Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Lamborghini LP 550-2 Valentino Balboni

Let's get straight to the point: the LP550-2 is a car designed with very specific tastes in mind. Valentino Balboni, the Lamborghini test driver after whom the LP550-2 has been named, has been in the supercar test-driving business for over 40 years, which is actually longer than I have been alive. The notches on the calendar mean that he is amongst the most capable and sensitive drivers in the world. I, on the other hand, am not. Which means that when you make a car to the specific tastes of Valentino Balboni, you cook up a big bubbling cauldron of Marmite.  

The recipe looks like a good one. This Gallardo comes as standard with a six-speed manual 'box (you can option an e-Gear version, but that's kind of straying from the point if this is supposed to be ‘his' spec), more feelsome steel discs instead of the (still optional) carbon ceramics, white and gold stripes, less weight (120kg less, to be precise) and, most tellingly, two-wheel drive. And of course, it's this last bit upon which most people have seized, crowing loudly about the Balboni being a ‘proper' Lambo because it's reverted to rear-wheel-drive. Right then.

2010 Lamborghini Gallardo Picture

 Ever since the Diablo died, there hasn't been a Lambo that transmits its prodigious power through the rear wheels only. Since horsepower went north of 500 ponies, Lambo decided the best way of nearly containing it was to throw it through a rear-biased 4x4 system. It works - Lambos are among the friendliest supercars, because they have lots of natural grip under acceleration and don't try to slice off your face if you do anything stupid but natural, like lift when you find yourself barreling into a corner too fast.

 The LP550-2 is a totally different experience. Drive the Balboni and you notice as soon as you move the steering wheel more than a quarter of an inch. The steering feels lighter, more communicative, instantly more textured than the four-wheel drive car. You realise that the 4x4 car is operating through a thin film of mechanical interference necessitated by driveshafts and their subsequent torque. The uncorrupted steering is a joy. The car feels darty, lively, more connected than any Gallardo ever made. More awake.

Lamborghini Gallardo LP550-2 Valentino Balboni

Go faster and you start getting messages from fingertips and buttocks that this is a car that really wants to play. There's a great deal more reaction readily available for smaller steering inputs. The car feels like most of the 120kg weight loss is from the front wheels themselves, rather than the 30 or 40kg that deleting the front diff actually achieves. It makes you smile insanely hard. Right up until you push just that little bit further and the car gives you a little warning wiggle and the smile falters. The traction control has been altered to allow more slip, but that isn't the reason the Balboni suddenly isn't really your friend.  

 Turn in and there's still prodigious grip, a lovely adjustable attitude that you remember from the LP560-4. But when you lift mid-corner, or try a bit too hard, the Balboni gets nervous, and much less forgiving than the standard car. The dampers and springs, brakes, ESP and even the tyres have been tweaked to make the car feel exactly how Balboni wants it. That means it lives closer to the edge of reason, bites harder, more suddenly and is less helpful once 542bhp has got the better of those rear tyres. Of course, if you're Valentino Balboni, this is a good thing, allowing you a greater proportion of playtime-per-mile. If you're average, it makes you nervous and, in my case, quite a lot slower.

2009 Lamborghini Gallardo LP 550-2 Valentino Balboni 6

It probably doesn't help that the Gallardo I'm driving has some sort of ‘sports pack' suspension that Balboni has already decided needs softening off to give a decent turn-in without the current spine-cracking ride quality. It certainly exacerbates the nervousness along these Italian backroads, only really becoming acceptable at speeds high enough to make you wince at the mere thought of them. It's all a bit macho really and pretty much as you'd expect. Valentino Balboni has this car absolutely pegged - as he demonstrates in no uncertain fashion on a passenger ride right up there with the most amusing things I've ever done, ever, but you have to be confident of riding that particular knife edge.

 Of course, with a little less mass to propel and the same basic mechanical bits, the rest of the experience is as brilliant as ever. The 5.2-litre V10 howls behind you, playing angry pop through a set of exhaust valves, daring you to try to open up the butterflies and hear the metallic wail just once more. The gearbox is a deliberate joy, the open gate and musical ‘clackety, clack - ting!' of a perfect second-to-third gearchange one of the most satisfying things ever to grace your palm. 

2010 Lamborghini Gallardo LP550-2 Valentino Balboni
 The stripes appear on every car, a broad white central strip edged on one side with gold, a theme carried through the seats and dash leather. There for no other reason than Balboni likes them because they used to appear on many old racing cars. On the left-hand window is Balboni's signature and the wheels are multi-spoked, 19in tall and dark grey. And that's pretty much it. No wings, or funny exhausts, or tinselly tat - a pleasant change of pace.

But ultimately, there's a disconnect between what the LP550-2 Balboni can provide for the average driver and actually having to be Valentino Balboni to adequately access the extra fun factor. Some buyers will undoubtedly play car park bullshit and say all the right things, while being capable of mining just the smallest seam of the LP550-2's ability, and the percentage of people actually using the thing the way it should be used will be very small. 

Still, if it were a lighter, cheaper Lamborghini then I'd be more than happy to recommend it as a perfect heart-pumper for the more committed pilot. But, and here's the killer point, it costs £18k more than a standard LP560-4 Coupe. So you're paying an exclusivity tax on a car that will be marginally slower than the standard car in the hands of most of us. It's a very cool thing, this special Lamborghini, made cooler by the name that it bears. But you'll be just fine with a standard Gallardo, and save £18k in the process.

Tom Ford


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