McLaren SP engineer believes Jimmie Johnson would adapt well to IndyCar

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Bruce Martin Photo
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HUNTERSVILLE, North Carolina — Arrow McLaren SP race engineer Craig Hampson is the man in charge of Fernando Alonso’s Indianapolis 500 effort this May.

He was Sebastien Bourdais’ secret weapon during the Frenchman’s four consecutive Champ Car Series championship seasons from 2004-2007 at Newman-Haas Racing.

From 2017 through the end of last season, he was reunited with Bourdais at Dale Coyne Racing, winning twice and making the Fast Nine in Indy 500 qualiyfing the past two years.

Hampson looks forward to working with one of the world’s best-known drivers as they prepare for the 104th Indianapolis 500.

And he might have a chance to work with another great driver in 2021.

If Jimmie Johnson agrees to a five-race road-course deal with Arrow McLaren SP, Hampson figures to be heavily involved with the seven-time NASCAR Cup champion.

That pairing has been highly speculated since Johnson was Arrow McLaren SP’s guest at NTT IndyCar Series “Spring Training” at Circuit of the Americas (COTA) in Austin, Texas, on Feb. 11.

That was also the week Johnson began his final full-time season in NASCAR Cup Series racing in the 62nd Daytona 500. This weekend, the El Cajon, California, native is making what might be his last start at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, the track nearest to his hometown and the site of his first Cup win in 2002.

For now, there is no agreement to put Johnson in an Arrow McLaren SP car in 2021, but as NBCSports.com was told during his visit, it’s unlikely Johnson came to COTA the week before the Daytona 500 just to watch Indy cars turn laps.

Johnson told NBCSports.com during his visit that a limited schedule of road course races is something on his “bucket List.” He also wants to compete in some of the world’s premier sports car races, such as the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Hampson was in Huntersville, North Carolina, at the General Motors simulator Thursday working to help prepare Arrow McLaren SP’s two full-time IndyCar Series entries this season. In an exclusive interview with NBCSports.com, he was asked about the possibility of working with Johnson in 2021. Hampson said he has not been told of a possible pairing with Johnson but believed he would fit in well in IndyCar.

“I have to say, if Jimmie Johnson is driving a car in IndyCar races for our team, I know nothing about that,” Hampson told NBCSports.com. “Clearly, Jimmie is an extremely talented guy. What he has achieved in NASCAR speaks for itself. I think it is cool that he is looking at other opportunities following his retirement from running NASCAR full time. I wouldn’t put the cart before the horse. There are a lot of steps between here and Jimmie Johnson running a full road course season.

“I certainly do hope we have a full-time third car next year at Arrow McLaren SP because that is what I came to do. It does feel really weird when I’m at a test and don’t actually have a car to run. You sit there thinking, ‘What would I do right now or ask right now?’ You are sitting there observing.

“I really do hope we are able to expand to that third car, but at the moment, I’m focused on helping (McLaren SP drivers) Pato O’Ward and Oliver Askew and making sure we have something quick for all three of them in May.”

Johnson’s entire NASCAR Cup career has been with Chevrolet. Hampson was hired at Arrow McLaren SP to build a third car that will run in numerous races in 2021.

If Johnson decides to start checking off his IndyCar “bucket list” with Arrow McLaren SP, Hampson likely would be the man who would guide the effort.

Hampson will be the race engineer for Alonso’s No. 66 Chevrolet in the 2020 Indianapolis 500. He also will provide technical advice to Arrow McLaren SP’s two first-year drivers in IndyCar.

For much of the last decade, when Hampson was at Andretti Autosport and later at Dale Coyne Racing, he worked on Honda Indy cars. Now that he is part of Chevrolet, he is helping bridge the gap between Chevrolet’s technical assets and the McLaren Formula One team located in Woking, Surrey, England.

For a self-professed engineering “geek,” Hampson is fascinated with the technical potential of that Chevrolet and McLaren have to offer Arrow McLaren SP.

“If I’m honest, both the ability to be exposed to the General Motors and Chevrolet engineering program and the R&D tools, plus the ability to be exposed to the McLaren F1 R&D tools and engineering program, were very much a major factor in my decision to come to work for this team,” Hampson said.

“I don’t want to get stagnant. I want to still learn. I want to be exposed to the state of the art. I’m curious about all this stuff. Right now, I’m on my national tour of all that Chevrolet can offer as part of their IndyCar program. I will be over in England at some point, but right now it has been teleconferences and video chats.

“Honestly, that was the No. 1 factor. I want to keep learning and I want to keep being exposed to what is new and relevant. Chevy definitely has some really cool tools available for us to play with.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500