On the road... with Ed Foster

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Grove, Oxfordshire
An audience with Gian Paolo Dallara

The boss of the world’s largest race car builder talks F1, going stateside and race simulators

In April I attended the annual Motorsport Industry Association dinner at WilliamsF1. Every year the MIA invites a motor sport personality who its CEO, Chris Aylett, will interview on stage after dinner. Last year it was ex-FIA president Max Mosley, this year it was the founder of Dallara Automobili Spa, Gian Paolo Dallara. As you can see, the guests are diverse — I don’t think two people could be more diametrically opposed in terms of popularity.

Gian Paolo’s company has achieved so much in the past 39 years that were an entire issue of Motor Sport dedicated to the Italian firm we’d still struggle to contain it all. Fifteen minutes into the interview and Ingegnere Dallara was still talking about his time at Ferrari, a company he joined in 1960 at the age of 24.

Soon, though, conversation turned to Formula 1 and Dallara’s latest involvement in the top echelon of the sport with HRT. The Italian firm has had a lot of bad press through its involvement with the struggling team, and I was keen to find out what had really happened between HRT and the world’s largest race car manufacturer. Dallara likes to get involved in F1 every so often as it “makes sure the company is operating at the highest level possible,” according to Gian Paolo, but historically Dallara and F1 haven’t been comfortable bedfellows.

Gian Paolo helped design the 1970 De Tomaso F1, which Frank Williams ran, but after Piers Courage’s tragic death at Zandvoort the project fizzled out. Between 1988-92 Dallara made chassis for Scuderia Italia, but the partnership delivered little in the way of results. Then came Honda — in 1998 the Japanese company commissioned Harvey Postlethwaite to design a car which Dallara built, but despite the RA099 being quick in winter testing before the start of the 1999 season, the project came to a sad end when Postlethwaite suffered a fatal heart attack and Honda re-entered as an engine supplier instead for BAR. There has certainly been a lot of misfortune with Dallara’s F1 efforts over the years, but the problems with HRT are not simply down to luck…

“I believe that at the start of the project Campos Meta 1 [as the team was formerly known] underestimated the difficulties of finding sponsorship,” Gian Paolo told the audience. “They didn’t have sufficient funds available, so various parts did not arrive, and then a new director joined [the Spanish businessman Jose Ram6n Carabante] who had just enough money to be able to finish the car. It was constantly ‘stop and go’.”

When I talked to Bruno Senna, who drove for the re-named HRT team in 2010, at the end of last season he also hinted that it was the lack of funds that hampered the car and not the Dallara-built chassis. “The car wasn’t developed after December 2009,” he admitted. “There was so much performance in the chassis that could have been unlocked. The car was very efficient aerodynamically and slippery on the straights. Of course it lacked downforce, but with a bit more work we would have been faster than Lotus and Virgin.” Things have seemingly gone from bad to worse for HRT since it split from Dallara — this year it failed to qualify for the season-opening Australian Grand Prix.

However, Dallara Automobili Spa is not the world’s largest race car manufacturer based solely on its F1 exploits. It currently builds cars for the entire IndyCar, GP2, GP3 and World Series by Renault grids and caters for 90 per cent of the world’s Formula 3 market. And that’s just the single-seater cars for major championships. With this many series to supply you’d have thought Dallara would be happy to concentrate just on that. Not at all — the company has built a new state-of-the-art simulator at its Italian HQ and is also building a new American base with another simulator.

The new deal to supply the IndyCar Series runs from 2012-15 and this time the Italian firm has had to rethink its approach. Not only has the price of a chassis been pegged back to US$385,000 (£237,000) — a 45 per cent reduction on the current cars — but also part of the deal stipulates that 50 per cent of the work must be done in the USA. “We plan to produce the chassis in Italy as well as the nose, rear structure and various other parts,” explained Gian Paolo. “But many components will be made at our new base in Speedway, Indiana, which we are building at the moment. It will be ready by the end of the year, but we’ve already started work, so we have actually rented some space nearby to house that. The cars will all be assembled over there and it’s an exciting venture.”

Dallara’s second simulator will be built at this facility, and it’s clear that Gian Paolo sees the potential of such technology. “It’s a different world nowadays and I believe in the new simulators. We wanted to offer our customers a different dimension and the simulators will provide that by giving teams the chance to set up their cars and drivers to learn the circuits. It’s not cheap, though, and between the new facility in America and the two new simulators we’ve invested roughly €18.4 million, which includes 60,000 man hours spent setting up the simulator in Italy.

“However, we made a bit of a mistake in the business plan and these types of customers aren’t coming yet. At the moment we rely on other customers like the producers of components, road cars and manufacturers of hybrid cars. We’ve got 15 people working full time on the simulator, and although we aren’t recovering the cost at the moment, we are able to sustain it. The most important thing is that it is a tool to improve ourselves.”

Even at the age of 74, Gian Paolo still talks about the mistakes he’s made, how he’s learned from them and how that can help improve the company — “my life has been 74 years of mistakes,” he claims. But it is surely this attitude that has helped shape Dallara as a company and position it at the very top of a short list of race car builders.

*

London, UK
Lotus Evora S verdict

New road car is first of many expected from British Marque

Having written all about Lotus’s road car and racing plans in the March issue of Motor Sport, I was keen to get behind the wheel of the new Evora S to see how it matched up to the company’s grand plans and promises.

The original version of this car the Evora was loved by much of the motoring press. But a few felt the car needed more power something its great chassis could certainly handle. Soon enough the supercharged version arrived, and the Evora was turned from an accomplished two-seater sports car into a proper performance car.

The Evora S (above) is great to drive and anyone worried that the delights of Lotus handling will be diluted with this new breed can rest easy. It’s quick, it sounds good and amazingly for someone who’s done 17,000 miles in a Mk1 Elise over the past two years it is extremely comfortable.

It does come with a £58,995 price tag, however. Lotus wants to start selling cars for even more when it brings out the Esprit, Elan, Elite and Eterne, and the question really is whether the Evora S provides enough evidence that it can do this. Well, yes and no. The Evora S is a huge step up from what we’re used to from Lotus, but still needs to improve. The leather-clad interior is comfortable, but some of the plastic surrounds and switches felt cheap and one came loose as I was driving.

Still, the Evora S is a desirable car. In fact, when I it parked on a London street two teenagers walked past, one saying: “One day, we’ll be able to buy one of those.” In all my time in the Elise I’ve never heard that. It seems Lotus is on the right track.

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London, UK
From gamer to Le Mans racer

GT Academy winner Lucas Ordonez has left his Playstation behind…

The GT Academy was launched in 2008 when Nissan and Sony Computer Entertainment Europe teamed up to find a PlayStation gamer they racing driver.

Some 25,000 hopefuls submitted lap times and eventually two from each country/area went through to a five-day training camp at Silverstone, at the end of which student Lucas Ordonez was announced as the winner. I must admit I was quite sceptical about it all… I mean, I can do a pretty good lap time on Grand Turismo 5, but put me on a track and I’m invariably rubbish.

The ‘lap time’ part of the competition for this year’s event ran between March and April, depending on where you are in Europe, and I decided to have a go at the media shoot-out. Suffice to say that after 20 laps of practice I was still a staggering 37 seconds off the pace.

I had to eat my words still further when Ordonez finished second in the LMP2 class at this year’s Sebring 12 Hours aboard an ORECA Nissan. “It was an excellent result to start the season with,” the former student told me. “The LMP cars are so different to what I’ve raced before (mostly GTs), but they are great to drive.”

It’s all very well being fast on a computer game, but if I drove on a real race circuit like I do on my PlayStation I’d probably be dead by now. “There was a steep learning curve after I won the GT Academy,” Ordonez admits. “With racing it’s not all about going fast every lap, you need to work with the team and get the set-up right. I’m still learning a huge amount at every race meeting.”

The Spanish driver is fulfilling a lifelong dream could morph into a fully-fledged this year by competing in the Le Mans 24 Hours with the ORECA Nissan, still further rubbishing my theory that a gamer does not make a racer. “It’s the top echelon of sports car racing,” he said of the French classic. “It’s the best race in the world. It’s funny every interview I did a few years ago the question was ‘what’s your dream?’ My dream was to race at Le Mans. It’s truly incredible that three years after winning the GT Academy I am doing the race.”

That it is. Ordonez may not be as experienced or accomplished as many other racing drivers on the grid at La Scuffle this June, but isn’t it refreshing that there’s another alternative way into motor sport? I certainly think so.

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London, UK
Getting to grips with MotoGP

New bike game favours technique over results

New MotoGP Playstation and Xbox game has been brought out by Capcom. But while you can sit down and master the secret of car games quite easily, this two-wheeled adventure is 40 another matter altogether.

If you’re a bike racing fan you’ll love it, because there’s lots of focus on how you ride as well as where you finish. This means that if you try the age-old route of ‘fastest lap, huge wipeout, fastest lap, huge wipeout’ like I did, you won’t progress far.

Well, it was worth a try, even if it meant me throwing my PlayStation controller at the TV on numerous occasions…

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