The new Tatuus PM-18. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Mazda Road to Indy: Inside the Tatuus PM-18 first test

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Since 2004, the series now known as the Pro Mazda Championship presented by Cooper Tires has used an Elan chassis. While it has been a valuable tool that has helped drivers like Marco Andretti, James Hinchcliffe, Spencer Pigot, Graham Rahal, Conor Daly and more climb their way up to the Verizon IndyCar Series, the series was in desperate need of something new, especially given the early success of the Dallara IL-15 (Indy Lights) and Tatuus USF-17 (USF2000).

Enter: the Tatuus PM-18. When it hit the track for a shakedown at Autobahn Country Club and then a full two days of development testing at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, the equipment revamp for the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires was complete.

Development of the new chassis went surprisingly quickly. Scot Elkins, project manager of the PM-18 and Race Director of the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda, explained that the quick development occurred because the PM-18 is based on the USF-17 and shares the same monocoque.

“It went really quickly, honestly, because most of the work that we had done on the USF-17 kind of carries over to the PM-18,” Elkins told NBC Sports. “So, a lot of the development in terms of the suspension, the braking system: a lot of that was already done. We were actually able to do a lot of the work toward the end of ’16, to the point that we actually had a prototype in December at the Performance Racing Industry show.”

Scot Elkins during testing for the Tatuus PM-18. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

As Elkins highlighted, the common monocoque makes it easier for drivers and teams to move from USF2000 to Pro Mazda, and not just in terms of carrying knowledge over from one chassis to the next. Costs should also be reduced due to the similarities.

“Cost is always a top two or three item when you’re introducing a new car, because it requires everybody to all of the sudden turn over and come up with the capital investment to buy the new car,” Elkins said about the process of buying all new equipment. “In regards to the PM-18, especially the transition from the USF-17 to the PM-18: cost was even a bigger factor because the idea was you invested your capital in the USF-17, and the switch to the new car, the PM-18, was a much, much smaller cost, which allows you to move up much easier.”

As a result, while there are plenty of performance enhancements on the PM-18, the team were keen to ensure none made costs skyrocket. “It was one of those things where we wanted to keep (costs) as low as possible. And frankly, the number of changes between the two cars is pretty minimal as well, but yet we’ve increased the performance massively,” Elkins asserted.

Among the enhancements are more sophisticated aerodynamics, larger tires, and a 2.0-liter Mazda MZR-PM18A engine that produces 275 horsepower, 100 more than the USF-17.

Still, while everything on paper said the car should work very well, it needed to hit the track for confirmation. Joel Miller, a Mazda factory driver in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship who also did the testing for the USF-17, found out first-hand when he put the car through its paces.

“It’s a fun car to drive, let me tell everybody that, because you can still slide it around,” Miller explained. “When we did our race runs, you could still have rear tire degradation, which is good-you can’t just go out there and put your right foot down coming off the corner.”

Joel Miller is helping to develop the PM-18 chassis. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

For Miller, development of the PM-18, as well as the USF-17 last year, differs immensely from his work with Mazda’s RT24-P. “Over at IMSA, developing the DPi is all about playing within the BoP plan within the given rules that IMSA lays out there. You always put together a wish list, and then might get two items on your wish list. Out here, developing (the Pro Mazda car), developing the USF2000 car last year: we were writing our own lists of what we needed,” he said in comparing the programs.

In addition to being a joy to drive, Miller also explained that the PM-18 will fit nicely into the Mazda Road to Indy and serve as a perfect “second rung” on the ladder. “This is going to be a great package, just because it’s faster than the USF2000 car, which it should be. And it’s going to find that very nice hole where it’s a couple seconds faster than a USF2000, and then an Indy Lights car is a couple seconds quicker than this.”

Specific to driver development, Miller also indicated that the uptick in performance will force a driver to be mindful of race craft and manage the equipment. Using tire management as an example, Miller explained, “If we went out there and for 45 minutes were able to run qualifying pace with no degradation, that’s maybe not the best thing because it doesn’t teach your driver how to keep the tires under him.”

Miller also added, “The goal for the Road to Indy is to get to IndyCar, so the car needs to teach them something they can move forward with.”

The commonalities between the chassis meant that most of the input from teams and drivers on the USF-17 carried over to the PM-18. However, there were still plenty of specifics to Pro Mazda that needed to be considered.

“We talked to a lot of the Pro Mazda teams in regards to some of the things that were different on the PM-18 versus the USF-17,” Elkins explained. “We have a different differential, so we talked to some teams about that. We have a few things in regards to the aero that are different, so we talked to the teams about those items.”

However, with a strong foundation of driver and team input already in place, Elkins revealed that he had more than enough to work with when attention shifted to the PM-18. “The majority of input came on the USF-17, because so much of that car’s hardware and how mechanics actually work on the car: all of that actually carries over to the PM-18 because those are the things that are the same.”

Reception and early orders of the chassis are not quite as extreme as with the USF-17, which saw 35 chassis ordered immediately when the car became available, and thus far only in the low-20s for car counts at the first couple race weekends.  However, Elkins anticipates that sentiment to pick up once development testing is complete.

“We’ll do a preview test for all of the teams who are interested in purchasing a PM-18,” he said. “And usually, when we do that, and everybody gets to see the car and put their hands on it and touch it and hear it run, that’s usually when the interest picks up. It makes it more real when you can touch it, you know?”

And for teams who run cars in both USF2000 and Pro Mazda, the budgets should be very reasonable. “The current budget that exists now: the car has a lot more items on it that, I guess I’ll say are adjustable,” Elkins detailed. “The shocks are quite different, some other items are quite different. That leads to more testing, more cost, maybe more engineering. And the idea is that won’t be needed now, because it’s so similar to the USF2000 car. We’ve added a few extra things, so the idea is that the budget shouldn’t be too far apart.”

More testing is to come, with scheduled tests at Barber Motorsports Park following the Honda Grand Prix of Alabama as well as an oval test at Iowa Speedway in May. Pro Mazda teams are scheduled to take delivery of the chassis in July.

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Ricciardo set to see Dale Jr.’s final Texas ride in two weeks (VIDEO)

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We’ve written before about Daniel Ricciardo’s love of Dale Earnhardt and his love of the No. 3, which Ricciardo has selected as his permanent number for the duration of his Formula 1 career. And additionally, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has offered up the opportunity that one day Ricciardo could race a JR Motorsports car in NASCAR Xfinity Series competition, and Ricciardo has said he’d be up for it.

And although Earnhardt Jr. has only used the No. 3 on a handful of occasions in his career in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, Ricciardo knows how much the number means to the NASCAR veteran as he prepares for his final few starts in the Cup Series the tail-end of this year.

After the Mexican Grand Prix next week, Ricciardo is set to stay in North America for the off-week between the Mexican and Brazilian Grands Prix.

In that break, he said he’ll see Earnhardt Jr. in person at the Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway (Sunday, Nov. 5, 2 p.m. ET, NBCSN) to ensure he gets to see him before he retires from full-time competition.

Ricciardo explained his planning during Thursday’s pre-race edition of the NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass, speaking to NBCSN’s Will Buxton at the United States Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas in Austin.

“Well I’ll see him for the first time in Dallas. I’m gonna go to the NASCAR race in two weeks time at Texas Motor Speedway,” Ricciardo told NBCSN.

“Yeah, so, I gotta see him race before he hangs up the helmet.

“The Earnhardt family is a huge name in motorsport, not only in America but all over the world. Yeah I wish him well.”

Ricciardo is also optimistic he’ll get the chance to do a helmet swap with Earnhardt Jr. at the event.

“Hopefully I get to see him perform well in Texas. I’m gonna try to do a helmet swap with him. We’ll see how we go.”

Stay tuned for more on this over the coming weeks.