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 the field has been 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.

Scott McLaughlin will make IndyCar debut for Team Penske at St. Pete

Scott McLaughlin IndyCar debut
Daniel Kalisz/Getty Images
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Two-time defending Supercars champion Scott McLaughlin will make his NTT IndyCar Series debut with Team Penske in the Oct. 25 season finale at St. Petersburg, Florida.

McLaughlin, 27, drove for Penske in preseason IndyCar testing at Circuit of the Americas, Sebring International Raceway (in a rookie evaluation) and Texas Motor Speedway, and he was announced Feb. 5 as making his debut with the team at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course before the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic delayed the start of the season.

Travel restrictions also made it difficult for the New Zealand native to leave Australia, where he leads the points for DJR Team Penske in the Virgin Australia Supercars series with three races remaining. He set a Supercars record last season with 18 victories.

The Supercars season will conclude Oct. 18 with the prestigious 24 Hours of Bathurst. McLaughlin then will head directly to the States to drive the No. 3 Dallara-Chevrolet at St. Pete as a teammate of Will Power, Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud.

“This is something I haven’t stopped thinking about, but I wanted to ensure my focus was on winning our third-straight Supercars championship for DJR Team Penske and all our partners in Australia,” McLaughlin, who also has won at Barber and Indianapolis while unofficially finishing first in the IndyCar iRacing Challenge, said in a release. “We are still laser-focused on that and have three more rounds to get it done, but I’m equally as excited to finally get the chance and make my IndyCar debut.”

McLaughlin, whose wife, Karly, is from New York, said he has discussed racing in America with car owner Roger Penske since he was hired by the team for the 2017 season.

“I’ve always said I’d love to have a crack at something else,” McLaughlin told reporters in February during the preseason test at Austin, Texas. “My goal was always to win the championship in Bathurst and Australia. I ticked those boxes, and then opportunities arise over time. The conversation between me and Roger was pretty short. ‘Would you be interested in IndyCar?’ I’d literally drive a wheelbarrow with a Team Penske sticker on it. I’d race anything that comes with the opportunity.

“I’ve always intended I’d love to get America one day potentially if I’ve done my goals in Australia. I’ve always said whether it’s now or 30 years down the track, I’d love to finish up (in America). I’ve promised Karly that we would come back here eventually. She’s not pushing me by any means, but I’ve always had a passion for American motorsport and certainly would love the opportunity.”

McLaughlin also has indicated a desire to try racing in NASCAR for Team Penske. He discussed his comfort with stock cars during a 2017 episode of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast (click on the link below to hear it).

Here’s the release from Team Penske:

MOORESVILLE, N.C. (September 17, 2020) – Team Penske announced today that Scott McLaughlin, the current Virgin Australia Supercars Championship points leader, is scheduled to make his long-awaited NTT INDYCAR SERIES debut in the series’ 2020 season finale on the Streets of St. Petersburg on Sunday, October 25.

The two-time and defending Supercars Champion for DJR Team Penske (DJRTP) was set to compete in his first NTT INDYCAR SERIES race earlier this year on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course before the COVID-19 global pandemic forced several delays and postponements on racing schedules, along with international travel restrictions. Before the pandemic shutdown, McLaughlin participated in the INDYCAR SERIES preseason open test at Circuit of the Americas (COTA) in Austin, Texas, where he ran consistently well and posted the third-fastest time of the test session. The 27-year-old native of New Zealand also competed in separate tests at the Sebring International Raceway road course and the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway oval.

“This is something I haven’t stopped thinking about, but I wanted to ensure my focus was on winning our third-straight Supercars championship for DJR Team Penske and all our partners in Australia,” said McLaughlin. “We are still laser-focused on that and have three more rounds to get it done, but I’m equally as excited to finally get the chance and make my INDYCAR debut. I’ve been doing everything I can to keep up with the series this year, from watching as many races as I can on TV to even talking to the drivers and some of the engineers back at the Team Penske shop. I never knew if I would be able to get behind the wheel of one of these cars this year due to all the COVID-19 restrictions, but I wanted to be ready if it became an opportunity.”

McLaughlin currently leads the Supercars point standings with just three rounds of competition remaining on the 2020 schedule. McLaughlin has produced a series-best 10 wins and 10 poles and holds a 143-point lead over Jamie Whincup entering this weekend’s race at The Bend. Over the course of his Supercars career, McLaughlin has won an impressive 53 races and 71 poles, while helping DJRTP claim team championships in 2017 and 2019 and winning the driver’s title in each of the last two seasons. He also earned his first win in the legendary Bathurst 1000 race in 2019 with co-driver Alex Premat. Though he is in just his fourth season competing for Team Penske, McLaughlin already ranks third on the organization’s all-time wins list, trailing only Brad Keselowski and Mark Donohue.

Earlier this year, McLaughlin made his “virtual” INDYCAR debut, competing in the series’ iRacing Challenge and winning two races among the full field of current NTT INDYCAR SERIES drivers that were competing against each other while traditional racing was put on hold.

“Our plan has always been for Scott to run a race in the INDYCAR SERIES this season, but we never wanted to take the focus away from the main goal, which is winning another Supercars Championship,” said Team Penske President Tim Cindric. “COVID-19 certainly altered those plans early on, but with the way the schedules have lined up at the end of this season, St. Pete became an available option and we remain committed to getting him some INDYCAR seat time. We know Scott is ready for this challenge and this should add even more excitement to the 2020 season finale in St. Petersburg.”

McLaughlin will pilot the No. 3 Shell V-Power Nitro+ Dallara/Chevrolet at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, which was postponed from its original date in March and will now take place on Sunday, October 25. The race on the 1.8-mile street circuit will be seen live at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBC, with radio coverage on the Pennzoil INDYCAR Radio Network and SIRIUS XM.