Staring into the Void: We Get Sideways at Lamborghini’s Winter Driving Academy
Even for us, driving supercars at their limits can sometimes be nerve-racking. Not here.
You know that weird feeling you get when looking over the edge at a long drop? You're not necessarily going to fall, but what if you took the plunge anyway? That's l'appel du vide—or "the call of the void"—an inexplicable subconscious push toward self-destructive behavior.
I get that sensation more often than I'd like when I slide behind the wheel of something exotic, rare, expensive, or a mixture of all three. Automakers lend us such cars with all sorts of industrial-grade, braided-steel strings attached—no track driving unless previously agreed upon, low mileage limits, and so on—and that means limiting myself to a simple cruise up a coastal road or, more often than not, commuting to and from the office in traffic.
Even so, driving these cars puts my subconscious on edge. What if I were to take this Maserati Levante GTS to Moab? How would this McLaren 600LT Spider fare on a desert road? Can the Lamborghini Urus actually tackle a snowy two-track through the Alps?
It seems I'm not the only one with these urges. For a substantial fee and the willingness to brook a long waiting list, Lamborghini will offer a spot in its Winter Accademia, where you can pirouette through frozen environs in Sant'Agata's finest. We recently were invited to give it a go.
Livigno on the Edge
Perched on the edge of the Italian alps and the Swiss border, the glamorous ski-resort town of Livigno is as picturesque and storybook as it comes. Home to this year's Winter Accademia, it's not entirely out of order to cast Livigno as the Italian counterpart to St. Moritz, the Swiss resort town famous for hosting two winter Olympiads and its cameos in some of the biggest movies of the 20th century, including a good majority of the earliest James Bond flicks.
A steady stream of Uruses rumble in and out of the main downtown area with us and other attendees aboard. We're headed to an ice track just outside of town, where a number of long sweeping corners are pinched together by tight hairpins conquerable through a careful right foot and the judicious management of the onboard stability-management systems. You'd think the Urus, Lamborghini's second-ever SUV, would be the weapon of choice here, given its different terrain modes and slightly lifted ride height. Instead, a line of buzzing Huracán Performantes and Aventador SVJs greet our group in the snow-banked pit area.
These models can be handfuls even on smooth tarmac on a hot, dry day, so simply stretching some winter rubber around their spindly wheels won't cut it. Thus each car is fitted with a special Pirelli Sottozero bristling with metal studs, allowing us to turn the rock-hard packed track surface into snowy plumes. Aside from improved straight-line and cornering grip, the studs also allow for quicker panic stops in the event of a rapidly approaching snowbank.
To the Ice
There's no time for deep-dive introductions, and a temporary loss of power in the wood cabin sitting trackside means the product presentation comes later. Instead, I'm plunked down into the SVJ's carbon-backed seats for my first sighting laps. I'm joined by members of Lamborghini's cheerful professional driving team, each with a background in testing and development or racing in the GT3-spec Huracan.
Their words of support and instruction are welcome, considering the cheapest car in attendance breaks the quarter-million-dollar mark—before options. But I'm not getting to those bargain-basement specials until later. The SVJ starts around $515,000, and provides perhaps the steepest learning curve imaginable on the ice and snow.
Like all Lamborghinis worth their bull badges, the SVJ is a coalescence of absurd figures, capacities, and outputs, and it's possessed of enough visual drama to get kicked out of The Broad. It has the same 6.5-liter naturally aspirated V-12 we've come to know and love from the original Aventador, but cranked up to 759 horsepower. Despite the platform's age, it's the current Nürburgring lap record holder, although the GT2 RS MR did stake a claim to the road-legal lap record last year. That Porsche exists close to Porsche's heart in Flacht but its build ultimately was outsourced to the Manthey-Racing shop that specializes in such things. While Porsche owns a 51 percent stake in MR, we tend to lean toward the mostly bone-stock and in-house-prepped SVJ as the holder of the record.
The stakes and the speeds are much lower in Livigno, but as soon as the first lap it was clear this was akin to using a lead pipe to kill a housefly. The Aventador is long and wide, requiring both quick and steady hands to rein in its sashaying, and you need to be extra careful when cornering, lest you catch the lip or side sill on an errant ice boulder. I'm in the default "Strada" driving mode for now until I get my ice legs, so both traction and stability control do their best to hamper mid-slide acceleration.
This creates a bit of a conundrum, as the Lambo instructors want me to begin mastering a corner-entry method they call "the pendulum" and which you probably have also heard called the Scandinavian flick. In theory, it's simple: Just prior to the corner, turn sharply in the opposite direction, and then steer quickly back toward the corner exit, causing the rear end to slide around in a dramatic fashion and allowing one to carry more speed through the corner. It proves to be the biggest challenge of the daylong course, more than one otherwise perfect run ruined by botching a hairpin.
Climbing Down the Ladder
After a few more sessions, I jump into a regular Huracán Spyder waiting in the wings and roar over to a separate staging area. Here, the group attempts our best 360-degree-spin recovery, where we perform a quick spin in a cone box before snapping straight ahead into a cone corridor. Sounds easy, but it isn't at all—you quickly become disoriented and lose site of the cone corridor in a heavy mist of ice crystals churned up by the tire studs. Runs on the impromptu ice skidpad is next, requiring steady throttle application to complete the circle in full drift.
Back to the circuit. The Performantes are fired up, giving us a chance to practice the pendulum. Compared to the Sno-Cat-sized SVJ, the Huracan feels like a kayak. This time, I'm in Sport mode, letting the car swing wider and for longer, while a more lenient stability-control program did its best to ensure the bright exterior paint and forged-carbon-fiber fascias remained unblemished. The Performante felt more agile, and that combined with an increasing familiarity with the track to allow us to go quicker, brake later, and drive more smoothly
A few more sessions in the SVJ, and we've nearly got this Pendulum thing down. I'm beginning to connect corners, preparing for the next drift before I've even left the last one. The V-12 spins to mid-tach as I bounce down the first straight at a brisk 45-mph clip, only hitting the massive carbon-ceramic brakes right before I swing to the right, and then to the left. Andiamo! The SVJ's angular and bewinged rear end gracefully swings wide as I give half-throttle in bursts to gradually pull out the front end. All-wheel-drive clutches and differentials grab and release underneath the car as I exit the corner, laughing and high-fiving my instructor.
It's rare I actually show tangible improvement during a day on any track. Most of what I gain are incremental refinements usually lost in the long breaks between such experiences. But here in the foothills of the Italian Alps, with a fleet of range-topping Lamborghinis at my disposal, I improved my ice-driving ability tenfold, and I have the sneaking suspicion the same would hold true for most any other attendee. This is one void that's safe—and fun—to explore.