Good Bye Giovanni

- Close Up
Karting is mourning the loss of Giovanni Corona, one of the greatest technicians in our sport. (p.m.)

Last night, the news of Giovanni Corona's death came in one of those ways to which, unfortunately, technology is accustomed us: through a social media notification. And, for me who knew him well, it was a double sadness. First, because at 77 years old, he was still fully active, second, because Giovanni was as far away as possible from the concept of social media. He was a good man, helpful and calm in his judgments and relationships with others. I never saw him lose his temper or go overboard even when he had every reason to do so. Whether a Sunday ended with a victory or a defeat, for him there could be a smile or a grimace of disappointment, but in both cases, Monday morning would find him in the garage or in front of the machine tools to shave off a few more tenths of a second, because that was his passion.

He had a career that in some ways was unique, from a successful engine tuner to a motor manufacturer as a partner of Vortex. When he sold his shares and officially left karting, he did so with a certain regret that he confessed to me in the interview you can read below. Despite his disappointment with some dynamics typical of today's world, he always maintained the dignity and calmness that have always distinguished him as a man of another era.

The Vroom editorial team stands with the Corona family in this sad time, and we remember Giovanni by publishing the interview that best portrays him in his passion and his way of facing life.

In honor of Giovanni Corona

For this sad occasion, we decided to dedicate a special space to Giovanni Corona, a renowned 2T engine tuner and manufacturer, among the most successful in karting history. Former technical manager at Vortex, in this 2018 interview published in Vroom magazine, he recounts his years in karting following his departure from Vortex. What we all wondered back then, considering the determination and grit he had shown in that face-to-face, was whether he would truly manage to stay away from the racing circuits as he had claimed he intended to do...

Giovanni Corona, former technical manager of Vortex, does not feel that he's in retirement and he's not in the mood to tell anecdotes about his long and successful career. With him we mostly talked about technical matters, the evolution and involution of this sport, seen with a critical and never superficial eye.

Karting is a kind of drug. As much as I try, I can't remember anyone who's managed to abandon it definitively, without ever looking back. In driving, the relationship with the kart is physical: you drive it by shifting the weight of your body, fine tune it by touching everything without moving much ... it's a very special - and difficult to end - relationship, much more than it is with other motorsports. All of us who have dealt with steering wheels, small wheels and tires, screaming little engines, we all struggle so hard to get away from karts, but end up always looking for an excuse to rush back to the track to run two laps, saying we're taking the kids along, to breathe some oil, get our hands dirty and give vent this damn passion that devours us.

Giovanni Corona, from Pavia, born in 1946, is no exception to this rule. As technical director and founding member of Vortex, he has made the history of karting over the last 30 years. I began our talk with a classic opener, "So, I heard you've retired ... maybe you'd like to tell us something about these years in karting ..." Big mistake! Direct and sharp as ever, Corona stopped me in my tracks. "Hold on, that's not exactly how it is. I'm 71 years old, no longer a kid, and my commitment with a company like Vortex as a technical manager and partner had, by now, become too much. I've ceded my shares, and now I'm calmer and more serene, but this doesn't mean going into retirement, spending days playing cards at the bar or reading the paper! For the moment I'm dedicating myself to sorting out my papers, my documents, organizing my things. After, who knows ... I could still have fun playing with karts, but in a decidedly more relaxed manner and without too much stress." In sum, the usual Corona: says what he has to say, ready too for constructive self-criticism in an interview that's not simply a walk down memory lane, but a careful analysis on the technical aspects of the current karting world and on the evolution of this sport, not always clear to people outside the loop. I started in the early 60s to devote myself to karting working at Komet of Consiglio, where there was also Bruno Grana and engineer Cesare Bossaglia. I was very young and it was a period when I learned a lot from really capable people. Then in 1968 I left for (compulsory) military service and when I returned, Komet had been absorbed by IAME, and I went to work for Aspes where I followed the development and tuning of motocross bikes for competitions. I learned to know that 125 cc aspirated engine well, which allowed me, 10 years later, to return to karts to transfer my experiences on aspirated 125 Junior, where the Aspes and the MAC Minarelli (both companies from Pavia) were extremely competitive.

When did your collaboration with Roberto Robazzi of Tony Kart begin?
Already in 1983 I started to take care of the Tony Kart engines in 125: Rotax, Pavesi, Mac Minarelli ..., then I went back to the single gear and the first project was the MK 100 engine. But it went badly. We produced a long stroke, like the engines that were successful in 1986-1987, but in 1989, Rotax arrived with its 'square' engine and we got beaten!

In fact, the Rotax, in 1989, was quicker: larger valve, straighter intake duct, 50 x 50 mm bore and stroke. It was history's first modern 100 cc. They also tried the nikasil barrel, if I remember correctly ... a solution that no one has followed in the 100, perhaps because with the air-cooled engines the barrel was not stable enough at rising temperatures? Would it not have been a good solution for liquid-cooled engines and on modern TAGs and OKs?
Good question! Yes, on the air-cooled engines there was a sudden drop in performance due to the excessive thermal expansion because of the necessity of aluminum to work in a determinate temperature range without going beyond, a feature the cast iron suffers less. But the problem, which then limited the use of this solution even with the advent of liquid-cooled engines, was of another nature. The cast iron barrel is made via machining tools and you have extremely tight tolerances. Between one barrel and the next there are only a few hundredths of difference. On full cyclinders in aluminum with nikasil coating, instead, you have a sand block for core-box pattern that replicates the transfer and exhaust in positive and, after casting, leave the transfers and exhaust ducts.... The staff that assembles the various pieces in the core-box pattern of the cast is often not qualified for such a delicate job and the assembly can make quite important differences, differences that affect the performance of the engines. And on direct drive, where the tenth of a millimeter makes the difference between a cylinder that goes from one that doesn't, this issue you end up paying dearly. With the Rotax 100 with nikasil, besides the drop in power, there were substantial differences between one cylinder and another, and the technology, in this sector, has not made great strides.

It must be said that it is quicker to coat a cylinder in cast iron rather than redo the nikasil on an integral barrel... and even a lot of pistons are sold! And for a producer, selling pistons (and barrels) are good business!
True: with the cast iron you do a little coating and away you go. But don't believe it's all earnings for a producer. We have to keep in stock 15 selections of pistons, of which 3 are sold. And every time you make an order, you have to order certain amounts (even 1000) and certain selections don't sell. In practice, the dog biting its own tail. It's no big business selling pistons when more than half remain in the warehouse. Like the clothing stores with their various sizes, only we can't do sales!

Then the Vortex arrived...
Yes, it was 1994. They were beautiful years, full of work, but full of satisfaction. Those were years when we managed to get by...

Get by? What do you mean?
Careful: money in karting has always been needed, let's be clear. But before, in the past, with some smarts, a good driver and knowing how to work on the material, you could achieve great results. Today things are different. Money today makes the difference. Mounting new tires at every outing, always having the right material for the track you are about to race on ... We wanted very restrictive regulations to try to reduce costs, but in the end, certain choices proved to be less advantageous, if not even worse than others. An example: prohibiting tests on the days before the race. Seems like the right idea, right? Instead, people go to test a month earlier. So you have to move trucks, mechanics and the whole structure twice rather than once, because nobody takes the risk of going racing without prior testing. Instead of limiting costs, this choice has doubled them, and you end up spending 15/20 thousand Euro to run a race, if you want to have your cards in order to win.

Let's take a step back. You mentioned the regulations were too restrictive. What do you refer to exactly?
Once, as you well know, winning races even starting from the back of the grid would and could happen. The mechanic played a bit with the ratios, muffler length and, maybe, by risking a little something he'd pull a rabbit out of the cylinder. Today, with engines equipped with rpm limiters, it's true you do a season changing 3 pistons and revising the engine every 15 hours. Before, it's also true, you did 20 minutes with a piston and 40 with a connecting rod, but you could play a lot more wild cards. Today, if you start in tenth, it's difficult for you to make something up. A 100 FSA had 30-31 hp, an OK today has 39-40 hp, but the speed you obtain with ratios that, inevitably, are equal for everyone, so consequently you cannot afford to try a different solution because, if you move away from certain parameters, you just don't go anymore. The rpm limiter and the elimination of that little piece of flexible hose that made you change the length of the muffler have leveled the field too much. The engine is now an accessory required to sell chassis. And this for a motorist is really depressing. A private cannot develop engines.

What impedes a private team from tackling development?
I'll explain it to you right away. Developing a 2-stroke today requires great knowledge on the subject as well as expensive and sophisticated tools: flushing bench, test bench, track tests, telemetry. Making a muffler, for example, costs 70 Euro, and per se, it's nothing. But trying it on the track costs two thousand Euro what with travel, trucks, staff, telemetry... and in the end you're not even sure if it's really faster than the other one and you're forced to test it in the race. A private cannot do these experiments. But it's also true, in my view, that not everything can be the same for everyone: bore and stroke, muffler, exhaust valve, etc ... At the time of homologation, we're all sweating cold in our shirts: will the engine work, go? If it works, you're good to go. If it doesn't work, you spend three years not selling anything because you can't touch anything to change the situation.

What would you change to put things right?
Let's say that it's there for everyone to see ... the specs of an engine are 30 pages, a chassis's 3 pages: it's obvious that the importance of the engine becomes secondary! Look at the 60: the muffler is the same for everyone, everything is played over 1/10th of a horsepower, more or less, without the possibility of remedying a small mistake in the design phase. And in the end, it becomes a single-brand.

The OK categories, with the return to direct drive and the elimination of cabling was a good thing, right?
Undoubtedly. Above all, at the beginning the cabling of the KF drove us crazy, then we reached good reliability, but simplification is the best solution for karting and the Oks, in this sense, are a big step forward. The karts should then be lightened, as today they weigh too much and condition the development of the engines, besides leveling the values in the field at the level of driving. But let's not forget that the KF had the merit of avoiding the arrival of the 4-stroke in karting: a motorization that for me is unsuitable.

And yet the OK, at the national and regional level especially, has not taken off as expected. Why are those engines, simpler than KFs, even more expensive? Is it not a paradox?
No, it's not a paradox. The cost of an engine is not made only by the pieces that are there, but also by sales expectations. With today's numbers, it has been impossible for us to offer lower prices. In this sense, the constructors have been saved thanks to the single-brands. If we had all focused on the OK, things would have turned out badly for us. The electric starter in the introductory and single-brand categories is a great thing, which brings many people closer to karting. The push-start of the OK, with bellies and rear bumper, is complicated and this certainly doesn't help. Let's poke where it hurts. Vortex has made great single-gear engines, has always fought for victory in 100, KF and OK when it wasn't even the dominating figure. But in the gearbox categories things did not go as well.

As a great connoisseur of the 125, does this weigh upon you?
Of course it weighs on me, but allow me to point something out. Our KZ engine is not inferior to the competition. It's just that we have always looked for original and innovative solutions. We have always gone our own way, without copying. Although today the engines all look alike, I can assure you that there are always small differences. Only that what's most important today is the fine tuning of carburetion. If 10 technicians work on one engine and not on others, it's obvious that that engine has the advantage of 10 people banging their heads together from morning to night. And what has advantaged our competitors, that is TM, has been its capillary presence on the market and an engine that is easy to drive.

The absence of a more extreme category is lacking in this sense in KZ?
The last world championship of the Formula C in Carole in 2002 was a point of no return. The valve engines were extremely powerful, very delicate to tune with those enormous carburetors, and the cost of development was senseless compared to the number of products sold, since nobody bought them. So we decided to limit the carburetors to a 30 mm diffuser, eliminate the rotating valve motors, variable ignitions, then putting a limit on the compression ratio and impeding the replacement of gear ratios. Maybe we exaggerated, because KZ2 and KZ1 are essentially identical. The preparation is too limited and you can't experiment. This also ends up being a single-brand, at least as regards motorization. But we have arrived at 40 hp in OK with a carburetor of 24 mm and at 48 hp in KZ with a carburetor of 30: saying there has been no development cannot be said, for sure. Except one thing is development, another is the margin to work on and allow manufacturers to optimize their products!

What else has changed in these years?
Another very important thing today is telemetry. The telemetry analyzer analyzes lap data and is able to tell you what works and what doesn't work, just like a doctor who directs you to the specialist who then gives you the right medicine. Costs on costs, obviously, but if you want to win today you have to adapt and invest in that sector too.

In all these years, have you had a favorite "son"? Son understood as an engine, of course...
I can tell you that the period of Formula Super was extremely gratifying in my career as a motorist. It was all free: bore and stroke, the base of the connecting rod ... you could really indulge and find new ways. Then the drivers of the past put in so much of themselves: it was enough to see them drive with one hand while adjusting lean or rich... Today this no longer exists.

You touched a sore point: carburetion. Fundamental in KZ, it has also become so in the 60, with the engines rentals experimenting anything they can on the Dell'Orto PHBG 18. In your opinion, a good thing? Wouldn't it be better to return to the membrane in the 60, too, to better prepare the drivers for OKJ?
In our ROK single-brand in the 60 class the carburetor calibration is fixed, only the maximum jet can be changed. This avoids so many unnecessarily expensive little games. The same should be done in 60 CSAI, in my view. But the idea of returning to the membrane, I just don't see it. You know, today's kids are not those of 20 years ago. They have cell phones, they are technological. To learn the art of carburetion takes time and abnegation. Instead, with the pan the tuner does it all and it becomes much easier.

In what sense are today's children different from those of yesterday?
Look at them! They all have mobile phones, they are all taken with social networks and many don't care about karts: they do it to make their fathers happy. The fathers themselves are no longer those of the past because, except for very rare exceptions, they don't lay a finger to the kart and turn to teams, instead. This, in a sense, is good because it makes children grow faster and better, but you lose that special relationship that's created between mechanic-father and child-driver. Too bad. But then, as I said before, with the sophistication of today's chassis it would be really difficult for a hobbyist father to succeed in getting something good out of it. Believe me. And then we have all moved back. Me, once, paid no atten to the 60. For me karting was 100 ICA and Formula A. But if they let the kids go to single-seaters at the age of 15 and give them for finished at 17, it's obvious that we have to concentrate on the 60 and OKJ, categories that should be propaedeutic instead. Today the World spins a lot faster than it used to, it's all so rapid ... many fathers spend unusual sums in the 60 and finish their budget before the OKJ, which is pretty much indicative of the current situation.

This extreme professionalism in karting, how do you see it?
I see it as a good thing where it's needed, like in international competitions. A little less where it's not needed.

Are you referring to regional karting? What do you think of regional karting?
How far does this crisis of its lack of members reach? The numbers have decreased a little, but not that much. The drivers are scattered because of the many single-brands present, but it's also true that karting without single-brands today would not exist. It's a bit the problem of the chicken and the egg. Rotax has paved the way of the single-brand: they would spend a bundle in the FIA categories without commercial results. They did the Rotax Max and we all understood that, from an economic and sports point of view, that was the road to follow, like when they made their first square 100 cc. In this, they were precursors.

Will we ever see Giovanni Corona on the track?
What a question you ask me... I'm resting, I'm putting all my stuff in place... for the moment, no. But in the future, who knows...


 

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