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Journalism: Lamborghini!

Gran Turismo 6This story puts the reader in the passenger seat of a Lamborghini next to one of the company’s famously fast test drivers. Upon receiving the article, the Editor of Motor Trend magazine in the USA was kind enough to say “It’s the best drive story I’ve read for years.” The article was also published in the UK, South Africa, and Australia.

WE’RE ON THE twisting, bumping back road to Sant’Agata, racing through the shadowed light of cane crops which tower high over our Lamborghini Countach, and suddenly we burst into a clearing so bright it makes us squint. There is some haze in the Po Valley today, a moistness which lingers among the isolated farmhouses and little, huddled villages, but the sun straight above us spills midday heat onto the plain and the sky contains a powerful, glaring light, a brightness so harsh that Lamborghini’s coolest-looking test jock really needs his sunglasses. In on smooth, practised movement, Biagio Vigorati finger-taps his shades down onto the arch of his nose and prods a switch on the facia to raise two blazing headlamps. Fearing what these two apparently contradictory measures might mean, I wriggle in my seat as far back as possible, compulsively double-checking engagement of the safety belt. But beyond that, and perhaps praying, there’s nothing else I can do.

Biagio’s next move is to glance in the exterior mirrors, although lord knows why. On a narrow, subsiding, ditch-lined rural route favoured only by trucks and tractors, we’re already travelling at more than 100 mph. Alternately contemplating the rise of the speedometer needle (which defies the laws of physics) and the ever-increasing distance required to stop (which will not), a foolish, unwelcome realisation implants itself indelibly on my brain. We are strapped right to the front of this mid-engine ground-to-ground missile, legs vulnerably close to the front axle line, so little of material consequence ahead of us that we can see nothing of the spectacularly slanted bonnet line, only the surface of the road which blurs beneath the lower edge of the screen.

Biagio, who’s stocky and swarthy with tanned arms the size of tree trunks, takes a firmer grip at the little steering wheel and then flicks it – flicks us – so that in an instant we dart out from behind a truck and bump-thump across an unbroken white line into the centre of the road. There is a straight ahead, but it’s only about 400 yards long. Maybe less. At its beginning, it is lined by a solid wall of long, labouring trucks. At its end, white-on-black chevron signs warn of a blind 80-degree right-hander. Oh no, I think, not here, but Biagio doesn’t appear to think at all. He operates on a high-octane mix of instinct and reflexes, and long before there’s chance to consider the potential disasters hidden in such an ambitious overtaking manoeuvre his big, brown hand releases its grip on the steering wheel and – click! – bangs the gearlever across its open gate and down to third. Passenger’s cowardice manifests itself as a red hot brick pulsating in the solar plexus and swells so rapidly I fear it’s going to explode. Not that I wriggle, worm-like, to the back of my seat anymore. I don’t have to. I am pinned there.

It surprises me silly, even now, after so many years of being fortunate enough to try so many exciting cars. You can accelerate from 90 mph – from 90! – with such vigour if you have 455 horsepower on your side. And if you really have to.

As we leap-frog the line of traffic, it quickly ceases to be a concern that we might become adorned on the front of a juggernaut. I underestimate the Countach, which has power and acceleration to spare. Only trouble is, our passing manoeuvre by necessity accumulates a ludicrous turn of speed. Too much, by far, for the looming right-hander. I look again at the chevron markers, look at the sharp bend, look in vain for an escape road or run-off area. I may as well look towards the heavens.

Finally it occurs to Biagio to use the brakes. He stomps on the middle pedal so harshly that we’re pressed hard against our seatbelts and the big, hot discs whistle throughout their application d-e-e-p into the turn. Somewhere just behind the small of my back the Countach squirms a little, wiggles its hips, hints that it’s losing its grip, but Biagio is already pouring on the power again and as if by magic the tail is superglued back onto the road. There’s just a momentary chirp from the fat rear tyres as the car is hurled through what, it turns out, is a corner canted at a forgiving positive camber. Staring intently down the next straight, Biagio disallows even the faintest glimmer of emotion to cross his dark, expressionless face.

Gathering steam in fourth gear, the 5.2-litre V12 soar through the mid-ranges where it takes on that much harder, urgent, intoxicating howl. Few cars in the world could keep up with us now. Fewer drivers would want to. Unscrambling like a movie viewed on fast-forward, the road seems to me to be a confusing clutter of vans and trucks and snail-pace automobiles and, at its edges, signs and buildings and junctions. Yet the speed, and the noise, keep rising. This, I think, eez craze, but as a 50 kph speed limit sign flashes past the side window I begin to understand why. I peer across at the giddy elevation of the speedometer needle and, just as I’m supposed to, I laugh.

Biagio seems pleased. He moves his foot back to the brake pedal, wipes off the excess speed, and, ever so casually, looks across the cabin to monitor the well-being of his captive audience. And then he, too, laughs. It strikes me as the wild, uncontrollable cackle of a madman, and I wonder whether he really knew we would make it round that last right-hander, whether he really meant to strain the cardiovascular muscles of the giornalisti Inglese quite so much? But I daren’t ask.

We pull off the busy Modena to Bologna road, slip past a security gate, and enter the grounds of Lamborghini’s Sant’Agata headquarters. Dotted about the yard are a Jeep Cherokee, Plymouth Voyager, Chrysler LeBaron, and Dodge 600ES, the only hints that Lamborghini belongs lock, stock and barrel to Chrysler Corporation. Surrounded by such machinery, the Countach is sharply seen in perspective, wide and low and raunchy. True enough, in this latest and last Anniversary specification it has in parts been toned down a little – but remains unapologetically a wild thing, an outrageous sight, an exclusive member of that far-out end of the automotive spectrum. It looks like it clears 0-100 mph in under 11sec and runs riot all the way to 184 mph.

Enthusiasts and romantics alike will regard the Countach Anniversary as a tribute to the determination of Ferruccio Lamborghini, the tractor maker who had the impudent courage to rival another low-volume Italian marquee which, barely 25 miles away in Modena, builds sports cars of a loud and red persuasion. Purists might also view the Anniversary as the apotheosis of the 17-year-old Countach theme, the greatest ever derivative of a durably great supercar. Doubtless, some affluent forward-thinkers will smother the car in wraps and squirrel it away. Which would be missing the point entirely.

Industry observers may see the Anniversary in a slightly different light; a calculated cosmetic exercise, a tactic intended to prevent demand (and an 18-month waiting list) from flagging when attentions might otherwise be directed towards the Countach’s replacement, the Diablo. And some will say, perhaps rightly, that the Anniversary is the first evidence of marketing input from America, an indication that Chrysler calls the tune. It is, after all, a more comfortable product now, one which should be a little easier to live with among the sprawling cities and stifling speed limits of the US.

Gone are the Countach’s austere, one-piece bucket seats which forced your buttocks down low, your knees up high, and a pronounced curvature to your spine. Instead, wider, comfortably padded chairs upholstered in expensive-looking leather have independent seat cushions and backrests. Electrically controlled by switches tucked under a flap in each door’s armrest, they offer a perfectly reasonable range of height, fore/aft, and rake adjustment. These condescensions to luxury are at the cost of hip-hugging lateral support, although you can’t slide too far in a Countach seat before bumping up against a door armrest one side or the transmission tunnel the other.

That tunnel is wide and tall, covering as it does a gearbox located ahead of the engine (to improve weight distribution and afford a more direct gear-shift linkage). It has the effect of partitioning what might otherwise feel like a very wide cabin. On top of the tunnel reside switches for another marvellous newfangled Lamborghini device, electric windows. Not that they do much for you. Only the bottom half of each two-piece side pane will slide open, and then begrudgingly, by just three inches. Thank goodness for the much-improved air conditioning system – with a strong three-speed fan, programmable temperature setting, and console-mounted digital touch control – which whips up a refreshing breeze, much needed here.

Otherwise, the Countach’s cockpit and driving controls are exactly as they always were. To begin with, you’re acutely aware of the radically swept-back windscreen; of the car’s invisible width up front; of the steering wheel’s ludicrous resting place, regardless of column adjustment, between your knees; of the heavily-weighted pedal movements; of the firmness required to move the gearlever across the gate; of the real effort required, during the first half-hour or so, to shift smoothly across the dog-leg from first to second; and of the bulge atop the aircraft carrier-sized engine deck which almost entirely blocks your view out of the tiny rear window. The technique employed by Biagio and his colleagues is to open the door, perch on the wide sill, swivel head over shoulder, stretch legs to pedals, and only then contemplate any kind of reversing. Try explaining that at valet parking.

On its outside, the Anniversary brings the biggest number of alterations since the Countach was bestowed with its jutting chin bib, sharp wheel arches, and optional Ramboesque rear wing a decade ago. And yet, it’s no bad thing that you have to look quite hard to spot the differences; the stark beauty of its predatory crouch has been preserved. The latest mollifications only really become noticeable if you search for them one at a time.

There’s a new carbon fibre bumper up front, and a redesigned spoiler, the better to scoop up the air. There’s a separate new rear bumper (also carbon fibre) for the first time on the Euro-spec model. There are one-piece tail lights, their oddly shaped surrounds now camouflaged in body colour rather than being contrasted in a splash of matt black. There are flatter faces, in place of the deeply bowled designs, for the huge alloy wheels. There are strakes, on side sills beneath the doors, which scoot towards each rear wheel arch, all very fashionable in a, er-hum, Ferrariesque sort of way. There are more strakes, rearranged to run longitudinally, on the grilles atop the rear flanks which let hot air escape from the engine bay. And, most noticeable of all, there are shallower, more neatly integrated protrusions behind the side windows in place of those big, boxy, tacked-on, ear-like scoops which leaned out so rudely to grab at passing air.

The revised styling is fresh enough for the people who work at Sant’Agata every day to pause and admire it. Our test car is parked now, its hot engine and brakes tickety-ticking. Men in mechanics overalls look on in approval. The car has clearly been given a good work-out. The visiting giornalisti has doubtless been scared witless. And Biagio is back just in time for lunch. The work of a real pro!

As we gently push the doors high up on their long gas struts and unfold ourselves from the cockpit, Biagio hesitates before making the sprint for his pasta. He looks t me confidentially, beckons me over, imparts a little secret. He speaks no English, but a few carefully chosen words and gesticulations say it all.

The right-hander, you remember?

Yes, Biagio, I remember.

Ah, well! His hand becomes an imaginary Countach and, with vigour, he sweeps it through an all-too-easily imagined right-hander. Two-thirds of the way through, it starts to waggle violently. Biagio steps back, all wide eyes and armfuls of opposite lock. At that speed? In the previous Countach? On Pirelli P7s? No way! He shakes his head sadly, as one would after plastering a £90,000 car all over the landscape.

But this car, the Countach Anniversary! Ah! He points at it with one hand and gives a thumbs-up with the other. Then he mimics negotiation of the same right-hander. Same wild speed. Same wide eyes. But no drama, no armfuls of opposite lock, no tail flapping so violently that it will surely swing around and slap you in the face.

Then he points again. At the hot tyres. The Pirelli P-Zeros, 225/50ZR15s at the front, 345/35ZR15s at the rear. These represent the real advance made by the Countach Anniversary, he believes; these are the specification change which serious drivers will really care about.

Another development driver, a man whose feel for a car at high speed is helping shape the Lamborghinis of tomorrow, endorses this view. He is Sandro Munari, and he is worth listening to. A former works Lancia rally driver and one-time manager of the Alfa Romeo Grand Prix team, he was enlisted by Lamborghini about 18 months ago and has covered many miles in Countach experimental cars since. He took us out for a fast run in the Anniversary before Biagio had his turn at the controls and we had ours. And, frankly, Sandro Munari can tease a Countach into revealing a whole lot more about itself in half-an-hour than any lead-footed visitor could in half-a-day. He knows the roads around Sant’Agata, he intimately knows the Countach, and by god he knows how to drive. In 1972 he won the Targa Florio sports car race in a Ferrari 312PB and the Monte Carlo Rally in a Lancia Fulvia, and the following year, charioting a Lancia Stratos, he was crowned European Rally Champion.

Not that Munari is al Latinate bravery or bravado. Far from it. He is blessed with that undramatic fluency, that grace, that absurdly relaxed deportment at the wheel which makes high-performance driving look so reserved and so easy. Squeezing the throttle and triggering us down another narrow straightaway, he apologises meekly for not driving any faster because of the traffic. Same instance, the speedo tells of 155 mph. But through the ditch-lined bends, which are generally clear and open and tempting, Munari smiles approvingly and his feet tap on the pedals and he makes this car dance. Neatly. Precisely. Clipping apexes and ever-so-gently drifting as he feeds in the power. You never doubt that the four wheels go anywhere other than exactly where intended. But fast.

That precious part of the brain, the department which absorbs rich experiences so they may later be cherished as memories, is overloaded. The glorious howl of the V12. The reverberating ground swell of torque, even in the lowest reaches of the engine’s operating range. The urgent roar beyond 4,000 rpm. The clack-clack of the gear lever, whose movements somehow seem to loosen up at speed. The reassuring ability of the brakes. The sharp, biting turn-in. The astounding levels of mid-corner grip. The acceleration which really does press you gently back in your seat, and goes on and on and on. The impressive stiction under power. The reassuring lack of dive, or squat, or roll. The solid, stubborn, glued-to-the-ground feel.

And the sparkle in Sandro Munari’s eyes. The Countach Quattrovalvole, he admits candidly, seems mendacious by comparison: “It had too much oversteer. It could be nervous – but you couldn’t always predict when.”

And the Anniversary, with an unaltered power output (in spite of improved engine cooling), and unchanged spring and damper settings, and unchanged all-up weight? It is swifter, in Munari’s far-and-fast experience. But, more important, it is also better behaved. He nods towards those gumball P-Zeros.

“If you drive hard, the Anniversary is definitely quicker out of a corner. You don’t have to wait so long before going on the power. And through the corner there is more grip and a much nicer balance. It is easier now. You know how the car will react in every condition.”

Munari pauses, then decides a fine point is worth explaining: “In Italy, we have a word for it. Sincera. It doesn’t hide anything from you anymore. It is fair and it is honest.”

And it is the best. The most adhesive, most trustworthy, and naturally most expensive Countach of them all. More’s the pity it’s the last.

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