AT SOME time before 6am on Monday morning this week, Scott McLaughlin fired into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway pit lane only to find out his Pennzoil Dallara had only limited stopping power.
In what would prove to be the theme of the race for five cars – three of them from the powerful Penske Racing organisation – a lack of rear brakes caused our Kiwi hero to very nearly lose control as he tried to slow his 900kg IndyCar down from speeds of over 350km/hr to less than 100.
In almost any other Indy 500, the resulting Penalty would have been bad news but recoverable; getting back into the fight via strategy and Safety Cars that always punctuate the drama in the biggest race in the world.
Unfortunately, the fastest ever ‘500 ran with just two interruptions all day and despite some strategic wrangling by Penske’s brainiacs, McLaughlin couldn’t quite recover enough and ultimately fell about 10 laps short on fuel of scoring a huge result.
Isn’t it remarkable, then, that the overriding feeling from those watching was disappointment?
Because really, it shouldn’t be.
We should have all looked at that and gone ‘Ah, a rookie error, they happen to the best at Indy. No one wins it on their first time. He’ll be back.’
But really, we were all gutted because as the race evolved, it felt like our man McLaughlin was a legitimate contender to place, if not win, in the biggest race in the world.
I think it’s a testament to the job that Scott has done in the first six races of the year that the overriding feeling was that he was robbed of a result, rather than a rookie making a simple error.
I’ve spoken to plenty of people in the last week, post-500, from IndyCar journo’s to the guy calling it for NBC to locals who love the game and to a tee they all agree that it feels like McLaughlin has been an IndyCar racer for ever – which is why there was disappointment that he was denied such a result on Monday morning, our time.
Such is thew way he has embraced the series and been so rapid, so competitive from the outset it feels like he’s 70 races into his career, and not 7.
It was only after the race, when you sat back from the emotion and the theatre of the Greatest Spectacle of Racing, that you take stock and realise that this kid has barely scratched the surface of what he could possibly achieve in the ‘States.
Romain Grosjean you expect to be fast because he’s been on the F1 podium.
McLaughlin is a Touring Car racer with zero experience in ‘wings and slicks’ cars and generally that doesn’t equate to a quick transition from one to another.. except he’s made it look easy. I’m sure it wasn’t – I’d never undersell how tough I bet it’s been – but on the outside looking in it’s looked like a breeze.
Motorsport is unique in that disappointment can both be a sign of troubles but also a sign that things are going better than expected.
That we, and Scott himself, are gutted that he missed out on a result in the ‘500 speaks volumes to just how good a job he’s doing in what is the most competitive championship around in 2021.
A result will come, of that there is no doubt. In the meantime, I’ll try and temper the expectations of a bloke who’s a mere six races in to an incredible journey at the top of US open-wheel racing.
SPEAKING of the Indy 500, what a race it was. It was just the tonic the sport needed, I think.
Not only was the battle for the lead thrilling, the eventual storyline of Helio Castroneves becoming a four-time champion of the race was remarkable.
And the celebrations afterwards were even better, exactly the kind of thing IndyCar racing needed.
I am not alone in my belief that the Indy 500 is probably the world’s greatest race. Only my deep love of the Mountain and the Bathurst 1000 keeps me from crossing it off the top of my list.
From the month-long build up, bump-day, the pre-race pageantry to the race itself the ‘500 has it all.
And then there’s the 105-race history and stories that absolutely nothing in the motorsport world can match. IndyCar was already the most competitive series around this year, with six winners from six races so far (and Penske hasn’t won any yet!) but having a blockbuster ‘500 that looked and sounded so good to a massive audience around the world was another shot in the arm for the series – and the long, long history of that incredible race.