Mercedosaurus Rex at Indianapolic Park
Part 18: The 1995 '500' - The Mercedosaurus bites its masters after all
- Henri Greuter
- April 29, 2010
- March-Alfa Romeo 90CA - Fiasco Italo-Brittanico, by Henri Greuter
- March-Porsche 90P - The last oddball at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, by Henri Greuter
- Penske-Mercedes PC23-500I - Mercedosaurus Rex at Indianapolic Park, by Henri Greuter
- Part 1: Penske Racing at Indianapolis - new standards
- Part 2: Ilmor Engineering at Indianapolis
- Part 3: Mercedes, Benz and Mercedes-Benz at Indianapolis up until 1993
- Part 4: Equivalency formulas - waiting for things to go wrong
- Part 5: Stock blocks - keeping them rolling and promoting 'Born in the USA' technology
- Part 6: Indianapolis 1991 - Chevy And Rich Team owners
- Part 7: The Speedway narrowed, its speeds lowered
- Part 8: The forerunner
- Part 9: Pre-May '94 plans
- Part 10: Penske PC23 - a home for the engine
- Part 11: The 1994 Indycar season until mid-April
- Part 12: The unfair advantage and when others have it
- Part 13: Practice during the 1994 'Month of May'
- Part 14: Other bespoke-design 209s
- Part 15: From the last weekend of May '94 to the end of the season
- Part 16: Could the Mercedes Benz 500I have been stopped in time?
- Part 17: Creating an extinct species without it being forbidden, initially at least
- Part 19: A possible twist of fate for Rahal-Hogan and Penske as a legacy of the 500I
- Part 20: Re-evaluation of our verdict
- Part 21: PC23's further active career after 1994
- Part 22: USAC’s points of views and some answers
- Part 23: The loose ends that didn’t fit in anywhere else and the epilogue
- Part 24: "Plan your work; work your plan" - Chuck Sprague on the PC23
- Appendix 1: Specifications
- Appendix 2: Car and driver appearances and performances during the Month of May 1994
- Appendix 3: Chassis, entry, practice and race numbers in 1994
- Appendix 4: PC23's 1994 results sans Mercedes Benz 500I
- Appendix 5: PC23's 1995-'96 results sans Mercedes Benz 500I
- Appendix 6: A reflection on the PC23 chassis used by Team Penske in 1994
1995 Indianapolis 500 practice (May 15, 1995)
1995 saw the debut of the Mercedes Benz IC108-engined Penske PC24. The PC24 was inspired on the 1994 contender, and as it in quadcam trim won 11 out of 15 races that wasn't exactly a bad source of inspiration.
I. April 1995, the alarm bells are ringing but aren't taken seriously
Compared to 1994, the first few races of the season were difficult for Penske, and it required quite some effort to become competitive again. Fittipaldi lost the third race of the season (Phoenix) by a stroke of bad luck but Unser Jr won the next race at Long Beach. Fittipaldi got his revenge for Phoenix and won Nazareth, with Stefan Johansson finishing third driving a '94-type PC23 fitted with the 1995-type Mercedes IC108 engine.
One thing Team Penske hadn't done while preparing for Indianapolis was building up and developing a production-block V6 engine based on the Buick V6 as Roger had suggested considering back in August 1994. Instead, Team Penske went to battle at the Speedway using the Mercedes IC108 quadcam.
During test sessions in mid-April with the PC24, Unser and Fittipaldi reached speeds of 228mph, using the PC24-IC108. Remember that speed figure: 228mph in mid-April '95.
The test was written about in a Dutch newspaper. In the article Arie Luyendyk told how Fittipaldi had been irritated by the fact that what seemed to be a good speed (228mph) was of little value when Arie and his team mate Scott Brayton were flying around with 230 or more. Then again, they drove brand new Team Menard-entered ’95 Lola-Menard cars with much more powerful Menard pushrod V6 engines, the kind of engine that was quick in qualifying but rarely around at the finish. Nevertheless, at first sight it looked like quite a good dress rehearsal for the upcoming 500-miles race at Indianapolis, and two victories out of five races wasn't bad for Team Penske.
II. Indianapolis, May 21, 17:51 local time
Stefan Johansson qualified a hired Reynard-Ford on the last row of the Indianapolis starting field. Johansson’s team had hired the Reynard since his original mount, a 1994 Penske PC23-IC108 had been too slow. Johansson bumped Emerson Fittipaldi from the field who had narrowly qualified a Lola-IC108 backup car, a car leased to Team Penske by Bobby Rahal.
Fittipaldi in the car he qualified briefly but eventually was bumped. A curious reversal of colour schemes: one year ago a car in Marlboro colours was carrying Miller decals, in 1995 a car in Miller colours carried Marlboro signs. This was Bobby Rahal’s back-up car, a Lola T95/00 with Mercedes IC108 engine.
(IMS photo by Jef Richards, courtesy IMS Photos, used with permission)
Defending race winner and champion Al Unser Jr never qualified for the race at all in another Team Rahal backup car! An ironic reversal of the situation of the year before when Team Rahal needed Team Penske backup cars in order to qualify for the race.
Defending winner Al Unser Jr in the second Team Rahal backup car, another Lola T95/00 powered by a Mercedes IC108. This was the backup for Raul Boesel, the Duracell-sponsored car.
(IMS photo by Jef Richards, courtesy IMS Photos, used with permission)
Not once during the Month of May did the Penskes manage to reach the 228 speeds set during the April practice sessions. In an attempt to sort out what was going on, Penske brought over the previous year's winning chassis, this time powered by a 1995 quadcam Mercedes IC108 engine.
On Sunday May 15th Fittipaldi drove a couple of laps with this car, a Penske PC23-IC108. This chassis was PC23-007, the race winner of the previous year when it was using Mercedes 500I power. A curious detail is that Fittipaldi drove the car with the number 89 on it. Generally Penske backup cars used the number of one of the primary cars, with a T added. (IMS photo by Jim Haines, courtesy IMS Photos, used with permission)
Fittipaldi drove the car to no avail, and said that "It feels about the same as this year's car". (The chassis used was none less than PC23-007, Unser Jr's winning tub of the year before.)
Perhaps surprisingly, Team Penske wasn't just offered help by Team Rahal. One of the 'Indy only' teams was also in a position to lend Penske a helping hand. Pagan Racing had entered two Mercedes-powered Reynards for Roberto Guerrero, and the team made their backup car available to Team Penske for evaluation duties. Al Unser Jr drove the car on Monday May 16th but the team decided against continuing with the Reynard after that.
Al Unser, seen on Monday May 16, driving the Pagan Racing backup car of Roberto Guererro. This is a Reynard 94I with Mercedes-Benz IC108 engine. It may have been one year old already but the Reynard 94I was still a hot contender. In fact, when Arie Luyendyk set his all-time speed records in 1996 he was driving a Reynard 94I-type chassis. (IMS photo by Jef Richards, courtesy IMS Photos, used with permission)
Whatever the team tried, they failed to persuade their cars to corner as fast as necessary. One thing Penske never did, however, was bring over one of the Mercedes 500I engines. Although these had been mentioned on several occasions during the Month of May, Penske kept on telling all month long that the IC108 engines would be the only ones that they would be using, and that they had problems with the chassis instead of their engines.
Emerson Fittipaldi in his primary car, the #2 Penske PC24-Mercedes-Benz IC108.
(IMS photo by Jim Haines, courtesy IMS Photos, used with permission)
Whatever the race would bring, no surprise could have been bigger or more sensational than the fact that all Penske drivers failed to qualify and that no single Penske entry and/or chassis made the field. The man who put money on that would have been rich today.
So now, let's fast forward in time a little.
III. Milwaukee, WI, June 4th 1995
Paul Tracy, driving a Lola-Ford, narrowly beat Al Unser who had been the most dominant driver at the track that day in a Penske PC24-IC108, the car that in Superspeedway trim was unable to qualify at Indy just two weeks earlier.
And again a bit forward in time...
IV. Brooklyn, MI, July 30th 1995
Scott Pruett had the last laugh in the last lap of the Michigan 500. In a photo finish after a last-lap draft shootout Pruett beat Al Unser Jr whose PC24-IC108 had been the most dominant car after the retirements of the Honda-powered cars.
So what had happened to Team Penske that they failed to qualify at Indianapolis?
The basic problem with the Penske PC24 at Indy has been reported as the car being unstable in the turns and understeering badly in the middle of the turns. Drivers Unser Jr and Fittipaldi had to lift the throttle in the first and third turns. Even more of a surprise was that last year's winning chassis, the PC23, one of which was driven that year by Stefan Johansson, was also way too slow.
One of the cars that Stefan Johansson had to forsake in order to make the starting field of the 1995 Indianapolis 500: his primary Penske-Mercedes PC23-Mercedes Benz IC108. Notice the lack of a tailfin on the bonnet, otherwise a telltale detail of the PC23. (IMS photo by Jef Richards, courtesy IMS Photos, used with permission)
The major difference between Johansson's car and the ones run by Team Penske in '94 was that Johansson used the IC108 engine. Unser, Fittipaldi and Tracy ran the PC23s with the 500I pushrod engine in '94.
Apart from the difficulties of getting through the corner, it was acknowledged later on that the '95 Penske PC24 didn't like the '95 Goodyear tyres as much as the Lolas and Reynards did. Reason for this was that after dominating in 1994 Team Penske hadn't participated in a particular Goodyear tyre test at the Speedway. As a result Goodyear's superspeedway tires for 1995 were based on data obtained with Lola and Reynard cars. This may also have caused some problems at Indy but the PC24 was known to have tyre problems since its first race already.
The Goodyear tyre test in April at Indianapolis had been problematic but these were credited to high winds and experiments with a low rear wing. Once a regular wing position was tried again Unser and Fittipaldi went over 227mph, an indication that things seemed to be good enough for the upcoming month of May.
In 1994 the PC23-500I had turned lap speeds of a little over 230mph, with top speeds of up to 245mph. Compare this to the 234+ speeds of Arie Luyendijk with trap speeds of close to 240mph he set in 1995 running a Lola-Menard (a Buick V6 production engine-derived pushrod V6) which is assumed to have been a bit less powerful than the 500I in 1994. Slower trap speeds, yet higher averages: the Lola-Menard appeared to have been much more well-balanced and quicker through the turns than the PC23-500I, probably a result of the fact that the Lolas ordered by Team Menard were specially modified for use of their V6. The '94 Penske PC23 was never modified that much for its lone race with the pushrod engine.
It is an entirely different subject which deserves an separate story but there are stories on the internet about the 1995 Lola-Menards running illegal, with manipulated pop-off valves and with boost than the allocated 55 inch. As a result the power output of the Menard V6 was beyond 900hp in 1995, thus comparable with that of the Mercedes 500I the year before.
In the 1994 section of this series I mentioned how Roger Penske had suggested to built his own Buick V6-based engine, even only to show USAC and Tony George something. The 1995 Hungness yearbook contains some information about this plan. It reads as following:
“A Penske source said team owner Roger Penske intended to come to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with a Buick engine of his own, but Ilmor Engineering was told by USAC if Penske did that, the boost on the Buick would also be cut.”
The Hungness book continues by explaining that according to Larry Curry, the Menard team manager, this statement was incorrect. Curry said that Penske wanted to build a purpose-built V6 block instead of using the regular iron Buick block. But USAC didn't want Penske to arrive at the track with a purpose-built V6 since it didn't want to go into that kind of direction. From Curry’s comments it appears as if the Menard engines were never threatened to have their boost reduced since they retained their Buick heritage.
One comment needs to be made about the 1995 race at Indianapolis. Even though Ilmor-Mercedes pulled their purpose-design pushrod engine, Peter Greenfield did enter his engine for a second time, again in the modified ’93 Lola the team had used the year before. This time Greenfield's son Michael was the driver. Regrettably, the car was again too slow to make the field but the effort itself deserves all praise. Peter Greenfield was without doubt the man who was hit hardest of all by the boost reduction for purpose-design 209s.
I was in the USA in the summer of 1996 to attend the Michigan 500 and the Brickyard 400. During one of my domestic flights I happened to sit next to someone connected to Team Penske in both 1994 and 1995. We talked about how the events had unravelled for Penske in these years and according to my informant, what had happened was something like this.
It was generally assumed that the instability in the corners was the result of a varying chassis balance caused by the differences between the 500I on the one hand, and on the other hand the '94 quadcam Ilmor/D engine for which the chassis was designed. The Merc 500I was taller than the regular Ilmor/D, had a higher center of gravity and was thus slightly upsetting balance and aerodynamics. Because of the differences between the engines, one could be forgiven for not noticing that another difficulty was upsetting the handling of the PC23 chassis. Besides that, the understeer of the PC23s could be partly erased by running a bit more downforce. With about 150 more hp available compared to the most serious opposition adding some more downforce was not too much of a problem.
According to this theory, the power of the 500I engine had, to some extent, hidden the shortcomings of the PC23 chassis at Indy quite a bit, still enabling the car to be a dominant outright winner. However, it is far from unimaginable that if Team Penske had used at least one of the PC23s with the regular Ilmor/D engine the drivers would have discovered what Stefan Johansson and Emerson Fittipaldi found out the hard way in 1995 when they practiced their PC23-IC108s.
However, there were no PC23-Ilmor/Ds at Indy in 1994. Of the seven PC23 chassis in existence, six of them were built up as PC23-500I. What happened to the seventh chassis during May ’94 is unknown. The only 2.65-litre quadcam-engined Penskes at IMS were 1993-type PC22s. Team Penske itself had entered one such car with a 265/D engine, and a second PC22 with an updated ’93 Ilmor 265/C engine, designated C+. These two were backups and initially not intended to be used for the race at all.
PC22-Ilmor/Ds were also entered by Team Bettenhausen for Stefan Johansson and Gary Bettenhausen and these two cars were primary cars, intended to be raced. Johansson made the field with ease, Bettenhausen had the speed but crashed once too often during late practice sessions and missed the race.
Stefan Johansson in one of the PC22-Ilmor 265Ds he drove in the 1994 CART season. (photo HG)
Gary Bettenhausen wasn't signed up by Team Menard anymore after his 1993 exploits for the team. He still used a Menard-coloured helmet when he was assigned to one of the PC22-Ilmor 265Ds entered by his brother. Gary had the speed but crashed in practice on the third day of qualifying. Although the car was repaired in time to make a qualifying attempt, the speed that was once in the car was lost and Gary failed to qualify. (photo HG)
The PC22 was of proven quality, Fittipaldi won Indianapolis in 1993 with it. Had either Fittipaldi or Paul Tracy been more consistent that season one of them might have been the CART champion instead of Nigel Mansell. In 1994, Bobby Rahal still finished third at Indianapolis with his hired one-year-old PC22-Ilmor/D.
When I got in touch with Nigel Beresford, I spoke to him about the theory I was told - that in some way it was the legacy of the 500I engine. Beresford hadn't been with Penske in 1995 so he had no first-hand insights into the 1995 Penske efforts.
Beresford however admitted that there was some merit to the theory, but it wasn't the entire story. Nigel explained the following to me about the 1994 problems:
“I don't doubt that the "E" engine had a higher centre of mass than the "D". However, the problems we experienced were in the final phase of the turn, i.e. when the driver applied power after the apex. If the height of the centre of mass was affecting the car I'd have expected it to pose a problem at the apex, where lateral loadings were highest.”
Beresford had another explanation as to how the 1995 Penske failed at Indianapolis. According to him, it was a matter of the 1995 car not generating enough downforce compared to the other 1995 cars. And he came with alternative explanation of what happened.
In the spring of 2009 he had a meeting with designer Nigel Bennett and team member Nick Goozee and the subject of Indianapolis 1995 came up for discussion. Nigel Bennett then told the following about what he believed to have been the problem. In Nigel’s own words:
“He [Nigel Bennett, HG] recalled that the team had tested at Indy in early '95 in extremely windy conditions, which had 'spooked' the drivers somewhat. Then at Phoenix Emerson had tried a very stiff front anti roll bar setup which he had liked, so he kept this for Indy. Nigel [Bennett, HG] feels that this was a mistake, because it made the car understeer mechanically. The error they made was that they never tried a softer FARB, but instead they kept adding front wing which really hurt the entry to the turn (making the car loose in, but still understeering out of the corner) and hurt straightline speed. When Tracy ran a more conventional setup at the test at the end of the year he was much more comfortable and quickest of those running.“
“He [Nigel Bennett, HG] also felt that in '95 they had been hurt by a change of philosophy from Goodyear, who introduced a softer rear tyre that year. The PC24 was designed with a more rearward weight distribution because of the understeer problems experienced in 1994 with the PC23 (caused by overloading of the front tyres - Indycar front tyres at that time were right at the limit, so the best way to counter understeer was to reduce the loading on them by moving weight off of them). The softer rear tyre introduced by Goodyear for '95 couldn't live with this increased rearward weight bias.“
After the end of the 1995 season, which came halfway through November, Penske tested the PC24 again at Indianapolis. Paul Tracy returned to the team for the 1996 season and drove the 1995 Penske chassis at the Speedway. This was after resurfacing work on the track. Other drivers at the track were Mauricio Gugelmin and Robby Gordon (Reynard-Ford) and Michael Andretti and Christian Fittipaldi (Lola-Ford). Tracy ran a mechanically and aerodynamically changed car compared with the ones that were used 6 months early. Paul was comfortably the fastest man out on the track, lapping at over 232mph, although he admitted that the car was tricky to drive.
As to why Team Penske ran a ’95 chassis as late as November 1995 instead of a new 1996 chassis, that was not as strange as it seems, as one very good reason instantly comes to mind.
The split in US single-seater racing was about to take place, with the IRL announcing their rules and program for 1996. One of the most important rules was that in 1996 only chassis built in 1995 or earlier were allowed. So, in case Penske decided on entering the first 'IRL 500' they had to rely on their 1995 chassis as their most modern option, and given the experiences of May 1995 it did make sense to find out if the team had cured the problems with the car in case it was to be used at the Speedway in 1996.
The ’95 PC24-IC108 has one of the worst reputations of all Penske chassis since it failed to qualify at Indianapolis, even worse than for example the ’83 PC11 and the ’86 PC15, both of which did make the field at the Speedway in their respective years of duty, the PC11 even finishing second in the “500”. But the PC11 didn’t finish the season and was replaced by updated versions of the PC10. The PC15 was uncompetitive during the season. Granted, that was primarily because it was the debut season of the first-generation Ilmor-Chevy. Overall however, the PC24 was a fairly good and competitive car all season long. It needs to be remembered that defending champion Al Unser Jr still finished second that season, and that the ’95 season was much more competitive than the year before, when Al only had his team mates as his most serious opponents. Seen in that light the PC24 deserves a better reputation. However, the towering importance of Indianapolis, way above the status of the championship it is a part of, gives the PC24 a reputation it doesn’t entirely deserve.
Nevertheless, given the events of May 1995, the entire Penske ’94 program needs to be looked upon with an entirely different view. And think about how different the 1994 Indianapolis 500 could have been. In the worst possible case, Team Penske could have missed the cut at Indianapolis with a car that brought them 11 victories in 15 other races that same season…
The conversation I had on that domestic flight in the summer of ‘96 had one unexpected result for me.
At that time I still had mixed emotions about the 1994 Indianapolis race and the PC23-500I. I felt it had ruined the 1994 race even though I realized I had witnessed one of the most historic motor races in history. However, ever since that summer of 1996, my interest in the entire PC23-500I saga and the aftermath of 1995 started to grow bigger by the year, eventually resulting in this project.
Special thanks to Mr Ron McQueeney of IMS Photos for providing the majority of the pictures used in this chapter.