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.
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.”
FROM ENGINE CLEANER TO TEST DRIVER
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.
COME RAIN, SNOW, OR SHINE
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.
UNDERNEATH THE ARCADES IN CREVALCORE
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 FEEL FOR “LA MACCHINA”
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.
NO PLANS TO RETIRE
THE BEST JOB IN THE WORLD