McLaren on Larson F1 test talks and Verstappen comparisons (2024)

McLaren’s chief executive Zak Brown would “love” to see Kyle Larson have a test in a Formula 1 car, as the NASCAR champion prepares to make his Indianapolis 500 debut on Sunday.

Larson’s NASCAR team Hendrick Motorsports is in a partnership with McLaren for the Indy 500 - where Larson has already impressed by qualifying fifth on his debut, leading to praise from people like Alexander Rossi, who put Larson on par with Max Verstappen as one of the best drivers in the world.

Brown was speaking to a group of select media including The Race ahead of Sunday’s 500, where rain is threatening to complicate plans for the race.

Here’s the latest on what Larson’s qualifying performance has done for the narrative around how good he is, whether he should be ranked as one of the best drivers in the world, how rain could rob him of his race debut and McLaren and Hendrick’s plans to deal with a rain delay situation.

The precedents

Larson wouldn’t be the first Hendrick Motorsports NASCAR driver to test an F1 car as Fernando Alonso and Jimmie Johnson did a ride-swap in Abu Dhabi in 2018, which ultimately set Johnson on a course to switch to IndyCar full-time.

However, that was towards the end of his competitive career, while Larson is in his pomp as a regular NASCAR winner and short-oval dominator on dirt tracks.

“I’d love to see him have a go in a Formula 1 car,” said Zak Brown.

“I’ve actually spoken with Kyle about that. I think you would expect me to. I didn't have to do that to get him to drive for us at Indy.

“But he's an awesome talent. I think he would do good.

“But clearly he's a NASCAR driver, always has been, always will be - and you've got to be realistic on the growth trajectory you need to be on to be a Formula 1 driver.

McLaren on Larson F1 test talks and Verstappen comparisons (1)

“But as far as giving him a go in a Formula 1 car to see, as a little bit of a reward and enjoyment for him, and I think it's also good for our brand - and I think the NASCAR fans would think it's cool and I think Formula 1 fans would think it would be cool.

"So I would be very comfortable doing it at the right time.”

Rick Hendrick would have to give his permission, but Brown doesn’t think that would be a problem.

“I think Rick's a proper racer,” he added. “I think he'd probably enjoy it, not only give permission, but I think I can see Rick going, 'I want to go’.”

Larson deal lets Gordon live out unfulfilled fantasy

Speaking on The Race IndyCar Podcast, Jeff Gordon, who drove an F1 car and impressed Williams in a swap with Juan Pablo Montoya in 2003, and is now part of Hendrick’s management and ownership structure, said: “I know that Kyle, if he got that opportunity, would not only excel, but he’d enjoy it. Of course we would love to see the relationship turn into some type of opportunity like that if it presents itself.”

The biggest challenge would be finding a free slot around 36 NASCAR races and Larson's tendency to do multiple short oval races per week throughout the year.

You'd have to believe he'd want to clear his schedule for the chance to test an F1 car, though.

The Larson debate

McLaren on Larson F1 test talks and Verstappen comparisons (3)

Larson is widely regarded as one of the best drivers in the world by fans in North America who have watched Larson win NASCAR races and championships, as well as the biggest short-oval dirt races on the calendar - and now qualify fifth on his IndyCar debut.

They see him as a throwback to the legendary names of American racing like Mario Andretti and AJ Foyt - who raced and succeeded in so many different formulae, with many surfaces and styles.

Because of NASCAR and short oval racing’s lower level of popularity outside of North America, it’s created a huge void between North American fans thinking Larson is the best driver in the world, and some outside of the continent not entirely sure who he is or what he races in.

And sure, Larson's career has been predominantly on ovals, but some of said oval races come in 900bhp sprint cars on dirt, which is a different challenge to NASCAR - where he has also been strong on road courses like Watkins Glen.

McLaren on Larson F1 test talks and Verstappen comparisons (4)

The disparity in how he is ranked obviously causes friction between fanbases, not least earlier this week when Alexander Rossi told the Associated Press he felt that Larson and F1 champion Verstappen were “on the same level”.

“I don't think anyone should get wound up over that,” said Brown.

“Because to me the difference between NASCAR and Formula 1 is baseball and football.

“Do I think Kyle is as good as you get as a talented racing driver in NASCAR and shown me what he can do in an IndyCar? 100%. He's as good as you can get.

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"Max is as good as you can get at his discipline.

“I don't think you can compare them other than just say 'that's the best football player in the world and that's the best baseball player in the world, and that's one of the best basketball players in the world'.

“So from that standpoint, yes, Kyle is one of the best racing drivers in the world. Do I think he can hop in the Red Bull and win the Formula 1 world championship? No.

“Do I think Max Verstappen could hop in the Hendrick NASCAR and win the NASCAR championship? Probably not.”

McLaren’s team principal Gavin Ward said earlier this week Larson was one of the best drivers he’d worked with, and as an aerodynamicist, control systems engineer and race engineer at Red Bull, the list of drivers he’s worked with includes Verstappen, Daniel Ricciardo, Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel (the latter two pictured below with Ward on the Abu Dhabi GP podium in 2013).

McLaren on Larson F1 test talks and Verstappen comparisons (6)

“He just continues to impress,” Chris Stafford, who had a near-decade stint at F1 team Williams and is Larson’s crew chief at McLaren for the Indy 500, told The Race.

“You say the European background aren't too familiar with what he's achieved. But from our side, everything he jumps in, he tends to win in or he's extremely competitive, whether that's dirt cars, NASCARs - turns out IndyCar [too], qualifying P5.

“I think that's why he's so popular, classed as probably one of the best drivers on the planet right now.

“On Sunday he was driving the NASCAR, then Monday he was driving a dirt car and then on Tuesday, he was driving an IndyCar.

McLaren on Larson F1 test talks and Verstappen comparisons (7)

“How he manages to switch his mindset from each one of those cars completely different driving styles, I think [it] amazes pretty much everybody in all the paddocks.”

Stafford added Larson was “absolutely up there” with McLaren’s current IndyCar drivers - who have all driven Formula 1 cars at some point in their career.

Larson’s excellent application and work ethic perhaps could have been expected given his diverse resume, but he has been so laid back he could be mistaken for being horizontal during this experience. He is so relaxed and laser-focused despite the complexity of this event. He is a consummate professional blowing everyone away with his approach.

He looks every bit like a transcendent motorsport star.

What happens if it rains

McLaren on Larson F1 test talks and Verstappen comparisons (8)

As of Thursday there was an 85% chance of rain at the green flag of the Indy 500. The 500 cannot be raced in the rain, and Larson has a very small window to race the Indy 500 and then fly to Charlotte for the Coca-Cola 600 he is scheduled to contest on the same day.

If it rains, a decision will have to be made as to whether Larson starts or continues the 500 if there’s a delay, or heads for Charlotte instead.

In the build-up to the event the party line has always been that NASCAR is the priority. Larson leads the championship, and if you miss a race in NASCAR you have to apply for special dispensation to still be included in NASCAR’s playoff system - even if you qualify for it on points/wins - to fight for the title at the end of the year.

However, there's been grounds to wonder whether the priorities have changed in recent days and weeks.

McLaren on Larson F1 test talks and Verstappen comparisons (9)

Both Hendrick and Brown have said that any decision on what Larson will do will be made at the last possible moment as the weather will no doubt be a moving target.

Speaking on Friday, Brown said that the decision of what will happen in this event if there is a rain delay is solely down to Hendrick.

Brown joked that they would lock Hendrick in a room and wait for white smoke to emerge from the roof - like for a new Pope being selected - to get his decision on what to do.

He added “I know he [Hendrick] doesn't want to pull him [Larson, out of the race]”, but of course the Cup Series championship is extremely important and Hendrick doesn’t want to risk NASCAR’s wrath.

Higher-percentage forecasts of rain have come before, like in 2019 when none hit the track and the race ran unimpeded - so this might be a non-story.

The other fun element is that only one driver would be eligible to take over for Larson - and that’s Nolan Siegel, who was bumped out of the race last weekend in qualifying.

Given he's a rookie who failed to make the race, you might be forgiven for thinking that’s a backup plan McLaren wouldn’t be interested in but you couldn’t be more wrong.

McLaren on Larson F1 test talks and Verstappen comparisons (10)

Siegel leads the Indy NXT championship and coincidentally has raced for the United Autosports team co-owned by Brown.

Brown says he hasn’t talked to Siegel yet but admitted there’s a plan in place, and just to add to that, Siegel is the only possible driver that can do it.

“My guys at United say he's an unbelievable talent,” Brown added.

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“And I think that's the same conclusion [Tony] Kanaan and Gavin [Ward] have as well.

“Personally, I've not seen him drive, but I value the- actually, the first people that told me about Lando [Norris] was my partner at United, Richard Dean, who's been around racing a thousand years, and a guy named Alan Gow, who runs British Touring Cars [which had Norris star on its support ticket in Ginetta Juniors].

“So when he tells me that guy's special, I believe him, and he said Nolan's special. The guys over here feel the same.”

Tony Kanaan - McLaren's sporting director as of last year - would be the obvious replacement but he hasn't completed a veterans' refresher test to make himself eligible, despite having done the 500 last year with McLaren and having won the race back in 2013.

McLaren on Larson F1 test talks and Verstappen comparisons (2024)
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