Dallara Stradale: Driven

Downforce might be a poor substitute for talent, but I'm not complaining. The handling course of Porsche's vast Nardo test track in southern Italy has been a favourite playground for generations of chassis engineers. The 3.8-mile circuit offers a far trickier challenge than the typical dull proving ground course. Yet the Dallara Stradale makes it feel much, much too easy.

That's because I'm getting a serious amount of help. The car is probably only getting close to its claimed peak of 810kg of downforce at the end of the long main straight, where it's getting to around 150mph, but that's more than enough squeeze to allow the car to make the ultra-fast turn one without lifting (it takes almost all of my allotted six-lap stint to feel brave enough to do so.) It's equally impressive on the slower parts of the track, with the Hand of God allowing impossible feeling entry speeds and lateral loadings that turn the unassisted steering into an upper body workout, plus lateral loadings that are straining my underdeveloped neck muscles. This is a road legal car that can generate 2g without breaking sweat.

Ahead is factory test driver and former pointy-end GT racer Marco Apicella in another Stradale. His car doesn't have the vast rear wing that gives elephantine downforce, meaning he's only getting around 400kg of negative lift. But I'm still struggling to keep up, and to trust in the Stradale's huge aero-enhanced grip. It's like driving in a world where everything has been speeded up slightly; most of the gear recommendations Apicella makes through the Bluetooth intercom that connects us seem at least one too high, but it's clear as speeds build that most are spot on. After we stop, he admits that the Stradale is braking a clear 150 metres later into the tight turn two than the hulking Bugatti Chirons that often test here.

Fully convertible
The Stradale is Dallara's first road car, but much about it looks familiar. As a doorless mid-engined lightweight it comes from a well-explored niche, and there is something of the Lotus 3-Eleven in its slipper-like side-on profile (especially in its most basic form, without a windscreen.) That's appropriate - company founder Giampaolo Dallara began his career under Enzo Ferrari and went onto work for Ferrucio Lamborghini, but he says his greatest engineering hero was always Colin Chapman.

The Stradale's USP is its ability to shape-shift through the addition of a modular windscreen, canopy roof and rear wing, all of which are sold as optional extras, and all of which can be added or removed in a few minutes using basic tools. The cars available in Italy were all in the intermediate 'Spider' configuration - with windscreen but without the roof - with the track version also having that whale razor rear wing. When this is removed flaps also need to be opened in the front diffuser to reduce the amount of downforce it generates to a proportionate degree.

Tick all the boxes for the removable bits, plus those for the adjustable dampers and track-spec Trofeo R tyres, and the price of the Stradale climbs to nearly €235,000 with Italy's savage 23 per cent VAT factored in. That's Β£208,000 at current exchange rates, a figure that will probably seem at odds with the Stradale's blue-collar powerplant. Because behind the tight-fitting cockpit sits a transversely mounted version of Ford's 2.3-litre Ecoboost motor, reworked by Bosch to produce 400hp when the Stradale is in its 'High Power' mode (the default map being a more modest 300hp.) Power heads to the rear wheels through a six-speed Ford-sourced gearbox (manual is standard, a single-clutch automated manual an option), plus a mechanical limited-slip differential.

Racing pedigree
We'll get back to the price, but don't let cynicism corrupt your soul quite yet. Because the Stradale is a deeply impressive thing up close. Dallara first started work on a road car project more than two decades ago, but it was paused and cancelled several times as work for fee-paying clients came in. As well as being the biggest manufacturer of racing chassis in the world, Dallara has also worked on several road cars, including the KTM X-Bow and Alfa 4C, and it currently produces the Chiron's carbonfibre structure.

Although clearly designed for life on track, it is also meant for road use - hence the name - with chassis development led by Loris Bicocchi, who in his softly spoken way is pretty much the godfather of Italian handling engineers, having worked for Lamborghini, Bugatti, Pagani and Koenigsegg. He says that one of the biggest challenges was finding settings that could deliver the huge aerodynamic loads while remaining civilized in the real world.

No frills
The lack of doors means that getting in requires swinging a leg over the side structure and aiming for the helpful 'STEP HERE' marking on the seat. The cabin is predictably tight feeling, with even average sized drivers likely to have the adjustable pedal box in its roomiest position. The seats are padding mounted directly to the carbonfibre tub, the backrests folding forwards to reveal small storage compartments - the only luggage space on the car. Apart from seats and the Alcantara rim of the steering wheel, everything else seems to be finished in carbon.

The road part of the test is an adventure in itself, taking place during a Saturday on the SP358 that goes from Porto Badisco to Castro Marina on the coast, almost at the very tip of the heel of the Italian boot. It's tight, twisty, poorly sighted and - I soon discover - a magnet for locals on high-powered sportsbikes who seem prepared to take insane risks to get a closer look at this interloper on their turf, while mostly wearing jeans instead of full leathers. The test car is a manual without a rear wing and is wearing a manufacturer's 'Prova' registration plate, meaning there needs to be a Dallara employee in the other seat, meaning that I've got none other than company CEO Andrea Pontremoli riding shotgun. Fortunately he soon proves to be an unflappable passenger.

While there's no shortage of performance, the engine is lacking the high-bred manners you'd expect in an Italian sports car. Power delivery is similar to the Focus RS, with keen responses but a noticeable delay as boost pressure builds at lower engine speeds. Throttle response is excellent, Dallara says the Stradale's flywheel is about half the mass of the Ford versions of the engine, and once unleashed it proves capable of devouring the ratios of the six-speed gearbox at a ferocious rate. My test car was fitted with an optional sports exhaust that sounded pretty much Group B loud, and which set off a fusillade of pops and bangs every time throttle was lifted.

The manual gearshift has an accurate action, but the gearlever - a carbon version of the Focus RS's - is positioned a bit too far back in the cockpit for my tastes, with even numbered gears cricking my elbow. The brake pedal is very keen - we're talking Audi levels of servo assistance here - which conspires with the cramped footwell to make it very hard to score a clean heel-and-toe downchange.

Life on the open stradale
The steering is brilliant. The Dallara's helm is lower geared than most sports cars, but with superb feedback and very little corruption. There's more castor effect than in an Exige or Elise, the wheel keen to self-centre, but otherwise it feels very Lotus-y, which is high praise indeed. Mechanical grip is huge, even without any downforce and on the road-spec P-Zeros. It takes a grievous excess of entry speed to feel anything but bite from the front, while the rear axle proved capable of digesting big throttle applications in tight corners without complaint. Push harder and it will start to slide; there is stability control which doesn't intervene until things have gone really wrong, but the Stradale has been designed to grip rather than slip.

The ride is remarkable as well, the Stradale shrugging off the sort of corrugated surfaces that normally produce graunching sounds in most lightweights. The relatively high ride height helps, this being necessary to take account of the squashing effect of big aero. On the Autostrada it tracks straight and the steering gains heft as the downforce starts to push harder. Despite the lack of any side glass it resists buffeting well, too, although the shouty exhaust note would quickly get tiring on longer journeys.

Track very special
On road the Stradale feels pretty similar to any number of lightweight, low-volume rivals, all of which cost considerably less than it does. Its carbon structure is finished to a far higher standard than the segment's norm, and despite the sometimes thuggish engine it feels better mannered than most track specials, although I don't like the feel-free brakes.

But you need a track to make it truly spectacular. The car I drove at Nardo was wearing prototype disguise and sitting on a not-quite finished spec of Trofeo R tyre, and had gained the huge rear wing. It also had the automated gearshift, and although I wasn't really concentrating on transmission refinement, this seemed to shift more cleanly and quickly than the norm for roboticized single-clutchers. On the speeds allowed on the handling course this uberized Stradale was firmer and more serious than the car I drove on road, losing the delicacy and feeling bigger and heavier as the aero compressed the suspension. The brakes still felt over-assisted, but one of the side effects of the huge grip was how rarely they needed to be used. Dallara's decision to use iron discs rather than carbon-ceramics is entirely justified.

Wearing Trofeo Rs and the full wing the Stradale is probably as close as it's possible to get to a full slicks-and-aero racer while wearing numberplates. For context, McLaren is claiming the street legal version of the Senna will have a fractionally inferior 800kg of peak downforce. Dallara is going to limit the Stradale to no more than 600 cars over the next five years, a number that sounds high until you realise that 70 have already been sold on little more than word of mouth. With the factory handling sales directly, it also means a serious journey for more involved servicing or out-of-routine repairs; despite which, one of the first cars has reportedly gone to a buyer in Sweden.

So yes, it's hugely expensive for what it is, but it's also hugely special.

Dallara Stradale - Specifications
Engine 2,300cc, 4-cyl turbocharged
Transmission 6-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp) 396@6,200rpm
Torque (lb ft) 368@3,000-5,000rpm
0-62mph 3.2 sec
Top speed 173mph (without rear wing)
Weight 855kg (without windscreen or roof)
Price €190,650 - €235,000 (including Italian VAT)

P.H. O'meter

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Comments (42) Join the discussion on the forum

  • matjk 17 Mar 2018

    Amazing that they have sold 70, I’d have been surprised at 7 with a car powered by a Ford Focus engine that cost 200k ! Who are these people that buy these kind of cars ?

  • big_rob_sydney 17 Mar 2018

    In two minds about the concept. If you want a toy to perform on a track, surely you'd buy a dedicated track vehicle. At the price point, I don't know too many people here who can honestly say "I can only afford one car." I would say most of the people this is targeted at would have a fleet of cars.

    Let's face it, we're not talking about some minimum wage monkey living on an estate with a warmed up st box with pin stripes, are we?

    So do we have an expensive road car, compromised as a track toy? If you wanted the track experience, maybe buying an ex-racing formula car would be faster? For the road, how much benefit will you get from aerodynamic down-force in the UK with its relatively low speed limits?

    It must be just me, because I dont understand the niche for a car like this in the UK. I would have thought an Ultima GTR would be more suited to the UK, ie, more road focused but still blisteringly quick in every discipline. The fact its about half the price doesnt hurt, but then that probably wont bother the buyers at £200k+.

    Am I getting old?

  • kambites 17 Mar 2018

    matjk said:
    Amazing that they have sold 70, I’d have been surprised at 7 with a car powered by a Ford Focus engine that cost 200k ! Who are these people that buy these kind of cars ?
    People who are more interested in the chassis then the engine, one would imagine.

  • cib24 17 Mar 2018

    I just can't get over the fact that they are using the Focus RS motor in a car that costs this much. At this price level it should have something more bespoke like the Ariel Atom has or had the option of the 500hp twin hayabusa motor - that's special.

  • samoht 17 Mar 2018

    I can see the appeal. I like the way it looks, and it must be flipping quick, despite the mundane motor. You could get a dedicated track car, but this looks like something that would be enjoyable to take out for a Sunday morning road drive too.

    Imagine living somewhere like the Alps, or the Scottish highlands, getting up early on a Summer's morning and starting to feel that downforce on a fast, empty A-road - it's an appealing fantasy that a track-only car couldn't offer.

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