Stephan Winkelmann left Lamborghini

Lamborghini loses its longest-serving boss since Ferruccio Stephan Winkelmann oversaw key growth at Sant’Agata. Steve Sutcliffe was granted an audience just before he left ON 15 march Stephan Winkelmann left Lamborghini after 11 years as its CEO to become the new boss at Audi’s quattro GmbH division. During that time he oversaw the launch of such key models as the Aventador and Huracan. He has been replaced by ex-Ferrari F1 boss Stefano Domenicali.

The 51-year-old was born in Berlin and grew up in Rome, where he studied political science before moving back to Germany, to finish his degree in Munich. He then spent two years in the German paratroopers before leaving the Army as a lieutenant. In 1991 he began his professional career working for a German bank, but Winkelmann’s natural interest in cars began to take a hold on his life. So he lef the bank for the automotive industry.

His first major appointment was in the sales and marketing department at Mercedes-Benz before he was poached a year or so later, in 1994, by Fiat, to specialise again in marketing and sales. During his ten years there he rose to become CEO of Fiat Auto, first in Austria, then in Switzerland and then, finally, back in Germany.
In November 2004, Winkelmann’s mobile phone rang and it was Martin Winterkorn, then boss of Audi, on the other end. He wanted to know if Winkelmann would like to become CEO at Lamborghini, which had been acquired by Audi in 1998. The carrot? Winkelmann would have a carte blanche opportunity to grow Lamborghini into a global sports car company. Winterkorn also promised Winkelmann the finance and support to expand the range to include a third model line, and that this all-new Lamborghini could be whatever Winkelmann wanted it to be – so long as it could double the number of Lamborghini sales globally.

‘I thought about it for quite a few days,’ says Winkelmann, ‘because at the time I was very happy where I was.’ But on 1 January 2005, Stephan Winkelmann was appointed President and CEO of Automobili Lamborghini SpA. And the next 11 years, as they say, is history. ‘I felt that there might never be an opportunity like this again,’ says Winkelmann. ‘To start with a clean sheet, it really was a unique experience, one that has enriched my life very much.’

The third model that Winkelmann would eventually decide to develop was, of course, the forthcoming Urus, a twin-turbo V8-powered SUV with four-wheel drive and – as you can see from the picture here – styling that will bring most high streets shuddering to a halt. But even though thisis the model that will indeed double Lamborghini’s sales when it appears in just over a year’s time (or so they sincerely hope), it’s not necessarily Winkelmann’s favourite Lamborghini.

‘I always say it’s the last one, and it’s clear that all my heart was in the Urus because it’s been a major effort over the last few years and also a very different kind of car for Lamborghini. But the first one where I was involved 100%, where we all gave absolutely everything to make it happen, that was the Aventador. When it happens like this for the first time on a clean-sheet design, it’s like your first love. You never forget it. For this reason I think the Aventador is something that will always remain deep under my skin.’

One of the key factors that distinguishes a Lamborghini is its engine, and until now those engines have always been naturally aspirated. But how much longer can Lamborghini continue to make cars with atmospheric motors? And how much life does Winkelmann honestly believe there is left for Santa’Agata’s famous V12?

‘I still think there’s a huge opportunity for the brand with the V12 engine,’ he says with a passionate sincerity. ‘Today the V12 is an absolute must. The future has to bring something extra, perhaps; these days it is on our minds most of the time, but we haven’t yet decided on how to solve this problem (of keeping the V12 alive beyond the Aventador).

‘There is the emissions issue, the regulations are always changing, becoming tougher, but then there is the DNA of Lamborghini and what the customer wants, and you have to make all these things work in the future. Just to say “I want it and I’m going to do it” is not good enough because there are so many complex issues surrounding engines like this. But at the same time we know very much how important an engine like this is to the DNA of Lamborghini, certainly as far as our super-sports cars are concerned.’

So the V12 is safe for a while yet? ‘Yes, absolutely,’ he promises, before adding wearily, ‘but you can never under-estimate how complex these issues are.

‘Connectivity, engines, how to achieve the right power-to-weight ratios in future, solving economic issues that always arise in cycles: these are all big challenges, especially for a super-sports car company like Lamborghini. But the smaller the company, the more you have to battle to be in safe waters. There is almost a revolution in front of us to produce cars that maintain the DNA and stay within the rules and regulations. But our focus is to maintain the brand, to continue to produce cars with true Lamborghini DNA, no matter what the challenges are.
‘The world is getting more and more complicated,’ he admits. ‘With shared platforms, everything is so costly today and will become even more so in the future. But if you want to maintain brands like this you have to get really creative. You have to be an entrepreneur in this game to survive.’

One of the few criticisms of Lamborghini’s otherwise rampant progress under Stephan Winkelmann has been that the company itself has become perhaps a bit too bling for its own good. Even a touch gauche, some might argue. Has that been a deliberate shift in philosophy, and is he comfortable with such an accusation?

‘It’s a long road we engaged upon [back in 2005]. To change a brand like Lamborghini, which was coming out of nowhere-land really, with no clear identity, we had to focus on something real. So we had to focus on being a super-sports car company and nothing else. I think we cleaned up the image of the brand a lot, and that took time.
‘My focus was to change the identity of Lamborghini. When I arrived the brand was extreme, uncompromising and Italian. The idea was to make it more pure in feel, more cutting-edge, more visionary but also more modern. And I’m happy that we achieved this. I think the company now has a clear identity. But the job on a brand like this is never done. I take all criticism very seriously, and there is a lot more to do. But I am also proud of where the brand is now, compared with where it was when I arrived.’ So are there any mistakes or regrets after 11 years at the top of what has become one of the most iconic sports car companies on the planet?

‘There have been so many mistakes that I would be a fool to talk about my weak points,’ he admits with an endearing grin. ‘All I will say is that the more you try to do, the more you are sensitive to making mistakes. But so long as you learn from these mistakes then that’s what matters.’

Fair enough, but what about what comes next for the charismatic Winkelmann? Running a company like quattro GmbH in Neckarsulm, Germany, will be a very different proposition from running Lamborghini in the heart of Santa’Agata. Is he looking forward to his new job with Audi?

‘I knew when I arrived that I would move on at some point, and it’s always difficult to let go, but I always believe it is more important to look forwards rather than backwards. There are some verygood people here, and I think the people here with me today are the ones who have made this company great. The opportunity I had to kick-start the brand, to work with a team like the one at Lamborghini, this was outstanding for me – to be able to create something in a world which is so close to your heart was amazing. And maybe I will have that opportunity again where I’m going,’ says Winkelmann, though with perhaps just the slightest hint of reservation in his voice.
‘I don’t know Audi Sport yet,’ he admits, ‘but I know there will be huge opportunities there in moving things on. I’m sure there will be some big challenges there. And I hope I will be up to those challenges when they come. I had a big reward here at Lamborghini, and now I’m ready for a new kind of challenge at Audi.’ Finally, then, does he have any advice for the incoming Mr Domenicali?

‘I don’t think he needs any advice from me,’ says Winkelmann. ‘He’s a car guy, he knows what he is doing, and I would not be so comfortable giving a guy like him my advice. But I wish him luck.’
And so say all of us.