Automobile

Lamborghini Essenza SCV12 Is a Race Car Without a Race

Is it possible to grow bored of Lamborghini’s street-legal lineup? We would doubt it, but the very existence of the Essenza SCV12 suggests there are at least some ultrarich thrill seekers who can’t find sufficiently spiky adrenaline highs from those models that wear license plates.

The Essenza is not a road car and is produced by Lamborghini’s motorsport division. But nor is it a race car, because buyers will not be able to compete in it. Like Ferrari’s FXX offerings, it is a track-only special that offers the chance to experience performance beyond that of the factory Huracán GT3, as well as take part in a series of special Essenza-only track days at circuits around the world. We gate-crashed the first of these, held at the Vallelunga Circuit near Rome in baking summer heat, to experience what life at the sharp end of the 1 percent feels like.

No more than 40 Essenzas will be built—each carrying a base price of about $2.6 million—and Lamborghini says the first 10 have already been delivered to customers. The car I got to drive at Vallelunga was a hard-working prototype, wearing an orange-and-black disguise wrap bearing the entirely superfluous warning “Attenzione: Macchina Veloce,” or “Warning: Fast Car.” But mechanically it was near identical to the far-nicer-looking privately owned cars that were also on track.

Meeting the Essenza for the first time in a pit garage with its front and rear clamshells removed reveals its competition pedigree. It shares some of its underbody structure with the Aventador, but more so with the Super Trofeo and GT3 racers, with multi-adjustable dampers, vast cooling ducts, and even integral air jacks to lift all corners at once. The carbon-fiber monocoque has been strengthened to meet the standards of the FIA’s hypercar race class without using a separate roll cage. Confusingly, there are no plans to take the SCV12 racing, although Lamborghini admits some of the technical lessons may be integrated into a next-generation Le Mans Daytona prototype race car when the LMDh (Le Mans Daytona hybrid) class debuts globally for IMSA and WEC in 2023.

The Essenza is powered by a version of Lamborghini’s long-serving 6.5-liter naturally aspirated V-12, running without catalysts and now making 819 horsepower and 516 pound-feet of torque. But the engine’s installation has been reversed so it drives a transversely mounted Xtrac sequential racing gearbox mounted behind it and powering the rear axle only. (The Aventador sends torque to all four wheels.) The Essenza’s V-12 isn’t capable of taking structural loads, but the gearbox has to be, as the rear suspension is mounted directly to it. That has required the use of a substantial cradle of metalwork around the motor to link the transmission to the passenger compartment. All of that scaffolding is one reason why the Essenza’s 3042-pound dry weight doesn’t come as a surprise.

The cabin is finished to a higher standard than a true competition car, and the lack of roll cage tubing makes it far easier to get in and out of. But once in the tight embrace of the bucket seat, the view forward is pretty much the same as it would be in a true racer, with a yoke-style steering wheel covered in controls and with a display screen in its center. In addition to gearchange paddles and obvious switches for lights and wipers, there are such novelties as a pitlane speed limiter, scroll wheels to adjust the amount of ABS and traction control intervention, and a knob to tweak the rear differential’s preload. This varies the locking effect across the rear wheels when not under power, effectively allowing the handling balance heading into corners to be adjusted front to rear. Brake bias between the two axles is also variable, although I’m advised not to touch this by Emanuele Pirro, the five-time Le Mans winner who helped develop the car and is on hand to give advice to Essenza owners.

In short there’s a huge amount to remember, most of which is forgotten as soon as I take to the track with instructions to keep up with works race driver Miloš Pavlović in a pace-setting Super Trofeo Evo 2 race car. This proves to be much easier than it sounds.

The Essenza has been designed to offer accessible thrills to those with little or no actual competition experience. The basics are all easy, the car even getting an automated clutch in place of the manual pedal-operated one that actual GT racers mostly still use to launch. Just getting it around a track isn’t hard.

Straight-line performance is huge, but the grip from the vast Pirelli racing-slick tires is huger. At Pirro’s recommendation I start out with the engine mode in its most restricted setting, limiting output to around 650 horsepower, and even in this devitalized state it is still pretty much matching the Super Trofeo on acceleration. Switching to full power proves the SVC12 has the legs on its racing sister, certainly on Vallelunga’s straights.

The car doesn’t have big low-down torque, but it is happiest being worked hard and sounds truly savage—even through the padding of a race helmet—well before the shift lights on the steering wheel begin their progressive illumination. The transmission shifts brutally, but the brakes possess less bite than I’m expecting during my first stint. Like most owners’ cars, the prototype Essenza uses motorsport-grade Brembo iron rotors in place of carbon-ceramics, and it initially feels as if they are struggling with the mass of the car.

It turns out they’re not. I return to the pits to learn from Pirro, who has been monitoring the car’s telemetry, that I haven’t been pushing the brake pedal hard enough. I’ve managed a peak line pressure of just over 1000 pounds per square inch, but it takes more than 1400 to get the pads biting as hard as they can. Embarrassing, right? Things improve on my second stint, although pushing with more force gets the pedal close to the floor and requires serious effort in the baking-hot cockpit. (The prototype lacks air conditioning, an optional extra all sensible buyers will go for.)

With Vallelunga’s track surface at over 120 degrees, there is little problem getting heat into the tires. The Pirellis deliver remarkable adhesion but also—in tighter turns—the relatively abrupt breakaway behavior common to slicks. This is sudden enough to make me glad for the watchful eye of the traction control. On the 2.5-mile circuit’s faster sections, the Essenza’s vast wing elements and diffusers create such huge downforce as to make the car feel practically unstickable: In their most aggressive settings, the aero surfaces can generate up to 2650 pounds of downward pressure.

The Essenza is a thrilling car, but it is not a scary one. Given that it is up to five seconds a lap quicker than a GT3 car around the circuits Lamborghini has tested it on, that’s an impressive achievement. And also a sensible one, given that much of its target audience will be considerably richer in cash than top-flight motorsport experience. In addition to the cost of the car, buyers will be on the hook for around $36,000 for each event, with the cost of tires, mechanics, maintenance, and—if ambition overtakes talent—repairs beyond that. For those with vastly more money than time, such convenience will be good value.

Yet the day at Vallelunga was also a reminder that even the fastest cars soon feel lonely on a track without anyone else to play with. The Essenza’s electrifying performance is less viscerally exciting than wheel-to-wheel combat in something slower and less powerful. What Lamborghini really needs to do is arrange a race series.

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