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.