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Top Gear drives the Pagani Huayra

  1. Physics is pinned down and under siege, each gearchange another grenade rolled into the foxhole where Newton is ripping up equations and banging his head repeatedly on a table. Einstein, whiter-haired than usual, is cowering in a corner, blank-eyed and weeping. One mile of bumpy Italian back road at full throttle in the new Pagani Huayra, and you’ll start to question the fundamentals. I’ve been driving it for more than an hour, and have just forced myself to shut my arid mouth with an audible click. This thing - to put it wholly inadequately - is deranged.

    Photography: James Lipman

    This feature was originally published in the July 2012 issue of Top Gear magazine

  2. Describing the bare speed is to ignore the complicated web of sensory assault that makes up the Huayra, but suffice it to say the Italian countryside gets peeled back at the edges and folded through the windscreen, compressing distance from here to there with frankly alarming bouts of heart-clenching, thunderous teleportation. Mainly because the Huayra is making a racket that’s a curious mix of turbine and 6.0-litre V12, roaring white-noise induction and technical whining - it’s unlike anything I’ve ever heard. Each pull of the exposed, spring-loaded gearlever is punctuated with crashing wastegate decompression; think Group B car on full-throttle lift mixed with the air-splitting roar of a Space Shuttle launch. The ferocity of the shove doesn’t just snap your head back, it presses your diaphragm back into the void of your chest, smashing the air clean out of your lungs, breath caught between shifts. This is not like driving a car.

    It’s like changing gear on a bomb.

  3. Except you don’t upholster bombs in leather, or give them interiors that you could hang on the walls of a gallery. Bombs don’t have ‘chromatherapy’ LED lighting, ‘carbotanium’ passenger cells, or each rocker switch and button exquisitely milled from aluminium. And although both pretty much define the word ‘explosive’, I know which one I’d rather take to the shops. Pulling over, I pop open the gullwing, step out over the sill and try to gather my thoughts enough to form an opinion. After five minutes, I’ve stopped milling around aimlessly and bumping into things long enough for mild coherence.

  4. But it takes a full day of driving to really get beneath the skin of this car. And some of the conclusions are more than a little surprising. For a start, the Huayra is not pretty. There, I’ve said it. The overall shape in profile is modelled on an aeroplane wing - all the better to manage airflow - and an inherently graceful form, but it squints out through four oval headlight pods, each containing a pair of tiny pupils. Which make it look a bit… shifty. Underneath is a wide, oval mouth slung full-width, divided by four support structures which slash down to form the lower part of the car’s jaw, giving it a faintly piscine vibe. Between the headlights sit a pair of bottom-hinged flaps - part of the active aerodynamics package - and bracketing the whole lot is a pair of wing mirrors that arch up and out like freakish antennae. The casings are modelled on the Cupid’s bow of a woman’s lips. They look a bit much, if I’m honest.

  5. It gets better, though. The stance is cab-forward, lithe and slim, tension highlighted by feature lines that seem to give the car a waisted spine from rounded wheel arch to rounded wheel arch. And though the rear is necessarily buxom to accommodate the drivetrain, it doesn’t look swollen like most mid-engined cars, lunging down and back from the roof to cluster again in the rear light pods. The rear mirrors the front’s oval theme, accompanied by another pair of active dorsal wings, this time broken by the hip-height cluster of a quad exhaust and underlined by a graceful sweep of diffuser. Clad in satin grey paint, it’s one of those cars you spend ages looking at, and then start again as soon as your point of view changes even slightly. So no, not pretty in the traditional sense, but bloody intriguing.

  6. Then you open the gullwing door, and have to totally recalibrate. Again. It’s faintly exhausting. Because the insideis a steampunk spaceship. Bare, technical-looking carbon and aluminium, skinned in part with honey-coloured leather. Gorgeous sculptural seats. LED lights that shine through clear crystal and milled aluminium and highlight a bionic exposed shift mechanism that’s almost hypnotic. But there are also buckles and leather straps, and traditional shapes, and slightly strange fonts scattered about - a mishmash of styles and thoughts and influences that really should not work but somehow does. It works because the detail and craftsmanship is mind-blowing, with every single titanium nut and bolt Pagani-etched, even the hidden hinges for the sun visors hewn from billet. It’s theatrical and beguiling and bonkers, and makes a Veyron or Aventador look like an monastic cell in comparison. It makes you remember that supercars were referred to as exotics for a reason. It’s almost worth the asking price alone. Almost.

  7. Lift the rear clamshell, and the atomic attention to detail continues, with titanium exhausts, millimetre-perfect carbon-fibre weave and anodised suspension components surrounding the AMG V12 like industrial jewellery. And there is a lot of carbon. Front and rear suspension subframes bolt directly to the carbotanium tub, itself capped by a carbon roof section that supports the carbon gullwing doors. No wonder this car is light - if the materials got any more cutting-edge, they’d probably just shear themselves off. There is, however, plenty of speedy engineering that goes with the artistic presentation. Some figures probably wouldn’t hurt here, for perspective’s sake. It might look more installation than an engine bay, but this is a 6.0-litre V12 with two relatively small turbos snuggled into the exhaust system close in to the manifold itself. Good for efficiency and output, an effective mute for anything even slightly operatic. Tuned specifically for Pagani by German engine-meisters AMG, it’s the kind of motor that might seem like a bit of an anachronism, but that everyone secretly wants to see spit fire and make people soil themselves. In raw thump terms, it musters some 730bhp and 738lb ft of torque, in a car that weighs 1,350kg all-in. That means similar power-to-weight as a Veyron SS, though only driven through the rear wheels. Which is a bit scary when you really think about it.

  8. One of my biggest mistakes was assuming that this was anything like a Zonda. The Huayra is a completely different prospect. From the off, there’s a whine like a turbocharged mosquito as the fuel pumps prime, and then, when you turn the key fully, the engine heaves into life with a deep, throbby cough. It is not - on first hearing - particularly inspiring. It doesn’t have the multi-cylinder, layered choral whoop of the Zonda. It sounds industrial. Rev harder, and it gets even less sentimental, the turbos whistling and the dump valves making heavy ‘CHOOMPF’ noises, like someone chopping big blocks of polystyrene with an axe.

  9. Pull back the lever to engage first gear, and another slight frown is lurking. Because the seven-speed sequential gearbox at slow speeds feels very old-school. The initial clutch take-up is disjointed from the throttle - you have to press the pedal quite far to get any reaction from the transmission, at which point you manage a small lurch into forward motion. Which comes as a surprise when seamless refinement has become the industry standard. The same goes for leaving the gearbox software to make changes in Auto mode, or trying to lazy-shift as you might in a car with a DSG, because the Huayra will bob and nod and act spoiled. It also takes time to shift into first or reverse, pausing while software processes the request.

  10. Turns out that the ‘box is a paradox of the deeply clever but inherently Faustian. Tucked up behind the V12 engine, instead of lying lengthways and hanging out behind the rear axle, it lies transversely across the beam, making a T-shape with the back of the engine. Now, while this might sound like a small thing, it brings the Huayra’s centre of mass nearer the physical centre of the car, making it inherently easier to control. Technically, it centralises the Huayra’s moment of polar inertia, the place around which the car will rotate when enthusiasm gets the better of talent.

  11. The trade-off for that slow-speed passivity, apart from its ability for clever packaging, according to Pagani, is weight: up to 100kg less than an equivalent double-clutch gearbox, rated to cope with the Huayra’s massive torque. And that’s 100kg in an inconvenient place in terms of dynamics, even mitigated by Pagani’s clever placement. Trouble is, when you first drive a Huayra at normal speeds, it just feels clunky, and, in a car costing upwards of £800k, that could be an issue. It’s a problem exacerbated by the prodigious nature of that turbo V12, and the way it delivers. It makes power almost like a huge diesel engine: low-ish rev-range (all but over by about 5,500rpm, red-lined at 6,500) and barrel-chested urge. But the problem with interrupting such a brawny output - as any single-clutch ‘box has to - is a jerky gearchange. Imagine someone pushing hard against a door. If you open that door - even for a split second - it’s going to release a lot of energy. The harder the push, the more violent the reaction. And the Huayra can’t help but push damn hard.

  12. Of course, after a little while, you learn to smooth everything out to a more acceptable level, subconsciously creating a complicated but strangely soothing little dance of lifts and dabs of throttle and gearchange. For a while, pottering up and out of town towards quieter roads, it’s all I can really concentrate on: learning to drive the Huayra. It feels small and easy to place, which helps, and the steering seems adept at informing without incessant chatter. It rides well, and you can see out of it. But those things are the salad garnish to the main event. And that’s the Huayra doing what it does best. Madness.

  13. As soon as the road opens up, the Huayra gets full throttle in third gear. And I nearly lose my lunch. The ferocity of the engine snatches the breath from your throat via a punch to the chest, and it’s all you can do just to hold on. The gearchange is accessed either through paddles just behind the steering wheel, or via the exposed artistry of the gearlever itself. And, although the paddles work well enough, the lure of the stubby little lever is too much to bear. Push for down, pull for up, be rewarded with a heavy, metallic click. It might be connected to the same sort of microswitches as the paddles, but it makes the Huayra feel instantly more alive.

  14. It’s here you become infected with the glorious madness of Horacio Pagani. Because the Huayra becomes a dirty, magnificent blur of intensity. The same suspension that felt a little soft at first, translates into a car that can soak up mid-corner bumps like a Lotus, the huge, carbon-ceramic brakes vicious enough to have the Pirelli P Zero tyres howling in beautiful agony. The gearbox, set free from the restriction of refinement, snaps between gears like an angry racer, shrugging off its awkwardness. The aerodynamic flaps front and back start to flicker and dance, reacting to throttle and brake position, yaw angle and speed. Now, I think you’d have to be going very quickly on a race track to work out whether the flaps really do have any appreciable effect, but I do know that the Huayra is exceptionally stable braking from high speed, and that I never, ever, got bored of watching those daft little winglets flip and shiver. And always, always, the noise and berserk insanity of that engine smashing its way into your brain. I managed to switch the configurable LEDs to endlessly change every five seconds, and all of the elements - engine noise, gut-wrenching speed and cycling disco lighting left me ever so slightly disorientated. It’s like being on drugs: addictive, exhausting, and likely to lead to chats with serious-faced policepersons.

  15. Which makes it even more surprising that, once you breach the Huayra’s considerable limits, it’s actually remarkably easy to gather back up. In fact, flicking through the various modes (Auto, Comfort and Sport), which alter gearbox ferocity, traction and throttle maps, it’s a surprise to find that even with all the systems switched off (press and hold the ESC button on the steering wheel), the Huayra is pretty much the same - always a good pointer to well-sorted dynamics. Though saying that, don’t forget that the traction is off and then full-throttle second gear when overtaking a truck on an Italian B-road. The ensuing tail wag will have your passenger spitting expletives and leave a very white-faced truckie in your wake.

  16. Inevitably, the Huayra is likely to be compared to the almighty Bugatti Veyron at this price and performance level, and, after driving it for a decent amount of time, I think it’s probably marginally slower. Though ‘slow’ is a relative term for a car that hits 62mph in just over three seconds and 235+mph. In reality, though, these are very different approaches to extremity. The Veyron is relentlessly ideological, a car ruled exclusively by a datum point, a machine built by a series of dedicated teams whose refinement of a specific specialism make possible a car with extraordinary abilities. But a car that suffers from an understandable lack of whimsy. The science of speed becoming the overarching theme.

  17. That is not the case with a car as stupidly exciting as the Pagani Huayra. It’s not just a one-trick pony. It’s a conflation of the ideas of one brilliant, slightly unhinged mind, executed by a team of designers and engineers who buy into the vision entirely. What they create, free from the conspiracy of committee, is altogether more singular. Perhaps it’s easiest summed up in the simple physical response you get from both cars, which stands for an encounter with the Huayra as a whole. You extract yourself from a Veyron shaking your head with respect for the engineering, marvelling at the capability, shocked at the ease and reliability with which the car translates bonkers power and speed into a human-controllable format.

    But you step from a Huayra not just shaking your head. You step from a Pagani Huayra just shaking.

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