I BLAME Max Verstappen. I point a wrinkly finger at his barely pubescent visage, his F1 podium glory, his fearless racecraft, and I put curse on his wretched, monumental talent.
First published in the Summer 2016 issue of Wheels Magazine, Australia’s most experienced and most trusted car magazine since 1953.
I do this because Max is the new face of the young and gifted.
Society has idolised youth and virility since forever, but at least there was a window, through your 20s and 30s, where you were surely in life’s sweet spot.
Now, no thanks to Max – born in 1997, for chrissake – that window has shifted south. Leaving blokes like me even older, crustier and closer to washed-up than we thought we were.
So of course someone at Wheels had the genius brain-fart idea: why not give the old crusty dude (er, me) a wickedly fast and capable car. Let’s say, oh, a 426kW rear-drive Lamborghini Huracan.
Then find a venue where the old guy stands a good chance of getting his bloated arse handed to him on a plate; a venue where raw power is secondary to agility, reflexes and bravery: cue the Haunted Hills hillclimb circuit in Victoria’s Gippsland region.
I weigh up the equation: potential driving elation versus possible scarring humiliation. I’m in!
Lurking below the surface, though, is a premise with more substance: Does power, performance and a towering pricetag automatically bring greater satisfaction and enjoyment? Or can you get just as big a buzz from something affordable and brilliantly focused?
Then there’s the curious commonality shared by this pair: both are raunchier iterations of more conservative birth partners. The Fiat, of course, is the turbocharged, brio-infused iteration of Mazda’s MX-5, while the wildly flamboyant Huracan shares its DNA with the less shouty, more tempered – but still sinful – second-gen Audi R8. Who, we wondered, comes out of this automotive bed-hopping with arms raised in a post-coital salute?
WE ARRIVE at Haunted Hills under steely, set-to-burst skies and a biting wind.
It’s a bit foreboding, but I dunno about the ‘Haunted’ bit, as I’m with Homer Simpson when it comes to ghosts. I’m sure they’re mere figments of the human imagination, like elves, goblins and Eskimos.
Yet I’ll quickly learn that this place is inhabited by spirits left behind by slaughtered cars and broken competitors.
It’s a twisting ribbon of bitumen that resembles a huge strand of grey fettuccine spat against a lush, verdant hillside, and, as circuit tsar John Bryant explains to me, it’s scalped plenty who have thought themselves too quick or too clever for it.
It makes me think of Sharon Stone’s character in the 1992 schlocker Basic Instinct.
Not the curves – although they were pretty tidy – no, more the irresistible seduction, the promise of an orgasmatron of enjoyment to be had, but knowing it’s just waiting: one tiny slip and this place will deliver an ice-pick to the temple.
It has already been helpfully pointed out that Robbo is the only journo who’s crashed a Lambo and lived to write the tale.
That doesn’t do much to calm the rising bile in my upper intestine. I try to sooth the frantic monologue in my head by imagining a ripple-free pond, or an unmarked Lambo with shagged tyres being returned to its owner, but my internal voice just keeps firing barbs of self-doubt and throwing monkey poo from the gallery. I try for a nerve-soothing pee, but all that comes out is a strange clattering of small silver pellets with the word ‘fear’ engraved on them.
Alex and his Fiat, meanwhile, have been out for a brisk sighting lap and pull in as if back from a leisurely jaunt along the Amalfi Coast.
Our acting editor has that slightly irksome quality of having a suite of well-rounded skills, plus he knows the Fiat well, having driven the wheels off the thing on Japan’s famed Mazda turnpike (Wheels, November).
He claims to have not even noticed the foreboding walls, embankments and drop-offs. In his mind, he sees only driving bliss, artfully controlled slides and joyous humiliation of his crusty old colleague.
After he’s done flinging turds at me, he’ll swan off to his nice new home, lovely wife and beautiful life. I’m tempted to look for that ice-pick and jam it in his smug left buttock.
No opportunity, sadly, because it’s time to man up and learn the circuit.
THERE’S a slight irony with the Lambo, in that you need to be old enough to have accumulated the wealth to buy it, yet young enough to be sufficiently limber and supple to jump in without looking like a beer carton being forced into a letterbox. I make a mental note to do more yoga.
Once in, the driving position is sublime; legs ahead, the wheel offering enough reach adjustment to be pulled into your chest like a Super Trofeo racer, and a gun-slit view through the screen. In true supercar tradition, the rearview mirror shows nothing but a glimpse of engine
What jars is plasticky switchgear and some questionable interior design elements. Good bits include long shift paddles that are fixed to the column.
Weird stuff comes with indicators that are operated by a thumb switch on the left wheel spoke; decide to change lanes while applying lock as you leave an intersection and good luck finding the switch, then remembering it’s now inverted, and needs to be flicked the other way. Ah, yes, gotta love the Italian sense of humour.
But all of this is negated once you press the starter button.
I know, dear reader, that writers who bang on endlessly about a car’s noise risk becoming as tedious as TV chefs telling us about the delicious aromas wafting from their pan. But forgive me, because the Huracan sounds just nuts, in the most multifaceted, brilliantly ear-bashing way possible.
I laugh like a hyena every time the V10 hawks in the back of its throat on over-run like some giant pub-brawler coughing up phlegm.
Then someone points out all the places hapless drivers have crashed cars into flaming wrecks here – “That’s where Thickhead pulped a GT-R; that’s where Dopey put a TTS on its roof” – and suddenly I’m not giggling anymore.
A section called ‘Oh Shit’ is potentially lethal; a fast, steep, blind crest that plunges savagely down into a compression-dip gradient like a housing-price graph inverted, before snaking into a sharp, tightening right-hander. Huge tractor tyres and earth embankments threaten to turn the Lambo from aero wedge into a cube.
You already know the Huracan shares its aluminium and carbonfibre structure with the Audi R8; same V10 engine, plenty of shared electrical architecture, safety systems, etc. It may lull you into thinking the two cars are non-identical twins, with just styling to differentiate them.
You would be hopelessly wrong. They have core fundamental differences to their characters, which just points to the brilliant execution by their respective makers.
The R8 is the Roger Federer of supercars; polished, accomplished, gracious, rounded. The Lambo is more like Nick Kyrgios; aggro, brash, flashy, almost ridiculously loud...
And supremely talented when conditions are favourable.
Which is not now.
Here, as the circuit is lashed with rain, AWD would be handy.
Yet here’s the rub: the P Zeros fitted to the LP 580-2 may be a less grippy compound compared to those on the AWD Huracan, but they still bite into the streaming track with tenacity, and the fabulously pointy front end lets you carry plenty of speed before it telegraphs its limits via subtle, juddery understeer. The rear end wants to light up everywhere, but the sushi-knife throttle response is so sharp you can feed torque to the tyres with only minimal intervention from the ESC in the normal Strada mode.
Hooray for an atmo hero of an engine. When the day comes that everything including your toothbrush is turbocharged, we’ll look back at this V10 with the sort of reverence Christians reserve for the Shroud of Turin.
MEANWHILE, I’m starting to love this circuit. It demands big respect, but the omnipresent threat of damage to car and career is countered with rich rewards when you’re tidy, precise and string together crests and apexes.
It also reveals the Lambo to be a car of curious juxtapositions: coiled, outrageous styling; epic, brutish engine, yet a real delicacy and precision to its motions.
I’m fairly convinced it’s actually a better, more satisfying supercar experience without the all-wheel drive of the LP 610-4. It sure makes you feel more manly, like a bloke who shuns safety razors for a cut-throat.
Inwood, meanwhile, is out coaxing his little Fiat into a series of rather balletic and aesthetically attractive wet-weather drifts.
The rain has eased, so he’s lowered the roof, and from inside the Lambo I can see his Colgate grin and unflustered inputs. I told you he was a smug git.
It all makes me both harrumph like a grumpy old goat and also want to have a go.
Can a $40K Fiat really nudge the fun-o-meter anywhere near the Lambo?
My first issue with the 124 Abarth is the driving position. Seat fine, legroom good, pedals great… wheel too far away.
No reach adjustment is a bummer.
I wanted this car to feel like slipping on a favourite pair of jeans; it’s close but not perfect for my frame.
What is terrific is, well, pretty much everything else. The engine has a boosted punch missing from the MX-5; less pure, sure, but more satisfying on corner exit and making it easier for the driver to light up (and keep lit) the rear tyres when you want to get your drift on.
The firmer suspension tune controls roll with just a bit more resolution than the MX-5 without cruelling the compliance vibe.
Significantly, there’s less squat at the rear under power.
The 17-inch Bridgestones provide enough grip to force you into the seat side bolsters, but it’s still easy to slide and exploit the brilliant balance.
There’s a fingertip lightness, eagerness and ‘rightness’ to the 124 Spider you just know Fiat could not have achieved on its own.
Constantly shifting track conditions make it impossible to run meaningful comparative numbers, but it’s clear the Lambo is capable of monstering its way around this place a fair bit quicker than the Abarth, regardless of who’s driving.
But what about the crucial fun factor? Well, holding the Abarth pinned wide open at the top of second gear over the ‘Oh Shit’ crest, feeling it get light and squirrelly before mashing the Brembo stoppers and trail-braking the rear loose into the next right-hander, is to experience sublime driving satisfaction.
That’s the crux of it with this pair. The Huracan is an ‘event’ car, capable of raising both pulse and neck hairs as that V10 bellows and thunders up near 9000rpm. It will even help you out if you throw it into a drift with the ESC switched to its first Off position, subtly assisting with throttle modulation if it senses that the counter-steer lock and yaw angle make sense.
But ultimately it’s a brawny beast that yearns for a bit more room than Haunted Hills can offer; it needs space to really show off its planted high-speed stability and huge stopping power. It’s an autostrada demolition machine, a Phillip Island marauder that also likes to occasionally flex its pecs on Lygon Street.
The little Abarth has no interest in that. It’s all about purity, purpose and good times; image be damned.
A bit like us old blokes, really. In your face, Max.