How Racing Latecomer Lamborghini Is Proving Its Brand on the Racetrack

How Racing Latecomer Lamborghini Is Proving Its Brand on the Racetrack

Compared to a lot of manufacturers, Lamborghini found racing late in life. In terms of

  • Compared to a lot of manufacturers, Lamborghini found racing late in life.
  • In terms of pure racing resources, Lamborghini is seriously outgunned in the personnel department by some of its competitors.
  • Said Lamboghini CEO Stephan Winkelmann, “We realize that we have a lot of enthusiasts with Lamborghini and it wasn’t that way before we were racing.”

    Walk along the second floor of the Daytona International Speedway’s tower, and you’ll pass one track-facing suite after another.

    At, say, 2 p.m. during the 60th IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Rolex 24 at Daytona, 20 minutes after the race started, you’d find almost all the suites packed with company personnel and guests.

    But take that same walk at 9 p.m., and for the most part, the suites were empty or nearly so, as the occupants drift away. With one major exception: The Lamborghini suite was hopping, perhaps with more people in it—executives, dealers, owners, sponsors, fans of the marque—than seven hours earlier.

    These people are serious about the Lamborghini brand.

    Compared to a lot of manufacturers, Lamborghini found racing late in life. The company was founded in 1963 by Ferruccio Lamborghini, born to grape farmers in Italy in 1916. He had a knack for things mechanical, which led him into the tractor-building business. He bought a modified Fiat Topolino and entered it in the 1948 Mille Miglia. His raced ended when he ran the car into the side of a restaurant.

    Italian engineer Ferruccio Lamborgnini got things rolling for the car company in 1963. He was out to build a better car than Ferrari.

    United ArchivesGetty Images

    In 1958, Ferruccio Lamborghini bought a Ferrari 250 GT. He did not much care for the car, or Ferrari service, and when he brought all this to the attention of Enzo Ferrari, he was basically told to go back to his tractors. Lamborghini thought he could build a better car than Ferrari—still fast, but with a nicer interior and ride—and formed Automobili Lamborghini in 1963.

    We mention all this because Ferruccio Lamborghini did not much care for motorsports— perhaps the incident with the Fiat and the restaurant in Turin had something to do with that—but in essence, he thought racing was a waste of money and manufacturing resources. It was odd that he could look at his Miura or new Countach and not picture them flying the factory colors on a racetrack, but there you go.

    Stephan Winkelmann is a 57-year-old former paratrooper who became the CEO of Lamborghini in 2005, and it is he who crafted the current motorsports strategy of racing what you sell—the Huracan GT3. “Our founder said, ‘I don’t have anything to prove,’ so to him racing was not important,” Winkelmann said.

    stephan winkelmann lamborghini

    Stephan Winkelmann is a visionary who sees a place for motorsports in Lamborhini’s grand plan.

    ChesnotGetty Images

    The oil crisis in 1973 and a general global economic malaise made building sports cars less fun than it once was, so Ferruccio Lamborghini retired in 1974 and sold his company to two businessmen. The company was bought out of bankruptcy by two more businessmen, and then Chrysler bought it in 1987 and sold it to a pair of investment firms in 1994. Finally, in 1998, Automobili Lamborghini was sold to Volkswagen AG, and placed under the stewardship of Audi. It has flourished since.

    And it had finally begun racing years earlier, but not that effectively.

    Lamborghini was an engine supplier to Formula 1 from 1989 to 1993, scoring a grand total of one podium finish (third) in 80 races. The argument could be made that its F1 participation actually damaged the company’s reputation. Lamborghini turned to sports car racing in 1996, where it was more successful.

    The current motorsports era arguably began with the one-make Lamborghini Super Trofeo series which was founded in 2009, with Lamborghini treating it as something of a global farm team for drivers for its factory GT3 programs. “We have talent scouts,” Winkelmann said.

    The GT3 class was originated in Europe in 2005, using relatively simple and comparatively inexpensive modifications to street cars to turn them into race cars that were docile enough for gentlemen drivers, but fast enough for pros. And, most important, they still look like the cars they are developed from, and you have to buy them, race-ready, from the factory. There are dozens of Lamborghini customer teams around the world racing Lamborghini Huracans, including five on the grid for the 2022 Rolex 24 at Daytona, located right outside the windows of the Lamborghini suite.

    39 carbahn with peregrine racing, lamborghini huracan gt3, gtd robert megennis, corey lewis, sandy mitchell, jeff westphal

    The Lamborghini Huracan GT3 is a popular car in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s GTD class for customer cars.

    Courtesy of IMSA

    Winkelmann took a detour in 2018 from Lamborghini to become CEO of Bugatti, and in 2020, became CEO of both companies. He is one of the most accessible automotive CEOs, holding court on a couch in the corner of the Lamborghini suite, and mingling with the crowd doing on-the-spot market research. It shouldn’t be surprising; North America played a substantial role in making 2021 a record year.

    “The 2021 model year was incredible,” Winkelmann said, “and we are almost sold out for ’22. Every month we are selling more cars than we can produce. North America is the biggest market for us, and inside the U.S., it’s California and Florida.”

    In terms of pure racing resources, Lamborghini is seriously outgunned in the personnel department by some of its competitors, including Ferrari, Porsche, Mercedes-AMG, BMW, Chevrolet Corvette and coming soon, the Ford Mustang. Lamborghini engineers and constructors “work magic,” Winkelmann said, to compete with these manufacturers, and they have been quite successful. Lamborghini won its class in the Rolex 24 three years straight, and in 2018 and 2019, won the season manufacturer’s championship, and in 2021, was a close second to Porsche.

    And they’ve done it mostly without hiring big-name drivers, preferring younger up-and-comers, some of whom graduated to the IMSA WeatherTech series from the Super Trofeo series. Super Trofeo began as a European series, then migrated to Asia, then to the U.S. in 2013. There’s an annual World Finals that pits the best drivers from Europe, Asia and the U.S. in a shootout to determine the world champion. It’s held at a different venue every year, with the 2022 World Final scheduled for November at the Portimao course in Portugal. In 2015, it was held at Sebring International Raceway.

    71 t3 motorsport north america, lamborghini huracan gt3, gtd franck perera, mateo llarena, maximilian paul, misha goikhberg

    The No. 73 T3 Motorsport North America Lamborghini Huracan GT3

    Jake Galstad

    There’s no doubt Lamborghinis are selling well—but is it because of the motorsports success? “I would love to have a way to compare how much I put into motorsports, compared to how much more money we make,” Winkelmann said. “The old saying ‘Win on Sunday, sell on Monday’ is a nice way of putting it but it’s not like that now. We realize that we have a lot of enthusiasts with Lamborghini and it wasn’t that way before we were racing. Now we have opened up a lot of opportunities.”

    Rumors are strong—very strong—that Lamborghini will enter the top-tier IMSA GTP class, formerly called the LMDh Prototype—but Winkelmann stopped short of confirming that. “We are interested in the class,” he said.

    “We are a company that has to operate within our boundaries, but I am the first one to say that motorsports is very important to Lamborghini. You have to have a team that is ready to invest over the years. It’s not just about developing the car and spending the money, but you have to be competitive. It takes time.”

    Currently Lamborghini has three vehicles on the market: The top-of-the-line Aventador, the Huracan—that’s the one that is used for the GT3 model—and the Urus sport utility vehicle. Winkelmann said they’ll add a fourth model about 2028, most likely a fully electric 2+2 sports car.

    the lamborghini aventador svj

    The Lamborghini Aventador SVJ seen at Goodwood Festival of Speed 2021 on July 8th in Chichester, England.

    Martyn LucyGetty Images

    The 2022 model year “is the last year that we will have internal combustion-only cars.” Everything they build will become hybridized, beginning with the Huracan. Two of their four vehicles will be all-electric by the end of the decade, with internal combustion engines hanging on at least until then. “We have some years to make our decisions,” Winkelmann said. Many of those decisions, he said, will be “based on what the legislators decide.”

    As far as electrification, “We don’t have to be the first, but we have to be the best,” he said. Their younger buyers—and that’s one big difference in Lamborghini and Farrari is how much younger the Lambo buyers tend to be—“are telling us more and more that this is something we need to do.

    “I can promise you this,” Winkelmann said. “The cars of tomorrow will be better performing than the cars of today.”

    The 2022 Rolex 24 at Daytona was a disappointment for Lamborghini, with the highest finish in the new GT Daytona Pro class being 12th, and in GT Daytona, 8th. But they’ll be back for the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring in March.

    The founder of Lamborghini may have thought they had nothing to prove on the racetrack, but Stephan Winkelmann would disagree.

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