Naturally, whenever Lamborghini's generous PR people enquire if I'd like to spend some seat time in the company's cars, I say yes. Immediately. And only then, after I have replied in the affirmative, do I usually start asking about what's involved. The details I find with these things will always work out - the important thing is to get those dates in the diary and start coming up with excuses to Mrs H as to why I'll be away from home once again. And no, I definitely won't be having any fun, darling.
And so it was, sitting in a South Beach restaurant in Miami a few weeks ago, after having spent an entire day driving the new Aventador Roadster. The question was asked: what would I be doing on two particular days a short time from then? Was I available? Yes. Next question. Would I like to go to Italy to drive practically the entire range? Obviously. On ice? Ummm.
Suddenly I faced a very real problem. How could I justify taking part in this, when The National's readership is hardly likely to end up doing anything vaguely similar? Apparently that was no hurdle at all. Lamborghini's annual Winter Driving Academy is, I discovered, a customer event that attracts paying punters from all over the world, including the GCC. OK, count me in, sign me up, and in the meantime I'll have to buy myself some winter clothes.
The Academy is held in Cortina d'Ampezzo, close to the border between Italy and Austria, in the shadows of the craggy Dolomite mountains. It's a spectacularly beautiful part of the world and the two-hour drive from Venice's airport to the hotel in Cortina reminds me just why I have so much affection for this country - it's one of extremes but they all seem to be drop-dead gorgeous.
And while the surrounding beauty is, indeed, impressive, my mind is elsewhere. My mind is on just what it will be like to keep an Aventador or Gallardo under some sort of control when all that's under the cars' tyres is snow and ice. It seems like an insane proposition.
It isn't as crazy as it sounds, however. Lamborghini has, over the past few years, harnessed the four-wheel-drive knowhow from its parent company, Audi, enabling its cars to put down prodigious amounts of power in relative safety, while keeping the visceral excitement of driving a supercar intact. But ice driving is something of a dark art and I've only ever done it once before, many years ago.
During the evening before the drive, our small group is talked through what will happen when we're on the ice. There are more cars than people, so downtime will be extremely minimal, and we'll each be assigned an instructor who will accompany us for the entire day. The selection of cars includes the mighty Aventador, a Gallardo Superleggera, a Spyder Performante, the rear-wheel-drive LP550-2 and the latest Gallardo LP560-4, all in the name of science. And we'll be getting a full day of customer treatment, so we can report accurately on what the paying clients get for their money. So far, so good.
The following morning I wake up to an impossibly blue sky. The ground is still thick with powdery snow, and smoke is rising vertically from the chimneys in this sleepy little town. It's perfectly still and serenely quiet but, high in the hills, there is a collection of extremely loud supercars just waiting to be thrown around, so we make the hour-or-so journey from the town to our temporary racetrack.
Upon arrival, we are greeted by the sizeable team and introduced to our instructors over steaming cups of espresso coffee. It's all very genial, all very Italian. It's explained to us that the cars are fitted with studded tyres, which is a blessed relief because I know people who have done this sort of thing in cars not so equipped, and it's been a waste of time. Because the ice might as well be oil when it comes to being a grippy surface and, to demonstrate the effectiveness of any vehicle in these extreme conditions, you need as much purchase on the driven surface as is possible.
In no time at all, we're jumping into our cars and the silence is shattered by the incredible, intoxicating noise of V10s and V12s firing to life. If we were any closer to the mountainsides, I'd be fearing an avalanche, so ferocious is the sound. Sunglasses are a must, as there would be no chance of seeing anything without them, so bright is the light reflected from the snow and ice. My first car is the Superleggera, and my instructor reckons that, out of all the models available today, this will be the easiest to pilot on the ice tracks. It weighs less than the standard car, so in theory is more nimble, yet it still benefits from four-wheel drive traction.
What's initially surprising is just how much control there is when it comes to changing direction. I'm told to go as quickly as possible, which is unnerving to say the least, but the course is relatively short and quite easy to remember as lap follows lap. Of course, being surrounded by banks of snow is far less daunting than unforgiving Armco, but at the speeds I'm being encouraged to take this twisting maze of a circuit, a collision with the snow could still cause some expensive panel damage.
Within a few minutes, I'm instructed to pull in so we can swap cars. It's up to me which one I take, so I opt for the Aventador. Its four-wheel-drive system is much more technically advanced than the Gallardo's and should make an interesting comparison. I swing up the driver's door of the orange monster and climb in, trying not to be intimidated by the fact that I'm about to unleash 700 angry horses from its V12, nestling just a few centimetres behind my head.
There's no traditional handbrake in the Aventador, and this, my instructor says, is a cause for concern. Because, when it looks as though a driver is on a collision course with the snow banks or another car, he's able to get everyone out of trouble with a quick yank on the brake and a lightning fast tug of the steering wheel. I have to be a bit more careful, then, that much is abundantly clear.
But again, the process of getting around the circuit while travelling at speeds that would have been impossible to attain on snow and ice just a few years ago, is remarkably stress free. I don't manage to get beyond third gear, simply because there isn't a long enough straight, and I'm able to drift through the gentler bends, with a delicacy that I have never been able to manage on Tarmac.
My instructor tells me that my driving is improving and he's able to shut up for the most part, as there's nothing to say and he doesn't want me to be distracted. Small talk will have to wait. My fears about this car are rapidly disappearing, replaced by marvel and appreciation at the way a nonsensical supercar can, in fact, prove its engineering worth in such an environment. This is technology, engineering prowess and shock styling rolled into a perfect package.
And then, just as I start to get a little too sure of myself, pushing on just a little bit too hard while exiting a gentle right hand corner, I lose it. My accomplice senses that we're about to crash and grabs the wheel, to no avail. The Aventador slams into the snow bank and I'm left a gibbering, shaking wreck. Just what have I done?
The circuit is instantly closed, with radios crackling and information regarding my position being sent out to the other drivers and the team of guys that rush to our aid. I manage to manoeuvre the car, extricating it from its white tomb, and several men start scooping the snow out from the huge air ducts that feed air to its engine. Once free, these same men stand looking at the side that took the hit and they start scratching chins and gesticulating. Now I'm really worried.
It's OK, though, I'm being assured. It can happen to anyone, I'm told. But still, who wants to be responsible for damaging one of these immense machines? I slowly drive back to base, climb out and inspect the bodywork. Just aft of the door, before the rear wheelarch, the composite panel bears a war wound. In the big scheme of things, it isn't a big deal and it could have been a lot worse. It could have been like yesterday, when a client stuffed the front end of this very car into a bank and sustained some proper damage.
Not to be put off by my unplanned excursion, I'm straight back out, this time in the new Gallardo LP560-4. And this, as my day proves, is the car I feel most comfortable with. It's the car in which I make the fewest mistakes, in which I attain and maintain the most impressive speeds. And talking with the rest of the group later on, it seems I'm not the only one to feel this way.
My best laps occur about an hour after lunch, even when driving the circuit the opposite way around, or when the layout is altered. And then, as tiredness, fatigue, call it what you will, sets in during the late afternoon, my skills appear to vanish and errors become more commonplace. Again, I'm not the only one, and it quickly becomes apparent that we're spent and that we should call it a day.
This day has proved an education. My skills as a driver have undoubtedly improved, especially when it comes to controlling oversteer, and my appreciation for the advancements in four-wheel drive technology has never been deeper. As short driving breaks go, I can heartily recommend the Winter Academy, especially if you're a Lamborghini owner and you're curious about how your car can operate in a climate that is totally foreign.
At the very least, if you crash a car on this event, it isn't yours. And hey, the factory isn't that far away anyhow. It'll be good as new in no time.