Interview with eng. Gianni Marelli

The man of dreams

They say that in the lifetime nothing happens by chance. To say the truth I don't know whether it's always like that, but as for the subject of this article no saying was more appropriate. As it's correct that you should know that this interview happened by chance! And it's even more particular that the interview was made by me, who, at the beginning, had little to do with the subject. But let's be methodical. All that started last May when one evening I was called as every week by Stefano Costantino: he was kept busy for a detailed research on the mysteries of the March 711. Between one problem and another, the point was that about the second powering of the car, the V8 Alfa Romeo, we really knew nothing. Next day I immediately called the lady in charge of the Alfa Romeo historical archive to get all the available documents on that subject, but very soon I was told that documents on the F1Alfa engines were dated from 1975. At this point I admit I became dejected: how to manage to make inquiries if there was nothing even in the archive? What saved us it was the availability of my interlocutor woman. In fact, if it was true that the archive disclosed nothing, but it was also true that the man responsible for the project enjoyed good health and moreover I was told that he was also a very kind person: in addition to the advice I got the e-mail of the person. They informed that his name was Marelli, the engineer: at first I felt a bit uneasy but very soon I thought he was an ex-Ferrari. By then I sent an e-mail to the engineer and after a couple of days I had the chance to speak to him by phone. A call that lasted more than half an hour, thanks to which we managed to reveal a little mystery of that famous engine. It so happened that during the conversation we started talking about his other experiences in F1 and I instinctively asked him if he was willing to an interview that was finally made on the 29th of June in a restaurant at Greggio (near Vercelli). An open talk in which Mr Marelli told himself and made us know some unpublished stories of the old days, the ones that make of Gianni Marelli "the man of dreams".

Engineer Marelli "curriculum"

He was born in Gallarate, after graduating in mechanical engineering at the University in Padua, he has been technical-sports manager of the racing department first at Ferrari (from 1966 to 1971), then at Alfa Romeo with Autodelta (from 1971 to 1981). Starting from 1981 he decided to face up to a new adventure by setting up the M.C.M. Motor car, for which in the following years he started working as an adviser of the market leader companies: at first he designed and built the first carbon fibre chassis for the Lola-Indy (1982-1983), then he studied Zakspeed engines for IMSA and Formula One. In 1988 he designed for Lamberto Leoni's First Racing the chassis that then, after its early team retirement, will be revised and used in 1990 by the Life to house the Rocchi W12. Finally, in 2002 Mr Marelli was a consultant for the Durango Team on the occasion of the 24 hours of Le Mans.

The interview

Mr Marelli, if you agree I would start with a question that, most likely, you will have been asked more than once: What to do to become an engineer of Formula One?

Personally I'm convinced that, quite apart from the position to which we aspire in a Team of F1, the main point is to be keen to do this sport, and my story is the proof of it! When I was a boy I was eager to become a driver and this passion, together with the interest in learning every details of racing cars, brought me to go to the Engineering Faculty in Milan.

Now, we are instinctively putting a question: was it given to you a chance to embark on a driver career?

No, it wasn't! I had very soon to accept the fact that my family didn't like this prospect at all. For a while I tried to do what I wanted, to the point that I stopped university to devote myself to become a maths teacher at the intermediate school, while waiting for coming of age, which at those days the age of majority was twenty-one. But my project was bound to fail! My father, resolute more than ever, said to me that since I wanted to enrol for engineering, now I had to finish it. He made me get into his car (the engineer remembers also the day: on the 25th of February) and he drove me to Padua at the Institute "Benedettino": first idea was to let me enter "Antoniano", but there they accepted only students who had passed their exams within the prescribed period, whereas, because of interruption, I had not passed my exams within the prescribed period. All the same, on the following year I entered the famous Institute, after recovering the examinations that I didn't take at the University in Padua where I was enrolled before.

Thus your father insured himself against your possibility to embark on the driver career or, at least, that such event could not take place before finishing your studies!

Yes, of course, I have to admit that on that day I had to abandon a dream. However it was the beginning of a new adventure. By the end of the third year I went home on summer holidays and as I had been in the habit of doing for many years, I didn't miss the opportunity to go and see the Ferrari practices at Monza. At those days there were no tests so tiresome as today's ones and even if practices were made in privacy and no journalist was admitted on track, it was easier "to slip in" the pits. Thus, one day, while from a side pit I was watching the motor mechanics' frenzied work at Maranello, I felt a hand on my shoulder. When I turned and I saw the man who was there, all my body was thrilled with the emotion: It was Enzo Ferrari ! He immediately asked me what I was doing there so close to the car and, with a sensation of uneasiness, I answered and offered to leave the zone if my presence could give the least trouble. But, on the contrary, instead of considering this fact, Ferrari began asking me a series of questions to understand what I was doing and was aspiring to. At the end of the meeting, with little impudence, I said to him that I would have liked to have training at Ferrari before graduating and, before leaving each other, we agreed so as the training took place at the end of the fifth year of the university. Thus I found myself in living two years of study waiting only for that moment, as it were my reason of life. Every year I used to go back Monza on summer session practices and when Ferrari arrived I didn't miss the opportunity to remind him of his promise: but the Commendatore's word is that and when the moment arrived I called him, he didn't raise any objection to "giving me hospitality" in his factory for one and a half month.

Therefore even before graduating you had already set foot in Ferrari. A real golden opportunity!

I have to say that it was a real nice stay there but unlike what could be thought, once graduated I had to wait for a while before being recruited on Maranello permanent staff.

I guess you were had to work your way up only outside. Did you give up the world of the car for a certain period?

Not exactly: after graduating in November, I worked with Autobianchi for three months, at the skyscraper "Pirelli", and afterwards I accepted an offer made by Esso refinery. But, obviously, I kept dreaming of Ferrari ! Thus on a Sunday morning I drove my car up to Maranello, where they told me that the Commendatore was busy somewhere else. Before going out of the plants I remembered that whenever he went back to the factory he was in the habit of stopping at the entrance to ask the watchman whether any telexes (more or less equivalent to present faxes) had arrived. Then I asked him if he would be so kind to inform him of my visit, specifying that I would like to speak to him. When, towards 11.00 I went back I was informed that I would have been received at 13:00.

I can imagine what palpitations: your future depended on that appointment, but as I already knew his career I deduced that an agreement was reached.

I admit the meeting was full of contents. We spoke about many things, but above all he brought to my attention all the restrictions that would have involved my working in Ferrari. In particular, I remember a sentence that affected me: he told me that to work in Ferrari meant leading the same life as if we were in a besieged castle: those who were outside wanted to enter, those who were inside wanted to go out. By the end we agreed on Forghieri assistant, who was then responsible for the whole racing sector.

Monza 1968: Mr Marelli near Ferrari F2 with the Dino six-cylinder engine, single ducts (12 exhaust pipes and 12 intake trumpets). Young Vittorio Brambilla and Nestore Morosini, the journalist, in the background.

As an assistant did they give you special duties or did you start a generic kind of training?

I was immediately set to work at a fast rate: first we completely redesigned the F2, the race car with which Ferrari didn't succeed in dominating by obtaining any significant wins, among which at Temporada, Vallelunga and Hockenheim, then we concentrated on the construction of a car that could compete against the Alfa 33 cars in hill climbing races. I still remember our taking the old 12 cyl.1500 cc from F1, which was earlier put aside as it was completely missing of torque, we rouse it to 2000 cc, studied a new head with 4 valves per cylinder, matched it with the F1 three-axis gearbox and the whole was mounted on the Dino chassis (need we say that from this engine was originated the 12 cylinder 3000 Boxer family that "ended" both on Formula One and on prototypes). That was probably the most successful project: that year we won all races and, notwithstanding we could avail of a very good driver as Peter Schetty, we had the chance to prove that the car was really unbeatable, under any conditions.. Meanwhile I was also involved in F1 and Sport prototypes programs. There were hard times like the awful day of Daytona in 1970: on that day our 512S cars broke their chassis and the only car in a position to see the finishing line, needed a long repairing at pits. A real hard day!

Monza 1968 - F1 Grand Prix of Italy: last instructions to Derek Bell before the starter's orders
Modena 1969: Clay Ragazzoni's first test on the Dino 166 F2. Besides eng. Marelli we can see from the left Pino Allievi, journalist, Giulio Borseri, chief mechanic and Giancarlo Cevenini, photographer-journalist.

I think the race remained in the black book of Ferrari, but we need say that on the following month you succeeded in making up for it at the Twelve Hour Sebring race. On such occasion, in spite of a thousand and one problems, Maranello cars were dominating.

Yes we did, there we really gave ourselves a great satisfaction, but what an effort! From the start Andretti, Ickx and Giunti made the impression to hold the rate of the Porches 917, which like their true selves had to be faced by a set of technical failure Thus, when it had just struck the seventh hour we were with the three 512 in the lead and with the first of the pursuers at nine laps. It seemed really done, but first the engine failure on the car driven by Ickx, then the puncture happened to Vaccarella ( Giunti co-driver) began making us fear the worst.

To that it was added the breakage of the gearbox on the car driven by Andretti-Merzario at one and a half hour before the end. Do you remember the climate we lived in those minutes at pits?

A difficult situation, where nobody could take on the responsibility of deciding. Mario, first, stopped at pit with half-seized gearbox, the 917 car driven by Rodriguez-Siffert-Kinnunen second position and Vaccarella third one lap from the Porsche. Even if we were lost I decided, on my initiative, to make Mario get off the car and after a short repair I put the car into Merzario's hands to try the reach the finishing line and, at the same time, I took Giunti aside. I told him that I intended to give the wheel of his 512 to Andretti for the last tour of drive, so as to catch up the gap of one lap behind Rodriguez. At the last hour Mario replaced Vaccarella and he started an incredible recovery, helped by a providential puncture made by Rodriguez at 20 minutes from the end.

Objectively, to tell the truth Andretti was used to certain recoveries...

...Incredible recoveries! At the end of the race I got on the car, I realized that the windscreen was a unique mosquito that practically permitted to see nothing . When I turned to Mario asking him how he had done to drive a car under those conditions, with a winning smile he answered: "engineer, at the Sebring circuit I take the laps by heart!"

However, those nice memories are accompanied by the less pleasant ones of the almost forced passage to Alfa Romeo. What kind of reasons did you force you to leave Commendatore and his racing team?

Certainly it wasn't because of problems with Enzo Ferrari, with whom, on the contrary I was on very good terms. Unfortunately, however the climate between Forghieri and I had become unbearable. During Daytona practices, I went to the banking to see cars performance in the first evening shadows. After a while, I noticed that when braking the plates of the 917 of the Gulf-Porsche team turned green, anomalous fact, in a time when we used plates in cast iron, that they turned red by increasing the temperature. The causes had to be enquired into the fact that they were studying the plates in beryllium that if overheated turned green. I set out for the pits and halfway I met David Yorke, the team manager, whom I told I had noticed the innovation introduced in their cars. He asked me to keep their new experiment secret till the end of the race so that it wasn't possible to speculate about the thing and I gave him my word. Next day Wyer asked me to reach him in his pit and after thanking me he made me an offer to work with him, but I refused: I felt like one of the family with Ferrari and I didn't see why I had to change. Unfortunately, when after Sebring I went back to Italy, I didn't find a hearty welcome waiting for me, but a certain Forghieri extremely resolute to remove me from the team management. He said to the Commedatore that some journalists reported that Porsche people were very angry because they discovered me in their pits while I was intent on spying on their technical solutions. Obviously I refuted the charge and explained the reasons why I paid Wyer a visit, but by then the relationship was broken. After a few months I received an interesting offer from Autodelta and I immediately accepted. What has been leaving me bitterness till today is for having been obliged to abandon Enzo Ferrari, the man who had been really generous to me by welcoming to his family, he who granted me full confidence and felt for me an affection as I were almost his son.

However you had to find a good atmosphere at Autostrada, if it's true that you have been there for ten years. What kind of projects did you deal with there?

Well, during so many years I had the chance to deal with many jobs: mainly F1 but also GTA, GTM, Rally, 33. Then I also remember the project of the 33 road for Andruet.

If we exclude the study on the Alfa engines in 1971 (whose history and features can be analysed in the article on the March 711), your activity in Formula One for the Alfa was highly devoted to the revolutionary wing-cars. A formula to which the Arese cars never perfectly adjusted.

When we had theV12 project in our hands they were not yet talking about mini-skirts, but there were full days that saw us as protagonists not only as suppliers of the engines to Brabham but also as a really true team. When we designed the first single-seater, only first results on the ground effect started being seen, but already in 1979 we had to face the problem. Our misfortune was the one to find a competition only at the eve of the reversals as for FISA (Italian Automobile Sport Association) technical rules. Every time we were reaching a good competition standard, the rules changed forcing us to begin over again: it was a very stressful time also because the management didn't allow taking advantage of any loop-holes in the rule, as the English did and, in particular, Brabham.

I think you are referring to 1980/81.

That was just the peak. After so many tests we went to the United States GP, at Watkins Glen, with a real competitive car, so that Giacomelli had pole position with fairly good ease. As for the race we were really sure, but unfortunately, on Saturday night, Chiti was convinced to move the ignition coil by securing it onto the wing connection in the gear box. Next day major vibrations of that connection caused its breakage, but up to that moment the race rate had been unsustainable for the opponents: Giacomelli had taken the lead on the start and at mid race he had more than 30 seconds' lead over the others when the engine failed. Then the FISA changed the rules on mini-skirts and we were newly in trouble. As a matter of fact, we had to face up the problem of the straps which we had to build in soft material that, however, rubbing on the asphalt, didn't wear out. We found out that for Renault and Ligier they were manufactured by a French company and we tried studying their composition: it was a structure in polyurethane that was very soft on the side related to the body mounting, while on the lower side it was charged with additives which made it tougher. Obviously, I was forbidden to use them and the ones made by us never reached that standard of resistance. In any case the time of the straps was almost a pioneering period. There was, for example, a long investigation on the purpose of front and rear wings: at first it was thought they supplied the major part of the aerodynamic charge, then, on the contrary, it was clear that they mostly contributed to increase the depression under the single-seater. That's the reason why in those years wings with shapes and singular positions were employed.

Balocco 1981: talking with Mario Andretti

...Excuse my interrupting you! If front wings had this utility, why did they arrive at removing them?

To balance the car and reduce the negative lift when was too strong on the front axle. However, it was a choice of relative importance, it is sufficient to think that Pironi-Villeneuve raced evenly matched at the 1982 St Marino GP, one with the wing the other without it.

In 1981 you decided to open the MCM Motor car! A new adventure that brought you many consultancies in Formula One.

Yes, it was in that year that I started working on my own account. I remember that one of the first work I was commissioned was to find a supply of straps for the Patrick Team in Indycar. As a matter of fact it was a personal favour to Mario Andretti, who was the leading driver of that team. At the end I managed to obtain that material just from the French company that supplied them to Renault and Ligier and put them at the disposal for the 1982 Indianapolis 500 Miles . On that occasion the cars driven by Mario and Johncock had those new straps, this made the cars more competitive. It was a pity that at start Cogan could find nothing better than run into him, obliging him to retire, but the event was not sufficient to spoil the Patrick's feast. On the finishing line Johncock preceded Mears, gaining the victory for the second time and becoming the oldest winner with his 45 years (record then beaten by Al Unser). If we exclude this working interlude, the first and true work was the construction of chassis in carbon fibres for the Lola of Formula Cart.

Balocco 1981: a photo of eng. Marelli at the wheel of the "159"

Then in 1984 a long co-operation started with Erich Zakovski for the construction of the supercharged engine for F1.

The co-operation with Erich began when the Ford Company asked him to study an engine to be employed in the Imsa series. The German technician had got the idea to design a 4-cylinder unit with a double purpose: from the basis he wanted to derivate one Imsa version with 2150 cc and one with 1500 cc to be used in F1. At the end Ford rejected the idea of financing even the smaller version and Zakovski decided to utilize the proceeds obtained by the contract with the house of Detroit to build it by himself. I accepted the idea to go on working and started converting the bigger unit into the smaller one: to say the truth the work didn't require too long time as it mainly involved the replacement of cylinder liners and distribution. On the contrary, we ran into bigger difficulties in the electronics, above all in relation to the supercharging, to which we had to add some doubts about the utilization of the Garrett or Kkk turbines: at the end we opted for the last ones. All the same it was an engine that utilized new solutions, like the head with diaphragms for transverse cooling, studied by the then young Norbert Kreyer with whom we established a pleasant and productive work on the engine development, favoured by his intelligent expertise in operating and designing.

Your co-operation with the German team lasted till the end of 1987, the year that actually marked the end of the development of supercharged engines. What kind of problems did prevent the car from reaching the standards of high competition in those years?

We spoke about this and that! At first Palmer, the team leader, complained about the engine rating, in his opinion, too much violent, then we started having some doubt about the chassis (Zk851), obsolete because it was designed under the regulations in force till 1984. With the 861 car we newly brought the engine into question, guilty, in the opinion of the top management of the team, of delivering too few hp: finally the production of the 871 model proved that many troubles had to be attributed to the chassis. I remember that in its debut in the race one only new chassis was available in Imola and it was given to Brundle while Danner had to take the previous model. At the end of Friday the gap on the peak speed was striking in relation to the first ones: over 20 km/h. On Saturday we remade set-up and aerodynamics of the single-seater : speed was immediately high and top speed arouse to the first places. On Sunday the highly competitiveness of the car allowed to catch an excellent fifth place notwithstanding our forced start from the pit lane.

Summarizing, we may say that the Achilles' heel was due to the chassis and not to the engine...

Mainly yes, but with that I don't intend putting the blame on this component. Our engine reached a good quality standard but a further development was prevented from the poor supplies as for the electronics point of view. Zakspeed was a little reality only related to races and this fact caused the suppliers to concentrate most on BMW that, on the contrary, availed itself of a big marketing. Finally, the team was made by young technicians that were often lacking in experience which certainly didn't help them to grow with continuity.

When the experience with the Niedersizzen house was over, you were faced up by the design on a single-seater given to you by Leoni for its taking part in the 1988 F1 world championship. Then, however, there was the unexpected retirement of the First and the project was sold to the new-built Life of Ernesto Vita.

The "First" project started really well and the data collected at the 1987 Motor Show filled us with confidence: but then some problems arose with Ecclestone and in spite of the last desperate attempts, three weeks before the start of the championship there was the retirement. A real hard blow ! It wasn't too bad for me because shortly after I contacted Vita who told me he was interested to utilize my project to house the Rocchi W12 . It was then that I devoted myself to modify some details, principally to the engine overall dimensions, different from the ones required by the Judd. But the Rocchi's engine, a re-interpretation of the 68-69's Ferrari project set aside afterwards, proved too weak, to the point that we could never drive more than six laps in a practice day without having a seizure. On the other side since Ferrari times the system conrod-conrod small end had been too weak.

But let's come today: what are you doing and what are Mr Marelli's future programs?

In these years our activity has always been characterized by the extreme competition in which we were required to work: in the field of motorcycling for the Belgarda Yamaha, boating for Tullio Abbate and Renato Molinari, aerodynamics for the engine of the ultra-light helicopter Dragon Fly, in the road car field for the 16-cylinder Cizeta and other prototypes like the Bertone's Slim. Today we are working at 360 and only tomorrow we will know what we have done, provided that we may tell it. Certainly, races are always just round the corner and every chance is good to go back to the racing circuit.

Marco Zanello

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