Motor Valley’s Pioneers: Giampaolo Dallara

In these pages we will see a succession of characters from the Motor Valley and beyond, who in one way or another have made their passion a life vocation to export Made in Italy worldwide, innovating and creating excellences. Giampaolo Dallara.

Let’s start with a suggestion: what is your first memory of a racing car?

I can say that I fell in love with Motorsport with a legendary race: the Mille Miglia. After the war everyone started wanting to get back to normal life, trying to do it first with the bicycles and then, obviously, with the cars. Back then, my dad, my mom and I left from home with our Fiat 500, we arrived in Parma long before the race, and then we waited for these incredible cars to pass. Ferrari, Mercedes, Maserati, they were all there, and seeing them go by has been an unforgettable emotion.

In addition to this, the many uphill races in our territory also played a decisive role for me. Just to name a few, I remember Salsomaggiore – Sant’Antonio, Parma – Poggio di Berceto which later became Fornovo – Montecassio and Castione Baratti – Nerviano Arduini.

In any case, here in Emilia, then as now, there was a great desire for speed, and in the early 1950s, lots of events that would now be at least unlikely, were organized. For example, the great names in motorcycling, such as Enrico Lorenzetti and Carlo Bandirola, raced in Carzeto di Soragna, something unbelievable now!

When did you first have the opportunity to drive a racing car? How did you feel?

The first “almost racing” car I drove was the VDM, which stands for Varano de’ Melegari. We built it even before the Dallara Automobili existed. It was a three-seater car destined for uphill races that was fitted with the engine of the Fiat 850; at the time, the Varano racetrack was just born, and I went out on the track to try it but I realized I was better at designing cars rather than driving them, and so I decided to focus my efforts there.

What does Motorsport represent for you today?

It has undoubtedly become my job, my profession, and it can be said that it started almost by chance. I wanted to study mechanical engineering but in Parma there was no mechanical design course and so I went to the Politecnico di Milano but I enrolled in aeronautical engineering and by now I was determined to follow that path, typical of all recent graduates of the time, that would have taken me to Aermacchi in Varese.

In that same period, however, Ferrari was doing some tests in the wind tunnel of the Politecnico and by a coincidence of fate the way to go to Maranello opened, and what can I say … I would have been willing to go there by foot! After that period, I moved first to Maserati and then to Lamborghini but there’s no way for me to build racing cars. It was in that moment that I realized that if I wanted to do this, I would have to think about it myself, and so I went home and started a wonderful journey that brought me here today, to be happy when you win and sad when you lose…, as it is normal and right to be.

By doing so, it seemed even clearer to me how to move forward in this world, you must always try to improve yourself, because none of your opponents is quietly sitting and watching, quite the contrary! And I know for sure that Bercella also shares these values and this philosophy; you can never stop.

When was the first time you met carbon fiber?

In the mid-70s in England I saw a carbon fiber reinforced fiberglass bodywork and from that time I began to think that a material like that one, could be truly revolutionary; then obviously this sector was revolutionized by the chassis of the McLaren MP4/1 from 1981, which paved the way for lighter and more efficient cars.

From that moment on, we all began to be very interested about it, and in 1985 we built our first Formula 3 Kevlar chassis. At the same time, the period of craftsmanship and hand-beaten aluminum panels was ending, and this prompted all of us to reinvent ourselves, starting to give the shapes we wanted to the molds for carbon fiber, no longer starting from the standard panels that were used until then.

You have lived both the period prior to the advent of carbon and its expansion by participating as a protagonist in its total affirmation as the main material for the construction of racing cars. What are the main advantages that this revolution has introduced, both from the design point of view and in the performance of the cars?

When carbon was, let us say, a newborn, two characteristics immediately jumped to the eye: lightness and strength. In all this, however, there was a great absence, that is, safety. In fact, in those days nobody talked about shock absorption! Now it would be unthinkable to do this, especially since now the design of racing cars considers many factors, first of which, precisely, safety but also costs, lightness, performance… and you have to be good at putting all this together. Seen now, those cars were the decalogue of how not to design a safe car.

Over time, the sense of responsibility towards both road and track accidents has matured, taking each of them as a starting point for improvements. We must give all the credit on this to the FIA, which never stops raising the bar and making our lives more and more difficult, and we are nothing but glad about it. Now we see collapsible noses, roll bars, anti-intrusion panels and shock absorbing structures, but in the beginning it was absolutely not like this.

Here in Varano it is said that Dallara made the big leap, in the mid-90s, with Formula Indy, entering a distant world and literally wiping out every competitor with victories. What do you think? Can you tell us about this incredible experience?

Here I need to bring out the circumstances again, as I said before. In the 90s we built the 333 for Ferrari, an extremely successful car that owns several victories, including the 24 Hours of Daytona and Indianapolis. The Indianapolis circuit wanted to split from the championship in order not to be just “one of the races”, and thus the Indy Racing League was born, essentially to have a different visibility. At that point Andy Evans, whose team raced with the 333, came to us asking us to provide them with the cars. From there, our expansion in the United States began, and now we have contacts with other major manufacturers and championships. In fact, it can be said that IndyCar was our push to internationalize.

How did the collaboration with Bercella begin?

It is a relationship of true collaboration that has been going on for a long time now, so much that what really matters is the word, rather than the contract itself, which is also necessary. This is the result of a mutual acquaintance with Bercella, in particular with Franco, which has led us to be able to count on each other, mutually guaranteeing certain quality standards both on the materials used, and on the design and construction of the components. Upstream of the contract, the order and all the necessary signatures, there is always the mutual trust that unites us.

Our companies have been collaborating successfully for 25 years now, what are the challenges that await us, as companies and as a territory, in the years to come?

I am convinced that if you are satisfied with doing well what you are already doing, then it means that you are preparing to manage the decline. In our case and in the mutual relationship with Bercella, the challenge is to make a better product, of higher quality, more refined, a product that costs less but has more important technical characteristics than the previous one. The challenge is to be the best in your niche, and we both do this by continuing to invest in the people, equipments, innovations and quality we can deliver.

Now a preview. Franco Bercella, later on, will speak about the VDM as his first memory inherent in Motorsport. Can you tell us an anecdote about this sport prototype?

I can certainly tell you how essentiality was the master in the construction of that car. The suspensions came from the Formula Cup, the rims were 10” to be as light as possible and the only central brake on the rear axle was placed behind the primary axle of the gearbox. Therefore, from a technical point of view it is still unique.

That car then participated in several uphill races, with some good results, but mostly, it was the element that gave me the confidence to set up on my own and to realize my passion.

What is the victory that you carry the most in your heart in these fifty-years-long career?

I instinctively say the first victory in Varano with Bruno Pescia on the SP1000, our first official racing car. And then there is the first in America with Eddie Cheever at the Indy 500, during our second year of participation.

On the podium of the most beautiful victories, however, there is always the one that arrives the day after tomorrow.