Who ever thought that a drive with the parish priest could lead to a career test-driving exotic cars around the globe? Certainly not Valentino Balboni. The eighteen-year-old Italian was simply on his way to lunch at the home of the priest’s family. He’d just finished his apprenticeship training and was looking for work. Along the way, they passed the Lamborghini factory, where five beautiful cars were parked in front.
Call it an epiphany. “When I saw these car bodies ready to be assembled. I asked the man at the security desk for an application. After two days, I was employed,” recalls Balboni.
He began as a mechanic’s helper, cleaning floors and handing tools to more experienced workers. But he wanted more. “There was the passion of driving the car. I wanted to learn how to test and drive,” says Balboni. “On September 5, 1973 I started testing.” He started under the tutelage of famed Kiwi race car driver Bob Wallace.
Test driving at Lamborghini was about much more than speed. “The test driver is the link between development engineers and the product,” Balboni explains. The Lamborghini reputation has always been based on high performance race cars that can be driven on the open road. “We test to see if it meets the engineers’ expectations. They make the calculations, the test driver must transfer to the engineer how the car really behaves.”
Balboni began working closely with Lamborghini’s R&D during the creation of the Diablo with its all-wheel drive systém. “There is always a kind of conflict, which becomes cooperation,” says Balboni. “Sometimes engineers do not accept what we tell them. Two plus two equals four, but this is not the way it is when you drive a car. We test and change, and end up at the point where they really want.” Balboni has spanned the time when cars went from machined perfection to the digitally-enhanced objects they are today. Inevitably, his job has changed. “A long time ago, the test driver was the only reference for the engineer.
Now, the equipment sometimes replaces the sensibilities of the man,” he notes.
Balboni exudes passion, albeit restrained for an Italian, when he speaks about cars. His fingers move deliberately, hands remain almost stationary. “For me they are humans.
I appreciate their temperament, their different reactions,” he says. “I appreciate everything on four wheels with an engine and that makes noise. It gives you some feeling.” More than just a car aficionado, Balboni is also what is sometimes called “a gear head”
Balboni first went on the road with the Lamborghini Gallardo European Roadshow in 2006, a concept pushed by the technical department at the automaker. The road show blends promotion of new products, driver training, and strengthening the automaker’s links to its select customer base. The goal is simply to put the cars in an environment where they can be properly savored. “We want people to enjoy the performance of the product, and we can show them how to drive it so they can get the best from it,” explains Balboni.
There are usually around ten on the road with Balboni, four driving instructors and six in the support crew. Most of the time they travel within Europe, but additional stops in America are on the agenda. The schedule allows Balboni to follow his major passions: Cars and those who drive them. “I love going, going. We have customers I met when I was 25 and I still meet them,” he exclaims.
In the Czech Republic, the roadshow was at the Sosnové track near Ceska Lipa, a location that does to a Lamborghini what a fashion runway at Cerny Most would do to Tereza Maxova – displaying only the exterior curves and leaving no room to shine.
While not a development track, it still fits Balboni’s definition of a suitable site, namely “Anywhere I can drive a Lamborghini.” Of course, higher up on his list are test tracks, German highways without speed limits, the beautiful bends on the Brennero highway in Italy and, of course, the roads around the Lamborghini factory in Sant‘ Agata, Italy.
Driving, whether alone or when teaching others, is about expanding boundaries. “We have to learn to go to our own as well as the car’s limit. The pleasure, the joy is to reach it with a certain progression,” muses Balboni.
With a rampaging bull as a logo, there is simply no disputing the masculine edge to the Lamborghini brand and the firm’s market image. “It’s a boy’s toy, but with power steering and airbags, they are also nicely suited to a woman,” he said. Part of the male predominance among Lamborghini drivers is simply due to past technology.
“Women could never drive the sports car of 30 years ago with its tight steering and heavy clutch,” Balboni claims.
But times are moving fast, and today, so are women in Lamborghinis. “You just missed it. There was a beautiful blonde who just left in a Lamborghini before you came in,” he insists.
But it’s not enough merely to discuss cars and the philosophy of movement with Balboni. “Did you try the cars?” he asked. Striding outside the dealer tent, he waved down the support crew as they carefully moved an orange Gallardo Superleggera inside a transport truck. “také it out. Let’s go on the road.”
The Superleggera exudes the Lamborghini essence: angular lines, transparent engine cover, even the detailed brake disks. Buckling into the four-point safety harness, it is clear that this is not the car for a run out to the hypermarket. Turning out from the race track onto the main road, the car corners solidly on the gravel-sprinkled asphalt. “Nice, isn’t it?” my co-pilot queried.
Balboni accelerates with a zen-like calm, flipping the toggle switches on the steering wheel with an intuitive, effortless feel. After all, he’s been driving these cars for more than thirty years.
From the passenger perspective, the Lamborghini experience is different from that in a normal luxury car. Simply put, the car is a sensory experience in motion, not in cocooning away from reality. Some of this is anticipated: The pulsing V10 5-liter engine creates a g-force that pushes you into your seat during acceleration. Other aspects were not: The surprising roar of the engine as Balboni went through a series of downshifts to decelerate. “It’s part of the game,” he says, his satisfaction showing in the corners of his eyes and a slight smile.
Unlike most people, Balboni seems almost detached while driving. It is not that his attention is elsewhere, it’s just that his eyes have already factored in the road directly ahead and are now looking a few kilometers farther on. “I always say that if someone drives like me, I would never get in the car,” he laughs.
He also manages to take in little non-car details from his surroundings. “What was that?” he asked as we drove past people selling blueberries on the roadside. But we didn’t stop. I didn’t want to be the first person to pick mashed blueberries out of this Lamborghini.
From the passenger seat, it’s not possible to see the Superleggera’s speedometer, at least the upper ranges.
I had to guess, and this is where Balboni turns reticent. “I won’t say,” he responds with another small smile. As we return to the race track and the attendants place the car back in the transport truck, Balboni reflects on the day and his life: “There is always something new and interesting going on. I never expected to put so many experiences together.”
The Bull Speaks
The origin of the species goes to one man’s desire to have a high performance car that did not break down. And when Ferruccio Lamborghini got the brush off from a certain Enzo over the clutch problems in his Ferrari, Mr. Lamborghini grew angry enough that he founded his own car manufacturing company.
It helps to note that Mr. Lamborghini earned his fortune making tractors in post World War II Italy. This gave him both the financial resources and the mechanical aptitude to direct the start of a specialty car manufacturing company. From its start in 1963, the company secured a reputation with its 350 GT and the Miura that followed. While Mr. Lamborghini stepped out in the 1970s to concentrate on his vineyards, his company is now safely under the wing of Audi, the sports car arm of Volkswagen.