In their first official race weekend working together, Scott McLaughlin and race engineer Ben Bretzman appear to have formed a seamless, powerful new partnership as McLaughlin won his first career NTT P1 Award and led the Saturday practice session for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding.
But this isn’t their first time working together. No, that came in 2019.
Back then, McLaughlin was defending his first Australian V8 Supercars championship for DJR Team Penske. Bretzman, meanwhile, had just won the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge with Simon Pagenaud.
But McLaughlin had nearly run out of things to accomplish in Australia. So, he began looking at what his next career move would be. That brought him to the United States for an NTT INDYCAR SERIES simulator test with Team Penske.
The person who worked with McLaughlin that day in the Chevrolet simulator? Bretzman.
McLaughlin and Bretzman formed a fast friendship that day. McLaughlin moved to the series full time in 2021 and was paired with engineer Jonathan Diuguid. Still, McLaughlin and Bretzman remained friends as New Zealand native McLaughlin moved to a new country where he knew very few people.
“I’ve known Ben for a long time now,” McLaughlin said. “We play a lot of golf together. So, I was very excited to hang out and take this partnership to more of a professional level.”
The end of McLaughlin’s first season, in which he won Rookie of the Year honors for both the NTT INDYCAR SERIES and the Indy 500, brought significant change for himself and Team Penske. Diuguid transitioned to lead the Porsche Penske Motorsport sports car project, while Pagenaud left the organization to go to Meyer Shank Racing.
That left McLaughlin without an engineer and Bretzman without a driver. It was a pairing McLaughlin said he was eager to start.
Bretzman brings to the No. 3 DEX Imaging Team Penske Chevrolet team years of NTT INDYCAR SERIES experience. He became one of the best engineers in the paddock right away in 2012 when he and Pagenaud became a force at Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports.
Bretzman helped Pagenaud score his first career win, at the Belle Isle street circuit, in his second full-time season at Belle Isle. They scored four wins between 2013-14, and it was enough for Team Penske to snare the pairing in 2015. Together, they won a total of 15 races, the 2016 NTT INDYCAR SERIES championship and the Indy 500.
“What he’s done with Simon is a testament to those two and the partnership they had,” McLaughlin said. “I think he’s reinvigorated with me and our new partnership. We’re certainly working together well, and I’m excited for that. Props to Jonathan Diuguid, because he is the guy that got me up to speed, and it’s just been about polishing me up.”
McLaughlin was eager to get to work over the offseason and learn how Bretzman could polish him. Immediately, the two sat for a four-hour meeting where they analyzed every single one of McLaughlin’s 16 NTT INDYCAR SERIES performances last year, including his best finish of second in the first race on the Texas Motor Speedway oval.
“It’s been an interesting offseason, a big transition for both of us,” Bretzman said. “We’ve put a lot of work in, a lot of wondering how we are going to do this together. What do we need to learn together? The speed has always been there; it’s just about how do you extract it?”
Bretzman and McLaughlin prioritized studying his qualifying performances across the season, because it was something McLaughlin knew he needed to improve. He could practice well, and he performed solidly in races, but in qualifying he struggled to extract that speed. His best qualifying result in 2021 was fifth on the IMS road course in May, and that was his only single-digit qualifying performance on a road or street course.
From there, McLaughlin said it was a domino effect that gradually showed improvement, punctuated by being the best NTT INDYCAR SERIES driver Saturday in St. Petersburg.
“We sort of just slowly worked on it,” McLaughlin said. “We went to the simulator and got that very close. I was able to knuckle down and get a good baseline for this weekend. That paid dividends when we went to the test. I felt like I had a really good baseline car. And then we got here, and I felt really, really strong. We have hardly touched the car since it’s rolled off the truck.”
Bretzman said as soon as he saw the speed in the car in Friday’s practice session, in which McLaughlin was eighth-fastest, he knew there was enough speed in the car to win the pole.
Now, the duo has its sights set on Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding, with live coverage starting at noon (ET) on NBC, Telemundo Deportes on Universo and the INDYCAR Radio Network.
Maybe, just like he did with Pagenaud almost a decade ago, Bretzman can help McLaughlin score his first career win in his second full-time season on a street circuit.