In the dusty recesses of my brain, numbers don't hold a high priority. I've been known to blank on my social security number. When I've changed addresses, it always takes me a couple of months to remember my new zip code. Birthdays and anniversaries are a recurring source of shame and conflict in my life. But there's one number I'll never forget: 206.
That's the fastest I've ever driven, in miles per hour. We all know our personal top-speed high score. When I hit 206 mph in a Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren 722, in a country that I should probably avoid for the rest of my life [Dyer Consequences, May 2007], I figured that record would stand forever. Even for those cars that technically surpass the 200-mph barrier, that number is mostly theoretical because you need a tailwind and half the interstate highway system to eke out that last couple miles per hour.
Or you need a Bugatti Veyron. Ideally a model with 1200 horsepower (not an underpowered 1001-horsepower version). To such a Veyron, 200 mph is a cruising speed. At 200, you've still got maybe 500 horsepower just hanging out in the lobby smoking Gauloises, as French horsepower is wont to do. So when Bugatti invited me to drive the $2.5 million Veyron 16.4 Grand Sport Vitesse on a private 4.7-mile European test track, I figured a new high score was in the bag. In a car like that, with a quoted top speed of 255 mph, on a banked oval with mile-long straights, 220 mph should be in the crosshairs. Whatever the final score, I'd have a new and extremely pretentious story to go with my top-speed number. "Where did I drive that fast? Well, I had a Bugatti on this secret test track in Europe..."
If you're not up on your Bugatti nomenclature, the Grand Sport has a removable roof and the Vitesse has the more powerful engine (as does the Super Sport coupe), so the Grand Sport Vitesse is the convertible with the extrasaucy engine. It's nice that owners of the regular ol' Grand Sport now have something to aspire to.
The conversion from Veyron to roofless Veyron did not much hurt the car's dynamics. If you're worried about cowl flex, know that the Veyron Grand Sport is the second-stiffest car in the world, after the Veyron. The top comes off in one panel, and there's nowhere to put it, because you've got people for that.
Adding a Hyundai Sonata's worth of horsepower required a lot more than an ECU reflash at Molsheim Turbo Tunerz and Rimz, but my favorite Vitesse stat is that it has four fuel pumps, compared with the regular Veyron's measly two pumps. "At full throttle," the Bugatti people more or less said, "this thing is literally like a garden hose that's spewing gasoline."
Before I got my crack at the top-speed run, Bugatti turned me loose in the countryside with factory test driver Loris Bicocchi. As we sat in the Veyron in the hotel parking lot, a wizened Italian man wandered up and started quizzing Bicocchi, who dutifully spouted the Bugatti's outrageous statistics. Even in Italian, a language I don't speak, they sound impressive. "Mamma mia!" declared the old Italian man, before returning to central casting.
A few minutes later, we're on a scenic ribbon of European two-lane and Bicocchi disembarks so we can shoot photos. For the first time in my life, I'm allowed to drive a Veyron by myself, with no chaperone riding shotgun to ensure I don't spin reverse doughnuts or incite the world's most one-sided police chase. For about ten glorious minutes, I can imagine that this is my car. Here I am, on my way to the hangar to take my MiG out to my island. If the staff doesn't have the hot tub filled with better champagne this time, there'll be hell to pay! I really think I'd be good at being rich.
Photos shot, Bicocchi climbs back in and we resume our tour. It starts raining, which forces us to pull over under a bridge to wait out the precipitation. Tour buses blast past uncomfortably close. We're like vagrants, except for the whole multimillion-dollar-car thing.
Back on the road, a brief blur to superlegal speeds somehow reminds me of the Porsche 911 Turbo. If you come up over a sharp hill at full throttle in a 911 Turbo, the steering wheel shudders and goes light in your hands for a moment. The Grand Sport Vitesse accelerates so hard that the steering wheel is quietly shivering like that all the way to about 130 mph. A two-wheel-drive Veyron with drag slicks would definitely need wheelie bars. That may be a silly observation, but silly thoughts arrive en masse when your mental logic boards are shorted by 1200 horsepower.
I get a momentary reprieve from criminal-speeding temptation when the low-fuel light comes on. This proves to be fortuitous timing, since I'm conserving gas and loafing at 50 mph when the cops pull me over. Given my guilty conscience, it's to my great relief to find that they are just harassing me so they can check out the car, which they pose with for photos. The upshot of this little detour is that when the cops are done scoping out the car, we have official police blessing to scream away at full hyperwarp. In the strange world of the Bugatti Veyron, police pull you over to tell you to speed.
With my Vitesse familiarization complete, we head to the Secret High Speed Test Track. There's a procedure for how this is supposed to go down, and there's a lot to remember. I'm supposed to climb into the top lane of the 39-degree-banked corner, set the cruise control to 200 kph (124 mph), then downshift to sixth, then fifth, then fourth. In fourth, I'll accelerate off the banking and onto the straight -- but just briefly, to get the feel. Upon reaching a set of cones conservatively placed well before the end of the straight, I'll hit the brakes and get back down to 200 kph. On the next lap, the corner procedure is repeated. Except this time, I should accelerate up to 250 kph (155 mph). Then, on the final trip down the back straight, it's go time. All of this will happen with the roof off. Bicocchi has the unenviable task of riding shotgun.
Maybe that all sounds simple to you. But with 1200 horsepower behind me and a mile of straightaway ahead of me, my brain skips a half step ahead of the approved takeoff sequence. I squeeze the throttle down to the floor, the quad turbos spool up, and the air intakes start making a noise like someone pulled the plug on God's bathtub. And at 250 kph, I don't stop. I look toward the end of the straight, still a long way away, and don't let up on the throttle. We pass 275 kph, then 290 kph, and we're closing in on 300 kph when I notice a strange noise. It almost sounds like a man yelling. In fact, it is a man yelling. In my peripheral vision, I can see Bicocchi gesticulating frantically. I hit the brakes. Bicocchi is pissed. "I was yelling at you to slow down! You need to look at me!" he shouts. He looks angry but also petrified. "I had no control!" he seethes.
In my defense, I wasn't ignoring him. I simply couldn't hear him over the cacophony of a full-throttle open-top Vitesse climbing past 150 mph. And I sure as hell wasn't going to take my eyes off the track. I feel bad, but Bicocchi and I have to make amends quickly, because seconds later we're rounding onto the back straight for the onetime shot at my lifetime high score.
The moment the banking flattens out, I go full throttle and sight down the straightaway, which suddenly doesn't look so long. That gasoline garden hose douses the sixteen cylinders, the four turbos sound like they're altering weather patterns in China, and for a brief moment it's entirely likely that I am driving a car faster than anyone else on planet earth.
For just about any other car that breaches 200 mph, picking up additional speed is like popping the last few kernels in the popcorn bag. Pop! Two-oh-one...Pop! Two-oh-two. At 200 mph in this car, the popcorn is still going off rapid-fire. Remember what I said about 1200 horsepower and silly thoughts?
When Bicocchi signals to shut it down, we're past 200 mph. When he yells cut, we're doing 330 kph, which is 205 mph. Before we buckled in, I'd harbored the notion that if I was close to the magic number, I'd cheat and stay on the gas just long enough to hit 207 mph. But given what just transpired with poor Bicocchi, I play it straight and quit when he says quit.
For a few seconds, I'm actually dejected. I haven't broken my own high-speed record. But wait a minute: I've just set an entirely new personal record. I may not remember my zip code, but I'll always remember the time I went 205 mph with the top off.