One of the fastest and most expensive cars in the world is also one of the best

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 A 217mph, 739bhp track special costing £1.5m, and the pinnacle of a story that started in 1999, when Pagani launched its first supercar.

Although the Zonda R first surfaced in 2007, its appearance here is timely because in July, one had lapped the Nürburgring in 6min 47sec. While the R is not road legal, Pagani claims it is based on a production car. Making that a new record.

Without getting drawn into the murky world of Nordschleife records and definitions the facts are this: however you cut it, 6min 47sec is flipping fast, and some 11 seconds quicker around the ‘Ring than the equally road-illegal Ferrari 599XX.

See Autocar's exclusive test pics of the Pagani Zonda R

Unfortunately I’m not at the Nürburgring but at an Areodrome just outside Modena. Still, there’s more than enough opportunity to explore where the Zonda R sits in the league of seriously brisk cars.

For the sake of the clutch I’m asked not to perform a standing start, so instead I squeeze full throttle in second. The response is instant and frankly shocking. For an engine tuned to provide 123bhp/litre at 7500rpm, the pick-up from low revs is faultless. From there the power simply unfolds with breathtaking linearity.

See Autocar's exclusive video of the Pagani Zonda R in action

Compared to current road-going Zondas, the R actually uses a smaller capacity engine. But one lifted from a Mercedes CLK-GTR GT1 racer. Except that here the V12 runs without restrictors to produce its 739bhp - in a car that weighs 1070kg dry.

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Beyond 6000rpm the V12 is simply sensational, pulling relentlessly with a soundtrack straight from Le Mans. Even without removing the R’s huge rear clamshell – like the rest of the body and central tub, constructed from carbon-titanium, a fabric even stronger than regular carbonfibre – the exhaust plumbing is visible. And there is not a single silencer.

The Zonda R uses a six-speed XTRAC sequential dog gearbox, with an automated clutch. Which not only means pulling away is not the juggling act of razor throttle and race clutch I’d imagined, but also that the gearshifts are brutally fast. Just 20 milliseconds, or a third of the time it takes in a Ferrari 430 Scuderia.

The Modena runway is just 800m long (allowing room to brake and turn); that’s just 500m of full throttle. But it’s enough for the Zonda R to exceed 150mph, performance beyond that of a Noble M600.

And with no turbos to spool up and a kerb weight at least 700kg lighter, probably enough to challenge a Veyron from 30mph to 180mph. The only thing I’ve driven that comes close for sheer lack of inertia is a McLaren F1 GTR running short gearing, and even then the Zonda might just have the edge.

What impresses most, though, is that the R works so well as a package. So often when you have such a stellar engine – and this is unquestionably one of the best – the rest of the car struggles to match up. With the Zonda R that is simply not the case.

While today doesn’t provide an opportunity to test Pagani’s claim of 2.0g of lateral acceleration, there are enough corners to reveal that the R is impressively well balanced. There is, of course, a huge amount of grip; the surprise is that the limit is approachable and exploitable.

The key with the Zonda R is that although it is not designed to go racing, you could rock-up at GT meeting and not be embarrassed. And yet, unlike so many competition cars you don’t have to drive it at ten-tenths to enjoy it.

It is worth one and half million quid? Can any car we worth that much? What is clear, though, is that anyone buying the Zonda R will be getting not only a splendid track car, but also a spectacular piece of engineering. You could spend hours looking at some of the details.

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In just over ten years Pagani has transformed the car no-one had heard of, into one of the fastest and most expensive in the world. Which is some achievement.

Jamie Corstorphine

Pagani Zonda R

Price £1,500,000 approx; Engine V12, 5987cc, petrol; Power 739bhp at 7500rpm; Torque 524lb ft at 5700rpm; 0-62mph 2.7sec; Top speed 217mph-plus; Gearbox 6-spd sequential; Kerb weight 1070kg (dry); Economy NA; CO2 NA