Well, that’s certainly a way to go out on top. Bugatti president Stephan Winkelmann has announced that the company will no longer attempt high-speed records, now that a modified Bugatti Chiron has set a TÜV-certified speed of 304.77 mph on the 5.4-mile straightaway at the Volkswagen Group’s Ehra-Lessien test track in Saxony, Germany. Bugatti factory test driver Andy Wallace, who had previously set production car records with the McLaren F1 and Jaguar XJ220, had the finesse, the courage, and the privileged right foot.
“We have shown several times that we build the fastest cars in the world. In future we will focus on other areas,” said Winkelmann. “Bugatti was the first to exceed 300 mph. Its name will go down in the history books, and it will stay that way forever.”
“When I think about it, it’s pretty bloody cool,” Wallace told Car and Driver. “If somebody said to me even two years ago that I was going to go over 300 mph, I’d have thought they were out of their mind.”
Ironically, the numbers make less sense on the other side of the pond. The much-lauded 300-mph stat converts to 482 kph; and somehow, 482 just doesn’t have the same ring. (Neither does 311, the miles-per-hour equivalent). Why didn’t Bugatti go for 500 kph? The easy answer is that Bugatti ran out of asphalt; Wallace told Car and Driver the speed trace hadn’t leveled out, and was still climbing when he passed the designated braking point.
And, as with records on the Nürburgring, this was as much a publicity stunt as it was a high-speed test. Bugatti is calling it a record for manufacturers of serial production cars, but the record-setting Chiron is not exactly a production car. Bugatti describes it as “a pre-production vehicle of a Bugatti Chiron derivative” that is “near production” on the spec sheet. In other words, you won’t be able—at least for now—to walk into a Bugatti dealer and drop a custom-baby-seal-leather duffel of cash on a 300-mph car. Unsurprisingly, though, Bugatti is planning on selling a limited-edition Chiron to celebrate the record.
Bugatti partnered with IndyCar chassis manufacturer Dallara, which fabricates the bodies for production Chirons, and tire manufacturer Michelin in the record attempt. Dallara fine-tuned the Chiron’s aerodynamic bits to precisely balance downforce with aero lift for maximum straight-line speed.
Bugattis are famous for their hyper-expensive, purpose-built Michelin tires that must be replaced at the factory, but even those weren’t up to a 300-mph jaunt.
For the run at Ehra-Lessien, Michelin made extra-special Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires, with steel belts reinforced to withstand the severe centrifugal forces generated when spinning fast enough for the car to go above 300 mph. To make sure the tires’ steel reinforcing belts were aligned properly to prevent friction and heat build-up, the special Sport Cup 2s got individually X-rayed prior to the high-speed run. We’re curious to see if this 300-mph tire tech will benefit any other 300-barrier contenders.
Mechanical changes to the Chiron included a transmission with a longer top-gear ratio and special tuning of the Chiron’s quad-turbo W-16 engine up to 1600 horsepower. That’s the same power figure cited for the $9 million Centodieci, recently revealed at the 2019 Monterey Car Week.
For Wallace’s protection, Bugatti installed a safety cell—presumably a race-certified roll cage. “Any crash at that sort of speed is likely to hurt,” Wallace said. (You know, a flesh wound.)
Bugatti’s head of development, Stefan Ellrott, was in charge of the record-breaking effort and explained why the Ehra-Lessien track was chosen.
“A world record attempt at such an extreme speed of over 400 kph always involves a certain risk. Everything has to be right—the car, the weather and the track. Ehra-Lessien offers the greatest possible safety, which is why we opted for this track,” said Ellrott. “Driver safety is our top priority. We did everything in advance to minimize the risk.” That minimization included cleaning the track surface so it would be free of stones and grit.
Now that Bugatti has breached the 300-mph mark, it remains to be seen if Hennessey will try to best it with the upcoming, 1600-hp Venom F5. One of the stated performance goals of the Venom F5 is a top speed of at least 300 mph. SSC (formerly Shelby Supercars Inc.) has also made that mark the goal for its upcoming Tuatara supercar. Of the stratospheric hyper-car manufacturers, though, the Chiron most directly challenges Koenigsegg and its 277.87-mph Agera R, which just lost the fastest-production-car throne.
However, don’t expect Koenigsegg to take up the challenge. While the Regera is billed as the fastest-accelerating production car, capable of reaching 250 mph in just 20 seconds, Christian Koenigsegg told this writer that he has no interest in competing for the title of the absolute-fastest road car. Such records have no practical meaning in real-world driving, he said.
Greatness comes in many flavors. Bugatti, in fabulous French style, has cornered the market on those with top-speed-record tastes. When the dust settles, we’re excited to see if the competition stampedes in Bugatti’s steps, or if automakers choose to cater to other superlative statistics.