From Italy, to Germany and all the way to the US in California, you’ve truly lived an international life. An international soul as you yourself mentioned… but, can you tell us about the place where you grew up and where it all started?
I grew up in Sicily. My parents were from a small village, but I lived in the biggest city in Sicily, which is Palermo. It has about one million people with the surrounding, so it’s one of the top five in Italy in terms of population. The city is very close to the sea, and people are very open-minded, like in other towns by the water, say like Barcelona.
It’s a nice place to live in terms of nature, the weather, the beaches, and of course the general warm feeling to it.
Do you still have much contact with the city? How often do you visit these days?
My parents are still there. I have a sister who’s also been around the world, went back, and now lives there again. Even my wife is from there, so we visit one or two times a year.
Did you always have dreams of being involved in the automotive industry?
Definitely. I was probably 15 or 16 when I started dreaming of becoming a race car driver, but I never had a chance to drive competitively. It was very much a passion for mechanics, racing cars, and everything about cars. I was always the one who was repairing vehicles, starting from bikes, motorbikes, and so on. I was dreaming of becoming a competitive driver, but I understood that it was probably better to be on the engineering side at gunpoint.
In the end, it was a natural thing to become an engineer and work in that field.
Did Palermo and Sicily provide a good setting for this passion?
The place has a strong history because it hosts one of the oldest races in the world, the Targa Florio. It started about five years before the Indianapolis 500, so there was a considerable heritage. There is very little industry there, however.
Did you at one point realize that “hey, if I want to be involved in this industry, I need to pack my bags and head off to the different parts of the world?”
Yes, after graduation, I had my luggage packed. I was looking for a challenge. I spent six months in the UK, and a recruiter reached out. A company in Los Angeles was looking for an engineer, and I was lucky that Clayton Cunningham who just got to know me over a phone call, and who didn’t see my face until we actually met for the first time in person, offered me a job.
I did not think twice, got on a plane, and went to LA. It was my second time on a plane and the first time on a big international flight. I still remember when I landed in LA, and it was just like the movies!
I spent two years at Cunningham Racing - quite an exciting time for me because it was a big company owned by Nissan racing. They were designing, building, and running GT cars. There was a vast history there, when it comes to racing. They won everything in racing in terms of GT, they won the 24 hour Le Mans, 12 Hours of Sebring Daytona, in the 90s between 1992-94 they were very much a winning team.
I probably arrived there too late, as Nissan was in the process of stopping the program. Many people weren’t there anymore, which on one side was a pity, but on the other side probably the best environment where I could grow. I was doing everything from mechanics, engineering, designing, testing, even sweeping the floor!
We did so many races and so many different championships like IndyCar, GrandAm, American Le Mans Series, Vintage racing. It was fascinating. Then an opportunity to come back to Europe arrived, and I took the chance.
Where did the passion for motorsport come from? Was there any specific event or race that got you curious?
When I was young, l was very interested in the championship fights between Senna and Prost. Also, like every Italian, I was following and supporting Ferrari. Here is a curious experience.
When I was living in the US, McLaren and Ferrari were fighting for the Championship – at that time, Hakkinen was with McLaren.
During the race, I was in a big tent in a paddock, I think Watkins Glen, and for the first time, I experienced that probably 80% of the people around me were against Ferrari. That showed me that there was another point of view. I thought: “I’m really on the other side of the world now!”.
As a technical director for multiple racing teams, what would you say is your proudest moment with which you look back on with special fondness?
There’s not only just one. Yet, finishing the 24 hours of Le Mans is something extraordinary! It’s a unique race, you know, the fact that you go around for 24 hours, day and night it’s a torment for machines, for the car, and the one on the driver’s seat. To finish a race and to see it from start to finish was impressive. And then if you do that with the car you, yourself, designed, as we did with the Lotus Evora GTE in 2011, it is even better. That was probably one of these proudest moments.
You obviously have quite the track record in motorsport, where do you see it moving toward in the future?
Well, motorsport has always been good at anticipating what’s happening on the streets. It’s not just because it’s a showcase of existing technology but also a way to accelerate the development of new technologies. Even if it seems far away or different, anything that goes on the street is somehow anticipated, tested, or run within motorsport.
For instance, if the future of mobility is to go electric, the number of electric championships in the future will reflect that. Who knows, there might even be a hydrogen cars championship one day!
Motorsport is also a way to educate technicians and even to develop technology in other environments. Whether it is hydrogen, electric, or going out to try and push the boundaries on battery capacity, this is something where motorsports can help develop and transfer knowledge with regards to new technologies.
For example, YCOM worked on the VW ID R. that won Pikes Peak in 2018. It was right after diesel-gate, and there was already a decision from VW to go full-on with electric powertrains. In the end, that project was a single car, but the commitment from VW was huge, and it provided a platform to develop technology to break records, as we saw at Pikes Peak.
To summarize, motorsports is a great way to showcase the technology that will end up in road cars.
Do you have any favorite electric series since you mentioned that we are heading that way when it comes to racing?
The world is moving so fast that probably, my favorite series does not exist now, but is the one that will come later. If you look at Formula E’s generation one and generation three: generation three will be about double the power and double the energy density. So, the technology development is going incredibly quickly. I would say that my favorite is the one that still doesn’t exist yet! But if I had to pick, of course my favorite electric series right now is the eSkootr Championship!
With that said, how are you blending that experience with your work at YCOM? Are there any specific projects where you are able to combine the motorsport mentality and smart mobility?
Absolutely. I don’t know if you are familiar with TRL. It stands for Technology Readiness Level, which is a scale that NASA defined in the 1960s. Level One would be “I have an idea, but nobody knows if it works”. Level Three is something “already designed, you’ve tested, but, still need to optimize,” and then you get to a point it can go into mass production. That would be Level Nine where for example, millions of iPhones are on the market.
Now, the middle part, which is where R&D sits, is also where motorsport is and this is where the most committed, patient and technically skilled people are. What we are trying to do is to really accelerate the development of mobility in a way to squeeze the development time for such a fast-paced industry. I think this approach is like you said, perfect for the “motorsport mentality”.
As a concrete example, we are applying knowledge from motorsport in our development of mobility projects like the one for Manta Aircraft. We’re working on the development of a fully electric aircraft capable of vertical takeoff and landing. Typically, planes are developed in decades and not in years, so we are helping accelerate this process. Another case study is the development of an autonomous electric bus, which we are doing for an American company. Whether it is redesigning some parts, adding electronic components, or redeveloping the vehicle, it all comes together.
YCOM has recently announced that it will be supplying the vehicles for the eSkootr Championship. Can you tell us about how that partnership came to be?
The connection is with the organizers, as they also come from racing. Two of the founders are ex Formula-1 drivers Lucas de Grassi and Alex Wurz. Lucas Di Grassi has been in Formula E since the beginning and he was also a racing driver for Audi at Le Mans, so we had a connection on that side as well.
We share with eSC a similar vision of the future and we’re happy that they gave us the responsibility to develop and supply the scooters for the series.
We proposed a solution that we could provide in a short timeline. It was crazy, but we delivered an end-product that eSC and the riders are very happy with. CEO Hrag Sarkissian and the other eSC founders didn’t want the end result to be a motorbike or another version of a car, so that’s why they ask for our support. It’s a new product, something completely different, but with racing spirit.
How did your team react when you told them about the proposition of providing the Scooters for the race?
In the beginning, there was a little bit of fun in the conversations because it was shocking news. Besides that, they took the project very seriously when it was time to work and were very proud of the results.
In terms of racing, we have been doing the collective tests in different locations in Europe, with almost 20 riders. We had different race conditions and riders coming from very high level of professional sports testing their physical and mental abilities even in wet conditions. YCOM team was highly focused on supporting the riders off track to improve performances on the track.
Do you think that makes it more exciting? Having a product that wasn’t to be taken too seriously. What kind of impact on the creativity does that have to say “Let’s really try to push the boundaries”?
That was precisely the point. We didn’t know anything, and we could have also gone and just buy some existing scooters, trying to copy them and see how they run. But we chose to make mistakes on our own, and finally, that was a winning approach, giving us more freedom to experiment with what we thought was good with the amount of time available. We had a diverse team of young people and someone very experienced: together, they delivered a brand-new vehicle that did not exist before.
If someone who has never heard of the series before asked you why they should attend the events, what would your answer be?
Because it’s a new exciting series, there are racers from every kind of sport, and it’s super fun to watch. Also, I can confidently say that this is the future.
When I was young, we were preparing the Vespa scooters, the young guys who are 15 years old now are preparing electric scooters. They do night racing and amateur racing like we were doing 20 years or 30 years ago. We are in the early stages, so perhaps the future is not a two-wheeled scooter; maybe it will be a single wheel on three wheels. Ultimately the electric scooter is solving a need to go from A to B in a smarter way.
Of course, we need to be mindful of the safety issues and, again, racing is an excellent way to develop new safety devices and technologies.
For you personally, what do you hope to accomplish with YCOM’s role and contributions in the eSkootr Championship in the next couple of years?
As we are the official supplier of the global series, we believe that this product will evolve into other forms of vehicles or racing. I’m sure this product will develop quite a lot and spawn other new racing modes or transport in general.
We want to be part of that! From safety issues to user experience up to battery performance, we are pushing the boundaries and have learned many lessons on the way. There are still so many things which need to be improved.
As customary around here, we just have to ask, are you already driving an EV?
I have too many cars, and a Tesla Model 3 is coming. But I also see further changes. Now you buy a car which you own 24 hours of the day, then you use it for an hour, and when you use it’s probably the wrong one. But the mobility revolution is coming. I believe that in the end, car sharing will take over. Individual car ownership just has to stop. We would be more sustainable if we used what we needed at that moment
Thank you very much for your time Nicola, it was a pleasure!