Feature: We Have Liftoff

  • Paul Dean

It is best, you decide, to look at this car slowly and alone and in a mood set by the soft half-light of a Sicilian courtyard. This painter’s gloom allows shadows to enhance the design elements that hint at the purpose of this sports car, which—let there be no debate—is like no other. Do not compare it to a Ferrari, even an F/1 Ferrari, because this new French machine is faster by far. Nor is it similar to any of the extreme vehicles from McLaren or Mercedes, Pagani or Porsche. No, the 2006 Bugatti Veyron 16.4—a car that many predicted would never see 2006—is an exhilarating category unto itself. It is in a niche that it created and will occupy alone until the entire performance-car industry dares to do better. The Bugatti Veyron can be considered the first of the mega cars delivering magnum performance.

Even with production under way at the Bugatti plant in Molsheim, France, the birthplace of Bugattis, the Veyron still manages to appear more like a concept car than do most concept cars. It is beautiful, low, and maybe a little bulbous, but then every swoop and curve serves some outlandish engineering purpose: The engine is exposed to the slipstream because a cover would reduce cooling, and the polished aluminum nacelles on each side of the engine may look like a stylist’s fashion statement, but they actually are intakes for the turbochargers and intercoolers.

The Veyron has exceeded a programmed top speed that is faster than the takeoff roll of an F-16. Prototypes are among us and demonstrating what a four-digit-horsepower car can bring to our lives. It is being purchased despite its seven-digit price; three dozen have been ordered so far, including 16 by American customers. The car certainly embodies the credo of the marque’s namesake, the artist Ettore Bugatti, who liked to remind his alter ego, the car builder, “Nothing is too beautiful, nothing is too expensive.”
 
Still, it has been a slow and tormented odyssey from the 2001 Geneva Auto Show, where Ferdinand Piech, then head Herr at Volkswagen, revealed his outrageous concept and the ludicrous possibility that this car might represent a greater achievement than progressive gearing, inner tubes, and cup holders. His show vehicle was the Bugatti Veyron 16.4—so titled because it would be built by Bugatti (a brand name and a 94-year heritage purchased three years earlier by Volkswagen) and because it would have an enormous W16-cylinder engine sucking on four performance-enhancing turbochargers.

That brutal combination should be good for 1,001 hp, claimed Piech, a top speed of 250 mph, and status as the fastest production car on the planet. The Veyron would not simply accelerate; it would explode from rest to 60 mph in 2.5 seconds and be nibbling at 200 mph in roughly 20 seconds. And its cost would be $1.25 million, more or less, depending on exchange rates and market fluctuations.
 
Building a sports car of such power and specifications, with price and performance margins at least two automotive generations beyond the best from other car builders, seemed to be stretching mechanical limits and public confidence too far. Some said Volkswagen should have stayed with Bugs rather than resuscitating Bugatti. Considering that the $70,000 Phaeton had stumbled, they added, could there possibly be any market for a million-dollar Volkswagen? Maybe, suggested others, the Bugatti Veyron would become a white elephant on par with the horribly expensive, superpowerful, ultrainnovative, and thoroughly exclusive Bugatti Royale of the 1930s: Many were proposed, only six were built, just two were sold, and the rest were pickled in Cosmoline for the duration of the Depression and World War II.

“[Volkswagen] is a faceless corporation that bought the name of a defunct company,” growled Tim Dutton, the British godfather of racing and restoring vintage Bugattis, in a 2003 interview with Popular Science. “They don’t understand the old cars at all. No one can see the point. That’s the politest way I can put it.”

 

Dutton seemed to have a valid argument: After its introduction in Geneva, Project Bugatti Veyron suffered more false starts than a third-grade swim meet. The four concept cars that Volkswagen built had problems with airflow, steering, hydraulics, fuel flow, braking, and aerodynamic integrity. No tire from Michelin could sustain 250 mph without becoming gumbo, and no transmission could tame 1,001 hp and 922 ft lbs of torque.

To address the latter problem, Veyron engineers dipped into the parts bins again—having already borrowed bits from compartments marked Passat and Audi TT—and developed a bulked-up, 7-speed version of VW’s twin-clutch gearbox. As one clutch disengages, the second engages, allowing for shifting, by paddles or a sequential manual stick, that is creamy and complete in milliseconds.

This achievement almost went for naught after a Veyron was trucked to Northern California in August 2003 and invited to turn some exhibition laps on Laguna Seca during the Monterey Historics. Turn it did, and turn, and turn into a magnificent spin, creating the quickest and most embarrassing factory recall of any vehicle since 38,000 Radio Flyers were pulled for wheel problems. The Veyron spent the rest of the event hiding from journalists, in a corner under a tarp.

That same year, however, the Veyron project received a boost when Thomas Bscher, a German banker, Le Mans driver, and collector of cars and life’s better experiences, became president of Bugatti Automobiles SAS.

“Cooling wasn’t right, steering wasn’t right, and the car was a package involving 600 collisions [the meshing of systems and parts],” remembers Bscher, as we chat before dinner at Relais Santa Anastasia in Castelbuono, Sicily. “But the beauty of the car was in the concept, and the engine and the gearbox were right.”

Yet old challenges loomed enormous. Creating propulsion power of 1,000 hp requires generating 2,000 hp of heat energy during combustion, which demands a cooling system capable of chilling 1,000 degrees of initial exhaust gas temperatures. This called for three coolant-filled radiators in the nose of the Veyron, one heat exchanger for the turbo intercoolers, and coolers for the transmission, differential, and engine oils wherever there was space for an intake.

Also, a road car that goes faster today than what the lap record at Indy might be 10 years from now needs to be able to lose that speed in four heartbeats. At 250 mph, it is no longer a car but an artillery shell. If it hits anything while traveling at that speed, the car and its contents of flesh, bone, and liquid will be obliterated. Carbon-ceramic brakes, with eight pistons apiece, 15.7-inch rotors up front and 15-inch pizza pans on the rear, provide only token stopping power at homicidal speeds. But as they engage, so does a maze of vanes, diffusers, spoilers, and even an air brake the width of the car, creating a combined downforce of close to 800 pounds. It is rather like being sat on by an elephant.

Then there is the double-clutch, magnesium-housed gearbox that allows shifts of 150 milliseconds. It is extraordinary and unique, shifting in a blink while creating no sensation of movement in the transition. Bscher likes to contrast the Veyron’s gearbox with the box of cogs in a Ferrari Enzo, though his description of the Enzo’s falls a little short of executive sweet: “What a crappy gearbox that car has.”

Necessary to the Veyron’s high-performance handling is a system of automatic load leveling, which starts with a standard setting (for speeds less than 135 mph) that has the car’s carbon fiber and aluminum form sitting 5 inches off the road surface. Travel at more than 2 miles a minute, and the Veyron hunkers into its handling mode, where it is barely 3 inches off the ground. The diffusers open, and the rear spoiler and wing begin poking into the slipstream.

Now we are ready to experience what is the world’s fastest run on four wheels—not including those offered by Bonneville Jets and funny cars, none of which exactly qualify as production coupes—but not before making a preflight check. A key on the left side of the driver’s seat activates all the necessary aerodynamic settings. Is the car’s clearance down to 2.6 inches in front, 2.8 at the rear? Are the front underbody flaps closed? Is the spoiler retracted, and is the rear wing slightly raised?

As for any bleating about the impracticality of a 250 mph car, Bscher insists that the Veyron is a pioneering example of the technology required to reach such extreme speeds safely, and of the engineering genius needed to obtain a huge, safe, and comfortable pace from a tiny package. “The McLaren F1 [circa 1998] does zero to 200 kph in 28 seconds,” he explains. “The Veyron does zero to 300 kph in 13.7 seconds. But it is not important that it accelerates like nothing, or that it has a top speed of nothing. No. It is just incredible what the Volkswagen technicians and engineers have done with this car. It has become a new motivation and a training ground for our people. It is a technical achievement of the highest place, in a way that has never been done before.”
 
Bscher is not bothered by criticism that his car, despite its capabilities, already is a loser. He knows that with a production run of 50 cars in each of the next six years, even with a sticker price of $1.25 million, the Veyron will produce no profits for Volkswagen. He says the car is an investment in the marque and a chance for Bugatti, after a hiatus of some 60 years, to reclaim its reputation as a builder of high-performance, beautifully engineered art forms in which even rivets and safety wires follow created patterns.

Then, he adds, there will be time to consider building a smaller, less expensive, higher-volume Bugatti sports car. Maybe. Or a four-door, lightly defanged Veyron. Possibly.

Early reviews of the Veyron have been orgasmic. Bscher, however, remains a little concerned about public preoccupation with power, acceleration, and speed, and how all these outrageous numbers will play in Poughkeepsie. He wants the softer side of the Veyron to be recognized, to dispel the assumption that this is a hyperactive machine given to lurching, jerking, burping, and grumbling when forced to behave. For although the two-seater has three performance settings, it has but a single personality. The Veyron idles as smoothly and as quietly as a watch ticks, and whether making mayhem at a racing circuit or sniffing for a parking slot at Quail Lodge, it rides safe, smooth, and comfortable.

“Let’s drive,” suggests Bscher. “I will be your copilot.”

The imposing nature of the car makes a contradiction of the starting procedure. Turn the key, then watch the instruments and hear all systems come alive. Foot on brake, finger on starter button, you wince in anticipation as 16 cylinders and eight liters bellow a statement of power and strength. Actually, the sound is more of a soft rumble and a gurgle; you have heard better noise from a Porsche Boxster.

Select first by flipping the right paddle, release the button on the parking brake, tread the accelerator as you would a Buick’s, and the Veyron moves into motion. Actually, it dawdles. The turning circle seems rather large. Not being able to see the car’s snout and front fenders is a little disconcerting. But adaptation to such traits comes quickly; you will be maneuvering quite comfortably long before leaving paint on an olive grower’s 300-year-old stone wall.

The first few miles of the ride, heading toward Pollina and Sicily’s northern coastal roads, are in traffic, enabling you to become comfortable with the pedals, particularly the brakes. They offer easy, even pressures. A couple of sharp commands to the engine room prove that throttle tip-in requires nothing more than a gentle sneaker and faith in the system. When traffic breaks, Bscher perks up.

“Go! Go! Go!” he orders.

The Veyron awakens with an urgent surge, then a rush of forward motion until the power becomes a punch. You are through the gears in a tick, actually seven ticks. Shift, Mississippi, shift, Mississippi, shift. Sneak a glimpse at the two small dials bracketing the tachometer, and you see that one is registering 120 mph, and the other says you are using less than 500 hp.

“Use a lower gear, increase the revs, and you go faster,” advises Bscher.
 
But for the time being we are content where we are, particularly as it appears that Sicilians never learned to build roads over undulating surfaces. All of the major highways seem to form one bridge that is several hundred miles long and calls for metal expansion joints every hundred feet or so.

Kerchunk, thrum. Kerchunk, thrum. With the Veyron traveling faster than 100 mph, you are afraid that the joints are biting chunks bigger than an Egg McMuffin out of the Michelins. They are not, yet you still hold down the speed and use the thrashing to explore the steering and suspension, which are peerless. Despite all this thumping, no part of the car is shaking; no piece of the interior is digging into the driver’s vital organs. The ride is comfortable, relaxing, and feels about 80 mph slower than indicated.
 
Suddenly, there is silence; the car has reached a stretch of highway laid across dirt. It is flat, smooth, and just might reach to Athens. You brake, slow some, downshift four gears to third, an then plant your right foot.

“Shift at 6,000!” yells Bscher.

You shift into fourth at 6,000 rpm, which is not far from redline. You keep counting off the gears, keep shoveling on the coals. You look at the performance dials. Now the one on the left registers 900 hp and its partner on the right shows that we are slightly north of 300 kph, which is fractionally south of 200 mph.
 
The car does not meander at all; the track is solid, and the steering is holding its set. Now you are looking at 220 mph. If it were not for its diffusers and spoilers, the car would be flying, literally. But the aerodynamics have a firm grip on everything, and there is ne’er a quiver to indicate that lift might be arguing with drag. Yet there also is no stirring music from the engine and the exhaust, just a grinding and clattering from gears, cams, four turbochargers, four driveshafts, and assorted mechanicals pounding away only inches from the driver’s right ear. There is a ton of tire noise from the Michelins, which seem to be 50 feet wide. Wind din is a mild thunder, because now the slipstream is blowing harder than a hurricane. There is no Italian opera, no British harrumph, no German trumpeting. What a pity.

But Bscher is delighted. “What did I tell you about that gearbox?” he exults. “Everybody else is making crap.”

Profanity forged in the heat of exhilaration, high challenge, and global achievement must be forgiven.

Bugatti, www.bugatti-cars.de

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