Life in the Fast Lane

Valentino Balboni has one of the most coveted jobs in the world: he has been a test driver at Lamborghini for over 40 years. Driving along the roads of Bologna’s hinterland, Balboni – arguably the world’s most famous test driver – talks about his dream job, the sound of twelve-cylinder engines and the fascination that Lamborghini never fails to exude.
Lamborghini Miura SV (photo)

It is eight in the morning and the sun is doing its best to penetrate the early morning fog that is hanging like a blanket over Emilia Romagna. Quiet reigns over the hills and houses – there are no markets or church services in progress and there is not a soul to be seen. The only sound to break the silence is a distant rumbling that grows louder by the second until it becomes a breathtaking, infernal growl. The twelve cylinders of the Miura SV roar once, twice, and then a third time as Valentino Balboni double declutches down. The four-liter engine bellows like a bull, the 385 PS pound away behind the seats, and the thunderous exhaust calls to mind a heavy metal band at full blast. Balboni, pressed into his seat, allows himself a satisfied grin: “I’ve never understood the need for car radios. The music that comes from those engines beats everything else hands down.”

Valentino Balboni (59) is the longest-serving employee at Lamborghini and could well claim to be the best-known test driver in the world. Steering the lemon-colored 1972 Miura SV through Bologna’s hinterland, he recalls how he first came in contact with the exclusive Italian brand: “I had just finished school and was driving by the Lamborghini plant when I saw Miura body shells being unloaded. I wanted to take a closer look at those fabulous cars, so I simply helped the guys unloading them.” The gate guard who asked him what he was doing recognized his enthusiasm and gave him a job application form. “A week later, I did my first day’s work there. It was actually company founder Ferruccio Lamborghini himself, cigarette in the corner of his mouth, who hired me.” Balboni worked his way up from cleaning engines, tools and floors to the position of mechanic and eventually to the status of test driver – albeit taking a somewhat unorthodox route: “Rather than bringing the cars directly into the workshop from outside, I always drove once around the whole building, engine howling and tires squealing. My bosses complained about me to Ferruccio, so I asked him to make me a test driver.”

Valentino Balboni, 59, Test driver at Lamborghini (photo)
“…and the freedom of the open road lay ahead of me – you don’t ever forget a feeling like that.” Valentino Balboni, 59, Test Driver at Lamborghini (quotation)

In a career spanning almost 40 years, Balboni has tested every Lamborghini model – from the Miura and the equally legendary Countach to the Gallardo LP 560-4 Spyder that is due to be launched in summer 2009. “But the Miura has always remained my favorite”, he said. This, after all, was the car with which he ventured out on the roads on his own for the very first time: “I was 23, the barrier outside the plant went up, the September sun was shining and the freedom of the open road lay ahead of me – you don’t ever forget a feeling like that.” Balboni, who claims to be able to recognize each Lamborghini model just by the sound of its engine, is well aware that any car enthusiast would give his eyeteeth for his job. However, he also knows that times have changed: “In the old days, we developed the cars on country roads and had as much fun as possible. That doesn’t happen any more – but I have great respect for my younger counterparts and their sense of responsibility.”

Valentino Balboni has arranged to meet up with two of the latest generation of test drivers in the market square of the small town of Crevalcore, not far from Lamborghini’s headquarters in Sant’Agata Bolognese. When Giorgio Sanna and Mario Fasanetto park their cars – a black Murciélago and a snow-white Gallardo – across from the church, a crowd forms around the cars immediately: teenagers whip out their cell phones to take pictures of the vehicles from all angles, while old men with gleaming eyes turn their hats in their hands. After all, the sensual design of a Lamborghini sets hearts of all ages racing.

The 1960s Dream Sports Car: Named after a race of Spanish fighting bulls, the Miura is Balboni’s great love. (photo)

THE 1960S DREAM SPORTS CAR Named after a race of Spanish fighting bulls, the Miura is Balboni’s great love.

Gallardo LP 560-4 (photo)

Test drivers are always on the move. In this case in a Gallardo lP 560-4 with 560 PS.

The two younger test drivers greet Balboni with a hearty “Ciao! Come stai?” In a café in the stone arcades, Mario Fasanetto orders an espresso for his two colleagues and himself. Now 43 years old, Fasanetto started out as a mechanic, spending eight years assembling V12 engines for the Countach before seizing the opportunity to speed around the globe as a Lamborghini test driver. Fasanetto and Sanna test their cars all over the world, from the icy roads of Scandinavia to the deserts of California. This was not the case with their mentor Balboni, as Fasanetto explains: “95 percent of testing used to be done on the open road – nowadays, 95 percent is done on the racetrack. This is because there is too much traffic and cars are much faster now. At a speed of 350 km/h, the only option is the racetrack.

Valentino Balboni chats with Mario Fasanetto and Giorgio Sanna. In the background: a red Lamborghini 350 GT. (photo)

Valentino Balboni chats with Mario Fasanetto and Giorgio Sanna (from left). In the background: a red Lamborghini 350 GT.

For Giorgio Sanna (33), responsibility is also a central part of the job. Originally from Rome, Sanna has been a test driver for Lamborghini since 2001 and even spends his weekends behind the wheel – as a racing driver representing Lamborghini parent Audi in the Italian Touring Car Championship. He also has more than a dozen international speed records under his belt. “When tuning a Lamborghini, we always have to approximate a real racing car as closely as possible and often push the engines to their absolute limits during test drives – when you’re dealing with over 600 PS, that takes quite a bit of skill”, he says with a due measure of self-confidence. “But it’s not just a question of driving fast – having a responsible approach to development times and costs is more important than it used to be.” All three test drivers agree that measuring technology has also changed: “In the old days, everything depended on the driver – it was all registered on my emotional meter – not on computers or data loggers”, recalls Valentino Balboni with a laugh. However, Senna is quick to defend himself and his colleagues: “It goes without saying that we have better computer technology today, but our experience driving the car is ultimately more important than even the best measuring instruments. What still counts in this job is having a feel and a passion for cars. And the engineers trust our instincts – if our instincts are at odds with the computer, then we simply take the developers on a test drive with us.”

“A responsible approach to development times and costs is more important than it used to be.” Giorgio Sanna, 33, Lamborghini Test Driver and Racing Driver (quotation)
Giorgio Sanna, 33, Lamborghini Test driver and Racing driver (photo)

All three are in agreement about what makes a good test driver, both then and now. On the one hand, they must have in-depth knowledge of “la macchina” – the car that they will be commanding – and on the other, they must have an intuitive understanding of what customers are looking for. “You have to learn to push the limits of the car and your own limits too. You need to have plenty of confidence in yourself and to be able to stand by your opinions”, says Giorgio Sanna as his two colleagues nod in agreement. After talking football for a while, they get into their extreme sports cars, which are still being ogled by passers-by. A flock of pigeons flutters away as the three engines roar to life and it is only when the trio have disappeared around the next corner that the group of onlookers disperses too.

We head back to Lamborghini headquarters, gliding past cypress trees and farms, and through romantic avenues and historic town centers, the Miura squealing with relish as Balboni moves like lightning up through the five gears on the gate shift. “You have to drive like this or the spark plugs get dirty”, he jokes, as he pushes the gas pedal to the floor again. The legendary test driver witnessed at first hand how Lamborghini grew from a factory with eighty employees into a modern company with a workforce of over a thousand people. Today, the brand with the charging bull logo is well on its way to becoming the most profitable super sports car in the world. And its strategy is geared towards further growth: for instance, Lamborghini aims to conquer the South American market from its base in Mexico starting this spring.

Valentino Balboni is proud to work for Lamborghini – and it shows. After all, his experience behind the wheel has helped to develop the most uncompromising sports cars ever built. Even though he regularly conducts endless series of tests preparing the cars for life on the road, test drives now only make up a small part of his work. These days, at least as much time is devoted to public events, to driver training at the Lamborghini Academy, or to the restoration department in which he and two mechanics restore customers’ old cars to their former glory. Certainly, for Balboni, the father of three children, retirement is still a very long way away.


To be published in spring 2009: Valentino Balboni and the full history of the brand (photo)

and the full history of the brand

Matthias Pfannmüller,
Motorbuch Verlag,
600 pages, 350 photos,
ISBN 978-3-613-02865-4,
to be published in spring 2009.

Deutsch | English
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