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Marlboro Team Penske Media Conference

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

Open Wheel Racing Topics:  Penske Racing

Marlboro Team Penske Media Conference

Nigel Bennett
January 16, 1994


SUSAN BRADSHAW: First of all, I want to thank all you folks for calling in. As you know Nigel is on the other line to answer your questions about the new car which is the 95 Marlboro Penske Mercedes. Nigel, I am sure you know, is the chief designer for Penske cars. Just so you know, we received the new car right before Christmas and both Emerson and Al have had time testing it and driven it both at Phoenix and Firebird. Now, Nigel, I am going to hand it over to you. All I ask is that you guys identify yourself before you ask your question. Gordon, do you want to start?

Q. Sure, thanks. Last year's car was obviously very successful, Nigel, and it was very competitive on all types of racetracks - no apparent real flaws. Can you tell us what you have done to try to make a really good car even better?

NIGEL BENNETT: Yes, we have really tried to improve it aerodynamically which is a long process. Every year we have a continuous wind tunnel program. It sort of comes automatically. We normally expect to find something like a 5% gain every year in aerodynamics. On the slower circuits, we have changed the weight distribution to try and make the car a little more responsive and nimble around great tight corners. Along with that, we have some good gains in the engine department in the new Mercedes engine built by Ilmor and things are looking quite good in that respect.

Q. When you have a car that performs as well as the last two cars, it must be difficult to go in and really try and make a major improvement. As you say, you have gotten an ongoing wind tunnel development program. How do you really sit down -- when do you decide to finalize what it is you want to improve on the car?

NIGEL BENNETT: Well, it is a gradual process. Really, at the start of the year you are really learning about the problems with the car; not in competition with anyone; you don't know -- you don't know for real what times other people have done on the circuit they are testing on; you got the drivers' impressions. You have problems, gearbox problems. You have all sorts of things, electronic problems. These all have to be sorted out one by one in a methodical manner. As you get on in the testing, you start comparing your times with other cars on the same track. That is the sort of time when drivers' comments become more critical. They will see where they are lacking compared to a competitor. And you start planning modifications and improvements which take place during the early part of the season. Usually takes about three, four races before something dawns on you that something -- that you really can't fix and it needs perhaps a design change in the mechanical structure of the car; maybe a geometry change; maybe a weight distribution change for next year. Now, having a car that performs or has performed really quite well, it actually makes the job a lot easier because normally the car that are difficult to understand are the ones that, you know, are way behind. If they have got some fault; then the biggest problem is understanding really what is wrong with them. It wasn't that the PC 23 had some major faults, but we found areas that could be improved and these began to crystallize probably about May, June time and we were able to plan the sort of car we wanted for 1995, June and July.

Q. Will a new Mercedes be faster and how much so after testing at Phoenix in Arizona?

NIGEL BENNETT: We did some accurate back-to-back tests between last year's Marlboro Penske car and this year's Marlboro Penske Mercedes and with both drivers we were approximately half a second quicker with the new car. How much of that was due to engine and how much was due to the aerodynamics and the chassis is quite hard to analyze, but I would say probably a quarter of a second due to the engine and quarter of a second due to the chassis which seems quite a good improvement in a 20 second lap.

Q. How did that translate in miles per hour?

NIGEL BENNETT: Oh, around Phoenix, I couldn't tell you off the top of my head, but I'd say probably 2, 3 mile an hour.

Q. Will the new car be safer than and in what areas?

NIGEL BENNETT: Yes, we have taken some steps to improve driver protection. We have lengthened the nose a little bit. The driver is sitting a little more re-ward compared to the front wheel so there is a little more protection in the event of an accident. The front suspension will absorb a little more energy. We have also raised the cockpit rim so that his head is somewhat more protected from, perhaps, the front wheel getting knocked off or front suspension members. So we have improved the head protection. We have also added quite a quantity of Kevlar to the chassis side in the cockpit area. There were several accidents last year; luckily not with our cars, where one or two drivers were quite badly injured through suspension and wheel and break components coming through the chassis side and doing damage to the driver's hip and thigh area. So we have really looked at that quite hard and we have added quite a lot of Kevlar, like a ballistic penetration barrier. So we are looking the whole time at safety. There's ongoing work also with a safety group in the United States working on seatbelt restraints and forward restraint - if you hit something head on, the driver's head tends to go forward and neck injuries can result in that. It's an ongoing process, really, but we think we have made some worthwhile improvements over the last year.

Q. Last year you had this huge surprise with the Mercedes engine from the 500. This year basically you are coming with what you developed and kind of everybody knows is coming. How soon will you be testing out the speedway? I understand they are even thinking late February now. I talked to the new superintendent there. How soon do you plan to get out there and start testing?

NIGEL BENNETT: We don't yet have all our speedway parts built. In fact, we are still evaluating in the wind tunnel, 102 speedway parts, so it will probably be in March, our first test of the speedway.

Q. With Ilmor supplying engines not just for building engines, not just for your team, but also for the McLaren Formula I team, do you expect sort of a gain of technical information from McLaren maybe?

NIGEL BENNETT: Do you mean from McLaren itself or on the engine side?

Q. Engineering secrets; little things you could apply to your car?

NIGEL BENNETT: I don't expect there will be much because the two types of cars are quite different, sort of regime, and what one learns are really very specific to the rules under which one is racing, and the Indy car rules are quite different from Formula I rules, both aerodynamically and everything; from the type of fuel you use to the size of the tire, so they really don't behave in the same way and don't get designed in the same way. That is not to say that we won't have some liaison with McLaren because we have this association through the engine supplier now and I think there may well be some meetings between the design departments of both companies to see through something that we could profit from. No doubt, there will be small things that we can learn from them and maybe something that they can learn from us as well.

Q. Pushing that accelerator a little further, you are not from the U.S., could you design a Formula I chassis and how long would it take you and do you want to at some point later on?

NIGEL BENNETT: Of course, anyone can design anything. It is a question of how much knowledge you have. I mean, you could go and design an airplane if you had the knowledge and you had the experience and you had the background. I haven't worked in Formula I for a long time now and the rules have changed completely. I have very little knowledge of the aerodynamics of the Formula I car. And so if someone said tomorrow go and design a Formula I car, it wouldn't be very good. It would take probably a year at least, in learning and going to races and looking at what people are doing, working with the wind tunnel before one could even hope to be half competitive. So it's very specialized and I've specialize in Indy Car Racing for quite a long time now and I don't expect to break away from that.

Q. Talking about Formula I, are you involved with the team for the Penske Formula I for 1996?

NIGEL BENNETT: For the Penske Formula I for 1996? No, I am not.

Q. That is a secret between me and you?

NIGEL BENNETT: It must be a secret. I haven't heard of it.

Q. Talking about comparisons, have you been able to get a feel yet if the Lola or the Raynard have made gains on you?

NIGEL BENNETT: I am sure they have. Last year we had quite a big advantage once the racing started and you have to realize that both Lola and Raynard had new -- relatively new design teams as far as Indy Car were concerned, and they have both learned a lot in that first year and I have heard already that the new Lola is a big improvement over the 1994 Lola and the Raynard has been setting some very impressive lap times. I am sure they will be both very strong competition now.

Q. Can you tell me what it is that can make you so good one year and just throw you off so bad on another year? What is that thing that makes the magic happen?

NIGEL BENNETT: We try to build on our experience and the secret is really not to make too many mistakes. You have to -- I am sure you do understand that these are very complicated pieces of engineering equipment and you have an awful lot of design choices and design parameters, and the temptation is always to make huge strides forward. Very difficult before you -- before you get there to really be absolutely sure that the change you are making is going to make the car better and it is once you get to a certain level, it is far easier to make something worse than to make it better, so really the secret is to be fairly cautious and make relatively small steps in every step you make. You have to have very good reason for and you have to research it -- have researched it very thoroughly and to be pretty sure that you are not making it worse rather than better.

Q. On that same theme, because we are dealing with a set of rules and regulations that maybe change a bit, you know, on the edges every couple of years, but ultimately we are still -- you are still working on essentially the same basic car that you have been working on; same basic rules you have been working on for quite sometime. Presumably that makes the amount of gain that is out there from year to year, it would seem, you know, logical to assume that the amount of gain that you can get from year to year in some way sort of gets smaller each year as you sort of approach some sort of level of ultimate perfection. And does that -- and given the fact that you had such a good car last year, does that in some way, you know, perhaps make it easier, if you will, for Lola and Raynard to close the gap because it will be so hard or difficult for you really to improve dramatically over last year's car?

NIGEL BENNETT: I am sure it is much easier or almost it is inevitable that they will make bigger gains than we have because, as you say, we did have an advantage over them last year, and they were at an earlier part of their learning curve, as far as the chief designer of those companies were concerned, and one does tend to reach a plateau in design and the incremental changes or improvements do get smaller and smaller. However, I think that is mitigated, to a certain extent, by the fact that there are rule changes which occur sometimes every year; sometimes every two years. I mean, for example, a year ago we had a new short oval aerodynamics package which was in fact a very big challenge. It was the rear wing was reduced in size and that reduced the potential aerodynamic downforce of the car by something like 20 percent. And to get the ultimate out of that wing has been a very intense development program, which is still going on. We are actually spending more time and effort on that one particular item than the whole rest of the car put together because the potential gains are relatively large there and we have not yet approached the plateau, the peak performance of that particular item. So these rule changes do some -- from time to time either to make the car safer or slower, reduce their performance for safety reasons, and that keeps us on our toes and prevents us stagnating near this plateau of performance that one would otherwise approach.

Q. You said earlier that usually by the third or fourth race you began to realize certain parts were unfixable and so forth. This year we have five races before Indy. How will that change your design strategy?

NIGEL BENNETT: I don't think it will change it because basically the design period is fixed by an end date of when we decide to produce the car by, and sometime around June we will decide on the day, December the 10th, say, or December the 1st or whatever, when the new car has to leave the factory in England here and go to the states, and everything is planned back from that final delivery date, so I mean, it is at the start of the design period I can carry -- carry on doing R&D and gathering information and then do the design and force the production people to work harder in a short space of time to produce an end product by that certain day, or we can start earlier and have a more relaxed process and consider things more carefully as one goes through it. So it is quite a difficult choice to make as to how much R&D you do before you commit yourself and have to stop doing the R&D and commit yourself to design and manufacturing. But it all comes down to that final date and everything works forward from that.

Q. The Indy Racing League has announced that the Indianapolis 500 is going to be a part of their league next year and they have announced their new chassis and I'd like to get your reaction to those...

NIGEL BENNETT: To be honest, I haven't really given it a lot of thought because to my knowledge, the state-- Indy Car racing has not adopted those rules and it is rather a waste of effort to consider a set of rules that, to the best of my knowledge, at this time, we are not considering entering for. Obviously, as you know, the Indianapolis 500 is the difficult issue here because to do the Indy 500, at the moment they have only one set of rules and that has been announced, but at the moment I have no direction on that. We don't -- they have announced a totally different engine and to the best of my knowledge, nobody is making that engine, so the whole situation to me, as a designer, is in total limbo and it is very difficult to take any action on something unless you have a firm direction.

Q. Follow-up on the question. The race before the Indy 500 is Nazareth which is my area. How important will that race be towards preparing for the Indy 500?

NIGEL BENNETT: It really has know more relation to the Indy 500 than any other race. The only race that is same to the Indy 500 is the Michigan 500. We employ quite a different aerodynamic package for those two races than all the other races. Obviously, the Indy 500 and the three weeks of preparation that practice and testing that go towards the special event and Nazareth is a one mile short oval; much more similar to Phoenix and Indy is quite different, different body work; different aerodynamics; quite a different speed regime; different tactics; quite different, really, so there is not too much lead into Indy from Nazareth.

Q. Will the fact that there are five races before Indianapolis, would you rather have fewer races in order to be more prepared for the opening week at the speedway, or do you feel comfortable with racing that often and still having to prepare your car for Indianapolis?

NIGEL BENNETT: I have to say, from an engineering point of view, that I regard Indianapolis as just the same as any other race. There are 20 points for winning it, which you get from every other race and one's aim is to win races and the Championship. Indianapolis is no more difficult to win than any other race. In fact, rather a greater degree of luck is required to finish a 500 mile race, so, no, I mean, one does prepare for it because it is the first race that one is using the super speedway body work for, so it is a bit different as far as the team preparation is concerned and we probably will take one more car to that race as far as the racing team is concerned probably a bit more work, but from an engineer point of view, it is no different.

Q. What changes would you be in favor of aerodynamically that might be able to slow him down?

NIGEL BENNETT: I am sorry, I missed the first part of your question. The line was breaking up. Could you repeat that?

Q. With the repaving job that has been done at Michigan, there is the fear that speeds are going to raise dramatically; that it could possibly be unsafe. What type of aerodynamic changes would you be in favor of to slow them down a little bit?

NIGEL BENNETT: That is a very good question and it is something that was exercised by people at Indianapolis, USAC and the speedway, and all engineers and designers, as to how to slow the cars down on super speedways to reduce the speeds at which any accident might happen and it is a very difficult question and it is one that USAC and the speedway are trying to address. They are asking us to reduce downforce into the different aerodynamic specifications, different body work specifications for the 1996 race, with a view of reducing cornering speeds to under 200 miles per hour which is, in fact, quite a big jump. We have had many discussions with them over the past three years. We have had many meetings in Indianapolis. There has been a lot of research done and I don't think many people are in agreement with the route that they are taking. Their argument is quite valid. They are saying that if they can reduce the cornering speed; if something goes wrong; then the energy is reduced considerably and the speed with which the car will hit the wall is reduced. And that is quite true. Unfortunately, it is also true that by reducing the downforce, by the large margin that they are talking about, one is reducing the grip and by reducing the grip of the car or the grip of the tires to the road, one is making the car more difficult to drive, that is almost an inevitable fact. And by having a car that is more difficult to drive, it is likely that drivers will make more mistakes and there will be more accidents. Now, those accidents might not be quite so severe, but you have to look back at last year's practicing in Indianapolis. In the six days of practice leading up to first qualifier, there were two cars which spun in the whole of that time. Now that is pretty remarkable; shows that the cars we have at the moment are relatively or very relatively easy to drive around that sort of track and they behave very well and they are not causing the drivers to make a lot of mistakes. At a similar period at the Hungarian Grand Prix, they had 40 spins in four hours of practice. So you have to be a bit careful. You can reduce the speeds by reducing the downforce, but if you make the cars more difficult to drive, you may end up having more accidents and this is an area where I think (inaudible) involved in Indy type racing in disagreement with what the speedway have proposed for 1996. They ask you what we will do about Michigan. It is the same problem. I really don't know. These types of track are potentially extremely dangerous and I hesitate to take false steps; if they are false steps to make the cars safer by reducing downforce. So it is a very difficult problem and I don't think anyone really knows the answer.

Q. Kind of as a follow on for that. If these IRL rules were to be adopted by Indy Car and if those were to be the rules that you would have to build a car to next year, can you begin to describe the level of engineering research, effort, it will be difficult perhaps to put a dollar and cents on it, but how much it would cost to do that to produce cars to those rules for next year rather than doing the normal process of development?

NIGEL BENNETT: Yes, I think I can. I have been involved with Lola. I was designing at Lola for a number of years, so I know something of what it takes to produce 20 or 30 cars. At Penske, we are in quite a fortunate position. We produce five cars a year, but what IRL proposed, was a totally different car from front to back. Not only has it a different engine, a totally new engine of a smaller capacity, which is a huge expense, a huge design expense; a huge materials expense, enormous expense, I would have thought, for the team owners to bear -- (inaudible) a smaller fuel tank which really changes the whole concept of the current car. The position of the various components are going to be quite different. The smaller fuel tank will allow one to rearrange where the engine goes. It will allow one to reassess; to rethink; to reinvestigate the whole area of the mechanical layout of the car. And the time and research that this will cost the owners who are buying customer cars is going to be, I think, horrific. I shutter to think, in fact, what it will do to the series, if it were to come about. From our own point of view, we are in a slightly different position. In fact, it would make a quite an interesting design exercise because when one gets a totally new car like that, and one is not just talking about the engine and the fuel tank and the driver position, the whole aerodynamic structure of the car is changed; different height of the side; different rear wing arrangements; it is going to need a terrific amount of work both on the design and the manufacturing; all the tooling will have to be totally rechanged instead of a developmental program, and it is something which while individual engineers might well commit from the challenge that it might create, I really think it is going to cause a huge disruption to what is now a very nice, smooth running series.

Q. Follow-up to that: Is the new alliance with Mercedes Benz going to help any team that has an alliance with a major manufacturer to either develop their existing product to further or to develop new things for a new series that much better?

NIGEL BENNETT: Well, Mercedes Benz' involvement is with the engine, primarily, and what they're coming into the series has allowed, of course, is a development to proceed at a very fast pace on the engine front. I don't think it will be of any particular help -- any help to any particular team in that respect. Anyone who is using the Mercedes' engine made by Ilmor will have whatever advantages are there and of course, one is in competition with the Ford engine built by Cosworth in that respect, so, no, I don't see a particular advantage to any team in that respect.

Q. When IRL was trying to come up with their engine specs they talked to the various manufacturers. Did they talk to you or seek your input when they tried to come up with their chassis specs?

NIGEL BENNETT: Yes, they did. We had a series of meetings with USAC and the speedway. Based on -- in two areas, really, one was driver safety and how to make the car safer and in terms of driver protection when there was an accident and the other was how to slow the cars down and how one could slow them down so that the cornering speeds, in particular, were reduced. I have to say, we had very good agreement on the driver protection area. They basically came up with a set of proposals, all three manufacturers in England met and had a meeting and we modified those proposals and came up with our own set of proposals. We had a meeting at the end of the season at Laguna Seca with Tony George and Mike Devin and representatives from IRL, and we basically, to a large extent, agreed on the safety measures, and what was required for the chassis. Since then, I have to say, they have extended those and changed them somewhat in some areas which I personally would disagree with, but in general, on the safety side, the driver protection, we are not in a great disagreement. It is on the aerodynamic side and the engine side where I really do not agree with the areas that they are seeking to improve.

Q. Could you tell me how you, for lack of a more English word, interface with your testing team during the course of the season?

NIGEL BENNETT: Yes, we have quite a good interface, in fact. One of our engineers Tom Brown who is a draftsman here, he travels over and he engineers Emerson Fittipaldi's car, so we have someone going to every race and reporting back. I go to all the early tests in the season and all the early races and perhaps half of the races from Indianapolis, onwards, so we have a constant firsthand observation of what is going on at the racetrack. With modern communications, fax and phone, we are in constant contact with the team and so I would say we have a very good interface.

Q. Taking it one step further. How much can you change once you have produced the car, the chassis?

NIGEL BENNETT: You can change an awful lot. You can actually change anything. I mean, it is purely a question of how much improvement you think you are going to get and what it is going to cost. You have to make the decision of how much disruption it is to your production facility here; for instance at this time of year we are heavily into making manufacturing cars, so a design change at this time would be fairly disastrous. But one could change anything. One could change the suspension geometry; one can even redesign the chassis. There is really not a limit of what one can do. It is just a question of what is practical and how much it will cost.

Q. In addition to some of the sort of "go-fast" changes that you have made to the car, I assume and understand that there is -- also have been a lot of, you know, detail work done to basically to, you know, enhance reliability and make the car -- make the new car more mechanic friendly at the race track.

NIGEL BENNETT: That is true, and I think this is partly because although the car is a relatively new design in terms of things that are changed, it is, in fact, similar in layout to the previous one, so we are able to concentrate on cooling of the electronics, the water cooling system. We are able to do some nice touches in a lot of areas which make the car a lot easier to work on for the mechanics; make it operate more efficiently; give a bigger margin on reliability in terms of cooling and that sort of thing, so we have put quite a lot of effort in this year's car to make it a tidy package.

Q. Basically an engineer's goal is to make a car go faster than everybody else's; and that is how you win. Is it tough to constantly have the rules readjusted where they want you to go slower and slower; yet you want to get the maximum out of that car?

NIGEL BENNETT: Sure, this is a quite a frequent question, actually, how can you -- how can you discuss making the car slower when you are trying to make it go as quick as you can. We work within the framework of rules; they are very, very tightly controlled rules, the dimensions of the car, the dimensions of the aerodynamics package; the under wing, the wings, everything is very tightly tied down dimensionally, so one is working within those parameters and once one has got the set of rules, one is working for and one usually has them more in advance, you just work to those limits and it doesn't matter whether the final car will be capable of doing 240 miles an hour at Indianapolis or 25 miles an hour, you are still working within those rules and it is a competition against the rival manufacturers who are working under the same sort of rules. We are in favor of slowing the cars down - There is no doubt about it - all manufacturers are; all designers are on these very fast tracks. It is finding the best which to do it. That is the difficult part.

Q. You are one less driver on the team strength this year. How is that going to effect the team in any way?

NIGEL BENNETT: That driver we are missing wins many races against us. Having three cars was a very great benefit to us, in fact. It was difficult logistically. It was very expensive, but in fact operating -- it was great at the race because one would start off with three cars at the same specification and they would get changed throughout practice and you would gather in 33% more knowledge as practice went on than you would with a two car team. The more cars you have running and the more information you share, the quicker you understand what is going on and whether you have taken a wrong step or whether you are going in a fruitful direction and that was of great benefit to us last year. But we have a very compact, good team, I think in 1995 and I fully expect us to -- both drivers will work together; both teams of engineers will work together and we have a good method of operating and I expect us to be progress efficiently and do well at the race.

Q. You won 12 races last year including the big one, what do you think is a realistic goal for 1995?

NIGEL BENNETT: I would like to repeat it or do better, but I think we can expect Michael to win races. We can expect Tracy to win races,. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see Gordon win a race or two. I would like to say that we should be aiming to win half the races, but whether that is possible or not remains to be seen.

Q. More difficult to win than the 12 races you did last year?

NIGEL BENNETT: It could be. One really doesn't know until you get to the first couple of races and see how good the competition really is. We know we have made improvement on our last year's product. We know it handles better. We know it has more power. We know it is a quicker racing car. It still doesn't mean anything if the opposition is half a second quicker than us or half a second slower and we don't know that yet.

Q. How is the fuel consumption in the redesigned car and how much of a factor will that be in the racing?

NIGEL BENNETT: Fuel consumption is always a factor. As you know, we race to about 1.8 miles per gallon every race, so it is a factor in most of the races; particularly slower races. However the rule efficiency of the engines is constantly improving and the aerodynamics package is constantly improving, so it seems to be becoming less of a factor each year. Two, three years ago, most of the road races you watched were not a race of performance at all. They were a race of fuel consumption, so if someone broke out and went away, they were actually not doing that because they were capable of going quicker; they were taking a bigger risk on the fuel consumption in the hope that there would be a yellow later on. That is becoming less and less of a factor as engineering and efficiency improves.

Q. To achieve that efficiency, Nigel, do the engine manufacturers and chassis manufacturers work independently or do you have a lot of interaction?

NIGEL BENNETT: No, that is independent work. As far as the initial research and testing, that is done on their dynometers and with the electronics departments. When one gets to the track, obviously one is working with them, but there are separate areas of research.

Q. Having one more race in a shorter period of time, how much of a premium will that put on preseason testing since you may not have as much time to do it during the season?

NIGEL BENNETT: I think that is a factor. I think a greater problem for a lot of the teams will be how much equipment and how much manpower they have. You have several races now that are back-to-back. In one case, I think 3 or 4 of them that only have a one week gap on, you know, they are on consecutive weekends. That is going to be a terrific strain for some of the less well financed teams. It is a very, very difficult and arduous program of racing and it is going to be very tough for everybody as far as mechanics are concerned. It is going to be very tough indeed, but particularly so for the smaller teams.

SUSAN BRADSHAW: I just want to thank everybody for calling in today. We are -- just so you know, Marlboro Team Penske is going to do a teleconference every month. Next month we are going to have Chuck Sprague on February 7 to talk about where the testing has done so far. We will be in touch with you for that. The transcript, if you are interested, will be available. You can call either me at a local affiliate or it will be an Marlboro Racing News. Thank you, Nigel.



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