A racing life
OZ Racing, established over 46 years ago, is the world's most prestigious brand of alloy wheels and one of Italy’s premium brands in the aftermarket. The CEO, Claudio Bernoni, talks to us about future challenges and technologies as the company straddles between motor racing and production.
Founded in 1971, OZ still bears the initials of its two creators, Silvano Oselladore and Piero Zen. The company’s participation in motor racing events soon followed and new partners joined the firm which started exporting to Germany, obtaining Tüv approvals leading to a rapid qualitative growth. Following the creation of the Racing division in 1984, the company was joined by Claudio Bernoni, a highly experienced engineer in the wheel sector. Bernoni is the Managing Director and Chairman of the entire group; so we asked him about the past, present and future of the brand.
What has, being one of the leading motor racing suppliers, meant for you?
Racing needs can differ considerably from team to team, whether we are talking about rallies, GT championships or Formula 1, even when the use is similar. It’s an ongoing challenge but the rewards are amazing. Back in September 1984, our arrival in Formula 1, on Benetton Euro-racing’s cars driven by Riccardo Patrese and Eddy Cheever and powered by an Alfa Romeo engine, meant developing a totally new wheel in record time. At that time, three-piece, magnesium and aluminium wheels were the norm. We introduced a two-piece, wheel made with the same materials, but lighter and more rigid. After Benetton we started looking at other teams as well; after Ligier we approached Arrows where we experienced a lot of scepticism: "You will never become an official supplier of an English team", they told us. Well, 33 years later we can say that all British teams have used our wheels and many with great success. A short while after entering F1 we started looking also at the Rally championships, where we are still the category’s benchmark. Our Rally Racing, a completely closed wheel that prevents stones from entering the spokes causing damage to the brakes and the wheel itself, is an idea that comes from that period and is still in production.
What about the technological challenges in having to meet such different needs and expectations?
Well, flexibility is a must, you have to know how to change the company's organization according to the time of the season. When the championships are over, teams are normally busy in developing their cars: that’s the time to dedicate all our expertise and time to them. After the season begins, most of our designers can then devote their time to working for the aftermarket. But there are some seasons, like the one that will end next November, where we are busy all year round. It is no coincidence really that the most successful wheel manufacturer, in terms of world championship victories (with the hundredth world title dating back to 2007) was Italian: as Italians, we are quite familiar with managing ever-changing situations and finding ourselves equally at home when it comes to rethinking everything from scratch in the fastest possible time. Working with the racing teams greatly helps research and development because they employ the best designers in the world, able to come up with the most advanced and extreme ideas. And it doesn’t end there, production facilities must also be adaptable: for example, many machines used in producing racing wheels are reprogrammed for high-end commercial production. Cutting-edge technology is equally important in developing advanced and competitive products: for example we are one of the few companies that can perform biaxial tests; our test-bench is able to reproduce the Nürburgring circuit, among other things. In the design phase we use state-of-the-art technologies such as finite element calculations and 3D analysis, while in manufacturing we have advanced machines such as five-axis milling cutters.
What are the main challenges in motor racing and can you give us an example of technological transfers from racing to production and vice-versa?
There are a few actually, ranging from materials to production processes. The first that comes to mind involves the wheel created for McLaren for their first “road car”, where for the first time magnesium, a highly resistant yet light material left the racing track and made its way on a “production car”. McLaren remains one of our fondest memories and challenges: Gordon Murray, the chief designer, gave every supplier strict instructions, including the exact weight of each component. Even Clarion, which supplied the car’s “sound system” received strict instructions; well we managed to keep to the requirements right down to the gram. The production process stems from the company’s racing experience: such as the low pressure casting system with heat treatment which I introduced to replace gravity casting right after my arrival. Today we use it for all our racing aluminium alloy wheels as well as aftermarket products. In 1996 we then introduced forging, used on top-of-the-range magnesium or aluminium wheels as well as on F1 and GT wheels. In addition, also wheels like our Superturismo, Superleggera and Superforgiata are the result of our racing experience, though made specifically for road use by reducing the overall weight of the structure as the stress they undergo is substantially less compared to racing wheels. Unfortunately, some of our competitors have copied the same design….. In addition, a wheel like the Hyper GT integrates all the technological expedients supplied to the various teams in GT championships.
As new cars hit the market, what are the main requirements and what is the R&D division working on at the moment?
For racing cars aerodynamics is becoming increasingly important: elements designed to reduce air resistance are often quite heavy, in contrast to the lightness that, along with rigidity and aerodynamic qualities, is one of the main features of a racing wheel. Each team designs it with the help of a wind tunnel; In F1, for example, the front wheels are especially subject to extensive aerodynamic studies. Road vehicles, on the other hand, need lightness. Hybrid or fully electric cars can differ greatly from traditional vehicles in terms of weight, as the batteries are often very heavy. Furthermore, electric cars will soon pose a new challenge for wheel manufacturers: In-wheel electric motors, which means having to completely re-think the wheel’s design. But that’s nothing new for us: several years ago we dealt with such a design thanks to a cooperation with Italian-Swiss designer Franco Sbarro, who used them on a prototype. Other wheels could soon see the use of new materials.
Can you recall a particularly significant moment in your relationship with a F1 or Rally team for the company’s history?
I personally have many memories, such as the many tests performed with several drivers: for example, a couple of laps on Peugeot's private test-track with Didier Auriol. Accelerations, braking and rally-speed corners almost blew me away. But the episode I am particularly fond of is a lunch at Bassano del Grappa with Gerard Ducarouge, Lotus technical director. He enjoyed his food and I took him to a very famous restaurant, where he started telling me about a driver who seemed to be quite keen on making fun of him. During pit-stops he always argued with engineers and mechanics telling them things like "after changing the settings now I go into the corners at 9500 rpm rather than 9000, and I exit at around 10,500 rather than 10,000." It was Ayrton Senna, one of the greatest drivers and testers of all times: telemetry didn’t exist at the time, but he didn’t need it, it was all in his head.
A success made in Italy
OZ’s history began in Rossano Veneto (VI) in 1971; the first product was a racing wheel for Mini Cooper, multiple-race winner in rallies. Today, it’s presence is especially felt in aftermarket accessories and in the racing world ranging from F1 to rally, not to mention Indy Car racing and 24 Hours of Le Mans; its impressive list of victories includes over 150 titles. Furthermore, the company opened branches and subsidiaries in Germany, the UK, Japan, Denmark and Singapore, with over 200 employees in Italy alone. Among the prestigious manufacturers that use OZ wheels we find Aston Martin, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Lotus, Maserati and Porsche, as well as teams like Mercedes, Ferrari, Renault, Red Bull, Sauber and Haas in F1, Ford, Citroën and Volkswagen in the World Rally Championship and Audi in several championships, not to mention Ducati, KTM, Suzuki and Yamaha in MotoGP as well as designers such as Bertone, Giugiaro and Pininfarina. The product portfolio includes brands such as OZ Racing, OZ Motorbike, Sparco Wheels and MSW. The headquarters in San Martino di Lupari (PD) is home to a company museum with lots of wheels used in racing and responsible for the reputation and image of the brand.