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 

Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
Fatih Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed its new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with Ford Motor Co. in an event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and team principal Christian Horner.

It’s the first Formula 1 team to launch in the United States for 2023, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin, Texas, for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen already had wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
(Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Verstappen’s thoughts inevitably will turn to establishing a dynasty, and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his chief rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.