Rulers of a racing empire

Gian Paolo Dallara and new business partner Andrea Pontremoli are the men behind the world’s most successful yet understated racing car builder
By Damien Smith

Varano de’ Melegari is a small ‘municipality’, a huddle of pretty villages nestling on the side of a valley 30kms south-west of Parma. Not far from the Tuscan borders, it hints at the ‘rustic charm’ idyll so adored by English middle-class families and Channel 4.

The green rolling hills are a relief after the monotonous miles of harsh industrial flatness that characterises the drive from Milan. As the landscape rises ahead of us, we look for a sign – any sign – that the world’s largest, most influential and most successful racing car builder of modern times is hidden away in this Italian rifugio.

The sat nav’s confused. It’s sent us down to the river, where locals bathe in the shadows of a bridge carrying an autostrada. Luckily I’ve been to Varano before, eight years ago, so we leave the bathers and head into the valley. We’re close now, but I know it will be easy to miss. Sure enough we flash past the tiny sign: Dallara Automobili SPA. We head back to the anonymous turn and there it is. The simple, two-storey building set back from the road, adorned with a logo a million times less well known than Ferrari’s prancing horse.

But modest impressions can be deceptive. Dallara doesn’t appear to be an imposing presence, but its influence is felt from the top to the bottom of this valley. Gian Paolo Dallara, the local boy made good, owns large chunks of land and property in the area, including the Varano race track across the road from the factory. He is a respected and admired figure among the community – much as he is on the motor sport stage around the globe. He just doesn’t shout about it, that’s all.

Ingegnere Dallara has grafted for 36 years to create his family empire – and as I discover, he’s not finished yet. This is an Italian gentleman in the old tradition: quietly charismatic, humble, warm and very proud. He’s 72, but hasn’t aged a jot since my last visit eight years ago.

But while he is the same, much has changed at his company. It has grown at least twice as large, thanks to the impressive addition of a second wind tunnel built on a neighbouring piece of land. And a new partner, who I shall meet later, has come on board to help spread the word: home-grown Dallara is a worldwide success – and now it’s ready to shout about it.

IRL Indycar, GP2, World Series by Renault, Formula 3, Indy Lights, Grand-Am, German junior series Formel Master: these are just the series in which Dallara officially plies its trade. Its growing consultancy business also stretches into Le Mans, the DTM, road cars such as the Bugatti Veyron and the new KTM X-Bow, and yes, Grand Prix racing, too.

Last winter it was faced with the daunting target of building new cars for GP2, World Series by Renault, F3, extra IRL chassis for emigrating Champ Car teams following the Indycar unification, and a handful of Grand-Am cars. The total added up to nearly 200 racing cars. This is a truly remarkable company.

You could never accuse Gian Paolo Dallara of being ostentatious. His office is sparse and is dominated by a single, giant Western-style cactus, a hint of his successful raid into the US racing scene over the past 12 years.

“I am not retiring,” he states softly in his excellent English. “I still come in at 8am and leave at 6pm. And I am happy because now I see a future for the company.” Dallara Automobili is expanding – but only on the boss’s terms.

The boss is another of motor racing’s Italian alumuni to have graduated from the Polytechnic of Milan. That was in 1959, when he was 22.

“I was studying aeronautical engineering when Ferrari began hiring wind tunnel staff,” he says. “Of course, when Ferrari asks, you go. It was at this point that I became fanatical about racing cars – as I continue to be.”

What an apprenticeship – he worked under the wing of Carlo Chiti, joining Ferrari in the same month as Mauro Forghieri: “I was in the engine area, Forghieri was in the chassis area. And of course my work was in the office and I wanted to see the races…”

That ambition drove him towards Maserati, despite its best racing days being far behind it. “My first job was to follow the Cooper-Maserati at the Sebring 12 Hours in 1962, and the drivers were Bruce McLaren and Roger Penske,” he says. “It was a fantastic experience!”

But as Maserati’s decline accelerated, Dallara was on the move again – to Lamborghini. In a few short years he had worked within Italy’s three great motoring houses, lodging away vital experience he would one day call upon. But for now, in the mid-1960s, he was about to play a lead role in the creation of an automotive icon.

“Lamborghini was starting a new project – the 350GT,” says Dallara. “By the end of the year I was in charge of the chassis design. I was not ready for this, but neither I nor Lamborghini realised I was too young! I should have paid them for what I learnt. We did the 350GT, the 400GT, the Miura and the Espada – fantastic.”

He cites the Miura as one of the highlights of his career, but the call of the tracks was too much to resist. He joined De Tomaso and worked on the Formula 2 car raced by Jacky Ickx, Jonathan Williams and Piers Courage. Next was Formula 1 – with Frank Williams.

“We started with a white sheet of paper with the De Tomaso F1 car in 1970 – but paid a lot of attention to the Brabham. The car was not the best, but we were third with Courage in the International Trophy at Silverstone.”

But tragedy soon followed. Courage was killed at Zandvoort, Williams was shattered and the De Tomaso F1 project faded away. Dallara was out of racing again – but not for long. It was time to go it alone.

Dallara Automobili was born in 1972. To begin with, Gian Paolo took on some consultancy work for another Italian giant, Lancia. The car? None other than the Stratos. On the track, the company specialised in small-capacity sports racers and the cars enjoyed Italian domestic success. A Group 5 project followed, Dallara modifying the Fiat X19 despite little funding from the works. But it paid off – the car was successful enough for Lancia to come calling with a proper budget. Gian Paolo joined the team heading to Pininfarina’s wind tunnel to work on the Group 5 Beta Montecarlo, which claimed back-to-back World Championship for Makes titles in 1980 and ’81. His work with Lancia would continue into the new decade, Dallara heading the chassis design on the open-top LC1 and the Group C LC2 closed car.

The Lancia sports cars earned Dallara further experience, kudos – and most crucially extra capital to develop his company. Dallara had been building F3 cars since 1978, and through the ’80s it emerged as the dominant force in the junior category – at least on the Continent.

“We were successful in Italy, France, Germany – but not in England.” Dallara winces. “If you win in F3 but you can’t win in England it means you are not the best. But we became the best.”

They sure did. Everything changed in 1993, when Dallara finally made its British breakthrough. It all began when the little-known Steven Arnold introduced a Class A Dallara to British F3 and started going quickly. When his highly rated team-mate Warren Hughes stormed from 21st on the grid to sixth at Thruxton in April – beating the pole time by 0.2sec – the tide began to turn. The teams were quick to spot Dallara’s potential, and Reynard and Ralt suddenly found their customers deserting them. Edenbridge Racing’s Oliver Gavin scored Dallara’s first British F3 win at Silverstone in May, and by July all but a few Class A runners had switched to the Italian chassis – including Kelvin Burt, who discarded his Reynard to save his dwindling points lead. The Paul Stewart Racing ace went on to claim the championship in his new Dallara.

It had all happened so suddenly, in a few short months. Why then, when Dallara had been mopping up in Europe for years? “You cannot tell someone the car is good, you have got to show them,” says Dallara. “We were expecting someone to come to us to run a car, but no one did, and we did not have a contact in England back then. It needed someone to take a risk.”

For the past 15 years Dallara has dominated F3 the world over. The likes of Martini, Lola and Mygale have taken them on – and beaten them on occasion, as Mygale did earlier this year in Britain. But the reality is that F3 has more or less become a one-make chassis formula, such is Dallara’s strangehold.

There have been sorties into F1 over the years, but the world’s largest producer of customer racing cars isn’t built for the specialities of running a Grand Prix team. From 1988 to 1992, the company produced F1 chassis for Scuderia Italia, but the programme only ever showed glimpses of promise with drivers such as Alex Caffi, Andrea de Cesaris, JJ Lehto, Emanuele Pirro and Pierluigi Martini. Then two years ago the company entered into a technical partnership with the Midland F1 team, a deal that worked closer to Dallara’s consultancy strengths. Former Jordan and Stewart technical director Gary Anderson was brought in to head a development team, and it proved to be a fruitful project for Dallara. But when Midland’s Russian owner lost interest and sold out to Spyker, the project came to a premature end.

Its best crack at Grand Prix racing never even made the grid. Back in 1998, Honda was quietly planning a return to F1 and commissioned Harvey Postlethwaite to design a chassis, which was then built by Dallara. The RA099 lapped quickly in pre-season tests in the winter of 1999, driven by ex-Benetton driver Jos Verstappen, and a Honda entry for 2000 was guaranteed. But following Postlethwaite’s fatal heart attack in April, the project was cancelled. Honda chose to re-enter F1 as an engine supplier with British American Racing instead. One senses a degree of regret when Dallara talks about the Honda project – he clearly believes its potential was genuine – but by 1999 the company had already made another breakthrough into a market that would spur it on again.

When Tony George initiated the split in Indycar racing by forming the Indy Racing League, Dallara was quick to spot an opportunity to crack America. “Tony was looking for car manufacturers in 1996 and it was a great chance to enter a championship at the start,” says Dallara. “He offered an advance payment for 15 cars and would pay the rest when they arrived in the States, and I suppose he made the same offer to G-Force. At the time it was a big fight between the two of us and it took about six years for us to become the best. For most of that time we were similar on performance.

“Probably because of better service we had the opportunity to attract the best teams and in the end we arrived at the situation we’re in now: 100 per cent of the field.”

Very simply, Dallara has risen to its position as the master of customer racing cars by doing the best job, building quality cars and offering great service to its customers. In the age of one-make racing, it is the king. But I’m intrigued: like his old friend Frank Williams, Gian Paolo Dallara is a true racer. Surely, one-make racing is anathema to a man such as this. Does it really interest him?

“Yes, because first you have to make the cars for a reasonable price, then you have to make it competitive to other series in terms of lap time. The cost should be in line with the quality of the car, it should also be safe, and you must organise good service. The car has to work immediately because you have to build the cars all at the same time and you cannot adjust them very much after they are delivered. It is not easy. You have to bring all your racing experience. That is why I believe Grand-Am is an investment to keep our company alive with the proper mentality.”

The NASCAR-run sports car series is dominated by the American Riley marque. Dallara admits it could take at least five years to change that. But how interesting that he believes the challenge of multi-chassis competition will keep his workforce sharp. So would he welcome rivals into the reunited Indycar market when new rules are drawn up for 2011?

“We are open to what they decide. There are rumours it will be a multi-engine competition. On the chassis, I hope we will be allowed in. It depends on the politics of the IRL. If they decide to keep the price down they might go for a one-make car. It will depend on how strong the push is from the big teams to have more freedom to improve the performance of the cars.”

To build a business on such a volatile, politically driven sport is dangerous. Which is perhaps why, aside from building racing cars, Dallara is expanding into the area where Gian Paolo began: consultancy. Its work with major (and minor) car manufacturers now makes up 30 per cent of the Dallara business, aided by the new wind tunnel. But the consultancy stretches beyond its excellent aerodynamic capabilities, into areas such as computational fluid dynamics, composites, vehicle dynamics, component testing and poster rig testing. Thus a project such as the KTM X-Bow is now a reality for Dallara, allowing him to fulfil a desire to build ‘a Lotus 7 for the 21st century’.

But at 72, Dallara knows he must secure the future for his 170 employees, many of whom are loyal locals who have worked for him for years. And this is where his new partner comes in.

Where Gian Paolo Dallara is a traditional Italian gentleman, you could say that Andrea Pontremoli is his modern equivalent. At a glance, he is a sharp-suited high-roller who drives a pristine BMW (Gian Paolo drives a well-worn sky blue Alfa 156), and sure enough Pontremoli is concerned with image – both his own and the company’s. But there is more to him than meets the eye.

“The company was becoming too big for my knowledge regarding organisation,” Dallara admits. “I have fantastic people working for me and I cannot leave the company to collapse without me. I had to find a solution, to give it another 20-25 years of life. The most stupid and easy way would be to sell to some big corporation that might just close us down. So I decided on a relationship with Andrea. First, he is 22 years younger than me – and also he thinks in the same way I do.”

Along with the modern BMW, Pontremoli owns a Jaguar E-type and raced motorcycles in his youth. But his speciality is electronics rather than cars. “My first job was at IBM,” he says.

“I thought I would move on and do something different. Instead I stayed for 27 years.”

He worked from the bottom rung as an engineer and climbed to the top, becoming president and CEO of IBM Italy in 2004. Meanwhile, living just 20 minutes down the road from the Dallara factory, he struck up a friendship with Gian Paolo. It is at this point that Dallara’s story is tainted by tragedy.

Pontremoli explains: “We started having discussions three years ago with Gian Paolo’s daughter, Caterina, who sadly today is no longer with us [she died of leukaemia in January 2007]. I decided last year when Caterina passed away to take this opportunity, to change my job and follow another of my passions.”

At the height of his career at IBM he managed 25,000 people – quite a downsizing to buy into a company employing 170. “There is one thing in common,” he says. “I am working for a company that is a market leader. Dallara is number one in its niche. And the dynamics inside, despite the size, are quite the same.”

Pontremoli’s role is to help improve overall organisation, and to ‘develop the brand’ – “using marketing not to sell more, but to sell better”.

Below the surface, perhaps he is not so different to Gian Paolo after all. For example, his new partner had found it easier squeezing up to make room for him than he expected. “It helps that we are friends and we share the same values,” Pontremoli says. “Also our respective know-how is so completely different. I am taking away from him the things he doesn’t want to manage – the organisation, the brand, the sales, the finance and so on. They are not in his heart. Now he can work on the technical part, which is what he likes.”

The pair share another ambition, a vision that could almost be described as philanthropical. “The most important asset in any company is the people,” Pontremoli states. Easy to say, but then he backs it up: “We would like to develop a university in this area. We have everything here in terms of design, composites – even a race circuit. We are already a ‘teaching’ company and we want to proceed in this way.”

Pontremoli is a lot less reticent than his partner to admit to Dallara’s involvement in the F1 world, but neither can name names. It’s all highly confidential – “not even people on the inside know about everything we do,” he says. But a full F1 project? No way – and no need. Neither want Dallara to grow too fast and too big.

As we return to the industrial plains around Milan I reflect on how much – and how little – has changed in eight years at this unpretentious company. Dallara has prospered and grown, and will continue to do so. But it is firmly rooted by its history and the man who built it.