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BBC Autos

Sesto Elemento: Hammond drives Lambo’s carbon life form

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This is like being in a cage full of vets tending a dragon.

A bizarre image to have in my head but, given the scene, it’s the only thing I can think of.

The Lamborghini Sesto Elemento. One of just 20 in existence. Two million pounds, more power to weight than a Bugatti Veyron, zero to 60mph in under two and a half seconds. And it’s there, on the other side of the garage, doing its best to lurk. Its presence haunts the room, seeming to suck in the light, to pull your eye towards it. There’s a definite bestial vibe. Something a bit… predatory. A technician starts it and the noise actually hurts, the howl of the V10 pressing itself into my ears until there’s no choice but to lose my dignity by jamming my fingers into them. A screwed-up face is definitely pulled. The engine is cut and dies with a finality as frighteningly abrupt as the bark with which it sprang to life. This isn’t a car. It’s a thing from a storybook. I can’t help it, but my nerves intensify in direct proportion with the number of people fussing around a car before I drive it. Always have. And today I can barely see anything of the Sesto Elemento’s otherwordly exterior for the buzzing cloud of earnest Italian technicians and mechanics in sunglasses tending to the beast’s needs before I’m let loose with it round Imola.

Yup, Imola. An amazing, heroic, legendary track. And also bloody scary, if I’m honest. Looking around me, I furtively watch members of Lambo’s team and TG’s own. Everyone is busy, making ready, preparing car and cameras. But every now and then one of them will stand back from this most devilish of Lamborghinis and stare, motionless, apart from a hand massaging their chin thoughtfully. When this happens, every single one has the same distant look in their eyes, a mixture of defiance and wonder, each pondering the same things as me right now: “Yes, I could take it on, I reckon I might win, or maybe the car will. I wonder… I wonder…”

Because the Sesto Elemento is incredibly, inescapably there. In your face. Not so much a car as a challenge. Well, not long, and I’ll find out if I’m up to it.

In case you’ve forgotten the headlines since this car was unveiled to the world as a “concept” back in 2010, these are the things you should know: it uses the same 570bhp naturally aspirated V10 engine as the Gallardo and the same four-wheel-drive system. And pretty much everything else on it or in it is made of carbon fibre. And that’s it. There are no warp drives, hybridisations, kinetic energy recovery systems, solar panels or eight-way adjustable massage seats. There are no actual seats, in fact: just seat-shaped pads stuck directly to the carbon-fibre body. That’s the point; there really is very little else beyond the engine and some carbon fibre. The propshaft, the wishbones, every part of the body apart from the engine mounts, the wheels, the dash – what there is of it – is all made from carbon fibre. Even the name is carbon, translating as the atomic number of – you’re ahead of me – carbon. The carbon fibre itself is made using a new process incorporating plastic composites that takes less time to make and, apparently (the £2m price tag of the Sesto Elemento notwithstanding) cuts production costs. This, then, Lamborghini says, could point the way to future supercars. Lightness is, it seems to feel, everything. Or, at least, power-to-weight ratio is, and when we’re talking about a car weighing in at 999kg – slightly less than a Ford Fiesta – but with a Lamborghini V10 pushing out 570bhp to shove it along, then it all makes a sort of sense. At least, it does in Lamborghini’s world.

A terrifyingly short amount of time later, I’m on the start line of Imola, and it’s time to go. And, holy hell, does it ever go. The four-wheel-drive system, with barely any inertia to overcome from the Sesto Elemento’s featherweight frame, digs hard and catapults it away from the line. It’ll hit 60mph in 2.4 seconds, the same as a Bugatti Veyron. But where the big Bugatti exerts enormous power and engineering might to peel the physics back, the Lamborghini springs off the line like a kitten after a spider. The acceleration is immediate – there’s little sense of effort, just eagerness.

Into the first corner, that lightness becomes the entirety of the story. Turn in, and there’s no sense that the car is having to work hard to control itself, that it is somehow having to rein in its power or to manage a delicate line between grip and mass and electronics. At no point does it feel like it might tear its own tires off like, say, that Veyron.

With less weight to shift laterally across the car when it turns, less is being asked of the tires themselves at their frantic interface with the track. They have to work less hard both to find grip and to stop themselves being torn from the wheels. Strapped into the hot, noisy cockpit with no dashboard in front of me and only plastic, sliding windows to the side, it would be difficult to describe the process as effortless. But the noise, the speed, the frantic pace and thrill of it all feels, again, like eagerness rather than effort. Excitement. Energy. And once the apex is hit and the end of the corner is in sight, the briefest twitch of the tiny steering wheel allows it to snout for the exit, dig in with all four wheels and spear for the straight. It feels more alive than anything I’ve ever driven. There really is physically less stuff between your hands, feet and bottom and the tarmac itself, and you can read everything that’s going on as surely as if you were to put your hand out of the window – difficult, it’s only a small Perspex slider – and run it along the track.

There’s a lot of superbike about the way it accelerates. But on a fast bike, the rider is wrestling with the machine itself, hanging off to haul it down and into the corner, using their bodyweight to counterbalance, cajole and nurse it round. Obviously, this being a car, my body position, once I’m strapped into the non-existent seat, is irrelevant. But the sense remains that I’m working in partnership with the machine, more like being on a superbike than riding along inside a leathery womb as a technician with the controls to hand.

Now, Imola is a fabulous track, but there are some pretty trouser-threatening moments with blind crests and tightening turns. If your brain works like mine – bad luck if it does – then memorising a track is not an academic exercise. It takes a while, but after a few laps I form a general, if hazy, picture of what’s coming up next, but I certainly wouldn’t like to bet my life on it. Which is ironic of course, because that’s exactly what I’m doing. And yet we don’t crash, the Sesto and I. We go very fast, yet look after each other. Which feeds into the sense that the car and I are working together, that it is a partnership. That the Sesto Elemento is alive. And utterly awesome.

That Lamborghini should be the ones to call time on the power race seems kind of strange. That Lambo should lay down a marker in this new race where power to weight is everything in such a flamboyant, visceral and exciting way is entirely in character.

The Sesto Elemento probably didn’t really have to look like the devil’s own chariot (though I have just realised what the weight signifies if you turn it upside down), it didn’t have to have tiny flecks of red woven into the carbon fibre itself to give the body a devilish red glow, and it didn’t have to sound like the trumpets signalling an apocalypse. But as it’s a Lambo, we’d be pretty disappointed if it didn’t.

Underneath the fire and fury, though, is a focus, a sense of delicacy and purity-through-lightness whose simplicity feels genuinely and sincerely new. Strapping 10 radiators to a 1,000bhp engine in a body with active aerodynamics, aircon and a field full of leather is one way to go. Throwing all of that away and focusing on making a supercar that can spring from the line like a kicked football, and feel like it wants to do what you dream it can do, is another. And it would seem to be the way Lamborghini wants to go. Which means that if this is the future of supercars, then I, for one, am very, very excited about it. 

This story originally appeared in the September 2013 issue of TopGear magazine.