn’t work in the second race on the Indy road course [in August], but that’s how qualifying is in IndyCar. If you don’t get everything right, you don’t get in.”
Bretzman was watching McLaughlin’s struggles somewhat from afar. Yes, all four Penske driver/engineer combos were debriefing in the same engineering trailer, but his priority had to be Pagenaud.
“You could see Scott’s potential, 100 percent,” he says. “Certain corners on certain tracks he’d be our fastest guy, even though sometimes it was the first time he’d seen the racetrack. He was figuring out what it takes to make lap time, to find speed. He just needed more experience, learning the tracks, understanding the tires, because it’s all about the details at this point in IndyCar because it’s so tight.”
With Diuguid switching back to helm Penske’s sportscar squad and the IndyCar team reducing to three cars, Bretzman hoped he’d be working with McLaughlin in 2022.
“We had started golfing together at the beginning of last year and had developed a good rapport,” he says. “And work-wise, I knew what kind of talent level Scott had and could see we just needed to focus him in a couple of areas. It just seemed to make sense for me to race engineer him.
Bretzman (on left) is a firm believer in making a car stable and consistent in order to build his driver's confidence. Mission accomplished at St. Pete!
Photo by: Richard Dole / Motorsport Images
“It was an interesting situation though, with only one test day at Sebring available to us pre-season and a change in the street course tire…”
For 2022, Firestone has increased the gap between its primary and alternate compounds for the temporary tracks by making the alternates softer, more grippy. As usual, no teams are allowed to try these ‘reds’ in a test, so a cloud of uneasiness hung over the heads of all competitors last weekend in St. Pete. But for an engineer whose second-year driver already felt his main problem as a rookie had been extracting the most out of the reds on a flying lap, the apprehension was particularly acute.
“We spent a lot of time at the simulator,” said Bretzman, “but yes, there’s the concern of having done all this work, are we going to show up at St. Pete and the red tire is massively different from what we were running?
“But Team Penske as a group has changed a lot to the basic package this year. I’d say we’ve broadened the window of where it works best, and so it feels like we can absorb the differences made by Firestone’s new alternate tire. And in fact, it just offered more grip without really changing the balance of our car. There were cockpit adjustments that Scott had to make, but we weren’t adjusting wings when we switched from blacks to reds in qualifying.
“Part of that is down to our set up. We’ve tried to give him a very broad scope, a very consistent car, so he can build confidence in himself, really push and show the pace we know he has. We didn’t change the car much from first practice to the race because again, we wanted to give him stability and build him up, and let him go be who he is, which is an amazing racecar driver.”
Bretzman, like McLaughlin, Power and other prominent figures on Chevrolet-powered teams, credit the Bowtie’s engineers with helping ensure that improved pace from McLaughlin and Penske on street courses translated into race-winning form.
“Chevy has done a massive amount of work over the last six or seven months on helping to make the car’s easier to drive out of slower turns,” says Bretzman, “and that’s had a massive effect on how we can set up the cars. We set up the cars mechanically and aero-wise around the nature of the power delivery and Chevy’s made substantial gains there – which is incredible to me considering we’re 11 years into this engine formula!
“Scott and I spent a lot of time going over all the track sessions from last year, and the one phrase that kept coming up when he was talking about qualifying runs was ‘bad traction’. When we were coming up with a plan of how to run the cars in 2022, I told him I didn’t want to hear that again! But a large part of the progress has been Chevy helping us with driveability options that should be really good for street courses and road courses. We’re super-thankful.”
It was only after McLaughlin took pole, 0.1237sec faster than teammate and nine-time St. Pete pole-winner Power, that Bretzman thought in terms of fuel-save, and that became the #3 team’s priority in Sunday morning warm-up, but after checking out his new driver’s technique, he ceased worrying. Then there was the consideration over how to take care of Firestone’s softer reds – still an unknown quantity on heavy tanks on a coarse course in 80degF heat.
But McLaughlin was able to answer that challenge, too. Out front, he pulled a five-second gap on Herta while taking less out of his tires. It was only once the poor-starting and primary-tired Power re-passed Herta that Scotty Mac’s lead started to come down, and even then that was partly due to him hitting traffic.
“Scott just did a phenomenal job of managing every situation through the race," says Bretzman, "whether it was pulling away from Herta, absorbing pressure from Will, looking after his reds – they were still in pretty good shape when he pitted – and then dealing with the dirty air from running behind the three-stoppers, and soaking up the pressure from [Alex] Palou in the final stint. When the traffic backed him up and those two were running together, Scott knew exactly where he needed to be quick in order to not give Palou a chance to pass, and also knew which parts of the track he could save fuel.
“I mean, Scott knows how to run up front in a racecar; he had years of practicing how to lead and manage a race from his time in Supercars. The crucial thing last weekend was being able to prove he had the speed to be at the front in an IndyCar – that was important. We all believed in him and saw his potential, but getting the results and actually fulfilling that potential just adds to his confidence in himself.”
Bretzman enjoyed several magic moments with Pagenaud over the course of their 10 years together in IndyCar. Who would bet against a similar run of form with his new charger?
That first pole position was the first step in boosting Scotty Mac's belief in himself, that he could get the best out of Firestone's qualifying tires.
Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images
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