Man or machine: What’s driving Scott McLaughlin’s Ford Mustang domination?
The 2019 Supercars Championship season has been all but dominated by one team and one driver as the dawn of a new year heralded a new car for those running under the Blue Oval.
Scott McLaughlin entered the year as defending champion, winning his maiden title last year after coming third in 2016 and missing out on taking out the 2017 season by just 21 points in controversial circumstances.
While McLaughlin was celebrating his first championship, the DJR Team Penske crew were back at their workshop in Stapylton burning the midnight oil to prepare the new Ford Mustang Supercar for 2019.
Homologated in conjunction with fellow Ford squad Tickford Racing, the Mustang was being designed and developed over the summer break of 2018 and 2019, with the two teams as well as Ford Performance in the United States looking to build the perfect beast to dominate the Supercars Championship.
Heading up the homologation process in Australia was French genius Ludo Lacroix, the man behind the Ford FG Falcon and Holden VF Commodore Supercars in his previous life working for DJR Team Penske’s arch rivals, Triple Eight Race Engineering.
Signed off on the 18th of December 2018, the Mustang was approved by the Supercars technical team to race in the series and it first hit the track at Phillip Island with the rest of the field on the 14th of February this year for the official pre-season test day.
Though not everyone fell in love with the car instantly, things changed in the season opening round at Adelaide’s street circuit where McLaughlin took his first wins at the venue, claiming both wins to start his title defence in perfect fashion.
From there, McLaughlin looked untouchable with four straight wins to start the season and five from six starts, broken up only by a pre-race incident with Cam Waters in race five at the Albert Park circuit which saw neither driver make the grid.
Even without two of the Mustang’s best drivers, Waters’ Tickford team-mate Chaz Mostert came through to claim the win, boosting the Mustang to a perfect start to the season.
It would take until race eight at Symmons Plains for any other brand to win a race, Shane van Gisbergen giving Holden and Triple Eight their first, and so far only, victory of 2019.
Coming out of the Winton SuperSprint, DJR Team Penske is on a six race winning streak, with McLaughlin and team-mate Fabian Coulthard dominating from Phillip Island onwards, sharing the silverware in every race which has put the Queensland squad first in the team’s championship.
With McLaughlin taking his tenth win for the season in Race 14, it’s hard to think that anyone can stop him defending his title this year as his closest rival in Coulthard is 232 points adrift and van Gisbergen in third sits over a full round of points behind.
It’s hard to believe but with that tenth win, McLaughlin has now surpassed his victory tally of last year as he stood on the top step of the podium nine times on the way to his title, then going one better than 2017 with eight victories.
This kind of dominance begs the question as to whether it’s purely the car, which has been designed to exploit the degree of the rules, or the driver that is doing the hard work this season. You could argue that at this point in the season, the Mustang is weaker than when it started the year as multiple changes have been made to it by the Supercars technical team to try and create a level playing field in the series.
After running away with those first six wins of the year, centre of gravity testing was undertaken on ten cars from the field, resulting in the Blue Oval’s new hero car having a decent chunk of its ballast moved up into the roof which altered its centre of gravity.
The changes made no difference in the first race after the tweaks when McLaughlin was the first to see the chequered flag in Tasmania, only dropping a race to van Gisbergen the next day as everyone moved on to Phillip Island.
Around the most aerodynamically dependent track in the country, McLaughlin dominated qualifying, converting Saturday’s pole into victory though Coulthard got the better of his team-mate on Sunday.
Crushing victories again led to the Mustang being neutered, this time in the aerodynamics department with smaller rear wing endplates and Gurney flap as well as a clipped front undertray.
Yet again, the changes netted no result with Coulthard winning the first race on return and McLaughlin taking the next three straight, culminating in that tenth victory for the year at Winton.
Though it can be argued that Ludo’s masterpiece Mustang is the reason why McLaughlin will surely win a second championship this year, you can’t discount the work the team has done in 2019 to get on top of the new linear springs when the rest of the field has struggled.
After twin spring dampers were banned at the end of 2018, teams who replied on them like Triple Eight have struggled while DJR Team Penske has found their sweet spot, taking advantage to dominate the season so far.
McLaughlin’s efforts as a driver are the biggest factor in why he’s so far ahead this season; even after not taking the start for race five, he sits nearly two races ahead of his team-mate in the points in identical cars.
The efforts of Supercars to slow him and his Mustang down haven’t made a difference which shows just how well the driver and team are working together this year, proving themselves as the strongest combination since Jamie Whincup’s glory days with Triple Eight which saw him win seven championships between 2008-2017.
With two major changes being applied to the Mustang so far this year, it would be dangerous for Supercars as a series to make any more as the other teams simply haven’t worked as hard as DJR Team Penske this year.