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Wednesday 2nd December 2009


LAMBORGHINI GALLARDO LP550-2 BALBONI

Riggers gets a go in the rear-drive Gallardo


In the pantheon of cool jobs, being a test driver for Lamborghini probably ranks somewhere beyond lottery winner, beer taster or roller coaster tester

For the past few decades the job was held by Valentino Balboni, who was recruited to Sant'Agata by Ferrucio Lamborghini back in the late 1960s and who has been instrumental in the development of every single Lamborghini produced since 1973.

Valentino's retired now but, as a final flourish to send your envy-o-meter off the scale, Lamborghini has given him his very own Gallardo model as a retirement gift. By which we don't mean that his employers bunged him a boxed 1:18 scale Maisto number - the folks at the factory named a model after him.


So here it is - the Lamborghini Gallardo LP550-2 Valentino Balboni. It's intended as an 'entry-level' model, although at 137,900 it's only 3400 cheaper than the full-house LP 560-4. For your 138k you get 10bhp less (542bhp at 8000rpm rather than 552bhp), while top speed drops from 202mph to 199mph, while the 0-62mph time is 0.2secs slower at 3.9secs. There's also the small matter of 90kg shaved from the car's kerb weight. Think of it as a 'Clubsport' Lamborghini and you're getting close to the concept.

But the headline difference is that you only get two driven wheels, making it the first rear-wheel-drive Lamborghini since the 1995 Diablo SV.

And what a difference dropping four-wheel drive makes. One simple change (okay, it's not that simple; the springs, dampers, anti-roll bars, tyres, and even the aerodynamics have been adjusted to suit the new drive configuration) transforms the Gallardo. Gone are the surefooted, grippy but slightly aloof and unadjustable all-wheel drive handling characteristics of the LP 560-4, to be replaced by something altogether more involving and challenging.


The Balboni is still a solid, assured handler (well, as much as any 500bhp+ mid-engined supercar can be), but the back wiggles under braking, and is more than prepared to kick out through a corner.

The absence of all the heavy drivetrain bits around the front wheels also makes the steering feel lighter, while the turn-in now has sharp, pivoty feel, making the Balboni feel almost like a big Lotus Elise.

This is also the first Lamborghini I've driven with a manual gearbox and boy, does it suit the LP550-2's back-to-basics nature. The beautiful, chunky open-gate gearchange does require some precision as you flick between ratios, but take a bit of time with it and you'll soon learn to love it. The combination of an oily-smooth feel and a satisfying metallic click-clack as you go through the gate is utterly intoxicating. You can have it with the eGear flappy paddle shift, and you would be able to drive the car faster and more easily- but you would miss out on so much.


The manual gearbox is actually a rather effective analogy for the rest of the car, because the essence of the LP550-2 Valentino Balboni - what makes it more than just a fast car - is interactivity; true driver involvement.

There are too many performance cars out there that require little of the driver to go fast other than a heavy right foot. A standard, eGear-equipped four-wheel-drive Gallardo is one of those. Sure, a little understanding and delicacy of operation is rewarded, but you always get the impression that a cack-handed, lead-booted football player would be almost as quick as a silver-toed driving genius.

The LP550-2 is different. What makes this car such a hoot is that, to go fast, you have to go beyond the simple process of 'go, stop, turn, grip'. This is a car that you need to feel working, letting the back end move around through corners, executing a satisfying heel-and-toe move with the zingy V10 as you brake for a turn, feeling the surprisingly supple suspension move the weight to the outside front wheel as you turn in to a sharp corner.


The Balboni is a car that wants you to go slightly beyond its limits to get the best out of it - heck, even the ESP will allow you a greater angle of slip than in the regular car before it intervenes.

As a car that bears the name of one of the greatest test drivers in the automotive industry, of course, it should do no less. Still, Mr Balboni should be thoroughly proud of his legacy.





Author: Riggers