Gian Paulo Dallara, interviewed at a Motor Industry Association Dinner
Ask any knowledgeable motorsports enthusiast who is the most consistently successful production race car manufacturer of the last 20 years and chances are you will get the answer “Dallara”. So as an owner and fan, I had no hesitation in accepting Chairman Nick Harrison's invitation to join the Institution of Mechanical Engineers President, former Midland Automobile Club Chairman, Dallara 399 hillclimber/sprinter and former Monoposto competitor (1966-1972) John Wood and a table of Dallara owners at a dinner held by the Motorsports Industry Association where Dott. Ing. Gian Paolo Dallara was guest of honour. The highlight of the evening was an interview by the MIA's Chris Aylett with Ing. Dallara, an engagingly charming and modest man whose cars have won at Indianapolis, LeMans, more F3 championships than most can count, and have been selected for prestigious one make series. I trust he will not be offended if I refer to him hereafter as Gian Paolo. He claimed that in 51 years in motorsports he “had many opportunities and a bit of luck” and that he had spent 51 years making mistakes – but always tried to make sure he only made them once.
He studied aeronautical engineering at Milan University. Aermacchi would have been an obvious employer, but having watched the Mille Miglia and Grand Prix at Monza, a local car manufacturer proved to be an attraction. They were just starting to use a wind tunnel for their race cars and asked the professor of aeronautics to recommend a graduate – and so Gian Paolo worked for Ferrari. Enzo had famously said that he had never seen a horse at the back of a chariot, though at the time he said it he was working on a design to rival the rear engined Coopers, the 156P, a stubby F2 car which ran in 1 GP at Monaco, 1960. This led, of course, to the iconic, sleek 246 “sharknose”.
Gian Paolo moved to Maserati where they had worked out in the Tipo 61 Birdcage that big tubes were not an ideal way to make a strong, light, car. As he points out, a mass of small tubes were part way to sheet aluminium, which was the real answer, but weren't quite there. Whilst at Maserati he worked on the rear engined version of the Birdcage, and was privileged to meet two Birdcage drivers, Bruce McLaren and Roger Penske. He explained that 30 years later he realised why the rear engined 63 had problems the front engined 61 didn't – the 61 had a deDion axle which held the wheel upright whereas the independent suspension of the 63 was mounted on pickups which flexed. Another mistake spotted, to avoid next time.
As Maserati gradually faded, Gian Paolo took a short sabbatical from racing to join a tractor manufacturer. But it was one with ambitions. Lamborghini had owned and raced Ferraris and was unhappy with the way the owners were treated. He also felt the engineering design could be improved, and this became a job for Ingegnere Dallara. The first Lamborghini was the 350GTV which, due to a dispute with engine designer Bizzarini, famously appeared at the Turin Motor Show of 1963 with a locked bonnet, ballast, and no engine. However, it went on to production. Chris Aylett asked which was the better GT car of the mid 1960's, his Lamborghini or the Ferrari, and the answer surprised most present. Ing Dallara felt the Lamborghini had the edge over the equivalent Ferrari as it had independent rear suspension. However, the much cheaper (and 6 cylinder) E-Type was rated as better than either - “a fantastic, futuristic, super car”.
Meanwhile, Gian Paolo was busy in designing a car inspired, he says, by the best parts of Chapman (light, mid engined) and Issigonis (compact, efficient and transverse engined with the engine over the gearbox). Practicalities meant it turned out a bit bigger than either of these 2 British geniuses might have chosen, and he believed that it had a number of mistakes. Safety was one. “I had owned a Fiat 500 with a petrol tank above the driver's legs, and repeated this in the Miura. With 100l of fuel in front of the driver, it's a bit dangerous. But this was the 1960's and Ralph Nader's safety crusade was only just beginning.” Another “mistake” was the gearbox. The gearbox maker said it wouldn't run on engine oil, but they were wrong, there wasn't a problem there, just as there wasn't in the Mini. Where there was a problem was in the transfer gears to run the box. Largely for packaging, they were smaller than ideal, and usually last only about 30,000km before replacement. Gian Paulo's modesty appeared again when he said “When I need to, I will copy ideas.” He was referring to the folded – not pressed - steel tub, effectively the same as the GT40 which he admired. What he didn't say in the interview was that many regard the Miura as an inspired design, and the first of a particular breed of high performance cars. Its transverse engine was also adopted by Ferrari for their “small” cars up to the 328 of the late 1980's. Few car enthusiasts would regard it as a collection of mistakes.
Having produced an icon, it was time to move on to deTomaso where he designed the F103 F2 car for the 1969 season. It was debuted by ex-Ferrari F1 racer Jonathan Williams. He had shared a flat in the past with Piers Courage, who was driving for the fledgling Frank Williams team. Courage appeared at Vallelunga driving the F103 in the “Rome Grand Prix”. For 1970, DeTomaso produced the Dallara designed 505-38 which was run by Frank Williams. The Frank Williams friendship was to continue for many years. The DeTomaso Cosworth powered F1 car debuted overweight, due in part to a cast magnesium bulkhead, but was developed and lightened. There seemd to be some promise in it when the tragedy of Piers Courage's death overtook the project. Over 40 years later, Ing Dallara was still saddened by the events, and commented how little anybody knew then about safety and anti-intrusion in Grand Prix cars. He also observed that today many drivers seem to believe that the cars are 100% safe. They aren't.
And so having worked for 4 of Italy's famous sports and racing car makers and designed supercars and F1 cars, he decided it was time to form his own company. Dallara Automobili was founded in 1972 in Varano Melegari, near Parma, his birthplace. The first product was a 1000cc, 3 seater sports racing car which was successful in Italy, followed by 1300cc and 1600cc variants. The “holy grail” of racing car manufacturers seems to be a tie-up with a major road car manufacturer, and Dallara was successful in achieving this in their early years. The company produced a Group 5 World Championship for Makes Fiat X1/9, which with huge wheel arches and a rear wing won the 1.3litre class with Guglielmo Manini in 1976. This led to an invitation from Cesare Fiorio (for whom Dallara had worked on the Stratos) to design a Group 5 Lancia Beta Montecarlo. As Gian Paulo says, this gave a degree of stability to the business because in the lower ranks of “professional” motorsport, it only takes one in ten of the fathers of the drivers to not pay and the business has problems. And one in ten can be a good failure rate. The stability allowed the company to invest in a wind tunnel. In 1978, this was a major step for a manufacturer below Formula One – recall that many of the teams were still using third party tunnels at this time.
The BetaMontecarlo proved good enough to dominate the up to 2 litre class in 1979 and in 1980 not only dominated that class, but by selectively running a minimally enlarged turbo 1.4 engine of just over 2 litre equivalent, overall wins by Patrese over privateer Porsches gave them the overall championship. Next stage, as Group C was introduced, was the LC1. Not a Group C car but a Group 6. It took advantage of an FIA loophole which allowed it to run outside the Group C fuel consumption rules and therefore flat out. Patrese narrowly missed the world championship. The next stage was a true Group C car, the LC2. Running a turbocharged Ferrari 308-derived engine, the LC2 was quick but just not up to the legendary Porsche 956s. As Gian Paulo said, in motor racing you know if somebody is better than you because they're the winner.
Moving back a few years, a chain of events had significant consequences. Old employer Lamborghini asked Dallara to tweak up the Coutach with wider wheels and a wing. Walter Wolf – an Austrian/Canadian/Slovenian businessman whose considerable fortune derived largely from North Sea oil – was a Lamborghini customer and wanted to be racing in more than one Formula. He was, at the time, working with old Dallara friend Frank Williams in F1. Wolf needed a sports racing car, for Canadian Gilles Villeneuve, and so Dallara got the order. Less significant at the time, but long term of huge importance, Wolf also wanted an F3 car. The original 1978 Wolf Dallara didn't quite set the world on fire, but by 1980 it was good enough to win the Italian Championship with Guido Pardini. Over the years, the cars were developed and improved until by the mid 1990's they became by far the dominant F3 car, effectively steamrollering the competition from British makes such as Ralt and Reynard.
I found it interesting to hear the durability design objectives. Formula cars – mainly F3 – are intended to have a 50,000km life. They will generally do 12,000km a year in their first 3 years, and then they move down to the second level, for example what is apparently now the “Rookie” class of British F3 but which I suspect most of us still think of as “Class B”. They are usually less intensively used at that level and then move on to club racing where the usage is even less – in the UK, MSV F3, Monoposto, or Hillclimbing. As a result the “wear curve” levels put and whilst Dallara supply at least 90% of the F3 cars they sell few spares where parts wear out, though obviously a fair number for accident damage.
It was clear that the challenges of formulae where there is technical freedom within a framework appeal to Ing Dallara far more than a spec formula. He clearly enjoys competition where he can prove that his solution is the best, and success for the business only comes when the product wins. With spec cars the objective is to deliver a car which gives the organiser what he wants – in appearance, performance, and image – but not necessarily a world beating car. The competitor (aka the man who has to find the money) only needs to be “satisfied” with the product. However, an overwhelming theme of Dallara's work was emphasised – safety is paramount and this is one of the many areas where lessons are learnt and implemented. As a Dallara owner who has involuntarily crash tested his car, I'm glad that this route is taken rather than performance at all costs as was the case with some manufacturers of 40 or more years ago.
There are other factors which affect the way cars develop. 10-12 years
ago, many US race teams changed their cars yearly. The gains of the Euro
against the Dollar have made that uneconomic and the cars have to be designed
with a development cycle. The $/€ rates and US patriotism have made
a US facility an important development for the company. The facility should
be ready by the end of 2011, by which time the Indycar will be 50% US
content, which surprisingly includes the X-Trac transmission.
1993 Ferrari SP333 sports prototype, which had a long an honourable career
at the top level.
The various F1 projects and other issues were dealt with in a question and answer session. Dallara has had 4 contacts with F1, and tries to never be too far away from it. It built the cars for BMS Scuderia Italia from 1988 to 1992. In 1999 they worked with Harvey Postlethwaite, in particular with aero research for the proposed Honda F1 car. Gian Paulo had a very high regard for Postlethwaite. The contract (which was for 4 cars) involved 30 young engineers coming into Dallara. The “knowledge injection” proved valuable in raising the game of the company even further. Gian Paulo was keen to acknowledge that the Honda F1 car, which with Jos Verstappen driving proved very competitive on test in Spain, was essentially an English design built by Dallara. Sadly, of course, Harvey Postlethwaite succumbed to a heart attack during the Spanish test. The other F1 involvments were with Midland and HRT, both run by Colin Kolles. As always, Gian Paulo was discreet and courteous, and refused to say much (apart from recognising a funding problem within HRT) but conceded that the company continued to learn.
Ing Dallara was asked what gave him the greatest pride? It was not the wins, or the engineering, or the undoubted financial success of the business, but the human achievements. There are 180 people employed, with an average age of 32. Young people with no experience come into the company and “graduate from the University of Dallara”, able to go into the worlds of motorsport and engineering as respected individuals.
Questioners from the floor asked about plans for the future. In response to a question about design developments from John Wood, the surprising answer came that energy consumption would become a major factor in competition. Gian Paulo envisaged formulae where the key parameter would be the volume of fuel available. Motor Racing cannot – and should not – ignore pollution or oil contraints. The effect will be cars with less weight, less drag and much greater efficiency. As an aside, this writer wonders if the easiest way to reduce drag is to reduce downforce, which might lead to better racing to watch and fewer fantastically “nailed down” cars which don't swap places. A win-win for environmentalists and spectators?
In the field of road cars, there are opportunities for similar methods of high performance through light weight and efficiency. The KTM X-Bow may be aesthetically challenging (though I admit its sheer functionalism is growing on me), but it is a reasonably realistic price (from £60k or so, I believe) for a carbon chassis'd (read safe), very high performance car which looks terrific fun and on only 240bhp. Look for further developments in this area, which is a good example of not only engineering ingenuity, but commercial ingenuity as the company's staff can devote time to this type of project in the “slack” design months of May to September.
A questioner raised the Dallara simulator. GianPaulo believed they had built it at the right time, but that the market was not quite ready for it. They had seen Ferrari build their simulator with Moog (the aerospace hydraulics business) and thought that customers would wish to use their simulator to learn the circuits – rather like a highly sophisticated computer game. But the development proved very expensive, with 60,000 hours of time put into it. The customers showed little interest, but component suppliers found it invaluable. They are able to test components in a realistic environment and make changes at a keyboard rather than with a CNC machine. The high cost of hiring the simulator is therefore more than justified by the rapid turnround time. It became clear to Dallara that the key to the simulator business is deciding the key parameters of the simulation. Some customers require quite simple, and hence low cost, simulations. Others are looking to investigate tyre behaviour – especially in the world of “designer tyre wear” - and some to look at the aerodynamics of following another car. Roll, pitch and steering sensitivity are amongst the available parameters already developed. There are 15 people employed on the simulator. Gian Paulo was very open when he said it didn't recover its cost, but the company was learning and improving its knowledge.
Beautiful and iconic Ferrari 246 Sharknose on whose aerodynamics Dallara worked
Rear engined Birdcage had pick up flexing problems
Transverse engined Miura helped to redefine supercars
First production Dallara was a 1000cc 3 seater. Like 1950's Kiefts and 1990's McLaren F1s this gave a symetrical weight distribution
Lancia LC1 Barchetta, driven by Patrese at Brands. Story described by Steve Griffin.
The original Wolf-Dallara of 1978 was developed into the 382 which was unusual in being ground effect (like the RT3) but with a full width nose. This example is run by Edgington Racing
The 1999 Postlethwaite-Dallara- Honda
It would be a generous man who did not describe the KTM X-Bow as visually challenging. Bet Chapman would have loved it.
World-Series-By-Renault here driven by Carlos Sainz Jr (his dad drove Sierras, Lancias and Toyotas and is still under 50)
Former F3 driver Mike Conway reached the front page of the Sun when he had this spectacular accident at Indianapolis. Ignorant journos spoke of the car "disintegrating", happily ignoring the fact that as the bits destroy themselves they absorb energy and the driver is (relatively) snug in his carbon safety cell.