Brightly hued Aventadors and Huracáns line the block, parked side by side. Employees stand outside the cafeteria smoking cigarettes, some in tailored suits, others in coveralls, all somehow fashionably louche. This tangle of buildings connected by outdoor walkways in Sant’Agata Bolognese, is more than just headquarters to Lamborghini, it’s an Italian dreamscape.
At the entrance of the Centro Stile (design center), Lamborghini design director Mitja Borkert is smiling. “I’ve got a surprise,” he says, as we whisk down to the basement. There, a green Countach gleams on a white tile floor. It’s the first one to ever roll off the production line. “I’ve had it down here for inspiration for me and my team,” Borkert says. “I keep hoping the museum will forget that it’s here.” Maybe it’s the setting, or the perfectly preserved specimen, but it feels as if I’ve never actually seen a Countach before—all sharp lines and outrageous proportions, the interior a feast of intriguing oddities. It’s exciting and fresh, a neat trick for a car 44 years old. The Countach came from the mind of Marcello Gandini. He’d already penned the Miura, an icon in its own right, but it was the Countach’s radical styling that would define the brand for decades.
Not anymore. Something inside the manufacturer has shifted. Design will always be important in Sant’Agata, but the company no longer puts so much of the responsibility on its outlandish sheetmetal. Today, Lamborghini is as steeped in engineering as design. That’s evident in the hiring of Borkert, 43, who joined Lamborghini in 2016 from the most engineering-driven of sports-car makers, Porsche.
It’s also evident in the car sitting next to the Countach in the basement of the Centro Stile: The 2018 Huracán Performante. The Performante is Lamborghini’s latest high-performance variant, but it’s much more than that. Thoroughly reengineered with a novel aerodynamic system, among other enhancements, it set a production-car record at the Nürburgring Nordschleife of six minutes, 52.01 seconds in 2016, trouncing the previous record holder, the Porsche 918 Spyder, by an impressive five seconds. (Editor's Note: The Porsche 911 GT2 broke Lamborghini's record six months later.) Borkert points out Countach-inspired cues, such as the distinctive lines in the hood and recurring trapezoidal shapes throughout. Still, what’s underneath is perhaps more intriguing. The Performante is arguably the most intelligently engineered production Lamborghini ever. And it could only have come from a company reborn.
Because, honestly, Lamborghinis helped create the stereotype of temperamental supercars that are a terror to navigate in reverse and have A/C that blows hot air. The brand famously began as a tractor company, after all, and its sometimes haphazard engineering was baked in from the start. “We never put an air conditioner into a Lamborghini that worked,” admits Giampaolo Dallara, the legendary engineer who worked at Ferrari under Enzo himself before joining Lamborghini to develop the 350 GT, Espada, and Miura. According to his descriptions, the development processes at Sant’Agata could be charitably termed improvisational. For example, at the time the Miura was developed, engineers had only one test mule, which was promptly sold.
“I was 27 when I started there, and no one had much experience at the time,” says Dallara, 80, speaking from his office at Dallara Automobili in Parma, Italy. “We learned by doing, and often learned by our mistakes. For instance, on the Miura, we decided not to make the rear tires wider than the front, because then it would present problems with the spare tire. We wanted one spare tire to work for all four corners.”
Lamborghinis nearly became as famous for their lack of drivability as they did for their outré looks and raucous engines. Those Countachs, exotic and legendary, were also infamous for overheating, poor visibility, and heavy controls. Performance numbers hid all manner of sins. Sure, the 485-hp V12 Diablo could hit 202 mph, but it also drove “like a truck,” said racing driver Paul Frère, in a 1991 review of the car for R&T. All 12-cylinder Lamborghinis shared troubling clumsiness. Meanwhile, the company bumped chaotically from bankruptcy to new owners. The nadir is difficult to pinpoint. Was it when Chrysler bought the firm in 1987 and showed off the ? Or when it was owned by a Malaysian consortium and the son of an Indonesian despot? In 1997, Lamborghini produced just 209 cars. The brand was in shambles.
And then the Germans stepped in.
Audi bought Lamborghini in 1998, infusing it with capital, technology, and German efficiency. Stephan Winkelmann, a German who grew up in Italy, became president and CEO in 2005. Known for his perfect suits and rigid manner, Winkelmann was a steadying force throughout his tenure, which ended last year when he left to head Audi Sport. He and the Volkswagen Group board moved slowly and deliberately, notoriously reluctant to expand the model line, choosing not to pursue a hybrid model like the Asterion concept and waiting years to green-light the Urus SUV.
Perhaps most important, the VW Group made sure that the long-awaited successor to the smaller Jalpa, the Gallardo, came to fruition. It lasted a full decade and made up the majority of sales during the company’s resurgence. Even so, the baby Lambo was plagued with issues and saddled with unrefined driving dynamics. It wasn’t until the release of the LP 570-4 Superleggera in 2010 that the company signaled a change in attitude. At the car’s launch in Spain, Winkelmann announced that Lamborghini was no longer primarily concerned with top speed. It wanted to make cars that would come alive on curvy roads, or perhaps even one day take a record at the 'Ring.
The man primarily responsible for backing up this proclamation is Maurizio Reggiani, head of research and development. He joined the marque in 1998, and as the father of its engineering revolution, he continues to shape the place today. In many ways, the story of modern-day Lamborghini is Reggiani’s story.
The 58-year-old, who grew up in Modena, started at Lamborghini as project leader for the Murciélago. At the time, there were 200 employees, 40 of which were in engineering. Today Lambo has 1500 employees, and Reggiani oversees 360 in R&D. The chief has long been a fixture at press launches, always happy and humble, the kind of guy who warms a room with positive energy.
Dallara, arguably Lamborghini’s original engineering godfather, has much respect for Reggiani. “Maurizio is doing a fantastic job. He’s absolutely the proper person for the Lamborghini of today,” Dallara says. He also credits Reggiani with pushing the company to work with carbon fiber. “He was one of the first to use carbon fiber and was always trying to produce it in bigger numbers. He likes to use every kind of electronic help to improve performance. They’re producing faster cars—but also cars that are safer and more reliable. Even with the far greater numbers of cars they’re producing under the Volkswagen Group, he helps retain the spirit of Lamborghini.”
Talk to Reggiani for any amount of time, and his passion comes through. “Sometimes I am asked why it is not possible to have automatic shifting in Corsa mode,” he says, voice rising. “I say, ‘Have the car shift for itself in Corsa? F*** no!’ ”
Though he was instrumental in pushing for the development of carbon fiber to reduce weight, the company’s focus on the technology predates Reggiani. Lamborghini was working with carbon fiber way back in the mid-Eighties, when Horacio Pagani (yes, that Pagani) helped develop the experimental Countach Evoluzione with a carbon-fiber structure and bodywork. Later, the Diablo and Murciélago also featured the composite, but it wasn’t until 2003 that the company took a sizable leap when it used a process called resin-transfer molding to create the engine cover panel of the Gallardo Spyder. Today, composite materials remain a key focus and one of the central reasons Lamborghini is making such strides in the supercar arms race.
While the serious Winkelmann and impish Reggiani often seemed an odd couple, they were undoubtedly effective. Following the Great Recession, sales numbers steadily rose. On their watch, Lamborghini released the V12 Aventador in 2011 to replace the Murciélago, and the Huracán in 2014 to replace the Gallardo. Last year, the company sold 3457 cars, the sixth consecutive year of sales growth. Meanwhile, the Urus was officially green-lit in 2015 and is set to go on sale in 2018. The Sant’Agata factory will double in size to accommodate production up to 7000 vehicles a year.
The original Aventador, though a marked improvement over the Murciélago, was still plagued with understeer, much like its V12-powered predecessors. But the Huracán was a revelation. It was developed in tandem with the second-generation Audi R8. The two shared underpinnings and much of Audi’s technology. The A/C blew cold air, and the navigation system actually navigated. Some critics characterized the Huracán as little more than an Italian-branded R8. But the Huracán had the killer looks and soulful nature the R8 lacked. It sounded better and drove more lustily than its Teutonic cousin. The LP 580-2 rear-wheel-drive version is the least expensive Huracán available and proved that a Lambo could even be great fun on-throttle in a corner. Similarly, the updated Aventador S shows that V12 Lambos have, finally, turned a corner (both metaphorically and literally), thanks in no small part to the addition of rear-wheel steering. Driving the old Aventador versus the new one on a slalom course was a revelation. The S didn’t slough around corners like a lumbering bull. Lambo finally vanquished its persistent foe: understeer.
The Huracán Performante however, is on another level entirely. “I’ve never been prouder of a car,” Reggiani says. “I say that about every new car, it’s true, but this one . . .”
From inside a small office just off pit lane at the famous Imola racing circuit, in the heart of Italy’s Motor Valley, near both Sant’Agata and Ferrari’s home of Maranello, Reggiani explains that the Performante is not simply a lighter, more powerful version of the Huracán. It’s a ground-up rethink of the entire car. At its core is a patented active-aero system called Aerodinamica Lamborghini Attiva—ALA for short, which means “wing” in Italian.
“The request was to dramatically increase downforce,” Reggiani says. “But we didn’t want to limit top speed with too much drag. And a motorized wing can’t change phases quick enough. In a slalom, you’re out of phase on half of the turns.” To solve this, the engineering team came back with a radical idea: Add a fixed rear wing that can be stalled at high speed using air itself. The carbon-fiber wing and the struts that attach it to the car are hollow. When ALA engages, flaps at the base of the struts open, channeling air through the wing and diverting airflow through ridges underneath. The air blowing out under the spoiler disrupts the surrounding air and stalls the wing, thereby reducing drag and downforce. The front spoiler also has flaps that open and close to vary downforce and drag.
At high speed, it’s as if the car has no wing at all. But slam on the ceramic brakes, the valves close, and—wham!—the full effect of a huge rear wing comes to bear. Overall, the Performante creates seven and a half times more downforce than the regular Huracán.
The most sensational trick is how it selectively applies downforce to create aero vectoring. Turn the car with ALA engaged, and only one side of the wing stalls, giving the inside rear tire more downforce and grip to help rotate the car. The effect is similar to a torque-vectoring differential, but without the added weight that comes with those systems. “If we had added 10 more horsepower on this car, nobody would have felt the difference,” Reggiani says. “But if we can put in a solution like ALA, everybody says, ‘Wow, cool idea.’ ”
Another benefit of ALA is that it doesn’t tax the brakes like some torque-vectoring systems do, allowing you to drive hard, lap after lap, with confidence.
After only two laps at Imola, it’s clear how the Huracán Performante managed to break the production-car record at the 'Ring. In short, ALA puts the driver utterly at ease. The car scythes cleanly through the air at triple-digit speed. Bear down on the brakes and it hunkers down with a heap of instantaneous downforce. And it all happens seamlessly—the antithesis of gaming electronic aids, as is the case so often with sports cars these days.
The Performante encourages a rhythmic flow through corners. In Corsa mode, with aero vectoring activated, turn-in is particularly crisp, enabling far more speed into a turn than one would expect, while also allowing for later braking. A dab or light lift of the throttle is enough to adjust the car’s attitude as it arcs toward the apex. Once there, you can also get back on the throttle sooner.
The Huracán’s other attributes have also been improved in the Performante. It is 88 pounds lighter, and the fabulous, linear 5.2-liter V-10 gets a modest power bump to 630 hp and 443 lb-ft of torque. The digital mastermind that controls magnetic dampers, stability control, and the rear-wheel-biased all-wheel-drive system has also been fine-tuned.
“It’s emotional, no? The DNA of a super sports car is not something that comes from a platform alone,” says Reggiani, obliquely referencing the Huracán’s cousin, the R8. “This is the kind of thing that only the Lamborghini brain can generate.”
And what a beautiful brain that is. Engineers used a technique called forged composite to create the hollow rear wing on the Performante. Instead of the laborious, hand-formed, complex weave of traditional carbon fiber, the new process takes chopped carbon fiber and spreads it through a film of resin. The result is a thin sheet of composite resembling a hash brown, which can be cut into complex shapes before it is compressed. This negates the labor-intensive work of laying out and trimming carbon-fiber pieces by hand.
Lamborghini first used forged composite in 2010 to create the tub of a very limited run of 20 Sesto Elementos, but the Performante is the first production car to use it extensively. “We can now create complex geometry, like the ALA system’s rear wing with the ducts that are embedded in the wing,” says Luciano De Oto, head of advanced composites.
De Oto has been a driving force behind composite research at Lamborghini since 2001. The company had long wanted to use composites for stressed and load-bearing parts but had serious trouble with crashworthiness. Computer simulations and crash-test results weren’t aligning. They were stuck in a costly, time-consuming cycle.
“Only one company in the world was doing it right, and it was in aeronautics,” De Oto says. “That was Boeing.” The two companies formed a partnership, where Boeing shared lessons it had learned while making 787 fuselages out of carbon fiber. “We were the student to the professor, the little guy to the giant. These guys were doing such a level of testing and simulation we could not afford, and they gave us a lot of very important information with a really open approach. We were not a competitor,” he says.
Lamborghini’s composite modeling and production leapt light-years. “It was the first time we really understood how to simulate dynamic composites. Our simulation model and real-world testing results were one to one. What we saw in the simulator happened in reality,” De Oto says.
With such strides—and an SUV waiting in the wings—Lamborghini appears to be standing on firm legs, replete with a new president and CEO. Stefano Domenicali, 52, took the helm in 2016 as Winkelmann’s replacement. Domenicali hails from Ferrari, where he ran the F1 program. Like Reggiani, he is a hometown boy. Domenicali grew up in the village of Imola, listening to the sounds of F1 cars at the track, which he could hear from inside his home.
Following the track session, we take a ride through Motor Valley in the Performante, Domenicali behind the wheel. He points out landmarks, like the homes of former F1 drivers. It’s been 25 years since he’s driven these parts. “I used to ride this road on my bicycle with my friends. It’s a joy!” he shouts over the crescendo of the V10 as the scenery blurs by. In this moment, the Performante feels like a time machine of sorts, plying past, present, and future as it storms around its stomping grounds, the embodiment of Lamborghini’s remarkable, decades-long metamorphosis, a new leader at the reins. Domenicali, charismatic but bookish, with black-framed eyeglasses, is the ultimate insider/outsider. He readily acknowledges the gap in perception between the legendary but deeply flawed Lambos of old and the high-tech specimens of today. “The customers need to understand who we really are,” he says, driving slowly, reverentially now, through the village where he was born. “That’s why I’m pushing like hell to get people into the cars, to bring them into our factory. We need to show who we are much more aggressively.”
Clearly, he is proud of Reggiani and the engineering team that created the Performante. More important, he has a good handle on both the upsides and concerns of launching a Lamborghini-branded SUV. “I think the Urus will be really superb. But we must manage requests. It’s a balance, and we want to keep the right number. Of course, we want to make sure we don’t dilute our brand. The SUV will be a great segment, but we need to stay focused on supersports cars. That is totally clear to me and to the board,” he says.
Domenicali is already looking ahead to an even bigger challenge: When to embrace electrification. The technology will be key to the company’s longevity, especially in markets he suspects will eventually impose deep restrictions on internal-combustion engines. But he also knows that the sound and fury of a naturally aspirated V10 or V12 is a central part of the Lamborghini mystique. “The beauty of the challenge is because we are so strong with the young generation, this is a path we can work on together.”
Domenicali accelerates, threading the Performante through a series of hills blanketed in grapevines. The engine’s sweet vocalizing is a reminder of how Lamborghini has come full circle in one sense, while progressing in so many others. Even as the company moves into a new era, where SUVs will exist alongside supercars and electrification is on the horizon, the magical allure of Lamborghinis, so palpable in the Countach, is alive and well. You can hear it in the sweet sound of the Performante’s V10, just behind our heads. “That’s so beautiful!” Domenicali cries, revving the engine. “It gives you emotion!”