x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Nice and easy does it

Michael Taylor tiptoes around Italy's Misano Adriatico circuit behind the wheel of Lamborghini's Trofeo Cup race car

Michael Taylor takes to the track in the difficult to master, but not at all slow Lamborghini Trofeo Cup Gallardo LP560-4.
Michael Taylor takes to the track in the difficult to master, but not at all slow Lamborghini Trofeo Cup Gallardo LP560-4.

It's Giorgio Sanna's seat. During the week, Sanna is Lamborghini's official test driver. On weekends, he is a factory Audi touring car racer in the Italian championship. For six days a week, he's allowed nothing but lettuce and water. On Sundays he celebrates with champagne.

It might help his speed, but this life has left him with hips that defy manhood. There's enough room in there for one healthy adult cheek. And the seat is an unforgiving master, with no give. For even a man of medium height, the pedals are miles away and difficult to get to grips with. It's only the practical length of the steering column adjustment that lets me get it out of the pit lane at all.

It doesn't take long for Sanna's last words to ring with truth. "It is not easy to understand this car immediately," he warned, but I have just five laps. Not only that, but five laps at the Misano Adriatico MotoGP circuit, in central Italy, that I've never seen before. And, he thoughtfully added: "It's not an easy track to understand immediately, either." Great. Immediately, though, it's a loud, loud motor car. All racing cars are, of course, but this one makes a Gallardo Superleggera seem like a Tesla. But engineering for drama as well as raw speed is one of the great indulgences of a car built for a one-make championship.

This is Lamborghini's new Trofeo Cup Gallardo LP560-4 - a bold venture at the best of times, but an extraordinary act of corporate bravery these days. At ?200,000 each plus a ?25,000 entry fee for the season (Dh1m and Dh130,250), it's not cheap. On top of all of that, you still have to pay a team to run your car for the year. And then there's the possible cost of crash damage. It's a faster car than the stock Gallardo, too. At 3.8 seconds, the LP560-4 doesn't exactly get caught in the blocks on the zero-to-100kph sprint. The Trofeo is faster. Much faster. Though it's only got 10 more horses than the road car, it's 140kg lighter and, of course, it's running on Pirelli slicks.

From a standstill, it bursts away, howling in a high-pitched wheelspin that is almost drowned out by ten cylinders exploding in a fury that the racing exhaust doesn't even bother to hide. The engine might be standard, except for that extra horsepower, but the noise is not. It sounds like a bull-strong man tearing apart a sheet of corrugated iron. It's metallic, it's rasping, it's smooth and crackling all at the same time.

The now-hot slicks paint themselves onto the grip-limited track and the long gearshift paddles get grabbed again and again and, in just three seconds, it streaks past 100kph. There is no doubt that, in a straight line at least, the race car is a jet, capable of feats that reflect its price tag. But driving in a straight line is less than half the battle for a race car. On a track as tricky as Misano, full of switchback corners, fast bends leading to tight corners and plenty of spots where you have to brake while you're still steering, too much straight-line performance can be more of a hindrance.

Misano can make a good chassis look bad and a bad chassis look appalling. The standard LP560-4 is neither and the Trofeo Cup is stiffer, thanks to all the scaffolding. But it's still a very, very tricky car to drive here. Turn One sets up for the tighter Turn Two, which sets up for Turn Three. Get any of them wrong, and you'll be slow into the tight Turn Four right hander, and stuff that up and you will get chewed up down the short straight that follows.

From here, every braking point challenges you to go deep and late and to do it all while you're still steering. All-wheel drive helps, but that's not enough, and the slick tyres can show up the limitations of a viscous-coupling centre diff, especially in slower corners. "The trick," Sanna admitted, "is in making it just a little oversteering before you get on the accelerator, or you will just push wide with the nose." Indeed, that's exactly what happens, but the balancing act is a difficult one. A fraction too loose and the midmounted engine's weight makes catching it difficult. A fraction insufficient and it falls back to understeer as the drive goes where it can't be used.

"The other trick," he said, "is figuring out how to get the brakes biting early." That's not easy, either. When we tested it, first up in the morning after it had already seen a full day's action the day before, the brakes were awful. The Trofeo's brake pedal drops at least half an inch before it starts to bite. Then it sinks again as you plumb its depths in search of the intervention point of the racing-spec ABS. Eventually, there it is; about five centimetres down the pedal's travel. But it's not at the same point every time you go looking for it.

But once you get your mind around the whimpy feel of the pedal, the brakes are actually quite strong, pulling well over 1.3g at the end of the back straight. The user-friendly commitment of the brakes as you burn off enough pace to hit the slower apexes comes with a rider - you must be braking in a straight line. Tip it in before you've washed off all the speed and you should be prepared to catch a swinging tail - and to catch it quickly. Every single one of the test drivers on the day (from pro racers to Lambo's own instructors, and yours truly) spun in one of the low-speed corners for exactly this reason.

It's not that the slides are particularly difficult to catch. They're not. They're particularly difficult to feel the onset of, because without the weight of the engine squashing the tyres into the ground like they do at the back, the front Pirellis forget to tell you when they've given up, as the Trofeo has very little steering feel. Get it right, and there's the typical all-paw pause as you wait for the mid-corner understeer to disappear so you can really nail the throttle on the exit. And, when you really nail the throttle on the exit, the Gallardo Trofeo gets out of there like a completely mad box of tricks.

But it's tricky to do. Get on the throttle early and you'll carry the understeer all the way to the exit and lose time in a chattering front-end slide. Get on it a fraction late and the nose will tuck in too far or the tail will swing too much and that'll be that. It needs just a touch of opposite lock to convince the centre diff to shovel on more coal for the front wheels, and the only way to get it is to wait for the worst of the understeer to dissipate before thumping the throttle. That sets a slightly oversteering drift out to the ripple strips and maximum exit speed. This painfully busy flurry of steering jabs and twitches on the right foot is an extraordinarily high-maintenance way to get out of a corner.

In faster corners, though, none of these difficulties show up. Instead, you brake firmly the first time through the faster corners around the back, then you give it just a tap next time only to find yourself astonished at the downforce. So you force yourself to nail it flat the next time through. In fifth. At more than 250 kph. While Sanna has the tiniest of lifts here, I don't, and the Gallardo's tail is simply smashed into the ground and the nose punches weight through the steering that it normally never has, all because the Trofeo has wings and winglets that actually work.

It's an astonishing feeling, blasting at full throttle out the other side of a corner when every sense in your body tells you you should have braked for it. The only trouble is that carrying all this speed is that you arrive at the next braking point carrying speed you never figured out a braking point for. It doesn't matter, because the aerodynamic stability that helped through the faster bends helps coming down from these speeds, too. Even with steering lock on from well past 250 kph, the Gallardo pulls up hard and true and is just so aerodynamically stable that it never, ever becomes unsettled. It actually gives the a balance it can lack otherwise, and makes the car a much more trustworthy proposition in fourth, fifth and sixth gears than it is in second and third.

But being trustworthy in testing is one thing. Being trustworthy in a crowd of Dh1m machines piloted by maniacs is something else altogether. motoring@thenational.ae