Interview: Lamborghini's CEO Stephan Winkelmann and Design Director Filippo Perini
Italian supercar maker Lamborghini is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2013 and Gizmag recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Lamborghini's CEO Stephan Winkelmann and Design Director Filippo Perini for a fascinating insight into one of the automotive world's most exotic brands.
Stephan Winkelmann, Lamborghini President and CEO
As private helicopters fly over head transporting uber rich and elite individuals to and from events during Monterey Car Week, Lamborghini President/CEO, Stephan Winkelmann and myself wait for the chopper wash and reverberations to dissipate. As the helicopter disappears over the hills we begin our interview with the man who’s been the face of Lamborghini since 2005.
Winkelmann has a particularly interesting and diverse background. He was born in Berlin, studied political science in Rome, spent time as a paratrooper in the German army and dresses like he just walked off the cover of Italian Vogue (but won’t tell you where he gets his suits made). Combine this with overseeing what is perceived to be one of the most successful turnarounds in automotive history and you have all the elements of a great story.
Just as we start into our first question, Stephan recognizes one of the company’s many clients. He excuses himself, stands up and heads over for some quick socializing with the couple.
A few minutes later he’s back and we’re good to go again, but not before another customer interrupts …this time, an older couple and their son who has just returned from Afghanistan. Amiable and polite, Winkelmann speaks to them like he just sold them an Aventador yesterday.
Once we get Stephan settled back down we finally get into our condensed Q&A session. Here's his thoughts on where Lamborghini stands in its fiftieth year of business, and the challenges the company faces in the next half century.
Gizmag: Lamborghini is a global supercar brand, but we notice that you are quite close to many of the people here. Is it almost like a family reunion?
Stephan Winkelmann: Yes, a lot of these guys I know are our customers and very close to the brand. We do a lot of events together, driving together. These two couples I’ve known for many years. And it’s also generational I find to a degree. Their son is in the army, and he too of course is a lover of Lamborghini.
Gizmag: Speaking of generational owners; with Lamborghini celebrating its 50th Anniversary what do you see as the major achievements since the company’s founding, and where do you see the company heading over the next 25 to 50 years?
SW: I think what we’ve done in the past ten years has been nothing short of outstanding in the automotive community. If you look at the numbers, we tripled production in the past decade, which over the past fifty years means two-thirds of Lamborghini’s entire sales happened in the last ten years.
We also now have a presence, supported by a solid factory that produces high quality parts, as well as a state of the art design and R&D department that is producing unique, world class cars. But in going forward, it’s clear the issues will be getting tougher. By that I mean issues around homologation, consumption and taxation will be challenging, especially for a company like Lamborghini. I also see a lot of opportunity for the brand in the future if we can use the past decade as a guide. If we can manage all of this over the next fifty years, then that will be perfect.
Gizmag: How does the success of the last decade, with the introduction of the Murcielago, the Aventador series and of course the Gallardo, effect the prospects of the company moving forward?
SW: Yes, they have been very successful for us, plus it is also important as it allows us to repay old, big investments. This is a key for us in going forward.
Gizmag: In regard particular markets, do you find the United States more challenging to deal with in terms of taxation and environmental issues relative to other markets?
SW: No, there are far more challenges coming up in the short term in China. But all the things that are coming up are consumption related. And China is our second biggest market after the United States so it is very important to the brand that we are aware of these and can address these issues appropriately.
Gizmag: Let’s talk about hybrid technology since this is on everyone’s dinner plate. We have Porsche’s 918 Spyder, we have Ferrari’s LaFerrari and many others following suit. Do you see Lamborghini going in that direction?
SW: You know, this is interesting. We are into naturally aspirated engines. We’ve grown up with these types of engines. It’s part of our tradition, part of our technology. We don’t want to be the first ones to adopt technology where the only purpose is to reduce consumption. This is not what Lamborghini is about. I see there is a line in the future in which naturally aspirated engines will work with hybridization. Lamborghini is very open to this technology and it is an opportunity that we are looking at carefully, but everything at the right time. It is not the job of Lamborghini now to be the car which is less than the others. I mean Lamborghini only produces just over 2,000 cars a year. So in a world where over 65 million cars are sold, our CO2 footprint is relatively insignificant compared to global figures. But it is a very delicate balancing act for us and we are keeping this in mind for our brand values.
Gizmag: Is cost a factor in introducing new approaches to areas like weight reduction for example?
SW: Yes there are a lot of areas where the cost of development makes the technology not really feasible at this time. Again, the newer thing is not always the best. But we see that this is an opportunity, we are not blind. We are open to new technologies, just everything in time.
Gizmag: To put new technology aside for a moment, how did a guy with a degree in Political Science end up becoming the CEO of Lamborghini?
SW: (laughing) I always did what I was interested in. I was born into motorcycles as a kid. I love things which are a technological challenge. I love things that have a brand and so I think the car industry is the most complex industry, because I think you have what is fashionable combined with very high levels of investment mixed with high levels of technology and engineering complexity. Then you have the complexity of marketing, sales and after sales. I don’t think there is any product that is as complex, challenging and interesting. I’m happy, and proud, to be a part of Lamborghini.
Regarding my political science background and how I got here, there were a number of coincidences. After my studies I never intended to be in politics or stay at the university. For me it was the need to find new shores, new challenges.
Gizmag: The Veneno we are sitting next to is an intense, extreme car. How much further do you think Lamborghini can go in terms of extreme design and technology?
SW: It is extreme, but we have to understand this is an exercise. This is not something we should interpret as a future step or direction that Lamborghini is heading. This is an exercise of an extreme car with extreme aerodynamics; where materials and the engine are king. And, it’s also here to celebrate the history of Lamborghini in its 50th year.
Gizmag: When we look at today’s cars they are very angular, very linear. Back in 2006 Lamborghini introduced a Miura concept at a number of auto shows. Does the company have any intentions of re-introducing fluid, curved forms like the Miura back into its line up?
SW: The big challenge for smaller companies like Lamborghini is to always go forward. A concept car like the Miura, which was brought about to celebrate its 40th anniversary, would be successful but counter to our vision. The history is important, history is where you’re coming from and needs to be recognized, however it is not something you repeat. In addition it takes away focus from your core products and you would be perceived as running out of ideas.
Gizmag: On a more personal note. I’m driving the Aventador tomorrow. What can I expect?
SW: Easy to drive. Very easy to drive. Much easier than it looks. The best way to drive it is always in manual mode – Strada or Sport. You can enjoy. It’s a very aggressive way of driving the car, but you can also have a relaxed drive in traffic.
Gizmag: Okay, million dollar question. What is your favorite Lamborghini?
SW: Always the new one. Always the next model.
Gizmag: What do you think Ferruccio would think of the company today, fifty years on?
SW: I hope he would be happy. What we did in the last fifteen years since Audi bought the company, it’s the right thing. Nobody questions that there is an influence that is not Lamborghini. So yes, I think he would be pleased.
Gizmag: Further to Ferruccio’s dream. How would you personally differentiate Lamborghini from Ferrari? I mean this was what drove Ferruccio back in the day, was the idea of building a better car than Ferrari or Maserati.
SW: Yeah, okay that was the old cars. Fine. But today you look at our cars here with the V12, there is no comparable all-wheel-drive car with mid-engine configuration. Yes you have the Gallardo and the 458 which are similar, but we are not looking into what the others are doing, we are continuing to do our own thing. Our cars are very recognizable, very unique, and I think this is key to the success of both brands. I strongly believe there is enough space in the market for both brands to be successful.
Gizmag: I know it’s tough to explain the difference between the two brands to people, which is why I wanted to get your personal opinion on the topic.
SW: I will say our cars are immediately recognizable. They are sharper on the design, they’re lower, and more solid on the street when you look at them. Also, we have the all-wheel drive system which is very different to Ferrari.
Gizmag: One last thing before you go. I noticed you wear a number of bracelets of various colors and materials. A very unique fashion choice for a person in your position. Is there any significance behind them?
SW: The carbon fiber one is from Lamborghini, and represents our company with its lightweight material. The braided leather bracelets are from our Lamborghini fashion line. The leather is made out of the same leather used in our seats of our cars. You can buy these for yourself. All the rest are just gifts, without any deeper meaning at all.
And with that, the CEO of Lamborghini for the past nine years was off to continue his mission of promoting Lamborghini to the people … speaking with long time owners and friends along the way. Winkelmann is a very unique, surprising individual who we think certainly made the right choice by not going into politics.
Filippo Perini, Design Director Lamborghini
Born in Italy and raised in the design industry, Filippo Perini is the man behind Lamborghini’s recent exotic offerings. Whereas CEO Stephan Winkelmann is very much the astute, shrewd, pragmatic thinker with marketing inclinations, Design Director Perrini sports a degree from Politecnico di Milan in Mechanical Engineering, a Master's degree in Automobile Design and thus provides the company with free spirited, right brain creativity.
In the mid-90s, Filippo worked at Alfa Romeo's Centro Stile on such projects such as the GTV and Spider, 156, 166, GTV Spyder, and Nuvola and SUV Kamal concepts. It was in 2001, when working as Senior Exterior Designer for Alfa, that he and his team came up with the now iconic, 8C Competizione concept. He joined Lamborghini in 2004 where he was given the role of Head of Exterior Design. During that time he participated in such projects as the Miura Concept, the Murcielago LP 640 coupe and Roadster.
In 2009 Filippo was made Director of Design for Lamborghini's Centro Stile (design center). During the past four years he has overseen the design of cars like the Gallardo LP 570-4 Superleggera and played a role in the design of the Estoque and Urus concepts, plus the one-off Reventón coupe/roadster, the Aventador J and the Veneno.
Filippo, very much in tune with Lamborghini’s design language and while we only had time to squeeze in a brief chat, that was enough to leave us impressed not only by the man’s understanding of design, but also his humility and enthusiasm for his art.
Gizmag: Tell us a little about your history in automotive design.
Filippo Perini: I have been with Lamborghini for almost nine years now, but before that I was with Alfa Romeo for eight or nine years, then before that, one year with Audi. During my time with Alfa Romeo I helped design the 8C which you might be familiar with.
Gizmag: The Aventador is very much a departure from the fluid lines of the Alfa Romeo. What particular challenges did you face in designing the Aventador and what was your design mandate?
FP: Yes the Aventador is very much different stylistically from the Alfa 8C (laughing). When I joined Lamborghini, there was this language that was in place for five years that was working so well with the identity of the brand that I didn’t want to change it. Refine it every time yes, and refine it with every model.
Gizmag: How much of a role have you played in recent models like the Reventon and the Aventador?
FP: All the designs you’ve seen over these past years I’ve been a part of, however, it is not just me directly responsible for these designs, they are all a product of Lamborghini’s Centro Stile design center, of which I am just one person.
Gizmag: What are your thoughts on the Veneno?
FP: This is a real supercar with a clear briefing to reach the maximum level of downforce, because basically it is a racecar. That was the primary goal of the first design brief. After that the intent was to celebrate Lamborghini’s 50th Anniversary and explore new design languages. The car is also an extreme experiment in which we can carry over various design and technological aspects into future production vehicles.
It is better for us to experiment with cars like the Veneno because it allows us to make mistakes ... mistakes that would not generally be tolerated on a production vehicle. If you recall we did something like this with the Reventon where we explored new languages, so we are used to working in this fashion when it comes to concept cars. Some things are usable and some are not.
It doesn’t make sense to us to just design a car for show. We want to see the car in real world situations, so we can test new materials and again, explore our design language. For example in the Veneno, you can find a lot of forged composites in the body, as well as soft carbon fiber material in the seats. So for me, it’s a way to showcase and explore new materials.
Gizmag: What design aspects or visual experience do you want people to take away when they see the Aventador?
FP: I want people to know that it is built around a clear concept. You can see this tension in the line (pointing to Aventador’s fast angular waistline) but what’s even more fun is trying to find all the hexagonal design elements in the car.
GIzmag: Hexagonal honeycomb shapes are definitely one of Aventador’s key design elements. Why is it is such an influential shape in the finished design?
FP: Yes, there are roughly a thousand hexagonal shapes throughout the car (you are welcome to try to count them if you like). In the production cars you can find these shapes in the rims, the switches, the engine bay, etc.
But it is funny, normally in designing a new car there are a lot of problems to solve, especially when it comes to newly shaped parts. One night a colleague asked me “Fillipo, I’m having trouble here, what can I do?” to which I responded “Try to solve it with a hexagonal part.” The next day (laughing) they had solved the problem.
Even though it is a bit of game, trying to fit the hexagonal pieces together, it is important to us because we need to treat the car with a homogeneous design. The hexagonal elements allow us to do that.
Our thanks to Filippo Perini and Stephan Winkelmann for speaking to Gizmag. And for the opportunity to gain further insight into one of the industry’s most exotic and charismatic stables.
Watch for my upcoming drive impressions of Lamborghini's $448,000, all-wheel-drive, 691 horsepower infused fighter craft, the Aventador.