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.