Monday, April 11, 2011

Nice article regarding Dallara and the upcoming IndyCar Chassis

The Little-Known Racing Legend Underneath the Logos

VARANO DE' MELEGARI, ITALY — On some weekends, when the motor racing world is in full rev, as many as 300 racecars made by one Italian company can be seen speeding along famous racetracks around the world, from the Indianapolis Speedway to Macao.

Yet to motor racing outsiders, the name Dallara, the chassis maker, is unlikely to ring many bells. One specialist magazine recently described the company as “the world’s most successful yet understated racing car builder.”

“We prefer to let the facts speak for themselves,” said Andrea Pontremoli, chief executive and general manager of Dallara. “If we win races we’re good.” He paused. “And we win a lot of races.”

The chassis of a racecar tends to go unnoticed under the logos and brand names blazoned on the bodywork by sponsors. Yet the chassis “is the foundation for everything,” said Arturo Rizzoli, a journalist for “Autosprint,” an Italian magazine that follows motor racing. “It is the key” to making a winning racecar.

In Formula One — the pinnacle of auto racing and also the richest series — each of the 12 teams is now required to build its own chassis. But most other series, from karting to the lower formulas that feed Formula One, buy chassis from companies like Dallara. Such series exist in dozens of countries around the world at both international and national levels. They usually make their money from corporate sponsorship, private investors and rich enthusiasts.

It is in several of the lower series that Dallara has increasingly dominated the competition.

Dallara, for example, is the single chassis maker for the GP2 series, considered the final step on the ladder leading to Formula One. Starting in 2012, it will provide the chassis for all GP3 cars, a newer series that is also a Formula One support race.

By Mr. Pontremoli’s calculations, 196 of the 200 cars that race in Formula Three, considered two steps down from Formula One, are manufactured by Dallara.

Dallara cars also race in the World Series by Renault, Grand-Am, the North American series and the German junior series Formel Master — more series used as stepping stones to the higher levels and ultimately to Formula One.

The company’s design consulting business, which brings in 40 percent of revenue, even extends into the rarefied reaches of Formula One racing, where the company last year provided the chassis to the Hispania team before the new rules required a team to build its own chassis. Dallara is still involved in the series, “but we can’t say what we do or for whom,” Mr. Pontremoli said with a smile.

Last summer, Dallara scored a coup by beating out other manufacturers to build the new 2012 car for the Izod IndyCar Series, the premier level of American formula racing that opened its season last month. The company will build the undercarriage and the safety cell, where the driver sits. The bodywork dressing the cars will be provided by various manufacturers, including Chevrolet and Lotus, as well as Dallara.

Using a single chassis maker like Dallara makes the cars more economically viable for teams and increases competition. When all teams use the same chassis company, they all pay the same price for the chassis, so richer teams cannot buy their way to victory. And instead of the speed difference between teams coming mostly from the chassis — as in Formula One — it comes mostly from the skill of the driver.

The chassis — which includes everything but the driver’s seat — will cost $349,000.

A news release to announce the choice of Dallara last year for Izod estimated that the price was a 45 percent decrease from the cost of the cars racing in 2010-11, no small saving for teams.

The contract will also swell the company’s revenue, which this year hovers at €32 million, or $46 million. Next year, when Dallara will build both the new IndyCar and the new GP3 chassis, revenue will top €56 million. The privately held company does not disclose profit figures; all profits are reinvested in innovation and technology, Mr. Pontremoli said.

Much of that investment goes to preserving a key competitive advantage: safety.

The company has an excellent reputation for building cars that protect the driver. A video in the front hall of headquarters shows a loop of car crashes in Dallara vehicles from which the drivers walk away.

Mr. Pontremoli may be co-chief here, but his first considerations during an interview in Dallara’s unassuming headquarters about 30 kilometers, or 20 miles, southwest of Parma, were of praise for the company’s founder and president.

“This business emerged from the genius of Gian Paolo Dallara, who still puts in a 12-hour day, even though he’s 74, ” Mr. Pontremoli said. “He’s a volcano.”

Mr. Dallara set up his own chassis-making shop here in 1972, fresh from experiences at Ferrari and Lamborghini (where he worked on the Lamborghini Miura, a sports car produced from 1966 to 1972-3 that aficionados speak of with awe).

At Dallara headquarters, rows of locked offices guard the closely held design secrets of various manufacturers including Ferrari, Maserati, Audi, and Bugatti. The Bugatti Veyron Super Sport — the fastest road-legal car in the world, with a top speed of 431.07 kilometers per hour, or 267.85 miles per hour — was designed with research and development input from Dallara.

Engineers work with only one manufacturer and doors — and mouths — are tightly shut.

Separate entrances to the facility ensure privacy, and only Mr. Pontremoli has open access. “And that’s only because I don’t understand the engineering part of it,” he said, grinning. Before he arrived at Dallara in 2007, he was chief executive of I.B.M. Italy; he went to work at a company that builds racing cars “to pursue a dream,” he said.

At its facility, Dallara has two wind tunnels, and last December it inaugurated a new, €10 million lap-time simulator, which reproduces various motor, road and environmental conditions, allowing engineers to shave weeks off the design of new, faster cars. Tweaks to a prototype are now executed virtually, on a computer, and the costly mold casts of the past are no longer necessary.

“Today a car can be designed in nine months, of which eight are virtual. In the past, the same car would take four or five years to develop,” said Mr. Pontremoli. He concurred that the simulator — a giant sputniklike structure that sits in the center of a large room lined with windows where engineers monitor the movements — was a “little sci-fi.”

The hardware for the simulator can be adapted to different drivers’ needs to improve performance, said Federico Nenci, of Dallara’s commercial department, who described it as an efficient, and extremely cost-effective, tool.

To support and consolidate its new presence in U.S. racing, Dallara is opening a new engineering center on the main street of Speedway, Indiana, the township that houses the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Costing between $8 million and $10 million, the center, which is within walking distance of the track, is scheduled to open in November.

The facility will also feature an entertainment center, including a simulator to allow fans to experience the thrills and chills of motor racing.

Dallara’s presence “will have a big impact,” at Speedway, said Randy Bernard, the chief executive of IndyCar. “First and foremost it will create jobs, and then it’s a good showcase for cars being built in the United States. And it will boost fan experience in the United States.”

Scott Harris, executive director of the Speedway Redevelopment Commission, which is supervising a multimillion-dollar makeover of the track and town, said he hoped Dallara’s presence would become a sort of lure to “attract other motor sports designers and components designers to the area.”

Last year, the Speedway nearly topped a million visitors and, with 300,000 spectators, officials claim that the Indy500 is the largest single-day sporting event in the world. American racing “is a different world,” Mr. Dallara said. “There’s more spectacle, more attention to the public.”

Mr. Pontremoli put it more colloquially: “It’s all about crash and conflict.”

In Europe, instead, “racing is seen as a technical challenge between big car makers,” Mr. Dallara said. “From the entertainment point of view, it’s pretty modest. European racing could learn a lot” from the Americans.

Mr. Dallara is excited by the prospect of branching out into the United States, but his vision for expansion is grounded.

“We don’t want to be too big. We’d rather be good in our specialized niche,” he said. “We want to know that we’re the best doing what we know how to do.”

Brad Spurgeon contributed reporting from Kuala Lumpur.