Three-time and defending Supercars champion Scott McLaughlin will not return in 2021, joining the US-based IndyCar series with Penske.
As well, his team owner Roger Penske will also depart Supercars, selling his part of the DJR Team Penske outfit back to V8 Supercar legend Dick Johnson.
The Queensland-based team confirmed its plans for next season following today’s announcement by Team Penske that it would not return for the 2021 Supercars season.
The two-car team will continue in 2021 with two new drivers, as well, as it looks likely that incumbent driver Fabian Coulthard will lose his seat.
Names already in the mix include Will Davison, who has driven for the team before, and young Erebus talent Anton de Pasquale.
Penske leaves Supercars
“We have enjoyed an incredible six seasons competing in the Supercars series with DJR Team Penske,” said Roger Penske in a statement on the team's website.
“Partnering with Dick Johnson and Ryan Story to form DJR Team Penske was an incredible experience that produced success on the track and in the boardroom.
“We have built so many lasting partnerships and friendships, and competing in Supercars has certainly helped strengthen our brand and our business in Australia and New Zealand.
“Unfortunately, with the challenges we have faced in 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have had to readjust our business initiatives for 2021 and beyond.
“We want to thank Dick Johnson, Ryan Story, Fabian Coulthard and all of our team members for their hard work and dedication as we reestablished a championship organization together over the last six years.
“I know that Dick, Ryan and the team will continue to build on that success moving forward.”
DJR Team Penske notched up 56 wins, 62 pole positions, three team championships and three driver’s titles with McLaughlin over the last six seasons.
Dick Johnson Racing returns
“As we enter the next chapter at DJR, we look forward to what lies ahead for our team,” said team founder Dick Johnson.
“It has been an honor to partner with Roger Penske and everyone from Team Penske over these last six seasons, but we understand the challenges that everyone has faced worldwide in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
'We’re thankful that we were able to conclude our partnership with our third driver and team championships together this season. We want to thank Scott for his professionalism on and off the track. He is a generational talent and we are excited he will join us as a co-driver at next year’s Repco Bathurst 1000 in October."
McLaughlin will return to Supercars for the 2021 Bathurst 1000, according to the team, and is currently in the USA to compete in his first ever IndyCar race, at St Petersburgh in Florida.
WhichCar has been following the story since April, when the young Kiwi drove an IndyCar four times around three tracks, participated in PR and marketing photo shoots, tested on road courses and speedway circuits, and locked away a race appearance in the series later in the year.
And all of this came before his 2020 Supercars title defence had even started.
McLaughlin's good IndyCar timing
Admittedly, a few stars aligned for McLaughlin to log so much seat time so quickly; his first run in Florida came on the back of a holiday with new wife Karly – a US native herself – and he acquitted himself very well.
The news that he would compete in an IndyCar road-course race in Indianapolis later in the year put more butter on the bread of a potential move, but McLaughlin’s camp insisted his focus was still on Supercars.
His second test came at what the IndyCar folks call spring training, which references similar events held by baseball teams. All of the established stars of the series were there, and McLaughlin’s top-three times during the day against the stars of the sport raised plenty of eyebrows.
Part of the event, too, included photoshoots for promotional purposes, with McLaughlin wearing a personalised race suit emblazoned with the Chevrolet bowtie logo, not the Ford oval, in deference to Team Penske’s IndyCar engine supplier.
It’s a mark of the team’s professionalism that McLaughlin would score a new suit and carbon-fibre helmet – minimum cost $5000 – for a test day, especially as McLaughlin already has a few Penske suits in the walk-in wardrobe already. And teams don’t take the notion of sponsor conflict lightly.
But when the news came through that McLaughlin had stretched his US trip right up to the front edge of the Supercars season to test an IndyCar at the fearsomely fast Texas Motor Speedway, turning oval laps at the better part of 350km/h, the die was cast rock-solid. While it's yet to be technically confirmed, take is as read; young Scott McLaughlin is heading to America in 2021.
McLaughlin's complete lack of open-wheel racing miles, plus the fearsome nature of oval racing, will make his transition one to watch.
And even though this year's motor racing world has been savaged by COVID-19 cancellations left and right, McLaughlin will still manage to take his place on the IndyCar grid,.
The team confirmed him as a fourth entrant for the season-ending Grand Prix of St Petersburgh in Florida, which takes place just one week after the Supercars champion-elect wraps up the 2020 season at the Bathurst 1000.
But McLaughlin has never raced open-wheelers
There are more reasons that McLaughlin is arguably US-bound in 2021.
Team owner Roger Penske is a titan of the automotive industry, with an estimated 64,000 people around the world on the payroll of his multiple truck leasing companies, car dealerships and even at race tracks like the iconic Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The 82-year-old is also an astute businessman, and like every other facet of his business world, his race teams are in business to make money, not lose it.
Bunging a driver into a car at the end of a test day for a handful of fun laps on old tyres is not uncommon – but McLaughlin tested properly, with more than 40 staff on hand each day to run the Dallara IR18 IndyCar at the three circuits.
Figure on each day costing Team Penske the better part of A$50,000 by the time everything is totted up, and you wouldn’t be far off the mark. Let’s face it… Mr Penske isn’t spending that kind of money because McLaughlin is a nice guy.
No, Penske is grooming McLaughlin to fill a slot on his IndyCar roster. and he's set to join a roster that's chock-full of IndyCar superstardom.
Chief amongst those is Queensland-born Will Power (below left), whose 11-year tenure at Team Penske has netted him multiple win and pole lap records, a championship and a coveted Indy 500 win.
Indy 500 winner Simon Pagenoud and two-time series champion Josef Newgarden are also slated to return in 2021.
Penske’s IndyCar program was scaled back a couple of seasons ago from four to three cars – no sponsorship, no car, says Penske – but it appears that an exception will be made to run a fourth car for 27-year-old McLaughlin.
The cost is in personnel, not parts; Indycar is a cost-controlled series that is based on a 2012-spec chassis, so building a car for McLaughlin is not such a financial burden.
Is 2020 McLaughlin's final year in Supercars?
So 2020 will arguably be – for the interim at least – the swansong Supercars year for one of the brightest young talents to emerge in the series for some time.
It's even being openly speculated in pit lane that McLaughlin may even stay in the US after the St Petersburgh race with US-born wife Karly to prepare for 2021.
Certainly, his team owner, the great Dick Johnson, thinks he's going, telling the Daily Telegraph that "it's pretty obvious he will be gone next year" earlier this year.
A championship three-peat may also mark the swansong for the DJR Team Penske Supercars team, with the squad yet to confirm its position in Supercars for 2021.
The speculation comes as Hoden's decades-long association with the sport comes to an end with the drop of the flag after the 2020 Great Race.
McLaughlin was less than definite about his plans to stay when asked after his win at The Bend in South Australia on the weekend, which clinched the 2020 title with one round to go.
“I’m not sure yet," McLaughlin hedged when asked on Fox Sports’ Supercars Trackside if this year is his last in Supercars.
“At the end of the day it’s for me, fully focused on the end of the year.
“I’ve got a contract for next year, with DJR Team Penske, but you’ve just got to take your opportunities when [they] come and we’ll just wait and see.
“But right now, fully focused on Bathurst, can’t wait to get there, and just going to get after it.”
Will the 2020 Bathurst 1000 be a farewell tour for the gifted Kiwi? We reckon so.