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Posted by portugalpress on July 10, 2017
595 Pista's telemetry channels your inner hoonigan
Alén going sideways is standard operating procedure
The old Abarth 124 Rally looks perfect
Yes I still really love cars...

Abarth is one of the coolest brands around and a day surrounded by old and new models proved just as much.

Is it really possible to tell where a passion for cars comes from? Is there a point in one’s life when ‘bam’ – you understand this is your thing? Maybe, maybe not.

I am guessing if my kids grow to love cars it will be easy to understand: their father was obsessed and from the age of six they already knew what a Ferrari V12 was.

As for me, thinking back, there were four things that I believe set me on this path of living and breathing cars: me and my dad used to watch Formula One on Sundays at lunchtime, he would let me play with his valuable 1/18 models, there was that Ferrari F40 poster on my bedroom wall and, being a photographer, my father shot every Rally of Portugal since 1984 – and I memorised the pictures.

I was born in 1985, the first year the Peugeot 205 T16 won the World Rally Championship. They did it again in 1986, but then, from 1987 to 1992, the Lancia Delta Integrale became the most successful rally car in history with six championships on the trot. My father shot so many Integrales that it became my favourite car as a child alongside the F40.

The Lancia racing team had many of the world’s greatest rally drivers of all time, including Miki Biasion, Juha Kankunnen, Didier Auriol and Markku Alén. Alén was always the Portuguese crowd’s favourite and probably the most spectacular driver to throw the Integrale around. He is surely the best rally driver in history never to be a world champion.

That is why I jumped at the chance to meet him when the invite came for the 2017 Abarth Day at the Braga Circuit early in the month. Every year Abarth organises a fan day when you can see and drive the latest models, go around the circuit with your own car and often meet someone who is a much better driver than you: point in case, Mr. Alén.

Now being a Lancia Delta Integrale owner myself, as well as an Abarth 500 esseesse, I duly packed a few things for Alén to sign and made sure my phone was fully charged – I was pretty sure I was going to be taking a lot of pictures.

Carlo Abarth died in 1979 but his name and his trademark scorpion live on in some spectacular cars today. Obviously I am a bit partial since I own one of them, but the Abarth 500 and the Abarth 124 Spider are two small gems that punch well above their weight.

The 500 was recently updated, with some cosmetic changes on both bumpers, front and rear lights, and more engine and configuration options made available. Fundamentally, however, it remains the sporty version of the world’s best-looking city car ever. New trim and limited editions are a constant and at Braga’s racing circuit we got to drive the new 695 XSR and 595 Pista.

The 695 XSR is a limited edition inspired by Abarth’s partnership with Yamaha and it looks amazing. As does the Yamaha that represents the other 50% of this idea. There’s carbon fibre everywhere, a gigantic Akrapovic exhaust, 165 horse power to play with and that special Abarth feeling that comes as standard. Only 695 hatches and 695 cabrios will ever be built.

The 595 Pista is meant for those who cannot do without track days. There is a dedicated UConnect 7" HD Live infotainment system with integrated telemetry so you can know how much slower you’re going than Markku Alén. The Record Monza dual mode exhaust sounds so good it will ease the pain though. With the Pista you get 160 horse power because it is just cooler if every version has a different output.

Braga’s circuit is called Vasco Sameiro. It is a small track suitable only for second-level racing series and often used for track days. Nevertheless, it is quite charming and behind the wheel of a small car such as the Abarth 500, an absolute riot. The turbocharged 1.4 litre engine and its 160 horse power are perfectly suited for the place, but what makes this car so much fun is its small wheelbase, which allows you to throw it around as you please, no problem whatsoever, and in perfect safety.

Apart from driving the Abarth 500, we got to talk to Markku Alén for nearly one hour long, before watching him step into a 124 Spider and drive some people around the go-karting track, hardly going in a straight line at any point. How do you say Markku Alén in English? Easy: sideways.

In between the scheduled programme, I took to staring at the old Abarths on display, especially a completely original 1972 Abarth 124 Rally. Cars had a purity of lines that has been diluted by safety standards and that incomprehensible trend going around nowadays that says a car needs not to be beautiful but to be impressive, to shock the beholder. Nonsense, really.

Anyway, more than 100 Abarth models were present, the owners mingling and discussing their passion, while Mr Alén carried himself graciously, answering every question, posing for every picture with a smile. It was a cool day, much like Abarth is a cool brand.

By Guilherme Marques

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