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Mercedosaurus Rex at Indianapolic Park
Part 20: Re-evaluation of our verdict



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Bobby Rahal


Rahal-Hogan Penske-Ilmor PC22




1994 Indianapolis 500, Carb Day

Bobby Rahal, Rahal-Hogan Penske PC22, Carb Day, 1994 Indianapolis 500

The '94 PC23 became a hallmark car over the entire ’94 CART season, winning 12 out of 16 races including Indianapolis, but the inability to reach qualifying speeds at Indy in the hands of Johansson and Fittipaldi in '95, as well as the non-qualification of Fittipaldi and Unser with the PC24 - a PC23+ so to speak - really hurts the reputation and status of the nearly invincible PC23. The Mercedes Benz IC108 engine wasn't to blame for the misery since three '95 Lolas, a '95 Reynard and a '94 Reynard fitted with IC108s made the race. Third was the best finish, Bobby Rahal doing so with a Lola-IC108.

One must wonder what the 500I engine had done in a Reynard or Lola during May ’94. Now this is a very tricky subject to deal with, but nevertheless, I dare bring up some observations and thoughts in order to find an answer to that question.

It is certain that any of the three ’94-type cars would have been compromised because of the higher engine. But it is a fact that two ’94 Reynards and three ’94 Lolas made the 1995 field and the ’94 Penske PC23 did not. Which raises the thought: what could have been expected from 500I-powered Reynards and Lolas in 1994 had these existed? If such was possible at all to begin with, given the fact that for starters the two cars needed a gearbox that would be able to cope with the 500I power and torque. But let’s assume such a box was available for both the Lola and the Reynard.

As for the Lola T94, that answer is difficult to give since the ’94 Lola hadn't given any impression of being a very good car at Indianapolis that year, at least in race conditions. Also during the entire season the performance of the Lola was under par, although much of this was also credited to 'plain bad luck'.

This was the Ford Cosworth-powered Lola T94 driven by Mario Andretti in his final “500”.
This photo was taken on Pole Day. (photo HG)

T94-XBs conquered six poles, proving there was speed in the chassis. To the question of whether a T94-500I could have been faster than a PC23-500I, my verdict would be “Maybe if with a well-prepared top team.”

Reynard on the other hand didn’t win a single pole in 1994 but the 94I’s performance at superspeedways was surprisingly good for a newcomer, including at Indianapolis. In the final classification of the 1994 “500” Reynards were classified second, fourth, sixth and seventh but Michael Andretti ended up in 6th after being penalized a lap which cost him third place. Thus it could have been second, third, fifth and seventh for Reynard.

Rookie Adrian Fernandez drove this Galles-entered Ilmor/D-powered Reynard 94I. This picture was taken on Pole Day in the early practice session when the car featured the fin under the nose cone. During qualifying and afterwards the fin was gone, not to be seen anymore. (photo HG)

Another rookie that year was Jacques Villeneuve driving a Ford XB-powered Reynard 94I entered by Forsythe-Green Racing. This is Jacques on Friday May 13th, in his backup car, not the actual car he ran in the race in which he finished second. But if I have done all my homework right this particular 94I chassis wrote history two years later. Because to the best of what I could deduct this is the actual Reynard chassis that was used by Arie Luyendyk in 1996 when he set the unofficial and official all-time track records that stood ever since. (photo HG)

The distinctive bow-like nose and the anhedral front wings made the Reynard unique among all cars entered and a source of inspiration for photographic experiments. This is the front end of Jimmy Vasser’s car, the fourth-place finisher that year. (photo HG)

There is no doubt that newcomer Reynard would have had its hands full making a variant of their 94I use the 500I engine. As a newcomer in the business, it was by far the most unlogical first choice for a chassis to be mated with the 500I.

It is thus no foregone conclusion that a 94I-500I would have been at least as fast as the Ilmor/D and Ford XB-powered 94Is, let alone that a 94I-500I would have been as fast if not faster than the PC23-500I. And we will never know either.

But if there was one 1994-design car that could have been faster then a Penske PC23-500I, the odds are the best for a 94I-500I.

I did indeed write “1994-design car” since there is another tantalizing thought left to discuss, about what could possibly have been the best already existing chassis fitted with the 500I engine and would have become the best and fastest car of them all in 1994.

What about the following thoughts? The one-year-old PC22s were still competitive in 1994. Look what Bobby Rahal did with limited practice with a PC22-Ilmor/D. Stefan Johansson qualified one handsomely too and had Gary Bettenhausen not crashed in the second weekend of qualifying he could have made the race too: the speed had been there Saturday morning. Would the 1993-type PC22 have been a better car for the 500I? That is, if the PC22 could have been fitted with a 500I to begin with.

A Penske PC22 powered by an engine for which it wasn’t designed from the outset: an Ilmor C+. What could this car have done if it had been fitted with an Ilmor 265E a.k.a. Mercedes Benz 500I? (photo HG)

Well, the all important factor of engine length made it possible: the Ilmor 265C had the same length as ’94 engines 265D and 265E/500I. It remains the question, however, if other parameters could have formed a problem. For example, would the strengthened gearbox that the 500I required fit on a PC22? Most because of the rear suspension setup the PC22 required to work at its very best. It remains an interesting thought whether the 500I-gearbox package would have fitted and worked on the PC22.

It is interesting to know that Nigel Beresford found the ’93 PC22 was a better car. In his own words:

“I personally think that the PC22 was a better handling, better balanced car than the PC23. Obviously the PC23 wasn’t a bad car (it won 12 / 16 races), and it was tidier than the PC22, but it wasn’t quite as nice handling.”

Now, let’s summarize.

In 1993, it was in the second week of practice when the Penske Team found the sweet spot of the PC22 that enabled Fittipaldi to win that year’s race. One year later, Bobby Rahal and Mike Groff had about three days time to sort their car out and make it fast enough to qualify. Rahal was a factor in the “non-PC23-500I” class, finishing third.

So what could Team Penske have achieved with the PC22 had they worked with it as thoroughly as they did with the PC23-500I? I would not at all be surprised if the PC22-Ilmor/D could have been the fastest car apart from the PC23-500I. As we already deduced, there would have been a good chance that it would have been a better car than the PC23-Ilmor/D.

Because of that I wonder what a PC22-500I would have been capable of. Somehow I get the feeling that the PC22 could have been a better home for the 500I. But of course, that's only theorizing. There is, however, not enough factual evidence to support that feeling.

When looking at what happened with Penske cars in the years after 1995, one thing can be noticed instantly. Looking at how competitive they were in the entire CART series, it went from bad to worse from 1995 on. A trend had started in 1995 (possibly in 1994 already?) and with hindsight, this trend could partly be explained.

Nigel Beresford felt that starting from 1993 onwards the trend was that the PC22-PC26 series of cars (which were essentially evolutions of the previous year’s design) became progressively more peaky in their aerodynamic performance as pitch sensitivity was traded for increased downforce in an effort to compete with the Reynards. Once the team switched over to Reynards, Beresford found out that that a car didn’t need to have an extreme sensitivity to rear ride height change. According to Nigel, the 1997 Penske car was superb on short ovals where the car ran in an essentially steady ride height state, but it was hopeless on road courses. In Nigel’s own words:

“Thus the PC22 was superbly easy to balance, the PC23 a little less easy and so on…”

Back to the cars in which the 500I engines could have been installed. We didn’t mention what would have happened if the 500I engine was used in a chassis designed around the engine from the outset. Far more sensational lap speeds must have been possible.

All together, the 500I engine enabled an apparently fairly easy Indianapolis victory for Penske in 1994. However, it wasn't however as simple as it appeared to be, as Jade Gurss has made clear in his book Beast.

Thanks to the fact that the 500I engine was tagged uncompetitive at lower turbo boost and went unused in 1995, Penske lost an "unfair advantage" that could have saved them in qualifying and at least would have enabled them to make the race. And once in the race you couldn't write off any Penske entry as having no chance. Too often the race had come to one of the team's entries after all.

Indianapolis is a cruel place. But sometimes it knows how to pay justice too while being cruel to somebody else. It had been long ago that a quadcam engine didn't win the 500-miles race. Normally, the first man at the finish with such an engine was the winner, in 1994 he was only second, behind the last surviving PC23-500I. In 1995 however, the same driver was once again the first of the DOHC engines to receive the chequered. And even though it wasn't without difficulties, Jacques Villeneuve won at Indianapolis after all.

With over 10 victories to choose between it is difficult to say what is the most glorious and remarkable of the many Team Penske victories. But the ’94 victory is certainly one of the three biggest of them all, because of the engine and the story behind it. However, there is no doubt about the fact that this victory was followed by Penske’s lowest moment ever at Indianapolis.

For the unbiased, neutral race fan, Team Penske ruined the '94 race in a historic manner. But there must have been a number of race fans who felt that the Team Penske '95 disaster was a more than deserved very public punishment for ruining the 1994 “500” and a case of poetic justice.

The events of 1995 certainly added an addendum to the story of 1994 that makes the entire Ilmor 265E/Mercedes Benz 500I story even more interesting and curious.

The final legacy that the “Mercedosaurus Benz” left behind is a political one.

How must USAC and Tony George have felt when a rule meant to benefit the smaller engine builders backfired on them like it happened in 1994? With, of all people, Roger Penske being the man behind this backfire? The man whose team had dominated Indianapolis so tremendously already in the years before.

With an alternative engine dominating the race over the conventionally equipped 'establishment' and the controversy that came with it, one could almost say that USAC and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway management finally got what they deserved since they were nearly begging for it to happen sooner or later. Even if their intentions were good, with a man like Roger Penske having a crush on “500” victories and knowing his commitment to success, his cleverness and the industrial might behind him, as well as all the other assets he garnered for his racing team over the years, something like the Mercedes pushrod affair simply had to happen.

It's anybody’s guess how influential the affair has been for Tony George and his IRL to specify one type of engine when the IRL changed its engine formula in 1997. However, it is fair to assume that the lessons the Mercedes Benz 500I taught to Tony George and USAC weren't forgotten when they created the new-for-1997 IRL rules. While still allowing more brands, for the first time since World War II only one type of engine was allowed. That kind of variety was by now gone. From now on USAC and IRL made rules that would ensure that all viable engines for Indycar racing could no longer be part of a monopoly deal. Everyone was to have access to all suitable engines.

The special records and distinctions earned by the PC23 and the 500I engine

The “Mercedosaurus Benz” engine ran only once at Indianapolis but it left a legacy in Speedway history that is unmatched by many other engines used at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. At Mercedes it also took a special spot in the company’s motor racing records.

Ignoring the fact that Mercedes hardly contributed anything technical to the engine and only financed the project, the engine was named Mercedes, like the ones they built and developed themselves in the past.

There are several Mercedes engines used in single-seater racing that won their first race. Think of, for example, the M196 engine used in the 1954 F1-type W196, or the M165 engine used in the 1939 W165 voiturette. Like the 500I, the M165 was a supercharged V8 but of only 1.5-litre (91 CI) capacity. Of all the Mercedes engines that won their debut race, the M165 and 500I V8s stand out, since their debut race, which they won, also turned out to be the only race they ever contested, due to all kind of circumstances.

During 1994 the Penske PC23 had already taken a special place among Penske-built cars but after 1996 it added other accomplishments to its long list of records.

When the 1995-type PC24 failed to qualify at Indianapolis, it for the time being made the PC23 the last of the Penske-brand cars that made the race.

American single-seater racing was split from 1996 on. IRL, which contained Indianapolis, started its first year by running cars complying to the 1995 rules, thus accepting cars of 1995 and/or older. This made the PC24 and older Penskes eligible for the race that year. However, the 1995 fiasco ensured that no single IRL team was even remotely interested in buying something out of 'Honest Roger’s Used Cars Parking Lot'.

An entirely new engine formula, and cars in which these engines were fitted, was introduced in 1997. With Team Penske not entering Indianapolis for the time being, the PC23 earned the distinction of being the last type of Penske chassis in the Indianapolis 500. In fact, thanks to the two cars rented to Rahal/Hogan, the PC22 and the PC23 are sharing that distinction.

Team Penske sent an engineer (Ian Reed) to Indy in 2000 to work with and observe the Treadway team, in order to learn the nuances of running an IRL car. Nigel Beresford states that this "was enormously different in almost every way from what we’d known from running there half a decade earlier. Following on from that I remember going to a test in early 2001 at Indy with our guys and Gil and Helio driving Treadway’s cars, prior to racing at Phoenix (and nearly winning the race) as a warm up before to going to the speedway for the 500." The one-off appearance in the IRL in 2001, when they entered the Indianapolis 500, was their first ”500” since 1995. Under IRL rules they had to buy an allowed chassis-and-engine combination. Production of Penske chassis had already ceased in 2000. After 1995 things went from bad to worse for Penske's self-built cars. The 1998 and 1999 season were letdowns in which they didn't win a single race. After these dramas, Penske pulled the pug on designing their own cars.

Team Penske still participated in CART but used customer Reynard chassis, although modified extensively, particularly in 2001 when the only parts that were Reynard were the chassis and gearbox. They did so with success, as their driver Gil de Ferran was CART champion in both 2000 and 2001.

Team Penske left CART after 2001 and joined the IRL. In 2003, a new generation of IRL specification chassis was introduced. A maximum of three manufacturers were named to supply the field. Penske Racing applied for the right to be one of the nominated factories, but their chances appeared to be slim at best.

Ever since 1997 Dallara and G-Force (later on taken over by Panoz) had been supportive of the IRL and had been supplying them with chassis. These two staunch IRL supporters couldn't be overlooked. This left only one nomination for the aspirant IRL chassis manufacturers. Among those were Lola and a brand new organisation led by Mike Kranefuss, Falcon.

Penske was turned down. Given events of the past that was not so strange. It's not that the company wasn't capable of building and supplying cars but sooner or later all kinds of suspicions could arise if the Team Penske cars would enjoy more success than the customer cars. Certainly in these circumstances, thoughts would arise about a team competing with self-manufactured cars. Having been known for searching 'the unfair advantage' and having shown themselves in the past to go further in this than any other competitor (maybe with the exception of John Menard) how equal would the Penske chassis eventually be?

Granted, running exclusive chassis had backfired big time on Penske already - look at the mid-eighties PC11-PC16 series and the ’98 and ’99 cars. Then again, it made sense to ensure the third chassis supplier wasn't directly involved with one of the participating teams.

And so, the feat of being the last type of Penske chassis ever to have raced at Indianapolis and one of the two last types of Penske chassis ever in the “500” still stands to this day for the Penske PC23. The PC23 also carries the distinction of being the final type of Penske to have won at Indianapolis.

To some extent one could say it is a fitting honour for one of the most remarkable Penske chassis ever built.