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Valentino's Lambo - First drive: Lamborghini Gallardo LP550-2

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The Lamborghini Gallardo has been toughened up and shorn of its all-wheel-drive transmission – and then named after its legendary test driver. Does that make it a better car?

It’s not as if they weren’t extreme enough already, but more driver-focused versions of the Lamborghini Murciélago and Gallardo have just been rolled out by the marque. We’ve already been blown away by the Murciélago SV, so now it’s time for its smaller brother to benefit from a similar drive-enhancing weight-loss programme. But for this car, Lamborghini took the opportunity to go to town and honor its celebrated test and development driver Valentino Balboni.

The main talking point about the 250-run special Gallardo is the removal of its all-wheel-drive transmission system. Valentino says that the move from 4WD is for special cars only: ‘The LP550-2 was developed to bring Lamborghini back to basics. For me, it’s an emotional car.’

He’s right. But even before it’s fired up, the newly bestriped Gallardo has the visual punch to draw large crowds of emotional fans. So don’t buy this car if you want to go quietly. It’s perhaps not quite as visually arresting as the Murciélago, but the Gallardo has something of the surgeon’s precision instrument about the way it looks: there’s not a trace of fat, but it’s aggressive without being showy. Inside it’s the same story – it’s basically black and gorgeously trimmed.

That statement of intent remains when the V10 barks into life. A blip of the throttle confirms two things: enthusiasts will love the lightly silenced yowl of the slightly off-beat V10, while the right pedal’s response is razor sharp.

Like all recent Lamborghinis, the LP550-2 is surprisingly easy to drive. Forward visibility is excellent and the driving position retains none of the Italianate long-arm short-leg heritage that hampered Lambos in the past. In fact, all that stops it scoring a perfect ten are the off-set pedals.

Performance is as you’d expect. That 550bhp V10 engine delivers healthy low-down torque, but really the inspiration is delivered from 5000rpm onwards. The throttle butterflies open, the engine note deepens, and it pulls rabidly towards the red line and, ultimately, 199mph. Full-bore gearchanges are slow but the ratios are perfectly judged: foray towards the rev limiter and you’re plunged deep into the meat of the power curve the next gear up.

As impressive as the LP550-2’s straight-line speed is, it’s in the corners that the Valentino Balboni modifications really make themselves visible. The obvious question is just how much difference going to rear-wheel drive makes. As the great man says, it’s all in the feel. Powering out of slow corners, the reprogrammed and less nannying ESP system means you’ll get the tail squirming more than the standard car’s. And it’s superbly throttle-adjustable, the loud pedal being the perfect tool to quell any unwanted understeer.

In terms of balance, the rearward bias is obvious, and that makes the driver work harder at the helm in a series of challenging bends. But the steering is full of feel, beautifully judged and imparts all the information you’re going to need when pressing on. It’s measured in degrees but the additional response is welcome, allowing you to get closer to the car.

Disappointments are few and far between, but we’re not keen on the initial brake response. The pedal seems soggy at first, although it bites impressively once that initial phase is passed. The open-gated gearbox can feel ham-fisted and is slow to use – a shame when the Audi R8’s is so good.

So, decision time: is the Gallardo LP550-2 an improvement over the already excellent Gallardo? In short, yes: there’s more feedback, improved balance and the new car is far lighter on its feet. For the committed drivers it has been designed for, Valentino’s car is a no-brainer.

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