Mercedes-Benz Penske PC27 , 1998

The PC27 was the last car from the Penske factory in Poole in Dorset and raced in the 1998 Champcar season by # 2 Al Unser Jnr. and # 3 Alex Riberio.

By Roger Penske’s standard the car was less than successful scoring only two podium finishes, with Al Unser Jnr. 2nd in Mowgli, Japan and 3rd at Milwaukee and With Unser finishing 11th and Riberio 23rd in the seasons Championship.

Penske Mercedes PC27Mercedes-Benz Penske PC27 2
Nigel Beresford saying, HERE:

The problems in 1999 had their roots in 1997. Nigel Bennett had been the chief designer for all Penske cars since 1988, and had been very successful indeed. However, he began to feel in the mid 90s that he was struggling to continue to add performance to the cars, and wanted to back away from the role of Chief Designer at the end of 1997. Consequently Penske hired John Travis from Lola to work alongside Nigel for a year in 1996, before assuming Chief Designer responsibilities and designing a car for 1998.

Mercedes-Benz Penske PC27 4Mercedes-Benz Penske PC27 7
My personal opinion is that at that time there were certain “qualities” which we took for granted as being in the nature of the technology of the sport – firstly, the Goodyear tyres behaved in such a way that when new they gave a peak performance that rapidly declined after a couple of laps to a steady, significant degradation.

Mercedes-Benz Penske PC27 5Mercedes-Benz Penske PC27 6
Secondly, the cars were very sensitive to rear ride height changes. Subsequently as we worked with Firestone tyres and the Reynard car in later years we learned that these “qualities” that we had taken for granted were far from universal – they were merely characteristics of the equipment we had been ignorantly creating or using for years. The Firestone tyres didn’t degrade at anything like the same rate, and the Reynard car had a much wider and benign performance envelope.

Mercedes-Benz Penske PC27 13
Our own development of the Penske car had caused us to create a more and more focused performance envelope in our efforts to match the Reynard, so that although we were very competitive in short oval trim (where ride height and pitch variation is small), we were hopeless in road course trim.

Mercedes-Benz Penske PC27 9 test carMercedes-Benz Penske PC27 8 test
John Travis is a superb designer, but in retrospect I think he made an error in pushing Ilmor to make the 1998 engine (known as the “108E”) as compact as possible, in order to minimise the disruption of the airflow to the rear wing. Ilmor certainly achieved this target, but at the considerable expense of making the packaging of the induction system very tight indeed. At a time when it became apparent that Honda were making considerable gains by careful positioning of the injectors and increasing the plenum volume, Ilmor’s hands were tied by the tight packaging imposed on them. They simply had no room for manoeuvre.

Mercedes-Benz Penske PC27 10 engine
The 1998 PC27 was a lovely car, beautifully designed and constructed. However, it was horrendously unreliable in the early part of the year. The longitudinal gearbox was all new, and required considerably more finesse to assemble than the transverse box it had replaced, which had been continuously refined over the previous 8 years. There was virtually zero carry-over content from the PC26 to the PC27, so there were many, many bugs to work out of the car. Testing was hindered by gearbox oil leaks, and the car was delivered late to the team (normally we would run a new car before Christmas – the PC27 was the first car to miss this target).

In addition, Al Jr. had his own personal problems to deal with, which are in the public domain and which I don’t need to expand on.

Mercedes-Benz Penske PC27 11 face
So, we had a complex car which had great potential but was unreliable, a beautifully compact engine which was very good but had limited development potential, tyres which were not competitive with Firestone and a driver (AUJ) who was under all sorts of external pressures. Ribeiro was a good guy, but was shocked to the core at his first experience of the Goodyear tyres in comparison to the Firestones he’d used previously.

Mercedes-Benz Penske PC27 14 engineMercedes-Benz Penske PC27 12 Wheel
The team ordered a modified PC27B for the 1999 season before switching to Lola and then Reynard chassis.

Here is the 1998 CART season review. At minute 19 you can see the big difference between the engines.