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What I Learned Driving The Nürburgring-Record Lamborghini In Anger

(Image Credits: Lamborghini)
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If Nürburgring lap times are a thing you care about, then the 2018 Lamborghini Huracán Performante is something that matters. At the very least, this is notable because it means a fairly conventional 631 horsepower exotic was able to beat the million-dollar hybrid monster that is the Porsche 918 Spyder, and fast enough to start conspiracy theories that the time was faked.

But the speed is no sorcery. It’s power sticky tires, an amazingly light body and incredible aerodynamics—and the right human behind that wheel. The vehicle had Lamborghini’s fearless works racing driver and 24 Hours Nürburgring veteran Marco Mapelli behind the wheel. Once he’s driving, the rest of us pretty much look like children playing with Power Wheels cars.

But even if you still don’t care about lap times on this venerated race track, you’ve got to be curious about how this raging bull could blow the doors off everything.

(Full Disclosure: Lamborghini flew me to Italy, put me up in a beautiful hotel and kept me fed so I could drive the Huracán Performante around the track at Imola and tell you about it.)

What is it?

The base Huracán is a touch restrained as Lamborghinis go; three inches narrower and around 350 pounds lighter than the colossal Aventador. It fires on a mere ten cylinders, its doors swing out in the most pedestrian way, and it costs about half as much.

The Huracán does, however, outsell the Aventador by about two-to-one. That might be because of the six-figure price disparity, but in a lot of ways, the “cheaper” Lamborghini is an all-around better car.

The angular Huracán is obviously a Lamborghini, but it shares so much—chassis, transmission and engine—with the Audi R8 V10 Plus that you might wonder if it’s not just a pointy 911 competitor rather than a bonafide supercar. Super, after all, means “above,” and the Huracán is positioned somewhere below the volcanic Aventador.

But Lamborghini is hoping that with a bit more ferocity, the Performante trim, the Huracán can woo serious drivers away from dedicated track weapons like Porsche’s 911 GT3 and McLaren’s 675LT.

And this car is built for serious track action, not valet lane theatrics or catching fire in Los Angeles traffic. (Though those could still happen, I suppose.)

To achieve this, Lamborghini employed the usual go-faster tricks: they mounted stickier tires, stiffened the Magneride suspension, and bolted on a wing big enough for Yao Ming to sleep on. The 40 valves in the 5.2 liter V10 are now titanium and a straighter, lighter exhaust helps reduce back pressure and increase horsepower. The engine is now rated to 631 HP from the standard car’s 601, and puts power down to all four wheels.

Extensive use of carbon fiber helps the Performante lose 90 pounds, and even more interesting than that, Lamborghini has a fancy new way to make the lightweight material: bits of chopped up carbon fiber are put in a press to create more complex pieces than what can be made with normal carbon sheets.

Lamborghini calls the end result “Forged Composite.” It’s got an attractive random crystal pattern that dances through the matte finish in the sun. The engine cover, giant rear wing, rear bumper, and diffuser are made of this sparkly stuff.

The suspension has been stiffened up by 10 percent in the springs, 15 percent in the anti-rollbars and 50 percent in the bushings. That’s partly to cope with the stickier, specially-developed tires—Pirelli P Zero Corsas (or the optional P Zero Trofeo R tires the car wore for the Nurburgring record)—and partly to cope with the new active aerodynamic system, which Lamborghini calls Aerodinamica Lamborghini Attiva.

On The Street

Along the twisty roads around Imola, the Performante took the opportuinty to shower dozens of Italians with a deluge of manic sound.

Making noise in a supercar is practically a public service in Italy. Grandmothers wave, teenagers at bus stops spontaneously improvise sign language engine-revving. To oblige them: pull in both shift paddles to select neutral (yes, it works while rolling) and stab the throttle to your audience’s content. Tug the right paddle afterwards to pop the transmission back into gear.

To perform a dramatic launch, the car must be in Corsa mode and have its stability control turned off. Select first gear, hold both pedals down, and release the brake when the tach reads 4,200 RPM. Slither away as the tires squeal and the engine screams, to the delight of any gearhead in earshot.

The Performante’s cabin is dark and intimate, with the Alcantara dash wrapping ever so slightly around the passengers. Four large hexagonal Forged Composite air vents—with hexagonal grilles inside—peek out from the dash. Almost everything is black, though body-colored contrasting stitching and stripes liven up the seats.

The 12 o’clock position of the flat-bottomed steering wheel also gets a body color-matched accent, which gives a useful visual clue about steering position when you’re really moving.

In Strada mode—the Performante’s softest, quietest setting—you pull away with barely a murmur. Even though everything is stiffer than the regular Huracán, the Performante is genuinely comfortable.

If you disregard the wild interior and the undeniably evident stiffness of the chassis, the car doesn’t feel particularly exotic dawdling around town. Under gentle usage, the shifts from the 7-speed dual-clutch gearbox are smooth and quick to the point of being imperceptible. The only clue that the car is a highly-tuned racing animal is the occasional squeal from the carbon brakes.

When you click the wheel-mounted selector to Sport, baffles in the exhaust open up and the car gets significantly louder. The steering ratio changes (if you bought optional variable-ratio steering) and the dampers stiffen up. There’s no turbo to muffle the exhaust, and with the exhaust valves open, enthusiastic driving is rewarded by one operatic braaap after another.

The car is so capable and rapid that even getting into downright reckless road behavior won’t allow you to deploy half of its performance—after all, it’s faster than any other production car around the Nürburgring, remember?

On The Track

The Performante is happy to unleash a taste of its rabid energy on challenging open roads. But on a race track, off the leashes of traction control and speed limits, the car puts on a show you’ll wake up after and think you damn well might have dreamt it up.

You don’t have to take my word for it: go back to the video of Mapelli’s lap. It’s the opposite of the graceful-yet-balls out lap of Stefan Roser’s famous run in the RUF Yellow Bird.

Rather than dancing on the throttle to slide along sideways with the steering on its lockstops, Mapelli managed to sail just past the limit all the way around the course, sawing nervously at the wheel all the while. The Huracán’s gyroscopic brain continuously worked out just how hard accelerate out of a corner without spinning off into a wall, but the brain kept that information to itself. Marco set his record-breaking run with the ESP off.

The dual-clutch ‘box worked beautifully during the twenty laps I drove around Imola’s hilly, shockingly fast F1 circuit. Shifts are a bit like playing Gran Turismo: Pull a paddle and the engine note changes, but no shudder courses through the chassis. Up to 150 mph at the end of the long main straight before braking hard into a third gear left-hander. The big carbon brakes—the same as those on the regular Huracán—never got tired of hauling the car up from these huge speeds.

Make exaggerated control inputs at high speed and the ESP system starts nibbling at the brakes, tugging here and there to keep the car on line. Floor it out of the corner in Corsa mode and the tail will step out—and you can twitch the steering wheel as power is fed to the front wheels—but after a few degrees the systems again intervene.

The ESP is brilliant, and allowed everyone I was bombing around with drive quite quickly on the challenging track, soaring over the blind crests and slicing through fourth gear corners. The Performante is easier to drive fast than the Aventador S, and I didn’t have bother turning the ESP off to screw around.

Standout Features

Aerodinamica Lamborghini Attiva, or ALA, is the Performante’s active aerodynamic package powered by the accelerometer-informed electronic inertial platform that helps the stability control and ABS respond faster than they could by sensing wheel-speeds alone.

The car’s accelerometer data is used to determine the ideal aerodynamic configuration at each instant. As you might expect, there is a low-drag mode for acceleration and cruising and a high-downforce mode used while braking. With ALA, there is also a novel asymmetric configuration—with high drag and downforce on the inside wheels and low drag and low downforce on the outside wheels—while cornering.

At first glance, it would seem that high-downforce on both sides would be best for cornering, though Lamborghini’s engineers assured us that the improvement in rotation—from more drag on the side of the car closest to the corner, and improved camber control—outweighs the reduction in normal-force acting on the outside wheels.

Unlike the active aero systems on other cars, which use heavy, complicated hydraulic systems to change the angle of attack of the wings, Lamborghini’s ALA uses electric motors to control tiny flaps that reroute air to change the way the large fixed wings behave. In the front, flaps in the middle of the spoiler open to reduce pressure and route air under the car, reducing drag.

In the rear, flaps next to the engine cover open and direct air into the hollow vertical supports of the huge rear wing and out along its bottom surface. This additional air creates turbulence and leads to flow separation on the bottom of the wing, reducing both lift and drag. The ALA system weighs 80 percent less than hydraulic setups and responds in half a second. The only downside is that it there are no visual clues that the car is transforming. In other words, there’s no cool Transformers action as wings or panels flap and retract.

Early Verdict

It’s absurd that Lamborghini has managed to finagle this nuclear wedge through crash, pedestrian safety, emissions, and sound regulations.

The result of the company’s sick skunkworks monsterpiece is an intoxicating car that is willing to get just as crazy as you are, hooked up to enough intelligent equipment to keep you out of trouble even when you drive ahead of your talent.

If you want to call the Huracán Performante “just” a hot-spec Audi R8, go ahead, but the reality is that this car is nothing less than a purebred race car somebody figured out how to sneak license plates onto.

But if you’re lucky enough to get one, please don’t keep it locked up in traffic and parking garages.

Set it free in its native habitat, your local race track, as often as you can.

(Correction: “Aerodinamica Lamborghini Attiva” was incorrectly abbreviated as “ATA” in an earlier version of this story. That would, of course, be initialed as “ALA.”)