The IndyCar iRacing Challenge rolled on this weekend with the Virtual Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, the second race of the six-race series. Taking place the day before the 2020 Indy Grand Prix of Alabama was scheduled to run, the event did its best to replicate what racing at Barber Motorsports Park would have been like. But it still wasn’t quite like the real deal, as this wasn’t business as usual for the NTT IndyCar Series.
What can we learn from Scott McLaughlin‘s gutsy win at Barber? How is this virtual program continuing to develop as IndyCar fans, and drivers, continue to adapt? Here are our takeaways from Round 2 of the IndyCar iRacing Challenge.
1. Scott McLaughlin needs to be in an IndyCar
Who else is even more excited about Scott McLaughlin’s IndyCar debut after this race? The New Zealander was planning to make his first NTT IndyCar Series start at the Indy Grand Prix, and hopefully that’s still going to be the case, because he looks like he’s going to be a great addition to the field. McLaughlin and Team Penske engineer Jonathan Diuguid made a canny choice to pit just before the competition caution, and that fuel strategy propelled them to victory.
Racing isn’t just about pure speed, though McLaughlin had plenty of that. It’s also about strategy, and the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama proved that the two-time Supercars champion knows a lot about that, too. Plus, based on the streaming he’s done for these two virtual races and his appearances in The Penske Games (on Team Penske’s YouTube channel), he’s got a fantastic personality that would fit right in with the rest of the IndyCar paddock. Let’s get him into a fourth Penske car sooner rather than later.
2. Robert Wickens hasn’t missed a beat
The best story of the day was the return of Robert Wickens, in his first race of any kind since his horrific crash at Pocono. Wickens had missed Round 1 of the iRacing IndyCar Challenge because of shipping issues that kept him from getting his equipment in time, and as revealed on the NBCSN broadcast, he had just set his sim up the day before Barber. With maybe 24 hours of practice, and even while having to start at the absolute back of the field, Wickens showed just how talented he is by finishing eighth.
Everyone knows that Robert Wickens is an amazing driver. But as we discussed last week, being a great driver does not necessarily make you a great sim racer. And even the best sim racer could have been undone by a limited amount of practice time or the worst possible qualifying spot. But the Canadian overcame both of those and hustled it out in style, just as he’s been doing with his rehab every day since his accident. Not only is he amazing behind the wheel, he’s an amazing person and an inspiration to everyone.
We’re calling it now: Wickens will win one of the four remaining IndyCar iRacing Challenge rounds.
3. Expanding the field is the best way forward
Saturday’s race at Barber Motorsports Park was much better than the opening round at Watkins Glen, and a large reason why was that more familiar faces were involved. Aside from Wickens, we also saw Ed Carpenter drive his first road course in years and Scott Dixon take his turn behind the iRacing wheel. They made it that much more fun, with Dixon running competitively through a large portion of the event.
This is what we want to see. It’s not going to be fun if the same people run up front all the time (sorry, Sage Karam). It’s fun to see Ed Carpenter do something he doesn’t normally do. To watch Robert Wickens make a comeback, even if it’s in a virtual race. And since IndyCar is allowing people like Jimmie Johnson and McLaughlin to participate, why not keep doing that? There are lots of people within the IndyCar world that would make great additions to future races if there’s space (and equipment) available.
Where’s Helio Castroneves? How about Stefan Wilson? Is Mario Andretti interested? Townsend Bell said on-air that he practiced with the drivers before the race. He could run and let James Hinchcliffe take a dry run at commentary. The virtual format gives the NTT IndyCar Series a chance to do fun things with the field, and let’s hope that keeps going.
The IndyCar iRacing Challenge continues April 11 at Michigan International Speedway. If you missed Saturday’s race, you can stream it here.
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