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.

Dakar Stage 8 Highlights: Ricky Brabec blows engine, retires

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The motorcycle class of the Dakar Rally has been a seesaw affair through seven stages, but Ricky Brabec seemed poised to win the class for the USA. Until he blew an engine in Stage 8 that is – and gave up a more-than seven second lead. He was the second rider to retire after starting the stage as the leader. Joan Barreda retired in Stage 3.

Brabec was looking to become the first American rider to win in 27 years, but his fate was eerily similar to last year. Three days from the end of the stage, he retired about 50 kilometers into the stage, which is precisely when and where he retired in 2018.

With Brabec’s trouble, Toby Price leapfrogged from third to second in class despite riding with a metal pin in his wrist. In the world’s most grueling endurance event, it has never been more obvious that it isn’t over till it’s over.

Meanwhile, Nasser Al-Attiyah continues to run a consistent rally. With a 46 minute advantage over Nani Roma and Sebastien Loeb, all he needs to do is stay error free for the final two stages to win his third Dakar.

Here are some of the other highlights:

In the cars class, Sebastien Loeb scored his fifth stage win of the Rally by seven minutes over Nasser Al-Attiyah, but problems in Stage 3 have kept him from being competitive for the overall lead. … Jakub Przygonski earned his third podium of the Rally. All of these have been third-place finishes.

Class Leaders: Al-Attiyah holds an advantage of 46:29 over Roma and 46:45 over Loeb.

In motorcycles, Ricky Brabec’s blown engine opened up the class once more. … Matthias Walkner narrowly edged Pablo Quintanilla by 45 seconds. … But it was Toby Price’s third-place finish that helped elevate him to the class lead. … Sam Sunderland was supposed to blaze the path for the riders, but a malfunctioning navigation system kept him from rolling off first. Blazing the trail is a disadvantage and officials adjudged him to have tampered with his system to avoid that fate. Sunderland was penalized an hour to finish 35th on the stage. He dropped to ninth in class.

Class Leaders: Price inherited the lead over Quintanilla by 1:03 and 6:35 over Walkner

In side by sides, Francisco Lopez Contardo scored the victory over Cristian Baumgart by 4:47. … Gerard Farres Guell rounded out the top three.

Class Leaders: Contardo holds an advantage 0f 54:10 over Rodrigo Piazolli and one hour, 08:09 over Guell

In quads, there was no surprise in Nicolas Cavigliasso winning his seventh stage of the season. … He padded his overall advantage over Gustavo Gallego by more than nine minutes. … Jeremias Gonzalez Ferioli finished third.

Class Leaders: Cavigliasso holds and advantage of one hour, 24:52 over Ferioli and one hour, 44:04 over Gallego

In trucks, Dmitry Sotnikov won the stage to take over the class lead. He beat Ton Van Genugten by 22:01. … Siarhei Viazovich rounded out the top three. … Eduard Nikolaev lost the class lead by finishing eighth – nearly one hour behind Sotnikov.

Class Leaders: Sotnikov holds an advantage of 26:49 over and one hour, 7:43 over Gerard de Rooy

Stage Wins

Motorcycles
Sam Sunderland [2] (Stage 5 and 7), Matthias Walkner [2] (Stage 2 and 8), Joan Barreda [1] (Stage 1), Xavier de Soultrait [1] (Stage 3), Ricky Brabec [1] (Stage 4) and Pablo Quintanilla [1] (Stage 6)

Quads
Nicolas Cavigliasso [7] (Stage 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8) and Jeremias Gonzalez Ferioli [1] (Stage 3)

Cars
Sebastien Loeb [4] (Stage 2, 5, 6 and 8), Nasser Al-Attiyah [2] (Stage 1 and 4) and Stephane Peterhansel [2] (Stage 3 and 7)

Side-by-sides
Francisco Lopez Contardo [4] (Stage 2, 6, 7 and 8), Reinaldo Varela [1] (Stage 1), Gerard Farres Guell [1] (Stage 3), Sergei Kariakin [1] (Stage 4) and Rodrigo Piazzoli [1] (Stage 5)

Trucks
Eduard Nikolaev [3] (Stage 1, 2 and 5), Andrey Karginov [2] (Stage 3 and 4), Dmitry Sotnikov [2] (Stage 6 and 8) and Gerard de Rooy [1] (Stage 7)

For more watch the daily highlight show on NBCSN. Click here for the complete schedule.

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