My goal was simple: I wanted to take the world's fastest production car, the Bugatti Veyron, to its top speed of 253 mph. After a year and a half of planning with Bugatti's staff and some heartbreaking postponements, I finally was to get my chance.
I would be the fourth - and final - journalist to try this stunt since 2005, when the Veyron was launched. Despite dozens of requests, just three journalists (from the British TV show Top Gear, Car and Driver magazine, and Germany's Auto Motor und Sport) had been granted the opportunity. Conspicuously, I would be the only writer from outside the auto industry.
That said, I'm not a complete driving neophyte, which probably had something to do with Bugatti's decision. In addition to attending a bevy of racing schools, I've driven an Indy car, Ruf Porsches, and Lamborghinis above 200 mph, without incident. But 200 is one thing; 250 mph is an entirely different, and mind-blowing, proposition. At that speed, you travel the length of one and a quarter football fields per second or, put another way, one-third the speed of sound.
Even if you secure the use of a Veyron, it is difficult to try this because of the multiple miles required to reach top speed. Most private tracks aren't big enough. The 7.8-mile circular track at the Nard proving ground in southern Italy - where Ferrari, Maserati, Lamborghini, and others test - is too bumpy, too windy, and has banking that scrubs precious miles per hour. The German autobahn, without speed limits on half of its highways, doesn't have a length of unobstructed straight road long enough to safely attain 250 mph unless - gulp - you try at night, when there's no traffic. (No, thanks.)
American superspeedways such as Daytona, Indianapolis, and Talladega, where racing cars surpass 200 mph, are less than three miles in length, with straightaways nowhere near long enough for the Veyron to reach 250 mph. Even if they were, their managers probably wouldn't be interested in taking a chance on potential lawsuits from a fatal crash. Indy and stock cars are built to safeguard their drivers in a very high-speed collision; a production sports car like the Veyron, no matter how well built, is not.
I met the Bugatti staff at Ehra-Lessien, the secretive Volkswagen test complex near Wolfsburg, Germany. It is not only big - thirteen miles around - but highly banked in the corners. Most important, Ehra is the only track that Bugatti has used for top-speed Veyron tests. A support crew of a dozen was on hand, including Bugatti engineering chief Wolfgang Schreiber, PR director Georges Keller, test racer Pierre-Henri Raphanel, and Ernst Pape, who manages the Ehra facility.
In all, six drivers were scheduled for top speed that day - five Veyron owners and me. Each owner had ponied up 30,000 (about $40,000) for the chance to become part of the "400 Drive" club, a select group who have reached more than 400 kph (249 mph). Each also had passed Bugatti's rigorous "Feel the Road" training program in Molsheim, France - site of the Veyron manufacturing plant.
Fewer than 8000 Bugattis have been assembled, all by hand, since Ettore Bugatti founded the company in 1909. The prestigious line includes racing cars from bygone eras (Bugatti won the first-ever Monaco Grand Prix, in 1929, and Le Mans in 1937 and '39) as well as the more recent EB line of production cars. But none are capable of the Veyron's speed, as are no other series-production cars on the planet. The closest is the McLaren F1, built from 1992 to 1998, which had a maximum speed of 240 mph. Even the newer Ferrari Enzo (217-plus mph), Lamborghini Murciélago LP670-4 SV (213 mph), and Porsche Carrera GT (205 mph) pale in comparison. What sets the Veyron apart is a quad-turbocharged and intercooled, 1001-hp, W-16 engine that accelerates the car from 0 to 62 mph in 2.5 seconds and, get this, to 186 mph in just 16.7 seconds, according to Bugatti.
Volkswagen AG bought a financially troubled Bugatti in 1998 and then poured some half a billion dollars into developing the Veyron. "The car was not designed to be a big moneymaker," says PR man Keller, "but to put the Bugatti name back on the map with serious car enthusiasts." So far, the company has delivered about 200 of the supercars, more than seventy-five last year, but has yet to turn a profit - even with a current price of $1.6 million, before taxes.
The weather forecast for Ehra the morning of my test was foreboding. You need a dry track to run top speed, and showers were predicted. When I looked out the window of my hotel, Wolfsburg's Ritz-Carlton, at 6:30 a.m., the sky was overcast, but there was no wind - and no precipitation - yet. (If rain did arrive, the next opportunity probably would not be until the fall; the track is booked solid by VW Group testers months in advance.)
Once at Ehra, I signed a number of liability release forms, was briefed on track procedure, and was given a fitted driving suit including fireproof long underwear, shoes, gloves, and a helmet. All of the paraphernalia looked impressive and made for nice pictures, but we all knew that if anything catastrophic happened, none of it would do much good.
After a few laps in a red and black, Hermès-decorated practice Veyron, accompanied by Raphanel and reaching no more than 185 mph, I was ready for my big test. The clouds hung heavy, but still there was no rain. Time to go.
I climbed into the white supercar alone; there would be nobody in the passenger seat for the top-speed run. This unsettled me. For past 200-mph tests (except in the Indy car), I had a pro along for the ride. But at 250 mph, the risk is too great to unnecessarily expose another person.
Complicating matters, I was to travel clockwise around the track, unusual for me. On ovals in the United States, the preferred direction of travel is counterclockwise. That may not seem like a big deal, but when you try something this extreme, every little variation adds to your nervousness - especially when you're trying to stay calm.
I strapped on my helmet and buckled in. A slight fog had gathered on my glasses from my heavy breathing and the humidity. As Raphanel inserted a special key to put the Veyron into top-speed mode - lowering the wing and dropping the body to within a couple inches of the asphalt - he reviewed the procedure we had just practiced. I needed to paddleshift up to seventh gear at 125 mph, en route to the north corner, set the cruise control, then make my way into the outside lane.
In the corner, I would perform a series of downshifts at cones placed strategically on the track, still maintaining 125 mph. Once in fourth gear, I would wait for two cones near the end of the corner and, once there, floor it and hang on while the transmission automatically shifted back up to seventh.
To say I felt anxious at this point is an understatement. But part of the experience is exactly that feeling - that of the unknown. What would 250 mph feel like compared with, say, 200? How would the Bugatti handle, or for that matter, how would I handle it?
Once I gave it full throttle, the car lurched like a pent-up Doberman. The steering, smooth up to that point, became stiff; I had to muscle it to get onto the main straightaway and into the center of three lanes. Once I did, everything smoothed out remarkably.
After a few seconds, I glanced at the speedometer and, shockingly, it already was edging above 200 mph. Wow. I kept my eyes fixed on what seemed to be a narrowing road ahead and, after some more seconds, glanced down again. 240 mph. I'd never been anywhere near that speed in a car in my life, but this thing was somehow still accelerating!
A kind of tunnel vision took over. I stared so intently at the road that nothing registered peripherally. For an instant, I thought about what would happen if one of the Michelin tires blew - or if an animal bolted in front of me from the surrounding woods . . . or perhaps a bird darted from the sky. There was a rumor that the Germans had been hunting at the track during the days preceding my arrival, to reduce that very possibility. Earlier, I'd thought this was funny. Now, at 250 mph, it suddenly wasn't.
Up ahead, I saw the overpass and south parking lot where the photographers and the Bugatti crew were. I knew I must be near top speed, burning fuel at the rate of a gallon every 2.3 miles. But I didn't dare look again at the speedometer, just kept my eyes fixed forward. The car was incredibly stable, and it was relatively quiet inside - like driving in a silent movie ridiculously sped up. I had to suspend my disbelief that I was traveling so fast in such a surprisingly peaceful cockpit. But I can only imagine what it sounded like on the outside, with 1001 hp roaring by.
After flashing by the parking area, I kept my foot in it for a few more seconds to enjoy the sensation and then, as instructed, backed off the throttle and tapped the brakes to take the Veyron out of top-speed mode. The wing came up, the car slowed, and I felt, well, numb. I loosened my death grip on the steering wheel.
Back in the parking area, everyone was excited. As I exited the car, Raphanel hugged me. Keller gave me a 400 Drive plaque. My top speed was determined to be 407.5 kph - or 253.2 mph. Like a little kid, I asked some of the crew members to sign my driving suit, then waited around anxiously to see if the other drivers would beat the rain. Sure enough, all got their runs in, all above 400 kph.
Later, with Keller on the train to Molsheim for a visit to the factory, I confided that, as a New Yorker, I didn't own a car. The only time I drive is on the track. He didn't seem surprised until I told him that I didn't have a driver's license, either - it had expired the year before, and I hadn't yet renewed it. Again, this didn't phase Keller tremendously.
"OK," he said, "but for next time, you had better get one!" Then he laughed, and we clinked beer glasses and sped off into the dusk on a train traveling one-third the speed I'd driven earlier in the Veyron.
James Clash, a sixteen-year veteran of Forbes Magazine, plans to renew his driver's license soon.
Bugatti Veyron 16.4 Timeline
1999: World premiere of the Bugatti EB 18/4 Veyron eighteen-cylinder concept car at the Tokyo Motor Show.
2001: Bugatti announces that the sixteen-cylinder Veyron 16.4 is in the advanced concept stage. Production of about fifty cars per year is planned, beginning in 2003. Bugatti claims a top speed of 252 mph.
2002-2003: Early production units experience significant safety and performance issues (specifically at high speed), and the Veyron 16.4 project is sent back to the drawing board.
2004: At the 2004 Geneva auto show, Bugatti says that the revised Veyron 16.4 will be produced and customers will begin taking delivery in late 2005.
2006: Bugatti releases performance numbers for the production Veyron 16.4: 1001 hp, 922 lb-ft of torque, 253 mph top speed (governed), 0 to 62 mph in 2.5 seconds, 0 to 124 mph in 7.3 seconds, 0 to 186 mph in 16.7 seconds. Sticker price: a cool $1.3 million.
2008: Bugatti Veyron 16.4 sales hit 220 worldwide.
To The Limiter:
The details of a speed run are revealed in the downloads. Below, velocity and engine rpm are plotted versus time. The top graph proves that the car ran faster than 250 mph for 25 seconds. The bottom graph shows that when the speed limiter kicked in, the engine was limited to 6250 rpm in seventh gear.