A few months before entering production in 2005, the Bugatti Veyron 16.4 attempted to break the 250-mph barrier. It was a key demonstration of Bugatti’s engineering, and at the heart of the matter was the car’s 8.0-liter quad-turbo W-16 engine, good for a healthy 986 horsepower and 921 ft-lb of torque driving all four wheels.
At the time, Veyron’s list of stats was staggering: 0-62 mph in 2.5 seconds, 124 mph after 7.3 seconds, 186 mph in 16.7 seconds and to a top speed of 253 mph with the Speed Key in the right position. With this secondary key turned, once above 136 mph, the Veyron’s central hydraulics lowered the suspension to a V-shape, with the rear wing adjusted to two degrees and the diffuser flaps closed to give test driver Uwe Novacki all the drag reduction the chassis would permit. After all, Veyron mastermind Ferdinand Piëch’s goal was to make Bugatti’s hypercar faster than the Le Mans-winning Porsche 917 was on the Hunaudières Straight back in the 1960s. The target speed to beat? 252 mph.
Being 56-years-old at the time and with over 30 years of experience on his belt, Uwe Novacki worked as the lead driving safety instructor of Volkswagen and knew Ehra-Lessien’s three-lane high-speed oval like the back of his hand. Still, on the 19th of April, 2005, he was bound to leave the 300 km/h mark (186.4 mph) and brave the 400 km/h barrier (248.5 mph), throwing everything he and the Veyron had against that 5.4-mile straight.
In order to maximize his speed in the straight, Novacki had to hit the curves as quickly as he dared, while keeping in mind that the forces of doing so would press down hard on the suspension, and once the shocks became fully extended, pressure would transfer to the tires, making the car more unstable. Here’s how he remembers his dance on that knife’s edge:
“I cautiously approached the speed range. On the first lap, I drove around the steep bend at 143 mph which was too fast and the car became unstable. I took the next bend at 137 mph and the car felt more stable. Before I came out of the bend, I accelerated as hard as I could to get the full 986 horsepower out of the Veyron’s engine. I was so impressed with how stable, effortless and safe the car felt at 250 mph.”
It’s worth remembering that during its development sometime in 2003, a Veyron mule crashed hard at Nardo with Loris Bicocchi strapped into it, due to tire failure at high speeds. Nardo is a banked oval circuit.
Interestingly, during Novacski’s first attempt two years later, he only reached 236 mph. No matter, though; a few days later, in April’s good weather, the car delivered 255 mph, thus breaking the 400 km/h barrier and giving Bugatti the record it so craved. After several runs, a digital display even showed 265 mph at one point, which later proved to be a miscalculation due to the display measuring accurately only up to 186 mph.
To ensure that there’s no shadow of doubt, the Veyron’s official speed was measured in both directions by testing specialists TÜV Süd. The car exceeded 253 mph several times, but in the end, the value entered in the type approval documents based on the average was 407 km/h, or 252.89 miles per hour.
As it dueled in a back-and-forth game with Koenigsegg throughout the following decade, Bugatti went on to break two more production car speed records with the Veyron, along with a third (and supposedly final) one with the modified Chiron Super Sport 300+.
In June 2010, the enhanced Veyron 16.4 Super Sport was clocked at 267.8 mph with French racing driver Pierre-Henri Raphanel behind its wheel, while in April 2013, the open-top Bugatti Veyron 16.4 Grand Sport Vitesse took the roadster record with 254 mph.
Just last year, the Chiron hit 304.77 mph, and with Bugatti “no longer focusing on breaking records in the future” but instead forking out as many Chiron variants as its design team can muster, all eyes are on a Swedish car known as Absolut to deliver the next big benchmark in this ever-evolving design and engineering challenge.