Esquire goes racing with Lamborghini in Shanghai. Mess with the bull and you get horns.
Standing on the pit lane wall, the Lamborghinis come past on both sides. Forget Phil Spector; this is the real wall of sound. Looking down towards the end of the start/finish straight, cars fresh from their pit stops flash past below our right elbow, hammering hard against their rev-limiters and sounding like pod-racers from Star Wars—dok-adok-adok-adok. Once past the man with the speed gun, the drivers unmuzzle the engines; the cars squat a fraction on their haunches; and that low, gut-punch bellow of big V10s drifts back down to us.
To our left, the drivers fight a different battle. Dicing with each other all the way down the long straight and howling clear of the last pit garages, they must slow their cars down from around 285KMH to enter the right-hander fast approaching. There’s a puff of brake dust. You can see the back of the cars go light as the mass transfers forward. They squirm, drop a couple of gears—engines blipping to ease the down change—and then they’re gone, raging into the dying light as the late afternoon sun sets behind the main stand. I don’t know the guy standing next to me but we grin at each other.
We’re in China at the Shanghai International Circuit for the finale of the Asian series of Lamborghini’s one-make race challenge. They call it the Super Trofeo. It is the sporting antidote for those tired of the whirring cogs and hidden syringes of the Tour de France or the histrionics and diving of professional football. It’s loud, dangerous and open to “gentlemen” drivers, who do not need to follow special diets or training programmes. Oh and it involves 18 Lamborghinis, 180 cylinders and 10,000HP...
If Hemingway once said, “There are only three sports—bullfighting, mountaineering and motor racing. The rest are merely games,” he would probably have approved of the Super Trofeo.
For the unaccustomed visitor, China can be an unrestricted sensory experience. The day before the race, in the bus on the way to the old fishing town of Zhujiajiao, our guide asked us why there were so many foreign cars in Shanghai despite the steep cost of a licence. The coffee hadn’t kicked in and she received a round of silence from the class before happily revealing, “Because we are so rich!” Later that day, in a damp, steam-filled backstreet, I watched uncomfortably as a live turtle was cut out of its shell with a cleaver, en route to the lunch table.
In the evening, Lamborghini convened a dinner at a cosseting Italian restaurant called Mercator overlooking the Yangtze. We’re encouraged to “drink a lot” by our excellent hosts. Sitting next to Suzuki from a Japanese motoring magazine, the talk soon turned to “what’s the fastest you’ve driven?” Midnight ran outside Tokyo in a McLaren F1 in the late ’90s meant that I couldn’t match him, even with the help of the Nissan GTR. We drank some more. A colleague revealed that beer “payments” will secure hassle-free high-speed “testing” days from the Thai police. It seems unwise to try the same here but the lure of speed is in the air around the table.
The next day, it’s cold but sunny at the track, about 50 minutes outside Shanghai. Grid girls clack, shivering, down the asphalt in heels and brace themselves as the wind pushes against their placards and tries to blow them over. Upstairs in hospitality, Lamborghini and Blancpain are pushing calories again with coffee and croissants, but your correspondent isn’t here (just) to eat pastries. VIP passes allow pit garage access so we decamp downstairs.
Even if you haven’t an ounce of petrolhedonism in your veins, pit lanes before a race are a fascinating place. There’s the feeling of a squadron about to scramble, with the studied nonchalance of the lounging drivers contrasting with the activity of the mechanics. VWs, Porsches and Audis will race before the Super Trofeos and garage culture varies.
Although the Audi garage looks neat, ordered and squared away, next door at Lamborghini, there’s happy disarray. Loud dance music can be heard, McDonald’s debris sits on packing cases, while splitters, bonnets adorned with raging bulls and assorted panels lie propped up about the place. The place smells of high-octane fuel. Then there are the cars.
They look like Gallardo LP 560-4s that have woken up in a bad mood and indeed, that’s what they are underneath the sponsored decals. I find a mechanic lying across an open engine bay, fettling the guts of a 5.2L V10. He tells me the engines last about 10,000KM, depending on the driver and make about the same power as the road-going versions. So, that’s about 570HP. Inside, there’s only one seat, the comforts are stripped out with roll-cages and fire extinguishers are prominent fixtures. These aren’t pristine Formula One cars; they’ve been campaigned, taped back together and wear scars. I tell him they look great. “Yeah, I don’t like shiny cars” is the response.
It’s not just the cars that are different from F1. To drive in the Super Trofeo, you don’t need to have been born surgically attached to a kart or be the scion of a petro-state’s ruling family. This year’s Asia series had a handful of pro drivers but the majority of the field are “gentlemen” amateurs who just turn up and race.
If this is beginning to sound attractive, you do need access to certain “means”. Entry costs €40,000, on top of €210,000 for the car itself, and you’ll need access to considerably more to get you and your car through the whole series,depending on how often you crash it and which cabin you prefer to fly in...
But for that price, you get to drive your Lamborghini Super Trofeo in anger around circuits in Malaysia, Japan and China. You also get the particular challenge of a one-make race series. Everyone’s using essentially the same car, so it’s up to the person behind the wheel to make a difference on race day. Building your own wind-tunnel at home won’t help much; summoning up the nerve to brake late at a whisker under 300KMH, with another guy six inches to your left, will.
Talking to the engaging Stephan Winkelmann, President and CEO of Lamborghini, I ask him about the role of glamour and danger in the appeal of motorsport. There’s a grin and he thinks for a second. “There are sports where you are putting yourself on the edge, not only physically, but also in terms of courage and, in our case, in terms of the technical aspect of the cars. It is individuals who put themselves in the driver’s seat and they have to fight and win the race. So, you have to rely on your race team but at the end of the day it is you who must make a difference, especially in a one-make series, because the cars are equal.”
I ask if he agrees with Hemingway’s view on “true” sports. “I agree but at the same time I disagree”, he says diplomatically. “He died 50 years ago and was not aware of what was coming next, but I agree that motor racing is the sport par excellence. I disagree on bull fighting because that is not my vision. I am a lover of Hemingway’s books, so I know what type of guy he was, but maybe he forgot boxing and all the martial arts!” he laughs.
At the chequered flag, the series title goes to the #37 Liu/Rizzo car from China, with the Malaysian #9 car second and Singapore’s #99 car in third. After four seasons in Europe and 18 cars on the grid for the first Asian run-out, Lamborghini is planning to expand further and hopes to launch a third series in the US for 2013.
Down at the finish line, the last of the field throttles back and heads for the pits. Suddenly, something’s missing. It’s noise. We see supercars everyday but in the city, they’re lions being walked on leashes. At a track, they make a sound you never ordinarily hear, running flat out, making all the power they were designed to make, restrained by physics, not speed limits. That sound has a lot of history. It’s Fangio in a W196 Silver Arrow, Bruce McLaren in the monstrous M8 Can-Am and Senna in the rain at Monaco. It’s hair-raising when you hear it and then shocking when it’s gone. Roll on 2013.
Words by Alex Cox.