Scott McLaughlin will need something special on the streets of Long Beach if he is to become the Rookie of the Year in IndyCar racing for 2021.
McLaughlin was solid and sensible at Laguna Seca in the second-last race of the series and came home 12th.
But Romain Grosjean, his Rookie rival, was sensational as he mounted a late charge and finished third on the classic California circuit to close the gap to McLaughlin to just 20 points.
“Kidding me? I didn’t pick up more than that? Bloody hell,” he says afterwards.
Grosjean has been brilliant all year in his switch from Formula One to IndyCar, helped by a lifetime of single-seater experience that once saw the Frenchman touted as a potential world champion in grand prix racing. If he had raced the IndyCar ovals, instead of avoiding the potential danger following the life-threatening F1 crash that came at the end of his grand prix career, he would likely have been well ahead in the Rookie standings.
He is right that McLaughlin is a real Rookie as he switches from Supercars through a step-by-step transition with Team Penske. Perhaps ironically, his best finishes have been on ovals.
Colton Herta was unbeatable at Laguna, leading all but four laps as championship contender Alex Palou ran home second in front of a fast-closing Grosjean. The IndyCar series crown now becomes a three-way battle at Long Beach between Palou, Pato O’Ward and Josef Newgarden.
At Laguna, it looked for a time as if McLaughlin had made the big breakthrough when he was quickest in the final practice session. But a mistake in qualifying left him only 16th and he had a typical midfield battle and could only improve by four spots at the chequered flag.
Before the start he is optimistic as he tweets: “I made a bad mistake at crunch time today in qualifying. I feel bad for my team, but I’ve got a chance to make it up to them tomorrow. Onwards and upwards, as my old boss/friend Dick Johnson says, you only get a sore neck looking back!”
After the race, he is less happy – particularly with a bungled pitstop.
“A couple of strategy calls didn’t go our way. But then I made a complete balls-up here into the pits and slid through the box and cost us three or four spots,” he says.
“We were basically eighth or ninth today and we finished 12th.”
As always, McLaughlin was focussed on what he learned at Laguna.
“For me, in my broad scheme of things, this is probably a really good weekend for me. I passed probably the most cars I ever have. I gained seven spots from the start and was having a lot of fun.
“Onwards and upwards.”
Grosjean, in contrast, rocketed through the field from 13th and even led for four laps – the only driver to head Herta – during the pitstop sequences. He must now be focussed on trying to score his first IndyCar win at Long Beach.
And the Rookie of the Year title?
“I saw the trophy this morning, it looks good,” he says.
“It’s okay. Scott can have it. That’s what I said from the beginning of the year. I’m very impressed with Scott McLaughlin. His adaptation to single seater.
“I think Scott definitely is more rookie than I am.”