Photo: Supercars

Scott McLaughlin: A retrospective of a three-time Supercars champion

This morning was a big one for New Zealand motorsport fans; Earl Bamber was a part of the crew that won the Spa 24 Hours, Scott Dixon took his sixth Indycar championship while another Kiwi made their debut in the series.

Scott McLaughlin’s maiden Indycar start has been something Australasian fans of car racing have been looking forward to since it was announced earlier this year, initially slated to take place in May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway until the effects of COVID-19 put a halt to motorsports globally.

Though Indycar is used to having big name rookies try to take on the American competition, Formula One star Fernando Alonso being the most notable, McLaughlin’s transition to the category has been long awaited as everyone waits to see if the three-time Supercars champion can take it to the open-wheel specialists or if he’s just been a big fish in a small pond.

However, the pond he’s just jumped out of is regarded as one of the best in the world and his three titles from eight championships contended just give a small glimpse at the talent that the 27-year-old has shown since making his Supercars debut in 2012.

Having won the development series in 2012 against a field of drivers which included Chaz Mostert, Nick Percat and Scott Pye to name a few, McLaughlin made his first solo main game start in the final race of the year at Homebush for Garry Rogers Motorsport after the team’s regular driver, Alex Premat, suffered the effects of dehydration from the day before.

Finishing a respectable 17th, he was signed to the team for the following season as the category transitioned to the new Car of the Future platform, working with GRM as an apprentice fabricator while partnering Premat as his team-mate.

It didn’t take McLaughlin long to start making a mark, putting in a strong display in the support race at the Australian Grand Prix at Albert Park to take a non-championship race win, a sign of things to come by the time the series moved on to his home race at Pukekohe Park in New Zealand.

With the lead cars of Mark Winterbottom and Jamie Whincup suffering tyre dramas, a level headed McLaughlin inherited the race lead and held on to it to take his first Supercars victory in only his tenth start, becoming the youngest winner in the sport’s history at just 19 years old.

Throughout the 2013 season, the only top five results McLaughlin achieved came through visits to the podium with two back-to-back at Queensland Raceway, taking second and then another win which further cemented his status as one of the young talents to watch in the category.

The next three years saw a seismic change with GRM going over to the Volvo S60 Polestar as their weapon of choice, looking to crack into the Australian market with the Swedish brand and break the idea in the public’s heads that Volvo’s road cars are safe but not made for performance.

A memorable performance in the second race of the season at the Adelaide 500 made sure that happened with McLaughlin duelling against then five-time series champion Whincup on the final lap for the second spot on the rostrum, the pair separated by a coat of paint at some points, with the Volvo driver getting the upper hand to take the spot, becoming an instant sensation to all those who witnessed that battle.

Post-race, the crowd stood to applaud McLaughlin for his performance and he earned even more fans after accidentally dropping the f-bomb in the live interview with Mark Beretta, showing the kind of unpolished genuine character that Australian crowds love.

While it probably took longer than he would have liked, McLaughlin took Volvo’s first win in the championship since 1986 at Barbagallo Raceway in Race 14, then adding three more victories to his haul as well as sharing the award for the most pole positions in the year with Whincup, both taking ten each with McLaughlin’s coming in the final race of the year.

A tough 2015 saw the #33 car record four DNF results, no wins and only four podium finishes as the new Ford Falcon FG-X proved to be the car to have for the season while reliability proved to be the Volvo’s weakness.

2016 turned out to be a breakout for the young Kiwi, taking only two wins through clean-sweeping the Phillip Island round but putting in consistent results to end the year third in the championship standings, only behind the powerhouse Triple Eight combination of champion Shane van Gisbergen and Whincup.

His efforts at GRM were rewarded with a move to the newly-aligned DJR Team Penske in 2017, joining the iconic team which was looking for its first victory as a partnership after Roger Penske’s empire took a 51% stake in Dick Johnson’s outfit at the end of 2014.

Partnered with fellow Kiwi Fabian Coulthard and working under former Triple Eight engineer Ludo Lacroix, McLaughlin nearly sealed a win in his debut win, coming second in Race 2 of the championship before finally taking his first with the Ford team at Barbagallo, starting a three-race streak.

Eight wins through the year highlighted his season with DJR Team Penske, as well as a record-breaking pole position at the Bathurst 1000, however it was the final race of the year where McLaughlin’s youth reared its head in dramatic fashion.

Heading in to the last race with a 78 point lead over Whincup, McLaughlin led early on until he was handed a pit lane penalty for speeding in the pits. Dropping back in the pack, he had to fight back up to at least 11th in case Whincup won, finally getting to that spot but fumbling the pass on Simona De Silvestro, spinning her and earning himself another pit lane penalty.

A frantic end to the race saw McLaughlin finally get to 11th on the second last lap but run wide into Turn 1, aggressively covering on the run to Turn 2 with Craig Lowndes, team-mate to Whincup, on his inside. The two made contact, Lowndes was out of the race and as he crossed the finish line, McLaughlin was given a post-race penalty, allowing Whincup to secure the title by 21 points.

A dejected, broken McLaughlin used the off-season to work on himself, enlisting the help of sports psychologist Emma Murray to get his mindset back to how it should be and focus on winning the title.

Despite the introduction of the new Holden Commodore ZB which was three seasons newer than McLaughlin’s Ford Falcon FG-X, a new personal best record of nine wins helped McLaughlin finally take his first Supercars title, taking a streak of four race wins in a row across the Phillip Island and Barbagallo rounds in the process.

McLaughlin’s first title came from a showing of ultimate consistency, only having one finish outside the top ten and featuring on the podium 22 times from 31 races while also farewelling the Ford Falcon from Supercars competition as the DJR Team Penske crew worked on homologating the new Ford Mustang for the 2019 season.

With a raft of minor changes in the off-season to the Supercars regulations, the biggest change was the introduction of the Mustang for Ford teams, becoming the first two-door car in Supercars competition history though McLaughlin’s only focus was on taking home another title.

Starting the race with a clean sweep of the Adelaide 500, he looked to do the same at the next round at Albert Park before clashing with Cam Waters on the way to the grid, taking both front-row starters out before the race had even begun.

Despite this and another DNS at Surfers Paradise thanks to a crash in qualifying, from Adelaide until the end of the season in Newcastle, McLaughlin never lost the championship lead thanks to his new Supercars record of 18 race wins including finally breaking through for victory at the Bathurst 1000, giving DJR their first win at Mount Panorama since 1994 and the first ever win there for Team Penske.

However, even with the domination of the season it became apparent that McLaughlin would not be long for the series, having previously expressed interest to race in the United States where the Penske Corporation is based and runs teams in Indycar, NASCAR and IMSA to name a few under the Team Penske banner.

Being gifted a test in an Indycar from Roger Penske as a part of his wedding gift, McLaughlin started the 2020 with questions constantly being thrown at him regarding his ambitions after the season and whether he would return for Supercars in 2021.

Even with a resurgent Whincup applying the pressure in pursuit of his eighth title, McLaughlin’s 13 wins from 27 races contested meant that he had wrapped up the title before even getting to the season finale at Bathurst, becoming the first Ford driver to win three-straight championships off the back of his maiden win in 2018.

Though a fifth place at Bathurst wasn’t the fairytale ended he would have hoped for, a third Barry Sheene Medal from the Supercars media fraternity was a parting gift from the community as he left for the USA less than 24 hours after the conclusion of the 1000km race.

Confirming on the eve of his Indycar debut that he would contest the American series full-time in 2021, McLaughlin’s departure from Supercars leaves a massive hole in the sport as it faces the first season without the defending champion present since 1997.

After eight years as a full-time driver, McLaughlin racked up 251 race starts, 56 wins (fifth all-time), 105 podiums and 76 pole positions (second all-time) with three successive titles to his name, proving himself to be one of the best Supercars drivers of his generation.