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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What IndyCar Drivers Are Saying about this weekend’s 2018 Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama

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Here’s What Drivers Are Saying about this Sunday’s 2018 Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham:

JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 1 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet, 2017 Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama winner, 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series champion): “We had a decent finish at Long Beach but we’re definitely hungry for more. Barber is one of my favorite tracks we visit – not just because we’ve won there – but because it’s a cool track and it’s only a few hours away from where I grew up (in Nashville, Tennessee). That just makes it even more special when I’ve won there. Barber is going to be interesting since it’s the first time we’re racing the new car on a road course. I think it could lead to some really exciting racing for the great fans at Barber and the fans at home. The whole No. 1 Hitachi Chevrolet team and I are ready to take the strong car we have ready for this weekend to the track and run a great race.”

MATHEUS “MATT” LEIST (No. 4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “Barber is a very nice track. I raced there last year (in Indy Lights). We did one day of testing there this year with the No. 4 ABC Supply Chevrolet, so hopefully we will have a great car to be running in the top 10. It’s a fast track and a physical track as well, so it’s going to be a long race. We need to concentrate on great laps and play the strategy again to see if we can get a top-10 there. I’m looking forward to it.”

SCOTT DIXON (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “We’ve been coming to Barber since 2010, and it’s been a really good track for us, but we’ve yet to win it. I think we’ve been on the podium nearly every race, with five or so of those being second-place finishes. It’s such a great event and you can really see what a great job the track does with the crowds growing year over year. Hopefully, this will be our year with the PNC Bank car.”

ED JONES (No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “Obviously it was a great weekend for us at Long Beach (tying a career-best finish), so I’m really excited to get back in the NTT DATA car this week at Barber. We had great pit stops and strategy last weekend and I was extremely pleased with the result. I think I have a better understanding of what I need to do from the start to the finish of a race weekend in terms of getting the car right. We’re heading in the right direction as a team and I hope it’s the beginning of a string of very successful results and momentum.”

WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “Long Beach was really great for the whole No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet team after we finished second. It was our best finish so far this season, so it’s done a lot for team morale going into this weekend at Barber. Road courses are always a lot of fun and I’m really looking forward to racing one with the new car. My team has been really working hard over the past several weeks with back-to-back races and they have a really strong car ready to go. Barber is such a cool course and the fans there are always really excited to be there. It’s just a really fun event for everyone and I can’t wait to get on track.”

TONY KANAAN (No. 14 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “We’re coming from two top-10s in a row and the team is for sure on an upswing. Our test at Barber a few weeks back was cut short because of bad weather, but I’m hoping that we’ll keep the consistency and be competitive there as well. Barber Motorsports Park is a beautiful track where the fans are very passionate and always fill up the place. I’m looking forward to getting there later this week to hit the ground running with the No. 14 ABC Supply Chevrolet.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 Mi-Jack Honda): “Our preseason test went well at Barber. I think we were fortunate that we went to the first one because the weather cooperated and we got good track time with this car, unlike the open test. I think it’s going to be interesting to see what conditions we get as we go back for the race. I think the new aero kit it has met expectations. It seemed like at Long Beach it really helped passing. You were able to follow a lot closer. Barber has always put on a great race, but I think that this year it could be even better. Depending on tire degradation and things like that, I think this new car could put on a very exciting race at Barber. We have always been pretty strong at Barber but last year wasn’t that great for us. In general, it’s a place we should be good at and I hope we can carry on the progress that we have been making in terms of competitiveness. I think it could be a great weekend for us. The team has worked hard and we’ve been fortunate to sneak in a couple of good results so far, even with some difficulties, and hopefully we can keep that going. We are just going to keep our heads down, work hard and stay focused on the end goal. I certainly hope that we can keep this thing going and go into Indy with a lot of momentum as we have done. I’m really excited about where we are and I think things are looking pretty good.”

ZACHARY CLAMAN DE MELO (No. 19 The Paysafe Car Honda): “We had a good test at Barber last month aboard the Paysafe car and I’m really looking forward to the race this weekend. Obviously, the conditions will likely be different from when we tested, but it was an encouraging test. I’m hoping to make up for the tough race weekend we had at Long Beach last weekend. The No. 19 Paysafe crew deserves a good result for all the hard work they’ve been putting in. Hopefully, I can give it to them this weekend.”

JORDAN KING (No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “Hopefully, I can carry over the speed we’ve had so far this year but convert it into a solid result in Barber. We’ve been fast in both of my races so far, but unfortunately don’t have much to show for it. We had a test at Barber last month, though we didn’t get much running in. There will be a lot to learn on both my side and the engineering side that will take a lot of time and energy, but we’re up for the challenge.”

SPENCER PIGOT (No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “It’s been a tough start to the season so far. Our results don’t show the quality of the cars that we have had. We’re ready to turn that around and no better place than Barber Motorsports Park. Barber is definitely one of my favorite tracks, the fast corners and steep elevation changes are pretty unique and a lot of fun to drive. The track has been very good to me in the past, so I hope that trend will pick back up this weekend.”

SIMON PAGENAUD (No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet): “We had a really disappointing finish last week at Long Beach, but we’re going to use that disappointment to turn it into energy to fuel us to have a strong finish at Barber. We’ve had a busy few weeks and the No. 22 Menards Chevrolet team has worked hard to keep giving me great cars. It’s our first road course this season and it’s the first we’ll run with the new car. We learned a lot in the first three races, so we are ready. We won at Barber in 2016. It’s a beautiful track that always brings a lot of really great INDYCAR fans, so I know we’re all really looking forward to it.”

CHARLIE KIMBALL (No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet): “I’m really excited to be going back to Barber Motorsports Park this weekend. I’ve had some success there in the past and we have a little data from the open test last month to get us up to speed when the No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet rolls out for Practice 1. Barber is unique with its elevation and technical demands and it really requires some patience to make your moves at the right time and place. Last weekend’s top 10 was a big morale booster for everyone on the Carlin team, myself included. I think if we can carry this momentum throughout the weekend and make some progress in qualifying, we can definitely put ourselves in a good spot at the checkered flag on Sunday.”

ZACH VEACH (No. 26 Group One Thousand One Honda): “I definitely feel we have a lot of momentum on our side after finishing fourth in Long Beach. I honestly can’t wait to be back in the car at Barber and to keep improving. A year ago this weekend, I got the chance to compete in my very first Indy car race at Barber, so it’s going to be nice to be coming back to a track I have a little more experience at than others on the schedule. For me, my main goal is to focus on qualifying. I would really like to start getting higher on the charts for the start of the race. The Group One Thousand One car and crew have been great this year; we’re ready to show that again this weekend.”

ALEXANDER ROSSI (No. 27 Kerauno / MilitaryToMotorsports.com Honda, Verizon IndyCar Series points leader): “I’m excited to head to Barber, especially after this last weekend in Long Beach, and I’m really happy to welcome Kerauno to the car as well. The team has been working hard and have a really good car that I’m happy with. Barber is one of the more difficult road courses we visit, but I know my Kerauno crew will be able to give us what we need to keep our momentum going. We took the points lead after last weekend and we’re not planning to give that up anytime soon.”

RYAN HUNTER-REAY (No. 28 DHL Honda): “There’s only one goal for the (No.) 28 team at Barber this weekend, and that’s to grab our third victory at this track. The season started off OK with two top-fives, but then we took a hit with luck in Long Beach. We had a productive test at Barber a few weeks ago, but we were unable to run through our full test list due to weather. We have quite a lot of work to get done in the practice sessions in order to get the car into our ideal setup window before the race. I have no doubt the DHL team will work hard at it.”

TAKUMA SATO (No. 30 Mi-Jack / Panasonic Honda): “We’ve tested at Barber twice but the second one was cut short due to the weather. Honestly, we don’t know yet how competitive we will be but we have some good data. At least the first test was productive for us, which will hopefully give us a good baseline to start with. Barber will be fun to drive with the new aero kit. The track is beautiful but it is very difficult to overtake. Again, I think tire management will be the key. I think that by the end of each stint, you will see a great battle with overtaking. Other than that, first we have to make the car fast. The weekend will be quite different conditions, temperature-wise, than when we tested there, which was very cold. I hope we have a good, strong package for the Honda Indy Grand Prix.”

RENE BINDER (No. 32 Binderholz tiptop timber Chevrolet): “I am looking forward to my first race weekend in Alabama. Unfortunately, we couldn’t complete the amount of laps that we had hoped for during the open test, but we are still optimistic. The Barber Motorsports Park is a fantastic facility and the track layout reminds me a little bit of the famous grand prix track in Spa-Francorchamps (Belgium), where I managed to score a win in F3 and a second-place finish in the Formula V8 World Series. I hope that’s a good omen, even if I am fully aware that things don’t happen overnight in the Verizon IndyCar Series. As I continue to learn more about the ‘red’ Firestone tires, we will hopefully be able to make the next step forward and get some good points with our No. 32 Binderholz Chevy.”

MAX CHILTON (No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet): “I enjoy racing at Barber Motorsports Park. The road course really suits my driving style. I love the smooth, flowing corners and it always gives the fans a good show. The track does a good job of putting together a nice package of other series on track for the fans to watch throughout the weekend as well. We had the chance to test the No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet at Barber earlier in the season, but the weather didn’t allow us to get as much track time as we were hoping for, so we’re going to need to get up to speed quickly in practice. The first three races of the season have been great learning experiences for Carlin and even last weekend, despite not getting the results I was personally hoping for, we still learned a ton.”

GABBY CHAVES (No. 88 Harding Group Chevrolet): “Excited to be heading to Barber Motorsports Park for our fourth race of the year. Barber is a track that I enjoy a lot. Although we didn’t really have any testing from our practice day that we spent there, we’re still fairly confident that we can use the information that we learned over the first three race weekends and have a competitive car. I know we’re eager to get back to racing and are looking for our best result so far.”

MARCO ANDRETTI (No. 98 Kerauno / Curb Honda): “We finished last weekend with a decent result considering the struggles we encountered in Phoenix and earlier in the weekend at Long Beach. I’m happy to put that behind us and focus forward. We’re sitting 10th in the championship and that’s not good enough, so this weekend we have to be on our A game and get a podium result. We’ve been there before at Barber and I know we can do it again.”