First Ride in the 1,200-HP Drako GTE EV

Valentino Balboni is smiling. "This is a good car," the retired Lamborghini test driver says with a chuckle as he bends the million-dollar Drako GTE electric supersedan around a corner for the first time.

We're hurtling around The Thermal Club's North Palm Circuit—a track Balboni has never driven and in a car he's never driven. We're not going slowly. The first lap he's clearly feeling out the car, but by the third, he's really pushing it. As for the car, it's unfazed.

Drako appeared out of nowhere at last year's Monterey Car Week with the 1,200-hp quad-motor GT it had been developing in secret for the past six years. Six months later, I'm riding shotgun as Balboni stabs the brakes at over 120 mph coming off the front straight. This isn't a flight of fancy, some boutique supercar built in a shed by big dreamers in over their heads. This is a real car. Why Balboni at the wheel? He's a friend of the founders.

In point of fact, this car was developed and built in a workshop a few hundred miles north in San Jose, the heart of Silicon Valley, because as co-founder and executive vice president Shiv Sikand says, "That's where the talent is." This $1.25 million supersedan is a collaboration between Sikand and Drako's CEO, namesake, and Sikand's longtime business partner, Dean Drako. It's the culmination of their effort to build an EV that looks and drives like the best sports cars in their personal collections.

"We built it because we couldn't find an EV we liked," Sikand says. He doesn't mean it as a knock on what other EVs have accomplished, simply an observation that very few of them have been designed to drive like an E36 M3, which Sikand has two of and is after a third. Six years doesn't seem like a long time, but when the project started in earnest, the Porsche Taycan and Tesla Model 3 Performance Track Mode didn't exist.

You can hear the passion for sheer, unadulterated driving pleasure whenever the conversation pivots from technical and business details to the actual goal of the vehicle. Sikand's relationship with Drako (the man) came about in part because, he says, Drako is a better salesman. Although that may be true in the software business, Sikand's delivery regarding Drako (the car) is full of conviction and inspiration, each point carefully considered and precisely worded. If you think he'll have trouble selling 25 of these at $1.25 million a pop (which, he says, will only break even, not turn a profit), you haven't heard his pitch.

Sikand says the right things, but does his car deliver? It certainly feels like it from the right seat. Balboni describes his style as being "violent" on the brakes, but where I'm sitting, everything about the GTE is smooth. So smooth that it feels like we aren't even going that fast, but the speedometer speaks truth to the lie.

Part of it is Balboni. He isn't just cool and collected—he's enjoying himself. All his inputs, even his braking, are fluid and effortless. Someone this steady behind the wheel can make any car feel more polished than it is, but it's not just him. A hyper-sensitive throttle can be difficult for even a pro to even out. Sikand calls it "giddy up," and he absolutely hates it. The GTE's deliberately progressive throttle lets Balboni come off every corner in one linear surge of acceleration, no bucking or correcting.

"The power output and the sound is different," Balboni says. "The power output, I think, is very positive because it's a constant output from zero to the maximum. You have this feeling of power, which compensates [for] the missing of the sound of the engine because the [sound of] gears together makes you feel that you are in a sports car. Fast. The sound and the reaction of the car is definitely a sports car."

It's the same going the other way. The GTE uses both regenerative and mechanical braking to haul down the roughly 5,300-pound car. Drako claims each of the GTE's four motors can theoretically apply up to 225 kW of regenerative braking force, and whatever's left is handled by the Brembo carbon-ceramic brakes.

"I was afraid of the weight of the car," Balboni says. "But honestly, the power of the car makes me feel weight [is] not so important. When I feel the weight of the car is when braking. It's a very heavy car, but I think the brakes are well proportioned to the car. In two, three laps I wouldn't say [the stopping power] changed. I like the brake because this is typical carbon-ceramic brakes. For this kind of weight car, on this kind of track, I think it's better to have a short, hard braking so the temperature doesn't go up."

The true potential of a quad-motor design isn't in its regenerative braking but in torque vectoring. With the right software, you can theoretically control each wheel's acceleration and braking individually, as fast as the computer can process it. Drako says its software is doing this exercise 1,000 times per second, per wheel. Achieving such fine control takes an enormous amount of programming to get it right.

"Yes, yes, you can feel it," Balboni says, "especially in this long, constant-radius turn. Just moving the pedal, slightly moving the accelerator, you feel how the car moves and finds the best trajectory. You control the trajectory, you control the apex, with the power. I find it very good. It's a good compromise, even if this aspect has to be fine-tuned in my mind, in my driving. But I think, initially, it's a very good compromise."

I can't feel it from the passenger's seat. Over here, it feels like Balboni is picking his throttle inputs and sticking with them, the car sailing through the corner without correction. Same with the steering. All his movements on the steering wheel are short, quick, and to the point, and once it's where he wants it, I hardly ever notice him making a correction. At first, I dismissed it as just the expertise of a world-class driver, but later I learned it was that and also the work of Sami Ruotsalainen.

Ruotsalainen and his students at Helsinki Metropolia University of Applied Sciences had been working on a quad-motor EV race car for years when he was asked to join the Drako team. Just a year after, his team's Electric RaceAbout finally broke the quad-motor Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG Electric Drive's EV lap record at the Nürburgring. Watching side-by-side in-car video of the old and new record laps, it's immediately apparent the advantage is more than outright speed. Indeed, the SLS hits a considerably higher top speed on the final straight, but it's way too far behind to make a difference.

The difference is in the cars' stability. The Mercedes driver is sawing at the wheel in every tight corner, making corrections as the electric Gullwing slides around. The RaceAbout's driver never does. Every corner, he picks a line, turns the wheel, and holds it. No corrections, no catching the car. I see Balboni in the GTE doing the exact same thing.

"I think the car, the software, makes me feel comfortable," Balboni says. "It doesn't embarrass. It makes life easier. It doesn't contrast with my expectation. It suits my expectation. I still don't know if I can find a better way with my driving, but the starting point is already positive, so it may be only improved.

"We are driving the car on a racetrack, and this is different," he continues, "but I would say the way the car reacts is also neutral car on normal road driving. I would say, it's a neutral car."

Of course, what Balboni really wants is to get it sideways.

"I would like [it to have] more oversteer," Balboni says, "so I can play a little bit more. It does in certain areas of this track. I would like to do it more. I would like to set the car so to get more spectacular driving, a little bit more fun. But I think this is the safest way. Personally, as a professional, I would say I would like to play more with the steering and the power, but I think I can do it learning more adjustments.

When he's ready to go all Formula Drift on it, there are four dials on the carbon-fiber-skinned center console that will let him dial the car in exactly how he wants it. Two are mode switches, one controlling for the type of surface you're, the other the amount of traction and stability control you want (including a drift mode). The other two control the level of regenerative braking and the front-rear torque distribution.

"Being grown up with none of those things, I still like it," Balboni says, "but I understand with this kind of power, it may be useful for a normal driver to have this kind of opportunity to feel more relaxed. I think they are good, making people comfortable. This is positive."

After my turn is up, Balboni gives others rides. After seven or so laps, we break for lunch and a chat. The car's battery is at 60 percent, unsurprising given the abuse it took. Drako says the battery is designed to provide its maximum output for as long as possible, not to protect the lives of the cells or maximize day-to-day driving range. It's off to the fast charger to top up at 150 kilowatts for the afternoon session. I have to ask where the charging point is because Drako has put it in the trunk so as not to ruin the lines of carbon-fiber bodywork laid over the Fisker Karma chassis. Each car being highly customizable, though, so the company will put it wherever you want.

It's admittedly frustrating not being able to take a few laps myself to feel what Balboni is explaining, but Drako says we'll get our chance to test the car and quantify what it can really do before deliveries begin later this year.


Made with in NYC

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Bloom Magazine: First Ride in the 1,200-HP Drako GTE EV
First Ride in the 1,200-HP Drako GTE EV
Bloom Magazine
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