1997 Mercedes-Benz Penske PC26

The Penske PC-26 was designed by Nigel Bennett and manufactured by Penske Cars in Poole, Dorset for the 1997 CART Championship. Being a development of the PC-25, the PC-26 was designed to address the twitchy nature of the previous year car.

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Five chassis were produced and driven by Al Unser Jr. and Paul Tracy. The Ilmor produced 850 bhp Mercedes-Benz IC108D engine served as the powerplant driving through an Xtrac gearbox within a Penske housing. Aerodynamic changes from the previous years car included revised sidepod inlets and a longer, sharper nose. The Delco Gen V electronics package was carried over from 1996 and remained a Penske only system.

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The PC26 proved to be a formidable short oval car, Paul Tracy recorded three victories in Rio, Nazareth and Gateway. The victory at Gateway marked the 99th for the team and the final victory for a Penske Cars produced chassis.

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At the end of the 1996 season Team Penske found itself in unfamiliar territory; for the first time in over 20 years, the team had not scored at least one win in the CART championship. The combination of the exclusive Penske chassis, Ilmor-Mercedes engine and Goodyear tire proved to be no match for the readily available Reynard chassis, Honda engine and Firestone tires. For legendary team-owner Roger Penske the easiest route to success was to switch to the most competitive machinery but his close ties with all three elements of his package forced him to continue on the same foot in 1997.

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At the Poole, England based factory, the new Penske PC26 chassis was constructed. Its design followed the PC25 used to little effect in 1996. The main changes to the carbon-fibre tub were in response to revised regulations. The cockpit was widened to allow for additional safety padding around the driver. A reduction in maximum size enabled the designer to place the fuel cell lower in the chassis, which also meant the driver could sit further back and closer to the car’s centre-line. More attention was given to the suspension in an attempt to improve the car’s poor handling.

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At the nearby Ilmor facility the latest ‘IC 108 D’ evolution of the Mercedes-Benz labelled engine was developed. This 2.65 litre V8 featured a single Garrett Turbo, mounted behind the engine. The maximum boost was regulated by a mandatory electronic pop-off valve that was fitted on top of the air-box. According to the factory supplied specifications, the Ilmor-Mercedes V8 produced 800 bhp at 14200 rpm. The casing of the bespoke Penske six-speed gearbox also enclosed the giant turbo and bolted onto the engine. The complicated and very potent drivetrain served as fully stressed member of the chassis.

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Team Penske retained both their drivers, which meant the PC26 would be piloted by Al Unser Jr. and Paul Tracy. In 1994 this talented pairing had finished first and third in the CART Championship and Unser also won the coveted Indy 500, driving the Penske Mercedes. The partnership with Carl Hogan had come to an end after just one season, so there would be no third PC26 on the grid entered under the Penske-Hogan banner. The first chassis was completed late in 1996 and flown to the United States for early testing. When the season got under way, the two drivers had already racked up 2500 miles.

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The hard work over the winter immediately yielded results as Paul Tracy finished second at the season opening race at Homestead (Miami). The Canadian went one better at Nazareth in Pennsylvania; Penske’s home race, ending a 20 race drought for Penske. He added two more wins to his tally in the following races at Rio de Janeiro and in St. Louis. After his hat-trick of wins, Tracy was a genuine title contender. It was not to be as he struggled to reach the finish in the subsequent rounds. The latter part of the season saw a variety of problems including an eye problem for Tracy as well as a lack of raw pace. He eventually ended the championship in fifth. His team-mate suffered from bad luck throughout the year and finished 13th.

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After the three victories early in the season, the Penske/Mercedes/Goodyear combination struggled once again. It would turn out that the St. Louis victory, Penske’s 99th, was its last as a manufacturer. Team Penske continued with their own cars for two more seasons until they finally switched to a Honda engined Reynard in 2000. Gil de Ferran finally scored Penske’s 100th win at Nazareth that season. With just three wins, the PC26 was far from the most successful Penske. It does earn a spot in history as the last victorious Penske car, ending a tradition that started in 1976 when John Watson drove a Penske to victory in the Austrian Grand Prix.

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The chassis number 5 was restored and in 2010, this incredible article appeared. Enjoy.

Date Event Track Standing Driver(s) Fastest Time
20 July 1997 Molson Indy Toronto Exhibition Place 10 Paul Tracy
13 July 1997 Medic Drug Grand Prix of Cleveland Cleveland Burke Lakefront Airport 7 Paul Tracy
22 June 1997 Budweisser/G.I. Joe’s 200 Portland International Raceway 7 Paul Tracy
01 June 1997 Miller Genuine Draft 200 Milwaukee Mile 6 Paul Tracy
24 May 1997 Motorola 300 Gateway International Speedway 1 Paul Tracy

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