Racing Bull

You won’t see Lamborghini’s name back in Formula 1 any time soon, but the company is once again taking a serious interest in motor sport

Conversation has barely commenced when it strays from its purpose. We’re at Silverstone to discuss Lamborghini’s freshly increased commitment to competition, but pause to contemplate the terrible sense of loss felt whenever Matt Monro’s On Days Like These is given radio airtime. In 1969 it was an appropriately melancholic soundtrack to the demolition of a Lamborghini Miura, tipped from an Alp as The Italian Job begins. It’s conceivably cinematic history’s most wasteful moment (though a stop-frame of the disintegrating wreckage shows that the V12 engine was removed before the fatal plunge).

Ferraris we associate with racing heritage, elegance (for the greater part) and romance, Lamborghinis mainly with power and sculpture. The company has some competition pedigree, though. About 20 years ago its Formula 1 V12s provided some of automotive engineering’s sweetest sounds and, in 1991, the company built a chassis for short-lived Grand Prix team Modena. Generally, though, the Sant’Agata firm is better known for its striking designs and occasional financial turbulence, although its bank balance has been more stable since it was absorbed into the Volkswagen Group as an Audi subsidiary. And in recent times, its thoughts have turned increasingly to the track.

New motor sport chief Max Welti has worked in the sport for more than 30 years and his CV includes lengthy spells in F1 and endurance racing with such as Sauber, Mercedes and Porsche. He was the three-pointed star’s team manager when it won both the World Sports Car Championship and Le Mans 24 Hours in 1989, so is his appointment as Squadra Corse boss a statement of intent?

“Absolutely,” says Maurizio Reggiani, head of research and development. “Nothing happens by chance. We chose the best people to help us improve and develop.” Welti adds: “Lamborghini has previously been involved in racing, but obviously not like Ferrari. Ferrari is Ferrari, a fantastic brand, and we are Lamborghini, another fantastic brand. Motor sport is going to be an interest for us in the future, but we have yet to define exactly what we’ll be doing. We’re part of a huge automotive group, and senior management decided Lamborghini should capitalise on its sporting image and even pep it up through motor racing, which isn’t a bad idea.”

For the moment it has a multi-tier programme that commences with Esperienza (a driving session for those who might like to buy a Lamborghini) and progresses via the Lamborghini Academy (circuit tuition for existing owners, see sidebar) to the Super Trofeo one-make series, which was established in Europe in 2009 and has since expanded to Asia and North America. At the top of the pyramid sits the Gallardo GT3 racer, once a private initiative run by German firm Reiter Engineering but now fully factory supported.

“The designs of road and Super Trofeo Gallardos are very similar,” Reggiani says. “We remove only a few parts that have been homologated to provide more cooling, or extra downforce. The engine, transmission and differentials are the same on both. We have made a few small software changes to increase the power, but the hardware is identical. The Super Trofeo is lighter than a road car and has more downforce, but we even kept the standard four-wheel drive – and we’re the only one-make championship in the world that has that.”

Why hasn’t Lambo previously done more?

“I don’t like looking back,” Welti says, “but it’s an interesting question. Before VW took over in the late 1990s, the previous owners had targets other than motor sport. VW bought a company that was definitely in a mess so things had to be built up. It has taken a long time. VW might be a huge, profitable company, but finances still have to be carefully managed and Lamborghini wasn’t always a huge priority. It is, though, an emotional brand.

“I expected a lot when I came here, but I have been surprised by the strength of feeling that exists – and not just from customers but among employees, too. I have never seen such enthusiasm from a workforce, irrespective of nationality. The way they work on road and racing cars is unbelievable. I know Porsche and Mercedes people particularly well and they’re proud of what they do, but this is at another level – everybody here literally seems to live for Lamborghini. Our customers are the same. It’s fascinating to observe – and a huge strength.”

“Also,” Reggiani adds, “in the recent past it wasn’t possible to focus too hard on racing because we had to concentrate on establishing our product line with the Gallardo and Aventador. Now we have two fine cars, and the Squadra Corse creates a valuable bond between road and track. All the racing projects are under one roof – we have a community that will give Lamborghini an ever bigger footprint in motor sport.”

What’s next on the racing agenda?

“Good question,” Welti says, “but I really don’t know. We have limited funds and would like to do more because success can be used as a marketing tool. At present, though, the budget is smaller than small and my job is to develop things, which will take time.”

Reggiani adds: “We want to consolidate our current position within the sport. We need to do the groundwork, so that we become more prolific worldwide when competing against other manufacturers. Based on our results in GT3, we will then decide what to do next. We are well established with our one-make activities around the world and want to achieve the same level of prominence in GT3.”

Both men are keen to see Lamborghini tackling showroom rivals on the track.

“I would like to see us doing whatever complements the group,” Welti says, slipping into corporate mode. He then breaks off and grins. “I know that doesn’t sound very exciting, but in the longer term there has to be something in which Lamborghini competes successfully against other manufacturers rather than just winning our own one-make series. Motor sport is a marketing platform and one-make racing isn’t the answer because you always finish first – and last. We have to look for something that allows us to fight for outright victories, but it has to fit the company’s overall strategy and it has to be affordable. Lamborghini is doing OK at the moment, but no better than that. We don’t have the resources to go off and do F1, Indycar, the World Endurance Championship or whatever. That’s the reality. We just have to make sure we do something that fits. I think it would be wrong, for instance, for Lamborghini to start rallying, but almost any form of circuit racing would be appropriate.”

It’s quite hard avoiding the F-word during conversations with Lamborghini folk, given that their base lies little more than 20 miles from Ferrari’s Maranello hub and the two companies occupy a considerable breadth of common ground.

“Ferrari symbolises motor sport the world over,” Reggiani says. “I don’t know how many championships they have won in every kind of racing, but we’re starting on the bottom rung. We need to consolidate step by step. That’s what we did with the Super Trofeo. We want to see what we’re able to achieve in GT3 and, in a year or two, we’ll decide what to do next. We’re a world apart from Ferrari and its F1 activities, but whenever we measure ourselves against them in the same category we want to be competitive. To sell more racing cars, we need success against other major manufacturers.”

Ferrari is one thing, but what about going head to head against fellow VW Group subsidiaries? “Audi and Porsche will be racing against each other next year,” Welti says, “so why can’t there one day be a third party?”

Motor racing is a famously fast-paced business that relies on intuition rather than corporate governance – a point Toyota illustrated rather too well with its eight-season F1 venture. Some stories – drivers being unable to make set-up changes until their race engineer had sought permission from a higher authority – might be apocryphal, but it was a top-heavy programme that invested an absolute fortune for the sake of three pole positions, a sprinkling of podiums, a few missed opportunities and no victories. Word from within was that the decision-making process was painfully laborious: it’s a striking statistic that Red Bull entered F1 three years later and was a race winner before Toyota bowed out…

The VW system clearly works well – look at Audi’s recent sports car record – but how streamlined does it feel from the front line? “Motor sport people tend not to be patient,” Welti says. “I’ve done nothing else for 35 years. It’s a quick, reactive business, which is why I still love it. It’s not easy to get a big group to accommodate motor racing philosophy, but from what I’ve seen the decision makers at the very top of the company are interested in what we’re doing. You have to be hyper-reactive when you’re involved, but the business model must be sustainable. You have to come up with ideas, make them happen and make them viable. With the right people, you can do it.”

Simon Arron