Here’s my take on the late 90’s Champ Car chassis battles. The Reynard was a tractor, but it was a bloody fast tractor. The ’97 Lola F1 car consumed the company and the ’97 & ’98 CART / Champ Car was junk as a result. Reynard would follow their lead in a couple years. Hogan ran Helio in a Lola in ’99 and it showed flashes of competence at times, but it was running an Ilmor engine, which was pretty much garbage compared to the Honda and Cosworth. As Magoo said, the Toyota and Ilmor had similar designs at the time and they were both down on power and unreliable. Was Spaghetti-Marelli a bad technical partner? I’d say yes, but someone had to choose them, huh? They’re exactly the same to this day. _Everyone_ groans when they find out they have to use M-M equipment on any car.
The Penske PC-27 was John Travis’ design and it was an attempt to produce an F-1 type car for the US. Remember the PC-27 had a Tyrrell-esque front end? Packaging was super tight and cooling (of everything) was a massive problem. The idea was to really optimize the car aerodynamically. Like AAR, Travis felt as if he could make significantly better numbers than the Reynard. Often, though, they were just outplayed. In Brazil, for instance, everyone knew that a high downforce car would be faster. The Reynards had enough adjustability to go to a lower downforce package which gave them a massive advantage tactically in the race and they dominated. The Penske was left running high downforce and good laps in clean air, but never able to pass anyone on track. That was pure racetrack savvy. The Penske's were caught flat-footed and literally left hand-drilling holes in their rear wing end-plates to lower the wing angle to attempt to respond.
I’ve always wondered if the PC-27 wasn’t too bad of a car that had the deck stacked against it. There were all sorts of things going on at the time which would have hurt it. The Magnetti-Marelli/Ilmor debacle was an obvious one. You’d be hard-pressed to blame a Kainhofer-led Penske engine department. This was primarily Ilmor’s failure. Al Jr. was still pretty good, but the booze and blow had started to take its effect. He was not 1994 Al Jr. (where those two other things seemed to matter less). Ribero was about the least confident professional driver they could have found. He had potential, but was fragile emotionally and needed a support structure which didn't exist. Having said this, Roberto Moreno also came in the help develop the car and he couldn't make much headway, either. I don't think it's fair to blame the drivers too much. It's not like someone finally got in the car and kicked ass.
In retrospect, I also think a big issue was dampers. Penske was exclusively on Penske dampers in 1998. One of the things they stuck with was the Penske Hydro-bump third spring, instead of a mechanical third, which did them no favors on the damping or ride control side side of things. It just packaged better in the tiny space available. They remedied their Penske only policy by about 2000 with the Renske. At that time, though, Penske Shocks had lost the advantage they had in the early 90’s. The Ohlins TT44 had been introduced by Newman-Haas in about 1993, and, by 3-4 years later, almost all competitive open wheel cars in the US were using them, including arch rivals Ganassi, Team Kool Green and Newman-Haas. It didn’t matter if you were running Atlantic, Lights or CART. At the time, the TT44 was the damper of choice. The amount of development that Ohlins did to that damper was damned impressive. It was the dominant damper for 10 years and I wouldn’t hesitate to stick them on a car even today.
Don’t think Penske didn’t test a Reynard or Firestones. Penske crew dressed in Hogan uniforms tested with JJ Lehto in 1998 to try to figure out their weaknesses. The Reynard wasn’t magic, but it was reliable and easier for both the driver and engineer to get the car ‘in the window’. The Firestones were universally better than the Goodyears. 1 lap speed, deg, recovery, heat-cycle sensitivity, etc. were all in favor of the ‘Stones. Whatever advantages were theoretically in favor of the Penske were negated by the practical advantages of the Reynard.
When all those issues were stacked together, it’s easy to see how the Penske just didn’t have what was necessary for competitiveness. Paul Tracy was fired at the end of 1997 for the heresy of arguing it was impossible for him to win a championship without a Reynard chassis, Firestone tires and a Honda engine. When de Ferran won the next Penske championship in 2001, he did so with a Reynard chassis on Firestone tires using Honda power.
Edited by Fat Boy, 17 May 2022 - 16:31.