So picture this. A long, long stretch of dual carriageway, two cars simmering beside each other at one end of it; a McLaren F1 plus a weird, insect-like machine with four huge tyres, an absurd number of scoops and winglets along the flanks and across the roof, plus a distinctive white-and-red badge on the nose that reads ‘Bugatti.’
On the tail are written the letters E and B. On top of the engine, which has no cover and is exposed directly to the air for cooling purposes, are the numbers 16 and four; 16 cylinders, four turbochargers. Which, in case you were wondering, equates to 987bhp and 922lb ft.
Out of nowhere the McLaren’s rear tyres suddenly light up and, after an eruption of V12 engine wail and wheelspin, it is gone, accelerating towards the far horizon. After 3.2sec it hits 60mph, after 6.3sec it reaches 100mph and after 10sec it passes 135mph. At which point the Bugatti sets off.
There is virtually no wheelspin whatsoever: the Veyron is four-wheel drive. What there is is noise – a peculiar kind of signature that sounds a bit like two TVR Griffiths on full reheat plus an industrial-strength air hose, all at once. And to accompany this cacophony there is mind-bending, heart-stopping acceleration the like of which has never been felt before in a road car.
After just 2.46sec the Veyron reaches 60mph, and barely a couple of seconds after that it bursts into three figures. But the thing you’ll really struggle to get your head round, the statistic you’ll be boring your mates with for some years to come, is this; despite setting off 10 seconds after the McLaren – when the F1 is already travelling at 130mph – the Bugatti reaches 200mph at exactly the same time as the F1. Think about that.
I have. And I still can’t quite fathom how rapid the Veyron must be to pull it off.
Actually, I can, because I’ve just driven it. For one full day around Sicily. And I can tell you it is sensational. Incredible. Unbelievable. Not merely the fastest and most powerful car the world has ever known but also, possibly, the best car ever.
And yet… I’m not 100 per cent sure it is the car I’d put in my all-time fantasy garage if literally it came down to a choice of just one. It should be, given that it costs £839,285 after tax, does 252mph and is technically the single most impressive car the world has ever seen.
But for curious reasons there’s also something clinical about the mighty Veyron that separates it from perfection, something almost too refined about its delivery that prevents it from wrenching on your heart strings in the manner that, say, a Ferrari F40 might or, whisper it, a Lamborghini Murciélago.
We’ll come to why a little later, but for the moment let’s savour the Veyron for what it is; undoubtedly the world’s most advanced car and certainly its fastest.
You’ll know by now that its birth was not an easy one, that it came to be because one day ex-VW boss Ferdinand Piech had a dream: to provide the world with a car that had 1000bhp, cost ¤1million and could do over 400km/h (250mph). To begin with the brief seemed impossible but in Piech’s mind, not something that couldn’t happen.
By 1999 there was a styling proposal and even an engine of sorts, initially with 18 cylinders. By 2000 the styling was clearer and the powerplant had been reduced to 16 cylinders, effectively two 4.0-litre VW V8s. A year later VW announced it was indeed going to build the Veyron and that it would have 1001PS (987bhp) and do over 400km/h. Then the real trouble started.
The engineers knew that to announce a car with such huge power and speed claims was one thing, but that to make it was entirely another. For a year and a half they tried, and for a year and a half they failed, until eventually Bugatti’s boss, Dr Neuman, was ‘removed.’ Then a new leadership team was brought in.
late 2003 Dr Wolfgang Schreiber came in as the new chief engineer. Having previously been in charge of transmissions at VW/Audi he was the bloke responsible for the excellent DSG gearbox.
w months after that Thomas Bscher, merchant banker, Le Mans race driver and well-known financial trouble-shooter, was appointed as president, having been head-hunted personally by VW boss Bernd Pischetsrieder.
Then years later and having changed or re-engineered an incredible 95 per cent of the components, the Veyron has become reality. And all of Dr Piech’s original dynamic targets have been hit.
What’s also changed along the way, however, is the brief behind the brief. Yes, the Veyron can achieve its legendary top speed of over 250mph, and yes it has 1001PS (although the real figure is higher than this; even on a hot day at high altitude the quad-turbo V16 develops a minimum of 1001PS; in perfect conditions it’s nearer 1100 (1085bhp).
But despite the monumental engine and seven-speed gearbox, the engineering focus has shifted away from a pure sports car experience towards a more refined, all-round machine.
Bscher claims the Veyron is now ‘as easy and almost as comfortable to drive as a Continental GT’ and that as a result it is ‘totally unique [sic], quite unlike any other really fast car there has ever been because you can use it every day if you want.’
Not that most owners will, sadly. Of the 300 cars Bugatti intends to build (and hopefully sell) over six years, as much as 80 per cent of them will end up in museums or art galleries, or anywhere but where their makers intended; namely, doing Mach 6 along a deserted, derestricted autobahn.
No matter, because for a few short hours I got to drive the car last week, and although I didn’t quite reach Mach 6, I did at least drive it properly, on autostradas, over mountain roads and through towns. At one point I nearly reached 200mph in it, the only restrictions being my conscience and a lack of space.
I also drove it as quickly as I dared for an hour across a fantastic B-road with another Veyron dancing around in the mirrors. And I drove it through towns where, predictably, it pretty much brought Sicily to a standstill.
So what’s it like, driving the world’s fastest car? In truth it’s nowhere near as scary as it sounds, which is testament to what Bugatti wanted to achieve. When you climb aboard there are no particular physical contortions required, as there are in so many so-called supercars.
You pull on the beautifully crafted aluminium doorhandle, open the door wide and, once you’ve negotiated the highish, thickish sill, insert yourself easily into the seat, crafted from carbonfibre and covered in thick leather.
First thing you notice is the beautiful centre console with its gorgeous turned aluminium fascia. To achieve the desired consistency of finish they had to use a highly expensive and rare blend of aluminium and magnesium and to fashion just the indicator stalks alone out of this material costs four-and-a-half grand a time.
The Veyron, you soon conclude, is not a car VW will make money on, even at £800k a pop.
From behind the wheel the instruments look small and surprisingly fussy, especially the speedometer, yet the overall look is sensational. This is the most exquisite car cabin on earth, no question, even though the driving position seems intimidatingly low at first and the A-pillars are so thick there are big blind spots.
As ever there’s a starter button to press, and when you press it there’s the inimitable whirr of a supercar’s high-pitched starter motor, followed by what sounds remarkably like a big V8 firing up behind you. Except in this instance there’s a whole range of other noises to take in, including numerous whistles and fizzes from four big turbos and their collective wastegates.
It is not, however, a bullying, all encompassing noise, not like it is in a Lamborghini or Ferrari. The Veyron announces itself to the world in a more subtle manner than that.
Move away and immediately you notice how smoothly weighted the steering is, how easy the accelerator is to modulate, how unbelievably fast and slick the gearbox is as it moves seamlessly up and down the ratios, and how calm the ride is; also how good the visibility is out of the back, and how bad it is out of the front.
Out onto the road and, let’s face it, everything else you do in this car is merely part of the process of waiting to see what happens, what it feels and sounds like when, finally, you weld the accelerator to the floor. During that wait I realized Bscher wasn’t exaggerating when he claimed the Veyron is as easy to drive as a Bentley.
It’s so soothing, so calm and so quiet I begin to wonder whether it really can do what they say it can do: namely, eat McLarens for breakfast. So as the road begins to open out I press the button marked ‘handling’ and the ride height drops a few millimetres and a huge wing appears out of the tail. A slightly deeper squeeze on the throttle in fourth gear and although there’s at least another half of the total travel to go there’s also a monumental whoosh from behind as, metaphorically, the Veyron reveals its fangs. Which, just for half a second or so, appear to be dripping with raw flesh and blood.
I back off pretty much immediately, astonished by what just happened. It takes a while to work it out what went on. Which was this; I pressed the accelerator maybe halfway to the floor in fourth at no more than 45mph and for no more than two seconds, at which point the Veyron took off like a Porsche 911 takes off when you dump the clutch at 7500rpm in first gear.
Even now, two days later, I can vividly recall what that felt like. I couldn’t believe it then, and I still can’t quite believe it now.
When The Moment finally arrived it was so far beyond anything I’d expected I can’t really remember what happened, mainly because it happened so fast.
We entered a motorway via a long slip road and when it straightened out I selected third gear, slowed to around 40mph, gulped and then buried the throttle.
There was another huge swoosh from behind and a distinct sensation of being at the very end of something strong and elastic which then unleashed itself violently in the opposite direction.
I remember a flashing yellow light on the dash, indicating that the ESP had cut in momentarily as we went over a small bump in fourth gear on the other side of 130mph.
And then there was a sense of relief as a corner appeared on the horizon, which meant I could back off and put a stop to this relentless, ridiculous thrust. I think I saw 185-190mph on the speedo having put my foot down for no more than 10 seconds.
Later in the day I found a great road up in the hills and realised that, despite weighing nearly 1900kg and having more power than any modern F1 car, the Veyron isn’t the liability you’d expect it to be on twisty roads.
This car handles; really handles. And boy does it stop and steer incisively as well. If you really start to lean on it there’s a whiff of understeer engineered into the chassis to prevent the tail from taking over; eye-watering body control, too, which is astounding considering how much mass there is to keep in check.
What’s most impressive, however, is the pure composure it has, even over difficult surfaces.
So why is it not my favourite car in the world? In many ways it is, and you have to admire Bugatti and VW for a) having the guts to conceive such a monster in the first place and b) for summoning the engineering nous and commitment to produce it.
But in trying to be the best at everything, which it pretty much is, the Veyron fails in the one key area that has defined the great supercars over the years; despite the titanic performance and refinement it doesn’t grab you emotionally like it should. Not like an F40, F1 or even a Murciélago does.
Bugatti’s argument is that it isn’t meant to. The Veyron, says Bugatti, is the supreme technical creation – as refined on the road as it is relentless against the stopwatch – and therefore it isn’t concerned with matters as trivial as emotional involvement or a ripping exhaust note.
And as an engineering achievement that means it will remain unrivalled for years to come, and possibly forever.
But that doesn’t automatically make it the best supercar in the world. The most impressive, yes, undoubtedly. But the most memorable? Not for me. Not quite.