x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

An afternoon on the road with Italy's UAE ambassador

The Italian ambassador to the UAE and Neil Vorano celebrate Festa della Repubblica, the country's 150th anniversary, with a cruise around Abu Dhabi in the Maserati GranTurismo S.

Mr Starace's company car is a Chrysler, which he calls practically Italian after the company was bought by Fiat. Andrew Henderson / The National
Mr Starace's company car is a Chrysler, which he calls practically Italian after the company was bought by Fiat. Andrew Henderson / The National

Giorgio Starace has a dark secret. The Italian ambassador to the UAE since just October, he let it slip as we chatted candidly in the greeting room at the embassy in Abu Dhabi earlier this week.

"I drive a Chrylser, the big 300C."

I couldn't help but laugh.

"You know," he said with a smile, "that company was bought by Fiat, so it's practically an Italian car."

I laughed even harder. Here is a representative of a country that produces some of the most beautiful and thrilling cars and motorcycles on the road, with some of the most famous nameplates in the world, and he's driving - gasp! - an American car.

This past Thursday, Italy celebrated its 65th birthday as a republic; as well, this year the country celebrates its 150th year as a unified country. Because Italy is, for obvious reasons, a favourite country of Motoring's, we caught up with him earlier in the week for a talk and an offer that turned out to be very fortunate, considering his current ride.

"Well, let's go for a drive, then," I said.

Starace immediately brightened. "Yes, I'd like that very much," he announced with a wide grin.

The ambassador's upbeat demeanor wasn't because we were headed to his "Fiat", but rather because I was holding in my hand the key to a swooping, blue Maserati GranTurismo S parked outside. In honour of Italy's National Day, known as Festa della Repubblica, it just seemed a more fitting place to find out more about the car side of Italy's ambassador.

Starace seems the archetype of not just an ambassador, but an Italian ambassador: slight but fit build, stylish yet subdued grey suit, animated and very gregarious, witty and quick, with a laugh to make one feel comfortable. And all this with a musical Italian accent.

As we get to the car, Starace pauses. "Beautiful. Beautiful. What's the name of this one?"

I tell him it's the GranTurismo S, and that it has 433hp. "What a car!" he says longingly.

Our photographer, Andrew Henderson, gets into the back seat, then Starace and I climb in, with Starace in the driver's seat. "How are you back there?" he asks Henderson as he slips on his vintage Ray-Ban sunglasses. The photographer says he has plenty of room. "Good, let's go," says Starace, and fires up the 4.7L V8, producing a raspy growl.

"I love the sound of this model," he whispers.

We glide out of the car park and onto 29th Street into the nearest roundabout. Starace is tentative at first but soon has the throttle opening up to feel the acceleration. The low growl has turned into a menacing roar.

"I love driving cars," he says. "I love making long trips, but I am not a traffic driver. I don't like driving in the streets. I think that cars like this suffer very much in traffic."

Because we don't want the car to suffer, Starace eventually points us towards the airport to stretch the Maserati's legs on the motorway. Then he puts up his finger: "I have an idea, let's go to Cipriani," he declares, referring to the Italian restaurant on Yas Island. I can't agree more with him, and I can't help but think that I should have brought along some Pavarotti for the stereo.

As he drives, he keeps the conversation going, asking us about our time here and other questions about the city. He's open to taking directions, too. "I'm starting to figure out the streets. But it takes a while; and a problem that ambassadors face, is that many times they have drivers to take them along, and you don't pay attention to the roads then. So it's difficult to remember."

The ambassador redeems his choice in official vehicles by revealing a bit of his own motoring history. "One of my first cars was an Alfa Romeo 75, a Twin Spark. And that was a car for which I fell in love. It was so dynamic; you could accelerate, you could do many things with that car. And it was so fancy for the time, it was in the 1980s. And anyone who was going after some nice lady could have a particular chance with that car.

"But I have to tell you that, for long trips, I had a very good experience with the Volvos. They are very solid. My very good friend, the ambassador to Sweden, would be very happy for this propaganda, but I feel they are very nice cars, and very affordable."

The late-afternoon sun casts a warm glow over the Sheikh Zayed Bridge as we cross over. Starace is obviously enjoying the drive, and comments on the stylish leather interior. But it's still not the most excitement he's had in a car.

"You know, I have been invited by these people at Ferrari, and they brought me to the Yas circuit for the Ferrari California. And a pilot was driving, and it was really like being in a video game. It was completely another experience. It's a little bit like the same experience I had with the roller coaster [at Ferrari World] because the acceleration was so strong, and the curves ...

"My daughter, she's crazy. She went on the roller coaster and she loved it. She's nine! Later she comes to me and she said, 'Dad, you have to promise me that you will buy a Ferrari'. She's crazy, she likes speed."

Last Thursday, Starace was hosting a gala celebration for the Italian National Day at Ferrari World - appropriately - and at the event was to be a showcase of Italian design, everything from cars to furniture to clothing. It's this famous Italian flair that Starace says is at the heart of every Italian car.

"My opinion: the strong point of an Italian car is its design," he says as he signals to change lanes. "The external part is very appealing, generally speaking. When you go into the mechanics, what I think is the point is the engine. When you go in the high segment, there you feel the top-level technology is the engine. When you talk about Ferraris and Maseratis, it's really a music, to drive and feel their engines.

"Maybe a weak point could be the electronics part; it's not always so solid."

We finally arrive, pull in to the restaurant car park and walk inside. Starace is greeted by managers, receptionists, waiters and the maître d' with warm smiles, hugs and brief conversations in Italian; we're swept to the best table in the house, but we opt to sit at the bar and enjoy some hors d'oeuvres that instantly appear in front of us. I feel like I just came in with Don Corleone himself.

"I think that, in the future, the UAE and Italy will have stronger ties," continues Starace in between phone calls. "Here, there is a lot of money and interest in quality products. Italy is a purveyor of quality.

"In Europe, Italy is surrounded by manufacturing giants, such as Germany. So to differentiate ourselves from them, we have focussed more on quality. And it is the quality of Italy that will appeal to the UAE," he said.

Though he seems happy to stay and chat, Starace is a busy man, so we leave with hugs and farewells and make our way down to the GranTurismo.

He says he has to get back to the office quickly, so he'll let me drive back; though his time behind the wheel was brief and he didn't really push the car anyway near its limits, the ambassador's experience with the Maserati surely left a mark.

"You know what? Seriously, I need to go out and talk to these people," he says, walking around the car. "I may have to change the Chrysler."