New Lamborghini Countach LPI 800-4 vs the Stelvio Pass | Top Gear
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New Lamborghini Countach LPI 800-4 vs the Stelvio Pass

Each winter the world’s most famous mountain pass is closed. Someone’s got to be the one to open it

Published: 12 Sep 2022
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The voice is weary, but also full of wonder. “But look at this place, the mountains, the road. It is hard work, but a privilege to have this as my office.” We’re standing, somewhat incongruously, on an old tennis court halfway up the Stelvio Pass. It’s the biggest bit of level ground I’ve seen in the past two days. The conversation lulls, as it inevitably does in the face of such scenic magnificence, and our eyes are drawn up again. Up and up the bare cliff face and the impossible strand of engineering tacked on to it.

Then down, to linger on an exotic wedge of supercar. The wind has picked up again, the cloud is closing in. The weather changes 20 times a day up here. Earlier, when the rain lashed down and there was no shelter, we took refuge in the Berghotel Franzenshöhe behind us. We were lucky someone was in. A chubby marmot (maybe it’s just the fur rippling) scampers across the rocks just above us, breaking our reverie. “I must get back,” Stephan Bauer, director of the Stelvio Pass, says. “Remember we are doing some resurfacing between 32 and 31.” I tell him that’s fine, we’re mainly going to be working upwards, into the lower numbers. He heads to his Jeep Renegade, I wander over to the wedge.

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Lamborghini’s new Countach. I swing the door up, slide down into the tiny blood red cabin and just sit there, looking out, taking in the same view of painted peaks, dark rock, snow and the faint zigzag evidence of human activity through a windscreen so flattened it’s more a skylight. The framing is important. It restricts your view and yet enriches it, offering tantalising glimpses at the edges, enhancing the drama. Driving up here earlier I put Matt Monro on and the anticipation of what lay ahead was so intense I choked up.

Photography: Mark Riccioni 

Because the Stelvio Pass is closed. There’s just us, me and the white wedge, and we’ve got one of the most remarkable, unlikely roads on the planet to call our own. On days like these indeed. So in the car I shake my head once again, marvelling at the situation I’m in and thumb the starter button.

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A brief screech from the starter and 12 cylinders yelp rowdily into life. I imagine each like a beak in a nest, popping up and down hungrily. The air’s already thin here, up at 2,188 metres, so the naturally aspirated 6.5-litre gasper isn’t going to be developing the full 770bhp. The e-motor won’t be impeded at all, but that’s a mere 33bhp, used to smooth out the gearshifts. In my experience of it so far, smooth is not the word I’d use to describe the sequential manual gearbox.

However, with power spread between all four wheels, each wearing a winter tyre, it’s not like I’ve rocked up to climb the north face of the Eiger in snorkelling gear. More like overkill really. And if it all goes terribly, terribly wrong higher up, there’s a full carbon monocoque and plenty of airbags.

Lamborghini Countach vs Stelvio

It is genuinely daunting, looking up. Something else Stephan says now plays around my head as I begin the next stage of the ascent: “Picture that face without the road. It is astonishing, no?” The pass here rises in stages, pairs of hairpins punctuated by longer straights that carry you further into this high valley towards the end game – the last 14 hairpins. They rise up a slope of profound, precipitous steepness. As drivers we take the road for granted, as it see-saws at 10° up a slope of 60°, but Stephan’s right: take the road away and it’s hard to imagine how anyone ever thought it could be done.

Blame Napoleon. Although he was mainly throwing his weight around elsewhere in Europe, his activities made the Austro-Hungarian empire realise it needed a land route between its main power centres in Vienna and Milan. West of the Stelvio was Switzerland, and to the east impassable glaciated valleys. A road in the shadow of the mighty Ortler mountain was the only option. Construction started in 1819 and took six years. It’s not really a road, more a smooth roof laid over towering stone columns, cathedral-like buttresses and supports. Not draped delicately over the mountain, but anchored deep within it.

For a hundred years it was strategically important, battles were fought here during World War One, but even before then tourists had discovered it, making the full-day journey by horse and carriage between Bormio in Italy and Prad am Stilfserjoch in Austria. The borders have moved, so today that town is Prato allo Stelvio, but the roots remain: people speak both languages, the signs are bilingual.

Progress today is much swifter. The Countach howls along those straights, revs soaring through third, finding its sweet spot, the sound triumphant, confident, magnificent, an engine given space, if not air, to breathe and making the most of it. It’s audible over huge distances, but still somehow lost, a faint pinprick of noise from far away. Fun to listen to, if there was anyone to hear it. Inside it’s incandescent. Yes, it wants more atmospheric pressure, but hey, even if 770bhp is more like 600bhp up here, who cares when there’s a proud, gregarious V12 gargling and churning and leaping about behind you?

Lamborghini Countach vs Stelvio

Half that would still be too much for the Stelvio Pass. It’s tight, bumpy, the rock faces are intimidating (but not as scary as the stone balustrades and the fresh air beyond them) and the Countach is having to work hard. It suffers most on those final 14, the diffs hiccupping around the hairpins, the ride unyielding at these low speeds, the gearbox shunting from first into second, traction light flashing as wheels lift around corners. But the experience of it? Alive in my brain for years to come. Taking a car somewhere it doesn’t belong often teaches you more about it than keeping it in its comfort zone.

I stop just shy of the summit barrier. There’s a settlement up here, shops, cafes, some summer skiing. All closed up, a barricade of shutters. I’m not interested in the other side at the moment. It’s the view out to the north that counts. I can see all the way back down to Franzenshöhe, but more interesting is the snow line – it’s almost all melted from the western flank the road rises up, but there’s a stark dividing line in the nook of the valley. We were hoping to help with the snow clearance, to push the last of it aside and then drive the Stelvio, but the last two weeks were so warm the weather has done it for us.

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But what a jaw-dropping vista. Looking out from this lofty platform I realise it would be lessened without the road, just another valley. The tarmac gives you scale and perspective. The lack of traffic makes me realise how ridiculously lucky I am. A blustery wind buffets me as I stand and look down. Just me and the marmots. This is their place at the moment. They’re bold and curious, the hills alive with their birdlike squeaky chirps. Time to head back down.

Speed builds more easily, that’s for sure. The first hairpin a reminder to not only get all the braking done before the slope angle changes and the splitter graunches, but to slow with enough time and space to get the sluggish nose lift up. But it’s more than that – at 4.9 metres long, 2.1m wide and with ground clearance that just allows the toe of my hiking boot to slip under the splitter (they were a mistake, horrible on the hair trigger throttle), you have to take the widest possible line around every hairpin. Not likely to go down well if you did have to tackle oncoming traffic.

Lamborghini Countach vs Stelvio

We do have obstacles to deal with though. Once or twice on the way up, as Stephan had warned, I have to get out and move rocks from the road. That had had me glancing nervously up through the photochromic roof panel (it’s meant to mimic the original Countach’s periscopo arrangement), and pressing the button to turn it opaque – best not to see the impact coming, I reason. Now I find new rocks. And you don’t want to be stopped for long in a £2 million hypercar somewhere there’s evidence of freshly tumbled boulders.

Six to eight weeks, that’s how long it takes to open the Stelvio. Rock clearance is pretty much the last thing they do – and not just from the road. They rope people up and walk them down the rock faces, kicking loose any rocks that might fall. Can you imagine?

I find myself suddenly keen to reach the relative safety of the treeline, so I plunge further down. Plenty of firms have used the Stelvio for brake testing over the years, but the Countach’s firm, reassuring carbon ceramics aren’t phased in the least. Cracking place to test the nose lift though – it’s up and down like a jack in the box.

We come to a halt after hairpin 31. There’s a massive trench across the road, four feet across and six deep. It wasn’t there this morning. Smiling workmen jump from diggers and beckon me across the metal sheet. It’s not thick, I picture it bowing like a wobble board, but 1,700kg barely deflects it at all. Held breath explodes from my lungs.

Too soon. At hairpin 32 the tarmac is so hot and freshly laid that recent rain is steaming off. Once again, people with mischievous grins urge me forwards. I drop the window and hear the tyres peeling off the tacky surface. Just below that I have to squeeze through a gap alongside the road laying machine that actually has the men in orange wincing and giving delicate hand signals.

Having run the roadworks gauntlet we drop below the lower barrier. The road is technically open here, where the Stelvio is at its darkest, roughest and tightest. Thick pines lean in, the road picks its way through, weaving in and out of view as if in a fairy tale. Trafoi, the first village you come to, is rich with history. The Bella Vista hotel at hairpin 46 is the original start line for the hillclimb, the first race held in 1898 and won by a Daimler. By 1935 when the Alfa Romeos of Tadini and Nuvolari went head-to-head they were climbing the 46 hairpins, 9.1 miles and 1,446 metres of vertical in a little over 14 minutes. Come here, drive it and you realise how shockingly fast that still is.

Lamborghini Countach vs Stelvio

We drop lower, to Prato, to run through the open-sided tunnel for the sheer aural hell of it and ultimately to have dinner that evening. Then comes the most nerve-wracking manoeuvre of all – reversing down into our underground car park in Trafoi. It’s pitch black, raining and the rear camera is struggling. Behind me lights flicker on and a silhouetted figure helpfully beckons me back. As we get into the light, I realise he’s wearing an old Sauber F1 racesuit and a headband. Behind him on a trailer there’s what appears to be an ex-Senna Lotus. Meet Herbie and his ridiculous hillclimb car. It’s a surreal moment in a story that wasn’t short on stuff to talk about already.

The next morning I treat myself. I grab the key to the barrier and do a full run from the bottom to the top at dawn. It’s as epic as you imagine, the noise, the bubbling steering, views opening and closing, tarmac scudding underneath, the vibration, pomp and raw charisma. Yesterday I’d learned that you need to be in Sport mode – in Strada the gearshifts are too slow and the stability intervenes, in Corsa the ride is much too stiff. But still this is a supercar looking for space to properly stretch itself. I then discover the key that operates the bottom gate also fits the top...

And 10 minutes later we’re among pristine open snow fields. The Bormio side isn’t as iconic, but as a road to drive it’s vastly superior. More open and flowing, fewer hairpins, better surfaces. The Countach opens itself up, tears onwards. It’s by no means a modern hypercar: underneath it’s pretty much identical to the Sián, which had an awful lot in common with the decade-old Aventador, but age and tech have only served to magnify its shock value. It’s not ashamed of itself, that’s for sure. It wants to dance, but I daren’t let it – the consequences...

The occasional car appears. The owners of the shops and cafes, coming up to prepare them for the road opening. An old Passat approaches. An arm with a fag at the end drapes out the window, motioning me to stop. There’s no waving arms or cries of “Bella macchina!”, all he’s interested in is the fact it’s 4WD and has winter tyres. With a grunt and a nod he’s on his way. He should have asked about fuel consumption. It’s terrifying. I got range anxiety. We’ve had to bring jerrycans.

Lamborghini Countach vs Stelvio

We need to talk about the car. But first let me tell you what Lamborghini means to me. It was the first big word I could spell, I collected every poster, magazine, model car, book and pack of Top Trumps that featured the original Countach, my first dream car. This new one isn’t a fitting tribute. The original was a revolution, it defined not only the Seventies, but also set the supercar template we know and love. Lambo says this is it if it had evolved, but no, the Countach was, and still should be, the ultimate disrupter. It should have been a leap, a new direction. The Countach should not be a Sián wearing some half-hearted design cues.

But I understand the business of cars much better now than I did when I was five. Retro rules right now. Take 112 old Aventador chassis and turn them into £224 million quid? Stroke of genius. Ah, but what about the harm done to the original’s reputation? I don’t think so – if anything it’ll boost values, make people realise the place that car holds.

From the low front three-quarters it’s pretty successful, but it needed to be sharper, more angular, wilder, a caricature of itself. I’d have shoved the LP5000’s wing on as well. It’s not a great driver’s car either – the gearbox is clumsy, the chassis borderline brutal. But then the Stelvio Pass, the famous flank at least, isn’t a great driver’s road. But that’s the side I want to drive again – and I’d rather do it in the Countach than a Ferrari SF90, a McLaren 765LT or any Porsche 911. Because what links and bonds them is their shared drama, excitement, scale and glory. Countach on the Stelvio? At this altitude it’s literally a match made in heaven.

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