As far as my body is concerned, Saturdays contain only one 6 o’clock, and it coincides with tea and the early evening news. I don’t normally leap energetically out of bed the instant my alarm clock fires off a round of electronic beeps while a ‘6’ flashes alongside the letters ‘a’ and ‘m’, but then I don’t normally draw back the curtains to find a Lamborghini Gallardo LP550-2 Balboni sitting outside either. The Gallardo doesn’t have a bad side, but I’d argue that it’s best viewed from above. From here its perfect proportions, angular, attacking lines and glass-topped 5.2-litre engine can all be admired together, the Balboni’s white and gold stripe adding further drama. It’s enough to kick-start the pulse of the sleepiest petrolhead. Good job too, for there’s no time to waste – today I’m heading to Silverstone for a brief dip into the glitzy world of the multi-millionaire gentleman racer. There’s no quiet way to start a Lambo. They always bark gloriously (or should that be gratuitously?) into life with a flare of revs loud enough to scare birds into flight and wake entire sleeping villages. I usually try to get on well with my neighbours, but needs must and after treating them to Italy’s finest V10 dawn chorus, I slip away into the unsuspecting countryside. The plan is simple: drive to Buckingham, pick up my professional co-driver, then share the drive to Silverstone where we’ll compete in rounds 10, 11 and 12 of the Blancpain Lamborghini Super Trofeo championship, the fastest and most glitzy one-make series in the world. It’s not far from my house to Buckingham, but no one said I had to take the direct route, and at this time in the morning, with the roads deserted, it would be criminal not to exploit the opportunity to the full. It only takes a few miles for me to realise that the LP550-2 is the car the Gallardo should have been from the outset. On the insistence of Valentino Balboni, Lamborghini’s former chief test driver and the man after whom this limited edition run of just 250 cars is named, the 550-2 does away with the over sophistication of all-wheel drive and the flappy-paddle e-gear transmission. The result is a 30kg reduction in weight, a chassis unshackled from the extra diff and a sweet open-gate gearbox that rewards anyone who can work their left-sided limbs in unison. It instantly feels freer, more involving, faster and more exciting than any Gallardo before. It’s a raucous, intense, challenging drivers’ car, a supercar to its core. Most importantly of all, it’s a car worthy of the great man’s name. Why the engine has ten fewer horses than the 560-4 I’m not sure (it’s got 542bhp instead of 552), but you don’t miss them. On a give-and-take road the Balboni feels noticeably faster, probably due to the heightened sensations, especially with the electronic aids switched out. Traction is still impressively strong, but with almost 400lb ft of torque working the rear Pirellis they can easily be overloaded. There’s predictability and progression up to a point – a degree or two of opposite lock can be held without inducing sweaty palms – but getting greedy with the throttle is akin to playing with the devil. Your whole world could snap away in a heartbeat. That said, it’s not edgy or scary like, say, a Corvette ZR1 – the chassis and steering detail ground-level interaction. Instead it urges you on while demanding your fullest concentration, much like a 911 GT3. And the satisfaction that comes from stringing a series of bends together is on the same exalted level.
All too soon I’ve arrived in Buckingham, the home town of Andy Wallace, one of just a handful of men to have won at each of the world’s top three sportscar races – Le Mans, Daytona and Sebring – and probably the only one who uses his glamorous first-place trophies as doorstops. If you need a professional driving partner you’d be hard pushed to find anyone with a more impressive CV, and as we discovered when he joined us on our Car of the Year test last year, he’s a true enthusiast and great company too. Even though Andy spends most of his time in America racing a Grand‑Am prototype car he seems genuinely thrilled by the sight of the Balboni and he’s jumped in the hot seat almost before I’ve clambered out. ‘It immediately feels lighter,’ he says after a couple of miles of fast but smooth driving. ‘You get more of a feeling of wearing it than in the four-wheel-drive version, and for all the grip and precision the ride quality is very good. It’s going to be a good day.’ And just to prove the point he nails the throttle for the rest of the run to Silverstone. THE RACE CAR SOMEHOW looks larger, and it’s certainly more aggressive. It’s based on the LP560-4 and is therefore still four-wheel drive, but here, thanks to a remap, there’s 570bhp to play with. It’s a lot lighter too. Obviously, much of the interior has been removed, but so has the glass, polycarbonate windows having been fitted instead. It’s not long before I get a demonstration of just how fast the car goes. We have half-an-hour of free practice alongside the cars running in the British GT Championship, and as I take to the circuit for my run the leading Ferrari F430 from that series rushes up behind me. Not wanting to hold him up as I get a feel for things I move over and let the Gallardo’s biggest on-road rival slip by, assuming that it’ll be the last I’ll see of it. However, as we get on the power on the long back straight I leave the Ferrari for dead. The GT cars may have more speed in the corners, but they can’t live with a Super Trofeo between them, and overall we’re two seconds per lap faster. Despite the power being sent to all four slicks, the Super Trofeo Gallardo has more grunt than grip and is constantly moving laterally through the corners, making it very easy to overdrive. Squeeze the throttle too early or steer too much and you’ll lose time and overwork the tyres, so rather than hustle the car you need to relax into it, but that’s easier said than done when the scenery is rushing towards you so fast. In the dry, most cars can take Woodcote Corner, the kink just before the start/finish line, flat in fourth gear without too much trouble, but not this Lambo. It’s still flat, but you can find yourself sliding, and when this happens it really grabs your attention because here, at well over 120mph, the track is flanked on either side by concrete walls. And you’re usually steering one handed at this point too, as these cars have e-gear and the paddles are fixed on the steering column, so don’t move with the wheel. The brakes also demand your total focus, as the discs are iron and they retain a modified version of the road car’s ABS system. If you brake hard enough to trigger the anti-lock the pads overheat and fade, extending the braking distance. The weird thing is that our Balboni test car has the optional carbon-ceramic discs, but their grabby, inconsistent nature makes them awkward to use on the road, so each car has effectively got the wrong system. All this means that getting the set-up just so is absolutely critical, and we learn this during qualifying when we have too much understeer through the fast corners and only net sixth place. Our best qualifying lap was achieved by Wallace, of course, but I was pleased to see that I was only two tenths adrift. Not too shabby I reckon, for a ‘gentleman’. This is Andy’s first time in a four-wheel-drive race car since he campaigned an Alfa Romeo in DTM in ’94. ‘I gunned it on the new tyres,’ he says of the LP550, laughing, ‘and all four span up immediately. It’s a bit frisky!’ Before the races we have time to relax, and for that Lamborghini has effectively built itself a five-star village. It costs 25,000 euros in entry fees for a place in the 18-round series, which takes place over six weekends supporting various DTM and LMS races around Europe, and most of that money seems to have been spent on ensuring the drivers and their entourages have a top time outside the car. Image is vital and each competitor is given top-quality race kit (including a fine pair of gold race boots), and when you’re not posing around the paddock you can enjoy the finest Italian food and wine this side of the Aosta Valley. You can’t help but feel like a king and were it not for the races I could stay here all day (in fact, I think some people do). The rules state that in the first race the slower of the two drivers must start, so at the allotted hour I strap myself into the deep race seat and head out to the grid. It’s a rolling start and as we approach the line I’m surrounded by winged Gallardos, inches apart from each other, jostling for position. The red lights go out, the whole field nails it and the noise of a dozen wailing V10s is simply incredible. So tight is the pack that I can’t see where the first corner is, so I rely on past experience and the reactions of others to work out when to brake and turn. We all get through, though, and the first few laps pass in a blur of furious wheel work. The car feels oddly inconsistent, and not at all like it did earlier. We made some changes after qualifying and they clearly aren’t working out. I push hard and make up a few places, but the unpredictability is unsettling and I end up working the car too hard, spinning up the tyres and even running wide at one point. Eventually I calm down and get on top of it, and as I hand the car over to Wallace we’re in fourth place. It all looks OK until Andy is handed a stop/go penalty. It turns out the team waved him out of the pits before the mandatory 45 seconds for the driver change were complete, so we finish eighth, which is a little irritating. But not as irritating as race two where, after perfecting the set-up, we reach second place and are chasing down the leader when a ball joint on the rear suspension fails, putting us out on the spot. The race results don’t really matter, though. This was more about the experience as a whole. Just being out there on the Silverstone circuit surrounded by these exotic machines was a real privilege for an oik like me, especially as I got to share the car with a true legend. In each race you’re pushing yourself as much as the car, and in something as fast, furious and expensive as the Gallardo your nerve and mettle are also tested to the limit. Racing with a pro forces the best from you too, as there’s nowhere to hide. A benchmark lap time is always laid down and getting as close to that is as much a feature of the weekend as the result. For me, matching Wallace’s times was as satifying as a win. The gentleman racer’s lifestyle is one I could get used to and I’m intensely jealous of those who do this all year. Wallace was impressed too, and despite a lifetime racing the very best sportscars around the world, he also wants to do it again. I must remember to buy a lottery ticket this weekend.
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Claudio Rossetto, 53, race team owner
‘As we get close to the end of the season I feel a responsibility to continue to do well for my teammate, but whatever happens I’m definitely going to stay in the series next year. In fact I’m trying to persuade some friends to take part too.’
Eugenio Amos, 24, Real estate investorAmos may be one of the youngest drivers on the grid, but that doesn’t mean he lacks sportscar race experience. Last year he competed in the Italian GT Championship, and this season as well as lying fifth in the Super Trofeo standings he also competes in the Ferrari Challenge.
‘I like the cars very much and there’s a great ambience in the paddock,’ he says when ask what drew him to the series. ‘The circuits are special too. Spa was unbelievable in these cars.’
|Bore x stroke||84.5 x 92.8mm|
|Cylinder block||Aluminium alloy, dry sumped|
|Cylinder head||Aluminium alloy, dohc per bank, four valves per cylinder, variable valve timing|
|Fuel and ignition||Electronic engine management, direct injection|
|Max power||542bhp @ 8000rpm / 570bhp @ 7850rpm (Trofeo)|
|Max torque||398lb ft @ 6500rpm / 410lb ft @ 5800rpm (Trofeo)|
|Transmission||Six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive, limited-slip differential, ESP|
|Front suspension||Double wishbones, coil springs, gas dampers, anti-roll bar|
|Rear suspension||Double wishbones, coil springs, gas dampers, anti-roll bar|
|Brakes||Ventilated, cross-drilled carbon-ceramic discs (option), 380mm front, 356mm rear, ABS, EBD|
|Wheels||8.5 x 19in front, 11 x 19in rear, aluminium alloy / 18in front and rear, lightweight race alloy|
|Tyres||235/35 ZR19 front, 295/30 ZR19 rear, Pirelli P Zero / race slicks|
|Weight (kerb)||1380kg / 1300kg|
|Power-to-weight||399bhp/ton / 445bhp/ton|
|0-62mph||3.9sec (claimed) / 3.4sec (est)|
|Top speed||199mph (claimed) / 200mph (est)|
|Basic price||£137,900 / c£208,000|