Mercedosaurus Rex at Indianapolic Park
Part 18: The 1995 '500' - Did the Mercedosaurus bite its masters after all?
- Henri Greuter
- April 29, 2010; updated on November 6, 2014
- 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
- Appendix 7: A review of Beast by Jade Gurss
1995 Indianapolis 500 practice (May 15, 1995)
1995 saw the debut of the Mercedes Benz IC108-engined Penske PC24. The PC24 was inspired by the 1994 contender, which in quadcam trim had won 11 out of 15 races, so it 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 to build up and develop 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 Luyendijk 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 after the Brazilian had narrowly qualified a Lola IC-108 backup car which had been 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 Duracell-sponsored backup car for Raul Boesel.
(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".
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 saying 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 while cornering, 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.
The major difference between Johansson's car car in ‘95 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. The 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.
In his book Inspired to design, Nigel Bennett described the differences he made to the PC24 compared with the PC23. The most important one was that the engine, and therefore the weight distribution, was shifted a little more to the rear (at the expense of a slight aerodynamic handicap), in order to compensate for the understeer experienced with the PC23, especially in qualifying. However, Goodyear then introduced another specification of rear tyres at the request of their other customers – a specification which, despite assurances from Goodyear that certain parameters of the tyres would not be affected, proved to be unsuited to the additional load now being put through them by the revised Penske chassis. The most obvious manner this could be observed was that the car was most affected in qualifying, to the extent that Team Penske failed to score a single pole position, while the PC23 had taken 10 in 1994. In race setup the problem was less severe.
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 illegally, with manipulated pop-off valves and with more 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 building his own buick V6 based engine, if 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 with having 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.
Thanks to Patrick Morgan and Jade Gurss it is known today that the widely assumed higher center of gravity was much exaggerated. It was even less that 3 mm higher then that of an Ilmor 265D quadcam. So, with hindsight, the PC23 indeed suffered from handling difficulties in 1994 that could be traced back to the use of the 265E engine, but its weight or weight distribution had minimal if any effects at all.
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 May 1994. Of the seven PC23 chassis in existence, six of them were built up as PC23-500I. The seventh chassis remained Ilmor/D-powered that month and was used in the week between Bump Day and Carb Day for some tests at Milwaukee. 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.
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.“
That still leaves a few thoughts and mysteries for which at first sight there seems to be no obvious explanation. The stiff front anti-roll bar appears to have been on the cars in the April test sessions and it seems not to have been a problem. If speeds of 227+ had been achieved in May then it would have nothing special, and it would have been remarkable for the works Penskes not to be among the fastest cars, but it would have been enough to make the field, and once in the race it would have been an entirely different matter.
In his book Inspired to design Nigel Bennett had the following to say about the troubles of 1995. The change in the weight distribution of the car compared to the PC23 meant that it didn’t work with the new tires. That the ultra-stiff front anti-roll bar wasn’t taken off was a major oversight. It caused understeer at mid and exit of the corners where the speeds were at their lowest. Corrections with front wing and ride height made the car loose at the entry of the corners where the speed was at the highest.
But Bennett also felt that the problem had affected the confidence of the drivers. He based that primarily on the fact that none of them, even in the Rahal-Lolas (for which they had been given the setups) managed to reach speeds that had been achieved by other drivers in identical cars. All that happened that month at the track probably had its effect on both Unser and Fittipaldi.
Bennett also explained that he wasn’t in favour of all the changes to other borrowed cars since that distracted the drivers from working with their engineers on making the PC24 work.
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.
But then: some more about PC23's performances at Indy in 1994 and 1995
As already mentioned, shortly after May 1995 the Penskes not qualifying at Indy were thought by some to have partly been caused by a design flaw in the car that had already been present in the PC23 the year before. That the PC23 wasn’t affected by it in 1994 was credited to the massive power and the resulting straight-line speeds that made up (and more) for the flaw. We also saw how many years later it was revealed that the true reasons were related to a setup feature of the car, inspired by the need to make up for some differences in design and chassis specifications and the Goodyear tyres compared with the year before.
But let's give some more attention to another matter we mentioned briefly already; Why did the three type-1994 PC23s at the track that year fail as well?
Let’s start with explaining why this question arises by giving some details and facts.
First of all, the PC23 had a weight bias that was slightly more forward than that the PC24. In theory the car would be less affected by the new generation of rear tyres. Maybe the ’95 tyres made the car less fast than it would have been on the ’94 tyres but still, in theory the PC23 had a better weight distribution than the PC24.
As mentioned already, the 1994-type Lola T94/00, at least in race conditions, was definitely not an impressive car compared with the two other ’94-origin cars, the Penske PC23 and the Reynard 94I. In qualifying things were a bit different since all Lola drivers combined managed to win six poles. It is interesting that the Lola poles were won on all kind of tracks; meaning there wasn't a single type of track on which they performed markedly better. Penskes won 10 poles. (Reynard had no poles to celebrate.) But Lola scored only a single race win in the battlefield-like Michigan 500 of that year.
Nevertheless, three T94/00s still managed to qualify for the 1995 race. None of them were part of the top teams, however, and one may wonder how many of them would have been able to qualify had there been more `95 Lolas and Reynards entered and been available for qualifying.
All of the T94/00s qualified were fitted with Ford XB engines and used Firestone tyres which makes it difficult to make a direct comparison with the PC23-IC108s. The ideal tool to compare with, an IC108-powered T94/00 on Goodyears, wasn’t around.
The fact is that neither Emerson Fittipaldi nor Stefan Johansson could make the PC23s work. In the case of Fittipaldi there may be the excuse of working only a limited time with the car (one day). Besides that, you may wonder about Emerson's state of mind and his level of confidence while working with the car. Johansson, however, had spent more time with his cars.
The one question that instantly comes to mind about the setup of the factory team car as driven by Emmo must be: did that car also have the very stiff anti-roll bar installed and, based on the suggestion that there was cooperation between Bettenhausen Racing and Team Penske: was Team Bettenhausen told about the stiff anti-roll bar and did they use it too?
When I asked him about it, Nigel Bennett replied with the following comment.
“I have no records to fall back on, but I think the book (Bennett’s own publication Inspired to design, HG) describes the sequence re the stiff ARB. Emerson lost the 1994 race to Al when he panicked, due to lack of information and slapped the wall. He then asked for a super stiff front ARB for ovals. It really worked for him on short ovals so it was on automatically for Indy. I don’t remember it coming off. Bettenhausen wouldn’t have had it I don’t imagine.”
Bennett added the following comment which was dealing with the 1995 car during the tests in April of that year.
“It would have been on for the final test before Indy where Emmo went well (228?).”
Based on Bennett’s feelings, it appears as if the PC23-007 was also fitted with such a stiff anti-roll bar, although the Bettenhausen cars were not. Johansson did however reach faster speeds with his cars than Fittipaldi on the one day he worked with PC23-007. This suggests that Bennett’s feelings about the kind of anti-roll bar used are likely correct. Still, there is the possibility that Emerson never got the maximum out of the car since he didn't work as long with the car as Johansson. But I dare to believe the comment by Bennett that Stefan Johansson didn't have an anti-roll bar as stiff as the one on the Penske factory cars. In that case: despite driving a chassis that had proven to be superior to the Lola T94/00 a year ago, Johansson couldn't match the speeds of the Firestone-shod T94/00s in his PC23.
Reasons for this could be:
- - The Firestones being better tyres for the job. Don’t forget that the fastest non-Lola-Menard was Scott Goodyear in a Firestone-shod Reynard-Honda. Some other Firestone-shod cars qualified well and performed admirably during the race.
- - The changes made to the Goodyear tyres for 1995 working less well on the Penske PC23 than the 1994 tyres.
- - As already mentioned, Lola T94/00s had proven to be second best in qualifying during 1994 already and unlike the Penske PC23s they weren't affected in a negative manner by the changes in the new rear tyres, if not actually benefitting from these changes. The gap in performance in qualifying trim between the T94/00 and the PC23 had been reduced. It is not impossible that the T94/00 by now had the upper hand on the PC23.
- - Bettenhausen, a customer team, incapable of extracting the maximum out of the car due to lack of some `inside, Penske only` knowledge about the PC23, and most particularly, damper setups.
- - It is generally believed and accepted that the Ford XB engine had a bit more top end power than the Mercedes IC108 engine. Thus: although the difference wasn’t as dramatic as the year before: in 1995 the situation was reversed with the T94/00s having the more powerful engine than the PC23.
- - And then of course: the suggested design flaw within the PC23 that made the car less suitable for Indy but that had gone undetected because of the use of the 265E.
In my correspondence with Nigel Bennett, he suggested that track circumstances in cold May have been very much different to those during the tyre tests in April. Bennett also wrote that he didn't know if the tyres tested in April were supplied in May as well. Other than that, Bennett’s comment about the PC23 was the following.
“Was there something specifically wrong with the PC23? It won 12 races in 1994, 5 of them ovals. Just wrong at a superspeedway? Hardly possible unless excess drag was the problem, or lack of power except with the big engine. Certainly not aerodynamics.”
Although I still can’t point to the exact reason why the PC23s failed like they did at the Speedway in May, there is however one possible explanation that I can remove from my list of reasons. And when doing so, I can debunk one rumour about the PC23.
After further correspondence with Nigel Beresford, I am by now convinced that the PC23 didn't have the suggested design flaw that made it a lesser superspeedway car but was saved for embarrassment because of the 265E engine. Because almost by accident, Beresford provided me with the clue where to look for the answer on that question.
I, and who knows how many others with me, have always been assumed that in 1994 the PC23 has never been at IMS without the 265E engine, Nigel Bennett in his book mentioning such as well.
Pre-race tyre tests at the Speedway in April were indeed conducted by Team Penske in 1995, yet they weren't in 1994. Looking back on it, this makes perfect sense. Tyre tests with a regular PC23-Ilmor/D in the Spring of 1994 made little to no sense since such a car would not be used. The 265E was announced early April and technically it would have been possible to conduct tyre tests with the PC23-265E at the Speedway. But that was never done and the best explanation for that is simple: not showing your true hand. Better arrive at the Speedway unprepared rather than give away too much about what the 265E was capable of and risk a sudden rule change that would be aimed against the engine. Other than that, the team was still working on achieving the reliability it required for the engine to survive the full 500-mile distance.
But being unable to find something in print doesn’t mean it never happened. Private tests do and did happen at the Speedway once in a while. But not all of those test sessions are publicised, let alone make headlines as they did in early 2003 when Mario Andretti went airborne yet survived, or late 2003 when poor Tony Renna had his fatal accident.
Nigel Beresford pointed out that Team Penske carried out at least one tyre test in the second half of 1994, using PC23-Ilmor/Ds. "Checking out the chassis record available I found out there had been 3 tyre test sessions with PC23-Ilmor/Ds. These were held on August 23 to 25 and October 19 to 21. On both occasions Al Unser Jr drove chassis 003. Finally, on November 4th Al was back driving his Indy winner, chassis 007."
So in the second half of 1994 there were seven test days with a PC23-Ilmor/D, arguably the closest thing to what Fittipaldi and Johansson drove in May 1995: a PC23-Mercedes IC108.
Beresford recalled that on one of these sessions in the second half of 1994 he was the engineer working with Unser, who expressed his satisfaction with the car he drove. The highest recorded speed during these tests had been a 224.8 lap in early October. To put this in perspective, in qualifying five months earlier, only five drivers managed faster four-lap averages, two of them being Fittipaldi and Unser in the PC23-265E. The others were Raul Boesel in a Lola T94/00, while Jacques Villeneuve and Michael Andretti drove a Reynard 94I, all three men using Ford XB power.
Two drivers in the starting field didn't top this 224.8 as an average over four laps, yet still managed to score a faster speed during one of their four qualifying laps. One of these drivers was Arie Luyendijk in the lone Lola T94/00-Ilmor/D in the field. (Mario Andretti in a T94/00-XB was the other driver.) None of the other Ilmor/D-powered drivers managed to make at least one official qualifying lap faster than 224.8 mph, although Bobby Rahal did break the 225 barrier with the PC22-Ilmor/D backup he had hired. (Which tells, if anything, how good the 1993 PC22 was.)
Now there may be a difference between 224.8 in test conditions or with the intention of qualifying as fast as possible for the Indy 500. But still, there is more than enough evidence that suggests that 224.8 is quite an impressive speed at IMS in 1994 when being forced to use a quadcam 2.65-litre V8 engine. By the way: the slowest qualifier had a speed of 220.992 mph.
Of course, there could be a case that this 224.8 was by far and away the fastest lap speed made and only one of very few that were above 221 mph, the speed that Fittipaldi had difficulty in reaching in May 1995. It’s known that during test work Unser Jr rarely went all out to get the maximum out of the car. He could be very fast if he wanted to but apparently during testing at least he rarely wanted to be fast.
But even knowing this, is there any reason to believe, if the PC23 truly had a design flaw which hampered it at superspeedways only, that even the slightest indication of this flaw had gone unnoticed during any of the seven days the car ran at IMS in the second half of 1994? And that the team had been lured into that trap because that single 224.8 lap and some other fast laps had indicated to the team that all was OK and had thus been wrongfooted?
Given Team Penske's quality, I find that impossible to believe. Had there been such a flaw, I am pretty sure symptoms would have been appeared during those post-race tests in 1994. But even if conditions allowed speeds in testing circumstances in October that were higher than those possible in May, when a car was capable of 224.8 in October 1994 there couldn’t be much wrong with it then (October) and before (May).
The exact reason(s) why those PC23-IC108s at the Speedway in May 1995 didn’t perform according to expectations still remain(s) a mystery, at least to me. There are plenty of theories - I’ve listed some of them already. Most likely each of those was to some extent involved. But a design flaw showing up without the power of the 265E to hide it is definitely not the one.
If the rumour that the availability of the 265E to Team Penske contributed to their downfall one year later is still going on, it is by now (May 2014) time to put that rumour to rest. There is more than enough evidence to support that this rumour is false. The Penske PC23 definitely didn't have a design flaw that was hidden by the power of the 265E and found its way into the 1995-type PC24. That story, ever so often told, as to how the 265E's success in 1994 contributed to Penske's downfall one year later remains a nice legend but from now on it's no more than a myth, just like the other widely believed suggestion that the 265E's CofG was much higher than that of the Ilmor 265D and so largely responsible for the different behaviour of the PC23-265E, a myth already debunked by Jade Gurss and Patrick Morgan.
Ever since these pages went online in late 2009, they have always contained hints that the PC23 may have had such a design flaw and that the 265E was responsible for this flaw going undetected. Now, 20 years after the 1994 Indy 500, I have found enough convincing evidence to state that this was not the case at all, leading me to rewrite every chapter dealing with 1995 and my final verdict.
Nigel Beresford came with another thought about the PC23 and PC24.
"The CART series at that time had many different types of tracks the cars had to race on: street tracks, road courses, small ovals and superspeedways. It meant that there was always a compromise to make to make the car versatile enough on all type of tracks, or one could focus on certain types of tracks at the expense of efficiency elsewhere. For the 1994 season the aero engineers at Penske knew that for Indy there would be a massive power advantage. With that knowledge in mind they could design a more hi-drag package that brought more downforce. It is a known fact that the team had concentrated on making a car that worked better on the short ovals where more downforce was an asset. The race results on those ovals in the 1994 season showed it worked as planned. When it came to all-out raw speed in a single lap as required for qualifying it worked less well (but what is less well with 10 out of 16 poles?). But overall as a race day package the PC23 was difficult to beat. At Indianapolis, the place where carrying as little drag as possible counted most, the problem was taken care of with the 265E."
But what if the 265E had not been there?
"The most likely scenario is that in practice and qualifying the Penskes would not have been as impressive as they were with the 265E. Yet they would have been much better balanced that the 265E version was in race day trim and still a mighty dangerous contender to deal with."
"Worries about qualifying at all appear to be not necessary, given the fact that while testing tires a top speed of 224.8 has been recorded. The bump speed in May 1994 was around 221 mph. There is indeed still a lot of what-if thinking required as well as a “we see A-B-C-D so the next sequence is most likely E-F-G-H” logic. But despite that, I think it is by now a safe conclusion to say that the PC23 had nothing to do with misery for the PC24 at Indy in 1995."
Still it leaves some interesting thoughts about what might have happened had the PC23 have had that design flaw after all. In that case, 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.