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The start of a big IndyCar career? Pourchaire's McLaren debut assessed

by Jack Benyon
7 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

Reigning Formula 2 champion Theo Pourchaire just delivered one of the best IndyCar debuts in recent memory.

OK, 11th place isn’t the kind of result that would usually blow your socks off, but until Friday practice for his first outing in place of the injured David Malukas at Arrow McLaren, Pourchaire had never even driven the IndyCar, and turning his last-minute call-up into such a strong result from 22nd on the grid - as top rookie and with the most positions gained of anyone in the race - shows just how good this was.

He was also on pace with the team’s leading Long Beach performer Alexander Rossi, and there are still more highlight stats from his debut that we haven’t even got into yet.

Let's break down Pourchaire's race in detail, find out what he made of it in an exclusive interview, and assess what it might mean for his future in or outside of McLaren.

What he said about his debut

A clearly delighted Pourchaire - who is still a Sauber Formula 1 junior and reserve - was "emotional" when interviewed immediately after stepping out of the car post-race.

"It was a very good weekend," he told The Race after he'd had time to debrief with the team. 

"I was straightaway on the pace without knowing the car and the track. It's tough, IndyCar is super fast, very bumpy tracks, one mistake and you can be in the wall there in Long Beach.

"So overall, I'm proud of my performance, proud of the crew, the number six car performance. I have to thank the team for that.

"They helped me quite a lot and I'm a little bit tired now, but I get mover of the race [most positions gained] - a small trophy, of course, it's not the one we want, but it's a good start."

How his race unfolded

Pourchaire had been strong in qualifying but just struggled to nail the lap when it counted after so few laps on the Firestone soft tyre. He started 22nd.

He quickly made up positions with a pass on Christian Rasmussen on lap one, Rossi for 20th on lap three, Agustin Canapino on lap four, then benefitted from team-mate Pato O’Ward’s drive-through for smashing into Rossi on lap 10 to move into 18th. That’s where he stayed until lap 15 when the race was turned on its head by a yellow.

Eleven cars elected to stay out under this caution, while Will Power led a group that dived into the pits and would try to make the end of the race on one more stop while the group staying out would still need two - but could be far less conservative on fuel and tyres.

Pourchaire admitted being “a bit lost” as the two strategies split off, but he had committed to trying not to take on too much information during the race so he could focus on getting to grips with an IndyCar over the race distance.

“I was trying to focus only on the driving, the team was helping me on that side, not giving me too much information,” he continued.

“I was following them [the team], if they told me ‘box’, I was going in the box.

“I was not arguing with them, just following them. Because they helped me a lot, so I can trust them. They trusted me. And in the end, we did a great result.”

McLaren kept Pourchaire out in that lap 15 caution where he jumped to eighth as the others pitted, losing one place to Rossi in this stint before he pitted on lap 29.

Having started on the hard tyre, which he didn’t like so much, Pourchaire ran the middle stint on used softs and then had a fresh set of softs for the 26-lap run to the finish after he made his final stop on lap 59, where the order finally became more clear after the two differing strategies converged.

Theo Pourchaire McLaren Long Beach IndyCar 2024

In that final stint, Pourchaire was 18th and had Rossi ahead to follow, and the pair made light work of pushing all the way through the teens to 10th and 11th.

Admittedly, only one of the cars Pourchaire passed, Rinus VeeKay, was on the same strategy as him and even he had pitted earlier in both of his stops.

But still, as we saw with the other leaders struggling to pass winner Scott Dixon - one of the drivers on the ultra-fuel-saving strategy - it wasn’t an open goal to pass the cars on that differing strategy even if they were saving fuel and had older tyres.

And it’s worth pointing out, Pourchaire set a better fastest lap than Rossi, managing the eighth best of the race overall, and perhaps more incredibly, managed the sixth best in-lap and 14th best out-lap.

Out-laps especially are one of IndyCar’s dark arts because of how cold the tyres are, and the tricky pit exit at Long Beach makes it very easy to make a mistake on chilly rubber.

Even though he had done in and out laps in F2 and Super Formula, neither were with such a heavy car which is also full of fuel. It takes some drivers years to properly nail the art of in and out laps in IndyCar.

Pourchaire added "it's really tough mentally and physically" to cope with not just the in and out laps but not making any errors over an 85-lap race, his longest in a single-seater, with so many new or unfamiliar aspects to contend with over such a long distance.

He leapt over these hurdles with aplomb, passing Indy Lights champion Linus Lundqvist and a pair of old F2 rivals in Christian Lundgaard and Marcus Armstrong on his way to the result, which certainly impressed the team and has no doubt catapulted Pourchaire into the conversation for a 2025 McLaren seat.

What’s next?

Theo Pourchaire McLaren Long Beach IndyCar 2024

The coming weekend’s Barber Motorsports Park race, "probably".

When Pourchaire spoke to the media for the first time in Long Beach on Friday, he let slip: “Sauber contacted me just to let me know that Arrow McLaren wanted me to drive for the next two races.”

McLaren had yet to rule out Malukas for Barber - and still hasn't, with the driver's wrist injury recovery having no set timeframe - and Pourchaire later clarified “I’m racing in Long Beach, then we will see if David is getting better, this will depend on David”.

It was always likely McLaren would keep Pourchaire in the car for a second weekend - if Malukas isn’t fit - even though previous stand-in Callum Ilott is available after a World Endurance Championship clash at Imola last weekend.

In some ways a second chance would be the least McLaren could do after throwing Pourchaire into a street race frying pan without so much as a spin around the car park in its IndyCar before a race weekend proper.

Theo Pourchaire

After Long Beach, Pourchaire told The Race: “I sure hope to be back in the future in IndyCar. I'm working with the team now.

“I think it was a pretty good first race weekend with them so hopefully I can be back soon. And for sure, David is injured still. So let's see.

“But I will be travelling to Barber for sure. I don't know if I will drive yet but most probably yes.”

Barber IndyCar 2023

Barber is a much more European-style road course that will be more like what Pourchaire grew up on, and with the Long Beach weekend providing some ‘test’ mileage, McLaren should be able to get a better read on what Pourchaire's bringing to the table.

Only, in hindsight, he’s already shown exactly what he’s capable of. He didn’t put a foot wrong all weekend, had no trouble matching Rossi’s pace and passed all the same cars as his more experienced team-mate in that final stint.

It was about as convincing a debut as anyone since Lundgaard’s fourth-place qualifying at Indianapolis in 2021 with Rahal Letterman Lanigan, but even he had tested in the lead-up to that.

Asked by The Race if the result had made Pourchaire more keen to establish an IndyCar future, he replied: “Yeah, sure. I think now I really want to race there.

“For me, F1 is amazing, it's a dream for everybody, but IndyCar as well is big in the motorsport world and in America is very, very big for sure. Indy 500, the IndyCar championship, I have a lot of dreams and goals and I hope I can reach them one day.”

Pourchaire isn't believed to be in the conversation for a 2025 F1 seat currently, and a really poor Super Formula debut earlier this year means changing course to IndyCar could be a natural target.

He could turn this amazing debut into a paid opportunity in IndyCar, where drivers can also boost income by racing in the IMSA Sportscar Championship, too.

It definitely feels like IndyCar has gone from 'it's a good option but I'm still focused on F1', to 'this has to be a high priority for me now after this debut' in Pourchaire’s eyes.

If McLaren doesn't end up signing Pourchaire, after that debut, there will be no shortage of other interested parties.

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