But however good the strategy he was on, and how beneficial the early Safety Car, finding pure car pace without burning the tyres was the key.
McLaughlin spoke later on Sunday about wanting to maximise each session and race, and at the moment he’s getting every last bit out of a very good package.
It could, though, have been very different. McLaughlin was lucky to avoid getting caught up in that Turn 5 incident on the first lap on Sunday.
Having picked the inside line while Scott Pye was fired around in the pack ahead, McLaughlin snuck through.
The likes of team-mate Fabian Coulthard and Mark Winterbottom weren’t as fortunate.
Breakthrough but no salvation for Tickford
Rick Kelly’s double-podium at Phillip Island for Nissan meant Tickford Racing headed to Perth as the only multi-car team yet to visit the rostrum.
That stat was rectified on Saturday when Winterbottom finished second, having made his single stop for tyres relatively late.
Team-mate Waters ran third with five laps to go but faded to sixth against those on fresher tyres.
Chaz Mostert would have been in the mix as well on a two-stopper, if not for being turned around by Jamie Whincup.
It was a strong day for the team, with Waters, Winterbottom and Mostert having started second, fourth and sixth.
Winterbottom, who moved from 17th to second in the last 20 laps, even went as far as to say “the feeling under the car is something I haven’t had for about two years”.
Sunday did not come with a repeat dose of champagne.
Mostert qualified third, while Winterbottom and Waters were both Q1 casualties, the 2015 champion then picking up damage in friendly fire with team-mate Richie Stanaway in that Turn 5 melee.
Mostert led the second stint but a fuel-timer problem cost him track position, although high tyre degradation meant he had little to fight with anyway.
He was the first Tickford Falcon home in 11th, and crossed the Nullarbor again knowing there’s still plenty of work to be done.
Hitting the sweet spots
Tickford was among multiple teams with contrasting performances across each day’s qualifying sessions.
Only Mostert and Reynolds lined up inside the top 10 on Saturday and Sunday, with nine different teams getting at least one driver in there in either session.
Saturday’s top 10 had three Tickford drivers, two each from DJR Team Penske and Erebus and one apiece from Brad Jones Racing (Tim Slade), Triple Eight (Craig Lowndes) and 23Red Racing.
Sunday’s top 10 had three Nissans, two Triple Eight drivers (Shane van Gisbergen and Whincup) and one each from Tickford, Erebus, BJR (Nick Percat), Walkinshaw Andretti United (James Courtney) and Tekno.
The first two teams in pitlane perhaps best represented the challenge of finding the set-up sweet spot.
Having been first and third on Saturday, McLaughlin and Coulthard were 19th and 17th on Sunday, while van Gisbergen and Whincup were 12th and 14th on Saturday then first and second on Sunday.
Practice 4 on Sunday morning claimed plenty of scalps, with different track conditions including earlier rain, lower temperatures, more cloud cover and more wind.
Those fine margins extended to the races, with Whincup talking on Sunday – for the second time in as many events – about having “detuned our car” as the factory Holden team’s somewhat mixed start with the ZB Commodore continues.
“It had absolutely nowhere near the pace needed today,” Whincup said after finishing sixth. “I was just hanging onto the thing.”
Knockout qualifying is a hit
The three-phase qualifying format was a big part of those mixed-up grids, having already been well-received the first time it was used at Symmons Plains last month.
Those two events were picked as a trial for the system, which also rewards the top 10 drivers in associated practice with a free pass for the first segment.
Symmons and Barbagallo were – as the shortest tracks on the calendar – prime candidates to help avoid traffic-related incidents with a full fleet of 26 Supercars on track at once.
Concerns that it would simply transfer any associated congestion to the end of practice have largely been unfounded, and it has definitely given Fridays more importance.
It offers a proper form guide at the end of the day, with drivers having chased one of those 10 automatic Q2 spots.
Barbagallo’s track surface added to that pressure, with the fact a driver’s first flying lap was generally their only opportunity to set a quick time on that set.
By Sunday morning, tyre banks were looking a bit second hand, and Practice 4 started on a wet track.
McLaughlin was one of the high-profile absentees from the top 10, then made a mistake at Turn 6 in Q1, which meant meant he started well down the order.
After these two events, the format is being reviewed by the Supercars Commission for future use, but it’s unlikely we’ve seen the last of it.