How I Drove a Pagani Zonda, Twice
“Please sign here” said the Italian test driver with a very heavy accent. The paper he handed me was in Italian, obviously, so I could not understand a word. But I didn’t need to. I knew exactly what was written there: If you wreck the car, you pay for it. Probably by scrubbing the toilets for 40 years. For a brief second that number passed through my head — 800,000 € — the incredible price of the car. But it was quickly replaced with an urgent message aimed for my left hand, to move towards the paper and scribble some shapes on it before the Italian changes his mind.
Rewind a few months earlier, to the middle of 2008, and the “Great Italian tour”, as we called it in the office, was deep into planning. We had approvals from Ferrari, Lamborghini and other Italian names, but for me, a car-fanatic-turned-journalist, it was Pagani that made all the difference. To be honest, Pagani didn’t really say that we’re going to drive the car, it was more of a “come here and we’ll see” sort of thing, but I’m a hopeless optimist…
Arriving at their small factory in Modena, we weren’t even sure if we’re in the right place. The cleaning lady opened the gate and only when we entered the tiny showroom and saw the two gorgeous Zondas, it became clear that we are finally here.
A few handshakes later on and a brief encounter with Mr. Pagani himself, we were escorted back outside to meet our test subject — the Zonda F. It was all orange and black carbon fiber and it looked just like I imagined it would. The test driver took us for a ride, and as these things usually go on a visit as short as this one, the first thing we did was look for a photoshoot location. Stopping on the side of the road next to what looked like a small ancient fortress, a woman in a dual-color Fiat Panda passed us by. Her car had the same colors of our Zonda, and she immediately realized that and stopped for a chat.
As we moved on, the test driver showed me some of the amazing things this car can do with acceleration, braking and turning, plus the obligatory high speed highway stretch. “I bring here every car we make, to test how it behaves in maximum speed”, he told me. That’s almost 350 Km/h, or more than 215 Mph, depending on where you’re from.
And then he let me drive it.
It was scary. Very scary. Especially since my net worth at that time was less than the cost of the gear lever. And that’s not to say I was very poor. It’s more a statement of how stupendously expensive everything in that car is. And then there’s the engine. It’s right there, behind you, rumbling and grumbling and always reminding you to be modest. The car itself is surprisingly easy to drive for something so low and wide, and the only weird thing was how long the steering was — you need to rotate the wheel quite a lot more than you’d think to make the turn.
And then there’s the engine. To this day I remember the feeling I had when I bravely floored it for a split second, only to lift at once when the car catapulted forward and the engine volume became frightening. I also remember the shame when I checked the rev meter and saw it resting easily on less than 4000 RPM…
But that’s how it is when you’re driving your dream car. The car you had as a screensaver for almost 10 years. The car you were sure you’d never get to drive in your lifetime.
And then I got to drive it again.
It was 3 years later, and we were on our second trip to Italy. My editor, the mastermind behind this and the previous trip, was determined to drive it himself this time, but logistics ruined his plans and he had to be somewhere else while I arrived again to the familiar factory in the gray industrial zone on the outskirts of Modena.
I was still hoping they’d remember me as the guy who didn’t break the Zonda F last time, and let me drive their new Huayra, but they didn’t even let us see it. Instead, they said, we have a Zonda S Roadster for you, would you like to try it out?
I was outside taking the roof off before they had a chance to finish the sentence. This S model, with a gray exterior and interior, looked much less flashy than the orange F from 3 years ago, but it was every bit as special to look at.
With the roof off, the symphony from the engine is amplified by a factor. The perfect setup for its incredible torque curve is to hit the throttle from 1000 RPM on sixth gear. This time I found myself panic-stricken, again, when the sound and push became too much, only to see that the RPM is hovering around 3000… Mind you, a full-spec WRC car driving at top RPM has similar power, torque and weight to a Pagani Zonda at 3000 RPM. So cut me some slack…
This perfect day continued from corner to corner, and I relished every minute behind the wheel. I did my best to absorb every ounce of this incredible car because that’s what you do when you get to fulfill a dream. And while that is usually a once in a lifetime experience, for me, somehow, it came twice.