Australia Supercars champion Scott McLaughlin had to get up pretty early Sunday morning. But in the end, it was worth it.
Racing on a sim rig at his home in Brisbane, Australia, McLaughlin won the iRacing IndyCar Challenge at Barber Motorsports Park Saturday, holding off teammate Will Power in a 1-2 finish for Team Penske.
The New Zealand native and two-time Australia Supercars champion held off Power by .4241 of a second to earn his first win in the virtual racing series while driving through the early-morning hours, Australia time. McLaughlin started practice at 2 a.m., qualified eighth for the 45-lap race, and took the checkered flag around 5:40 a.m. local time.
And just like that, @smclaughlin93 is back in the lead. 4 to go. @12WillPower working on a late charge.#INDYCAR // #INDYCARChallenge // @iRacing pic.twitter.com/30lix4x5hU
“I’m really happy,” McLaughlin said. “I actually brought in (via voice chat) the IndyCar engineer I’ve been working with in the States, Jonathan Diuguid. I give him credit. He put me on an awesome strategy. It’s a bit better than last week. I was playing with the fuel myself and trying to remember the numbers while I was driving. It was a bit easier this week.”
Three-time Global RallyCross champion Scott Speed finished third in the No. 98 Surgere/Curb Honda fielded by Andretti Herta with Marco Andretti & Curb-Agajanian. He was followed by Alex Palou and Simon Pagenaud in the top five.
A veteran sim racer, McLaughlin passed Speed with six laps remaining, diving inside in turn two of the rolling, 2.38-mile road course at Barber, which in the real world is located in Birmingham, Alabama. The circuit was scheduled to host the second event of the NTT IndyCar season this Sunday, but the event weekend was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Finished second today. Congratulations to @smclaughlin93 for taking the win.
// #INDYCAR / #INDYCARChallenge / @PenskeESports pic.twitter.com/5PWZds1yXF
The final six laps of the race became a duel between McLaughlin and Australian native Power, racing from his home in North Carolina.
Power closed to within seven-tenths of a second of McLaughlin with three laps to go; he then closed the gap to .533 of a second with two laps remaining. Power appeared to have a chance to close on McLaughlin’s gearbox as McLaughlin encountered the lapped car of five-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon, but Dixon moved out of the racing line and McLaughlin was able to maintain the gap and hold on for the win.
For the first time the race featured a mandatory caution on lap 15 of 45. McLaughlin, under direction from Diuguid, pitted on lap 14, just before the competition caution. He was running ninth on lap 21, two laps after the restart from the competition caution.
“It was crazy,” McLaughlin said. “I was particularly nervous at the Safety Car restart after the caution. I had new tires, but a lot of people didn’t in front. We got a good restart there, but it was a bit chaos.”
Power was satisfied with his runner-up spot.
“When we pitted early, we pitted into a lot of traffic and lost a lot of seconds in that sequence,” Power said. “I wasn’t aware that Scott (McLaughlin) was on that strategy. I actually thought Sage (Karam) was still leading.
“My engineer just said, ‘Just focus on your laps: We can still win this thing.’ I thought he was just, ‘Come on, don’t worry about anything else,’ but what he was saying was, ‘You need to push out some laps.’ So, I think we could have made that a little more tight (at the finish), but I’m still really happy with second.”
Felix Rosenqvist was sixth, followed by Colton Herta and Robert Wickens, who took eighth while competing in a race for the first time since his August 2018 crash at Pocono Raceway. Wickens received his SimCraft simulator only two days ago; it is equipped with special hand controls for throttle and brake since he has restricted use of his legs due to a spinal cord injury suffered in the crash.
Wickens spun in qualifying and started last in the 29-car field but wasted no time getting up to speed. He passed 10 cars in the opening seven laps and was up to 11th halfway through the race.
Today was a lot of fun! Happy with being in the top 10, can’t wait for next weekend. Here’s a little clip of how I get into my sim. Thanks again @SimCraft ! #INDYCARChallenge #iracing @ArrowMcLarenSP #indycar @IndyCar pic.twitter.com/jCjNJ1jMJR
With 13 laps to go, Wickens spun into the gravel and suffered front wing damage but was able to continue from 11th place. Using a clutch paddle on his wheel for an accelerator and a separate lever for a hand brake, Wickens calmly continued to the finish for a strong top-10 result.
“It was a riot,” Wickens said. “We made the bold strategy of trying to make it on one stop under yellow. That was going to be my best race, as when I was saving fuel, that was my best strategy for not spinning out. We did massive fuel save the entire time after that yellow flag, and we just made with 0.2 gallons left at the finish line. It was great teamwork.
“It was great to have the Arrow McLaren SP engineers in my ears the whole time. In a way, it felt like the real thing. I’m just excited.”
Leader, pole-sitter and virtual Watkins Glen race winner Sage Karam pitted for the first time from the lead on lap 25, handing the top spot to 2019 IndyCar Rookie of the Year Felix Rosenqvist.
Rosenqvist pitted on the next lap, and McLaughlin found himself in the lead due to his early stop.
“The biggest thing was lapped traffic, getting blocked by lap traffic,” McLaughlin said. “That enabled us to get that jump in the pits because I was in clear air for a long time where others weren’t. Credit to Jonathan and the strategy. He put me out in front and put me in some clear air, and I was able to bang lap times out lap after lap.”
A look at the incident with @SageKaram and @FRosenqvist #INDYCAR // #INDYCARChallenge // @iRacing pic.twitter.com/FOoJtOxJsv
Meanwhile, Karam and Rosenqvist collided on track while dueling for position after Rosenqvist exited the pits. Karam eventually retired from the race after the collision and a subsequent tangle with a lapped car, placing 27th.
“We were looking pretty good after qualifying with another pole,” Karam said. “The DRR WIX Filters Chevy was in good shape, and the pace was going our way. At the competition yellow, the car still felt good and I got good restart, too. I was stuck behind (Sebastien Bourdais) just before the pit stop and lost a lot of time. He was just blocking me. That screwed up my in lap and out lap from the pit stop. That’s how Rosenqvist got in front of me after the pit stop.
“We were racing real hard and both being aggressive. He then overshot the corner. I couldn’t tell if I hit him then. He was spinning, and we made contact. We were racing for the win.”
Here is a replay of the virtual race @BarberMotorPark for those that weren’t able to see it live. Stay tuned for viewing options for next week’s event. #INDYCAR // #INDYCARChallenge // @iRacing https://t.co/l5iSkrPZja
Josef Newgarden and Santino Ferrucci rounded out the top 10.
Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson finished 12th.
Saturday’s race was the second of six events planned to take place every Saturday through May 2. Future venues include the first oval event, next Saturday, April 11, at Michigan International Speedway, a “Random Draw” track April 18, Circuit of the Americas on April 25 and a non-IndyCar “Dream” track May 2. The series opened March 28 at the virtual Watkins Glen International.
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