Attacking the senses..
Make sure track visibility is good. Engage first gear, lift foot off the brake and pin the accelerator pedal to full deflection. You remember that, being in manual mode, you have to pull the paddle for the gear upshift very quickly. Second…third…fourth…fifth…sixth and finally seventh gear is engaged. The scenery is now flying past my vision while I attempt to reach Vmax before the first turn. Try to spot the braking point and stamp on the brake pedal. I’ve stuffed it. My braking point was too late, I can’t scrub enough speed before attempting to turn in for the corner and the inevitable understeer causes the nose of the car to plough on in a straight line. The car smashes into the Armco barrier at 90mph. Apart from a kick through the steering wheel, there is no ill effect. Frustrated, I find reverse gear, lift my slippered foot from the brake pedal and then manoeuvre the car back onto the circuit as the remainder of the field fly past and I’m now listed in 20thposition. MENU, RESET, let’s have another go at that.
From the comfort of your sofa, you can get away with ill-judged driving of PS4 or Xbox copies of the Nordschliefe or Brands Hatch circuits. Sitting in an actual Lamborghini Huracan Performante Spider (in a rather fetching yellow colour) at the beginning of a mile straight, it dawns on you that if you get this wrong, there is no reaching for the reset menu option. Somebody is going to be upset that you bent their lovely £270,000 V10 monster.
Thus began my day at the Millbrook Proving Ground, following an invitation from a friend to join him at a Lamborghini dealer day. It didn’t take long for me to re-arrange my diary so that I could take part. An early start for the run up to the Bedfordshire testing area, so often used by secretive car manufacturers and, after a couple of bracing double espressos, I was trying to squeeze myself into a fixed carbon seat. Sitting at the beginning of an arrow-straight piece of road, I am told that I am looking at a whole mile. My instructor settles my nerves by explaining that I should drive as fast as I can, until he raises his hand, and then I should start braking. “Do I stand it on it’s nose or..?” No, he says we just need to slow the car so we can get round the bend at the bottom and all should be fine. I’m warned that the revs of the engine do rise very quickly and so I will need to be ready for the shifts 2,3,4 etc.
With the steering wheel mounted mode switch flicked into Corsa, I pin the throttle to the carpet and am instantly thrown back in my ill-fitting seat. Ah! there’s the rev limiter. Whoops. Grab the paddle and for second. The engine revs graphic zips up to the red line and I try to time it nicely to hit third gear – not too early and not too late. Done! So pleased with that gear change, my fingers twitch and I’ve grabbed fourth gear at only 4000rpm. Dammit. It doesn’t bog down and the revs continue to climb. Concentrate. I’m now staring fixedly at the track rather than the dashboard as we are really moving now. I listen to the 5.2l V10 scream and try time the next gear shifts purely on noise. I’m concentrating so hard that I daren’t look at the speedo as I gently edge the car across the track to avoid a line of cones placed to keep us off a rough testing surface and the Armco barrier to my right is becoming a blur. The massive top rail of the front screen means that I have to hunch down just to have a full view of where we’re going. The steep rake of the windscreen produces a view something akin to a 21:9 aspect ratio monitor and the thick A-pillars restrict the peripheral vision, but at the moment I’m just concentrating hard on the, rapidly approaching, end of the mile straight and my instructor still hasn’t raised his hand. With blind faith, I keep my right foot hard down and keep staring through the letterbox glass aperture. The hand goes up and I immediately go for the brake pedal. Yep, going to need a little more pressure than that and I press harder before sweeping the car into the banked curve and I notice the 40mph limit warning as we swing past.
Made it. “Well done, you hit 179mph – even with the short shift to fourth!” Quietly cursing my twitchy fingers, I consoled myself with the fact I had never driven faster. In fact, it was the fastest I’d driven by some margin. From memory, I think I’d previously hit 140mph and that was with a lot less power than the quoted 630hp of the Lamborghini.
Without stopping for breath, I’m then guided to the high speed bowl. I’d only ever previously been on this steeply banked circular track, about 20 years earlier, when invited to a Lexus day with the new IS200 saloon and an LS400 limousine. The Huracan Performante is a slightly different proposition and I’m still hunching down to try and see past the low windscreen rail while I am invited to move through lanes 2, 3, 4 and up to the top Lane 5. If I remember correctly, you can drive at 100mph in Lane 5 and the car will steer itself around the bowl whilst you take your hands off the wheel. No chance I was messing around with such tricks today. We’re past 100mph with ease and I’m told by my co-pilot that the suggested limit for that visit is 130mph. Still in Corsa mode, the car is clamped to the road as we fly around the circular track, but I find myself gripping the alcantara clad wheel very tightly to ensure that we don’t wander off the top of the lane and find ourselves intimately acquainted with the Armco or beyond. The car feels a little fidgety and I’m concentrating hard again. After two minutes-ish, I’ve completed four miles and we’re looking for the exit out of the bowl. I resist the temptation to quote Michael Caine as he is circulating the roof of the Fiat car factory in Turin: “Look for that bloody exit. We can’t go round here all night!” Bullet dodged. No one need ever know what a car nerd I am. *ahem*
We headed for the “alpine circuit” and I found I vaguely recalled the first few corners but quickly chose to ignore the rest of my memories, lest I get the next turn wrong and throw us off into the scenery. The next five minutes consisted of listening hard to my instructor as he guided me through the best lines for the corners and also driving as fast as I dared.
Upon exiting that section unscathed, I chalked that up as a success and made my way back to the impressive hospitality area for more coffee and pastries. While watching others hurl cars around the concrete apron in front of us, I reflexively made a grab for my iPhone to grab some photos of the cars and then remembered that, being secretive Millbrook, all our cameras had been covered with security stickers as we’d arrived. Very frustrating, but before I can dwell on that, another delightful event coordinator invites me to follow her out to the cars again. Baz is to be my instructor for the handling test. Another brave soul. I climbed into a regular Huracan Spider, which was decidedly more comfortable with well-padded leather steering wheel and chairs, and I drove up the access road and then back to the skid pan area. Part of the concrete apron was watered but not where there were some cones laid out. These marked a tight and twisty slalom to demonstrate the handling differences between the regular Huracan and the Performante. You approach the cones at 35mph and then, at the last moment, hurl the car into the slalom and try to hustle the car through without clipping anything. We’d already been quietly chortling at a few attempts where cones had been flicked into the air and another was trapped underneath a car for a while until finally being tossed aside. After several runs through the cones, the Huracan is abandoned and then we climb aboard a matt olive green Performante coupé which happened to be left-hand drive.
With the Coupé being 135 kilograms lighter than a Spider and placing the helm on the wrong side of the car, they couldn’t have presented two more different versions of the same car if they’d tried. The wide expanse of alcantara-clad dashboard to the right of me felt strange and Baz requested that I give him a little allowance for this and try not to throw him straight at the cones.
Of course, the Performante coupé felt dramatically improved. I could throw the car down the course with much greater aggression and still come out with all the markers still in their rightful places. Smug. Following another interlude of caffeine, I am led out one last time to a beautiful white Performante coupé where my instructor (whose name I regrettably forget) said we would be doing the same run as the first outing. This time it’s the best combination for me: Performante coupé and right-hand drive. My instructor said that he was 6’5” and quite understood my frustration at not feeling entirely comfortable in the Spider. The folding roof forced compromises to the rear bulkhead and would not allow the seat to incline as much as the Coupés. The structure of the top rail of the windscreen was beefed up to cope with that lack of a fixed roof and the side structures were similarly more solid to tame the extra flexing that convertibles normally suffer.
The mile drag was run in Sport mode this time. That meant the car changed gears for me and I just had to concentrate on mashing the accelerator to the floor and steering a steady course. Again, I confessed to not watching the speedo readout. “181 miles per hour. Great stuff. That’s the fastest I’ve been driven today!” he says. Maybe it was fortunate that I’d missed breakfast and helped keep the payload to a minimum to get that extra turn of speed.
Another zing around the high speed bowl: “Well driven. You ran at 167mph on the top lane. Lucky we didn’t go over the 130mph limit!”. With greater confidence in the Coupé – aided by marginally improved vision forwards – I assaulted the Alpine route, but still carefully listening to the encouragements and warnings of the approach of perilously tight corners. At the end, the charming instructor gave further flatteries about the level of my driving and I came away feeling exhausted after the multiple large doses of adrenaline.
On the homeward journey, three of us inevitably discussed our experiences and thoughts on the cars. One friend had just bought a Ferrari 488GTB ten days prior and he remained convinced that he had made the right decision. Asked if I would buy one, if money was no problem, I found myself saying no. The Spider did not fit me at all and, although the Performante fixed head was definitely better, it seemed to me that unless you were in a position to absolutely drive its wheels off, it would frustrate and bore you. The spectacular engine made you want to rev it and rip through the gears. As soon as you’ve fallen for that, you have made mincemeat of your license are, likely, on your way to a sojourn at Her Majesty’s pleasure. Running at low speed, there was no real sense of thrill or occasion – no matter how glorious the exterior of the car is. I would rather have a car that has more feedback and entertainment at the lower reaches of the speedo range and keep a better grip of my license.
I watched recent YouTube reviews of the new Lamborghini Aventador SVJ and there comments were made about it being an ‘event’. Similarly, the Huracan Performante is certainly an ‘event’ when taking it out to a track and wringing its neck, much like a rollercoaster ride. It’s thrilling and exhilarating, but I don’t want to ride one every day. There’s no spiritual or emotional connection to the Lambo HP, just a respect for what it can do, and then I can walk away having completed that experience. I don’t think that should be the case for something costing £270,000.
It occurred to me that driving the Lamborghini was similar in characteristic to the PS4 version in Gran Turismo Sport, if you ignored the real-world peril when making an error. If the dynamics are accurately replicated in these games, I should find I much prefer to drive a Ferrari 458 Italia on the road. Only one way to find out….