Only in Italy can you turn up at a private airport, ask if they have many flights landing and, if not, whether they would let you run a 217mph V12 track car. Mind you, it does help if the aerodrome in question is in Modena and the man asking is Andrea Montermini, former F1 and CART Indy car racer and Ferrari test driver.
Which is how I end up sitting at the end of a runway, in the 739hp Pagani Zonda R, pondering two questions. When Horacio Pagani braved the supercar world with his Zonda C12 back in 1999, did he ever imagine he would have no trouble selling a version costing nearly $2.3 million? And more pressingly, exactly where does the Zonda R sit in the league of seriously brisk cars?
For the sake of the clutch, I'm asked not to perform a standing start, so instead I squeeze full throttle in second. The response is instant and frankly shocking. For an engine tuned to provide 125hp per liter at 7500rpm, the pick-up from low revs is faultless. From there, the power simply unfolds with breathtaking linearity. And somewhere through the mid-range the tires give up. That's two warm, 335-section Pirelli PZero slicks breaking traction on a bone-dry surface. Pagani's claim of 0-62mph in 2.7sec feels entirely believable.
Whether premeditated or reactionary, for Pagani the Zonda has been a remarkable success story. And one that will come to an end next year, when the company reveals its replacement at the Geneva motor show.
The original C12 came with a Mercedes 6.0-liter V12, producing 395hp and a price tag of $300,000 – already ambitious for a company unheard of beyond the carbon fiber industry. But quickly the Zonda found its fans, and the evolution started. First with the 7.0-liter S, then the 7.3, which lifted power to 547hp. In 2003, Pagani announced the first roadster version.
Two years later came the most thoroughly re-engineered Zonda yet: the 641hp F, with carbon-ceramic brakes, a rubber upgrade and revised aerodynamics. Still Horacio felt the Zonda had more to give.
Which brings us to this sunny August morning and the pinnacle of the Zonda story. The Zonda R first surfaced in 2007, but its appearance here is timely, because in July this year Pagani casually announced that it had popped down to the Nurburgring and clocked a lap time of 6m47sec. While the Zonda R is not road legal, Pagani claims it is based on a production car, making that a new record.
Without getting drawn into Nordschleife records and definitions, the facts are this: However you cut it, 6m47sec is flipping fast, and some 11 seconds quicker than the equally road-illegal Ferrari 599XX.
Looking at the spec sheet, there is one obvious difference between the R and current road-going Zondas: that the engine capacity has returned to a mere 6.0 liters. That is because the R's dry-sumped engine is lifted from a Mercedes CLK-GTR GT1 racer. Except that here the V12 runs without restrictors to produce its 739hp. In a car that weighs 2,377lbs dry.
Beyond 6,000rpm the V12 is sensational, pulling relentlessly with a soundtrack straight from Le Mans. Even without removing the R's huge rear clam shell – like the rest of the body and central tub, constructed from carbon-titanium, a fabric even stronger than regular carbon fiber – the exhaust plumbing is visible. And there is not a single silencer in sight. At idle the V12 is already monumentally loud; closing in on the red line, it is of the bleeding ear level.
The Zonda R uses a 6-speed Xtrac sequential dog box, with an automated clutch, which means pulling away is not the nerve-wracking juggling act of razor throttle and race clutch I'd imagined. It is, in fact, as simple as pulling on the right paddle to engage first gear, then tickling the throttle. It also means gearshifts are brutally fast: just 20 milliseconds, or a third of the time it takes in a Ferrari 430 Scuderia.
The Modena runway is just half a mile long. Allowing room to brake and turn, that's just 1,600ft of full throttle, but enough for the Zonda R to exceed 150mph. It is performance beyond that of a Noble M600 – and, with no turbos to spool up and a curb weight at least 1,500lbs lighter, enough to challenge a Veyron from 30mph to 180mph. The only thing I've driven that comes close for sheer lack of inertia is a McLaren F1 GTR running short gearing, and even then the Zonda might just have the edge.
What impresses most, though, is that the R works so well as a package. So often when you have such a stellar engine – and this is unquestionably one of the best – the rest of the car struggles to match up. With the Zonda R that is simply not the case.
While today doesn't provide a chance to test Pagani's claims of 2.0g of lateral acceleration, there are enough corners to reveal that the R is incredibly well balanced. There is, of course, a huge amount of grip; the surprise is that the limit is approachable and exploitable. And while the carbon-ceramic brakes have brutal stopping power, they don't require the pedal precision of an F1 hopeful. There's even a 12-stage ABS system. The key with the Zonda R is that although it is not designed to go racing, you could show up at a GT race and not be embarrassed. And yet, unlike so many competition cars, you don't have to drive it at ten-tenths to enjoy it. For all the performance, grip, noise and expensive materials, when you actually drive it the Zonda R is surprisingly approachable. It demands respect, but it doesn't intimidate.
Is it worth 2.3m bucks? Can any car be worth that much? To an extent it is beside the point, because to run the Zonda R you'd need pockets deep enough to afford a support team, and even then it is so unbelievably loud that it's probably best that you own the circuit and surrounding 50 square miles outright.
What is clear, though, is that anyone buying the Zonda R will be getting not only a splendid track car but also a spectacular piece of engineering. Even static, the only noise now being the magical sound of cooling engine and brakes, it is impossible not to get lost in the details. For example, the way the weave of the carbon-titanium is meticulously matched down the center line. You can almost get as much enjoyment from looking at the Zonda R as driving it. Almost.
The cabin is recognizable from the road-going Zonda, with the same overt air vents and extrovert pedals, but the overall feel is considerably more businesslike. There is a full roll cage, a digital dash and a steering wheel festooned with controls. What is unusual, though, is that for a limited-run, track-only special the finish is exquisite.
The R's relevance to the Zonda story extends beyond the select group who'll get to experience one. Pagani will make only 16 examples. Because even though it shares a limited number of components with the road-going F, much of its genius comes from the fact that the Zonda has always been so fundamentally well sorted.
It also demonstrates perfectly Horacio Pagani's ambition, and his fanatical attention to detail. He has transformed the car no one had heard of into one of the fastest and most expensive in the world. We can't wait to see what he does next. Jamie Corstorphine/Autocar