Interview: Race Car Designer Gian Paolo Dallara

Tom Salt

The year Gian Paolo Dallara graduated from Milan Polytechnic, 1959, was the same year the British Motor Corporation introduced the Mini, Jack Brabham won his first Formula 1 title, Fidel Castro grabbed control of Cuba, the Guggenheim Museum opened in New York, and director William Wyler completed Ben-Hur. Ancient history, for sure, except that fifty-five years later, Gian Paolo Dallara, 77, still talks, acts, and looks like the much younger men who surround him. Slim and fit, the bespectacled time traveler and employer of 250 highly skilled workers wears his hair chestnut brown, typically spends eleven hours a day in his small office, and has more high-flying plans up his made-to-measure sleeves than most directors half his age. Motorsports has been the Parma, Italy, native’s main motivator since he accepted Enzo Ferrari’s offer to work in the racing department in 1959.

“Ferrari was always on the lookout for gifted young engineers who were eager to implement fresh ideas and innovative methods,” the father of two daughters recalls between two espressos. “I introduced Ferrari to the wind tunnel, knowing that drag reduction was key to improving a car’s performance. At the time, we were working on the 250GTO and the 330, but after only eighteen months I left Maranello and headed for the racetrack. Me and my colleagues -- [Giotto] Bizzarrini, [Carlo] Chiti, [Giulio] Alfieri -- were all driven by the desire to design race-winning cars. In pursuit of this goal, my next stop was Maserati, where I worked on the Birdcage and the Cooper-Maserati. Again, it was a rather short stint that ended in 1963 when the brand suddenly pulled the plug due to a lack of funds. But while in Modena, I made new friends -- Bruce McLaren, Roger Penske, and, most important, Jim Hall of Chaparral fame. Hall practically reinvented race car aerodynamics by establishing downforce as a decisive dynamic element.”

Dallara’s scattered factory complex is dotted with high-tech workstations and houses wind tunnels, a state-of-the-art driving simulator, and a cordoned-off carbon-fiber laboratory. But the first part of our conversation kept revolving around the early years of Gian Paolo’s colorful career. After the prancing horse and the trident, the raging bull was Dallara’s third port of call in less than five years. Like so many others, Ferruccio Lamborghini had caught the racing bug, but once again money was thin on the ground, and the road cars weren’t exactly selling like hotcakes.

“Together with Paolo Stanzani, we developed the 350GT, the Miura, and the Espada -- on a shoestring budget and within a ridiculously short time frame,” Dallara recalls. “The Miura, designed by Marcello Gandini, was perhaps the most significant sports car of its era. But it was far from bulletproof. Bob Wallace did all the test driving with the only two prototypes we could afford -- over no more than 30,000 kilometers [18,640 miles] in total -- and in the end even those two mules were sold to customers, complete with built-in aerodynamic foibles and tricky handling caused primarily by same-size tires all around. Despite those teething troubles, I have always wanted to own a Miura, and although prices have skyrocketed lately, I found a car I am going to buy this year.”

With Lamborghini an embarrassing no-show on the motorsports circuit, Dallara once more felt compelled to move on to prove his worth as race car designer. The next man who tapped his talent was Alejandro de Tomaso. The Argentinian businessman first commissioned a Formula 2 chassis and then, with the backing of Frank Williams, the Formula 1 entry later known as 505/38. But after the fatal accident of Piers Courage at the Dutch Grand Prix in 1970, the project collapsed. Frustrated and financially exhausted, Gian Paolo decided to go it alone, founding Dallara Automobili in 1972. It was good but not quite good enough for a gifted engineer whose heart belonged in top-league motorsports. So Dallara accepted just about every suitable Formula offer he received. In 1973, he co-designed the Iso Marlboro racer; in 1977, he conceived an F3 racer for Walter Wolf; in 1987, he built a monoposto for Giuseppe Lucchini’s BMS Scuderia Italia, which competed in F1 between 1988 and 1992, scoring a scant fifteen championship points in total.

Disillusioned but by no means disheartened, Gian Paolo entered yet another F1 venture in 1997. Although that venture had Honda and other powerful backers, the Japanese manufacturer pulled out at the eleventh hour. Asked whether he would consider F1 one last time if the conditions were right, Dallara vigorously shakes his head. “No way, absolutely not. Even if someone offered lots of money, I would not do it. Consultancy? Yes. Competition? No.”

Consultancy and competition are indeed Dallara’s key catchwords. Split almost evenly between racing cars and road cars, consultancy is now an important regular income source. His company has worked on legendary street machines such as the Maserati MC12, the Bugatti Veyron, the KTM X-Bow, and the Alfa Romeo 4C. There are more new sports cars in the works, but strict confidentiality agreements prevent our guide from unlocking doors and lifting the camouflage. CEO Andrea Pontremoli, a former IBM executive and now a partner in Dallara, took us through the wind tunnel and showed us the advanced driving simulator developed with Ferrari and Moog.

“Priced at twelve million euro [about $16.5 million], this is the fastest and most versatile simulator on the market,” claims the chief salesman. “Its software memorizes thirty different racing circuits and the most significant automotive test tracks. This machine allows the driver to evaluate and benchmark a vehicle before it has even been built. The basic rental fee varies from 4000 to 8000 euro per half day, which is money well spent when you consider that a single IndyCar season will cost you between six and ten million dollars.”

Completed in 2008, the bigger of two wind tunnels is also devoted mainly to client work. Streamlining a race car has become a methodical task that can be split into ten or so different steps. While some customers are happy with a new set of more efficient spoilers, others put Dallara in charge of designing a complete vehicle. A scale-model Indy car consisting of 400 different pieces is completed within twelve weeks and costs between $250,000 and $350,000. Road cars are less complex and thus less expensive, at about $200,000 apiece.

“In the past, manufacturers were primarily interested in body kits that would create a sportier stance,” explains Gian Paolo. “Nowadays, however, there is a stronger emphasis on function—be it to reduce drag for speed and emissions or to increase downforce for more grip and stability. Active aerodynamics are an increasingly popular means to both ends. As far as single-seaters go, there is a clear design distinction between F1, with a top speed of 210 mph and lots of run-off space, and IndyCar, with a maximum speed of 250 mph and a wall to embrace you if something goes wrong. So, from the first hour in the wind tunnel, you are dealing with different parameters and priorities.”

The predominant color in the labs and workshops of Dallara is black -- as in raw carbon fiber. Before receiving their final livery, almost all race cars are matte-charcoal tubs with wheels attached to them and an engine wedged between the seat and the rear suspension. In the vaults of Dallara HQ, they await the new season like a lineup of stranded whales, some very small, others incredibly elaborate.

The least expensive model is the 180-hp Formulino, which costs almost $90,000 complete with engine and transmission. A GP2 racer has a $135,000 price attached to it, but the drivetrain costs extra. The big breakthrough for the small Italian supplier came in 1997, after Tony George created the Indy Racing League (IRL) and Dallara was appointed as one of two approved chassis manufacturers. In 2008, IRL and Champ Car merged, and the partner from Parma was named exclusive chassis supplier. Safety and efficiency enhancements are being introduced regularly, the most recent in 2012 and the next coming in 2016. From its U.S. satellite just outside the famous Brickyard, the company is also supplying Tudor USCC and Indy Lights.

Dallara’s latest racing project is Formula E, which will stage its inaugural event in Beijing in September. All ten teams will initially field identical battery-powered, zero-emissions Spark-Renault racers. The leading systems suppliers include McLaren (electric motor), Williams (energy cells), Michelin (tires), and Dallara (chassis). For Dallara, carbon fiber is again the material of choice. “Every new project presents us with a new challenge,” he says. “I firmly believe that as far as carbon fiber is concerned, we are still at the beginning of a long learning process. The other day, I met with an up-and-coming materials expert, theorizing about what might be possible and what isn’t.” After a pause, one last remark: “The real limit to our work is imagination, perhaps even fantasy.”

Asked where they see the company in ten years, Dallara and Pontremoli smile, nod, and cross their arms simultaneously. Although Gian Paolo is in all probability on a tighter time horizon than Andrea, their thinking seems to be on exactly the same wavelength. Continuing to build successful race car chassis tops the list of the president and his CEO, but their mutual ambition stretches far beyond the checkered flag. Another important priority is to create new mathematical models for the interaction between body, drivetrain, and suspension, with the ultimate target being to let a driver drive a car that has never been built. It is a common belief at Dallara that simulation will, in the not too distant future, supersede prototyping.

And then there is something else bubbling underneath, something personal, something that should still be top secret.

“I have often been asked why I never did a sports car badged Dallara,” Gian Paolo reminisces. “The answer always was lack of money and not enough time. But now, at the ripe age of seventy-seven, I am ready to go ahead and crack it. A no-frills, lightweight two-seater worthy of my name.” Watch this space . . .

The Dallara Sports Car Project

Tapping the know-how gained from his company’s contribution to the Alfa Romeo 4C and the KTM X-Bow, Gian Paolo Dallara started R&D work on his own sports car in early 2013. He describes the car as a pure and simple driving machine with two seats and enough luggage space for a long weekend trip. Think of a Lotus Elise -- mid-engine, control-arm suspension, basic convertible top -- but add a carbon-fiber chassis. No air-conditioning or driving aids. Dallara might throw in ABS and a couple of airbags, but traction and stability control aren’t a certainty, and be prepared for superquick unassisted rack-and-pinion steering. The target weight is in the area of 1900 pounds. In charge of the car’s design -- predicted above by our illustrator -- is an anonymous young man from the Turin area, not one of the big-name Italian sheetmetal artists. Which engine will Dallara use? Fiat/Alfa is the most likely source for a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder good for at least 300 hp. According to Dallara, the still nameless back-road rocket is going to cost about $110,000, will arrive in 2016 or 2017, and should be a rare commodity, at no more than 100 units per year. -- GK

Dallara’s Greatest Hits (and Misses)

Gian Paolo Dallara has been formally involved in motorsports as a designer and constructor since 1969. He has worked for companies that include Audi, Ferrari, Honda, KTM, Lancia, and Toyota, as well as his own firm. Of the several dozen racing cars built over the years, some were winners, and some were not. -- Michael Jordan

  • (-) 1970 De Tomaso 505/38 (Formula 1 for Frank Williams)
  • (+) 1983 Lancia LC2 (Le Mans Prototype)
  • (-) 1988 Dallara F188 (Formula 1 for BMS Scuderia Italia)
  • (+) 1993 Dallara F393 (Formula 3)
  • (+) 1993 Ferrari F333SP (IMSA GT prototype)
  • (+) 1997 Dallara IR7 (Indy Racing League)
  • (+) 1998 Toyota GT-One (Le Mans Prototype)
  • (-) 1999 Honda RA099 (Formula 1 for Honda)
  • (+) 2000 Audi R8 LMP (Le Mans Prototype)
  • (+) 2004 Audi DTM (German touring car championship)
  • (+) 2008 Dallara DP-01 (Daytona Prototype)
  • (-) 2010 Hispania F110 (Formula 1 for Hispania Racing)
  • (+) 2012 Dallara DW12 (IndyCar)

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