Monticello, New York -- Watching the grand parade of Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and Spykers slink through the front gates of the Monticello Motor Club on a crisp fall morning in New York, there could be no doubt. Horacio Pagani is the Billionaire Whisperer.
It is a Monday, so these guys should be moving the levers of the world economy from their desks in Lower Manhattan. Instead, they have dropped everything to pay homage to the man and his car, the Pagani Huayra. They would gawk, they would test drive and, yes, they would buy. In fact, they would buy to the tune of $1.5 million and more.
Taking flight: Test driver and Huayra developer Davide Testi is one of the few tall enough to reach the gullwing doors.
The Pagani Huayra is the unicorn of the hypercar world. You may never see one in real life. The long-awaited follow-up to the Pagani Zonda broke cover in 2011, but it was only recently homologated for sale in the United States. So this is its debutante ball, a chance for American suitors to whisk and whirl it about the racetrack. And from the salacious looks on the faces of the financial titans circling the car like bull sharks, the courtship among the suitors would be fierce.
Pagani Automobili is based just down the road from Ferrari in northern Italy, and it made only 33 cars in 2014. The Huayra is a rare get, so surely Mr. Pagani would seem to be in for a good day.
You wouldn’t know it from looking at him. The Argentinean, who decamped for Italy in 1983 when he started working for Lamborghini, is wearing rimless eyeglasses and a deconstructed sports jacket, and he looks stern and intense. He probably isn’t known around the office for his knock-knock jokes. To produce a supercar like the Huayra as an independent automaker, you have to be meticulous and exacting and utterly obsessive. How exacting? How obsessive? Well, every titanium bolt on the car is imprinted with the brand Pagani. (Click here to read more about Horacio Pagani.)
Pagani’s Huayra: Argentinean Horacio Pagani the mastermind behind the car with the funny name and obsessive details.
And, good god, what a car. In its presence, even the word “exotic” seems dry. The Pagani Huayra is sitting in the pits, its body of clear-coated carbon fiber scribed with tiny pinstripes and glowing in the fall sunlight like the world’s most expensive bespoke suit. For extra structural rigidity in the bodywork, Pagani uses a special mix of carbon fiber woven with titanium, just one of the car’s many technical tricks. Some 47 crash tests have been performed to ensure that the Huayra passes U.S. safety standards, and only two of the carbon-fiber monocoques have been required. Both tubs are still in good shape, insists Pagani.
"Consider that the Pagani Huayra is some 500 pounds lighter than a Ferrari F12, so no wonder that it feels like a jagged streak of lightning, a high-powered hockey puck."
The 6.0-liter Mercedes-AMG V-12 engine is mid-mounted, yet the car seems to be all about the rear. The cockpit has been pushed far forward, as if the driver were sitting at the tip of a rocket ship laid on its side. The stacked arrangement of the engine’s titanium exhaust pipes at the rear reinforces the image. Open all the hinged compartments heavenward (the gullwing doors, rear engine cover, and front boot), and the Pagani Huayra looks more like an animatronic bird of prey than a car.
I too am a suitor for this car today, getting a test drive even before the rich guys. There’s a sense of barometric pressure building in my ears. Crack up a rare and mega-expensive car like the Huayra, and you’ll make a name for yourself indeed. Davide Testi, Pagani’s longtime test driver, is meant to ride beside me in the passenger seat to prevent such incidents. But as a passenger in a 3,100-plus-pound projectile propelled by a twin-turbo V-12 rated at 720 hp and 738 lb-ft of torque, there is little he will be able to do but hang on.
Testi is tall and lean in that unique way of a race-car driver, and a thin goatee frames his smile. He clambers in and out of the car with the ease of a man who’s spent thousands of hours in this cockpit, helping to develop the Huayra over the last seven years. Finally, he takes the weird, chunky ignition key, gestures at its slot in the center console, then shows me how to operate the odd, steampunk-inspired shift lever for the sequential, seven-speed, single-clutch automated gearbox.
The cockpit of the Pagani Huayra suits a car that costs more than almost anything this side of a Bugatti Veyron. Some of it is surprising (there’s a cigarette lighter), and some of it is outrageous. Even the steering column is made from carbon fiber, which is lightweight and looks sufficiently fabulous. The few pieces that aren’t metal or carbon are the bright red strips of leather framing the doors and the steering wheel. With assorted custom elements, the price tag for this Pagani Huayra comes to more than $1.8 million.
Testi drives our first laps in the car, and the impressions from the right seat come fast and furiously. First, the sound of the wastegates for the engine’s twin turbochargers frenetically working, a dragon’s snuffle behind your ears—a sound akin to a Bugatti Veyron but with its own characteristic resonance. And the two aero flaps restlessly rising and lowering on the front hood, directly in our sightline. Pagani’s bodywork design is a masterpiece of active aerodynamics, and each of the car’s four corners has a flap that works like an aileron on an aircraft. They key off the body’s roll, pitch, and yaw, working independently to keep each tire as firmly planted on the asphalt as possible. Under extreme braking, a hydraulic anti-dive system counters the body’s pitch forward, improving control for the driver.
In the confines of Monticello’s circuit, Testi’s driving style is neither tidy nor fluid. He muscles the car, braking hard in a straight line to a manageable speed, squaring off the corners, then allowing the chassis to go neutral and the steering wheel to thoroughly unwind before pounding back on gas.
I’ll soon find out why.
Taking my turn on the track, I find the steering reassuringly firm and the throttle response of the 720-hp engine reassuringly sedate. This wouldn’t be a bad car to drive in traffic, I think. I test the brakes, and the carbon-ceramic rotors bite at every corner. The Xtrac-built, single-clutch automated manual gearbox is clunky, yet it shifts quicker than a straight manual transmission with its heavy clutch action.
Kicking gas: Author Jason Harper has his way with the $1.5 million Huayra and its 720-hp AMG V-12 at Monticello Motor Club in New York. No need to be nervous. ... Right?
Then, heading onto an uphill carousel, I kick the gas. The Mercedes-AMG V-12 engine developed especially for this car reacts. The Ferrari F12’s naturally aspirated V-12 makes about the same horsepower as what we have here, but it’s slow to boil. Instead, the twin-turbo V-12 goes bang from 2,000 rpm. The Huayra hurtles uphill on the highly cambered hill, aero flaps springing to life on the hood and at the rear. Suddenly the car has become a living thing, emotional and highly charged—with tire noise, wastegates huffing like mad, and the back end moving around. I straighten the steering wheel for the next short straightaway, drag the brakes going into the next corner, turn hard right, then feel the rear end twitch and slide out just a bit. I could claim style points, but I hadn’t meant to do that.
And so went the next laps. This isn’t the Porsche 918, which is almost effortless to drive quickly, or a Lamborghini Aventador, which is husky and sturdy. Consider that the Pagani Huayra is some 500 pounds lighter than a Ferrari F12, so no wonder that it feels like a jagged streak of lightning, a high-powered hockey puck. You’ll not find tires much stickier than the Pirelli P Zeros beneath us, but they’re no match for all this brute power. The Huayra works hard to keep everything on an even keel, but you can peel rubber from the tires with a twitch of your big toe.
The active aero means it drives differently, without body roll or taking a set. You have to pay extra attention to what the tires are doing. The handling dynamics that normally telegraph a sports car’s behavior are absent. I’ve taken hundreds of laps around Monticello but find myself sizzling past braking points and having to swiftly back out of the throttle, since I’m way farther down the track than where I wanted to be.
Looks the part: The Huayra is more art piece than regular automobile, with an exposed carbon-fiber body, gold-sheathed underpinnings, and outrageous red leather.
The Pagani Huayra is a car that slices seconds into milliseconds, engaging every scintilla of your attention. It might be tech-forward, but it’s also old-school throwback. You’ve got to drive the hell out of it and pay keen attention to what you’re doing. Horacio Pagani isn’t a cold tactician; he’s a madman.
Rolling back to the pits after a dozen laps, the Huayra feels soft and easy again. I exit the gullwing door, and Pagani is standing there, arms crossed.
“What did you think?” he asks in Italian.
“Emotional,” I reply, an understatement.
He nods. “When I designed the car, I wanted to create an airplane for the road, to give the sensation of an airplane taking off.” He notes my flushed face, and then he smiles ever so slightly.
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