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Afterburn: flat out in the Bugatti Bolide

It might be a plaything for billionaires, but Bugatti’s new track-only Bolide is a force of nature. We’re first to experience it in full flight

Published: 16 May 2024

Fill the footwell, toddler-style in my own lap, remove and soil my own helmet or attempt to fling open the door and launch a projectile over the sill? These appear to be my puking options as Andy Wallace gives me the thumbs up and delivers another gut pummelling launch. I nod weakly and turn green. I consider my constitution sturdy, but the Bolide is no respecter of reputations, it’s a feral attack on the eyes, ears and organs, and when you’re in the passenger seat with zero idea when the next punch of acceleration or brick wall of braking is coming, it reduces grown men to gibbering, dribbling wrecks. Being simultaneously flooded with happy hormones, but also wanting to escape and lie in the foetal position under a bush for a few hours is a new one for me. But then the Bugatti Bolide is a new one for us all. 

Plenty of track only hypercars have come before – Aston Martin Valkyrie AMR Pro, Ferrari FXXK, Lamborghini Essenza SCV12 to mention a few of the best – each ferocious in its own way, dismissed as useless toys by most, owned by a handful, driven properly by few... but none is quite as deranged as the Bolide. None takes such a juggernaut of an engine – a 1,578bhp 8.0-litre quad-turbo W16 so totally unsuited to racing with its inherent lag, thirst and heft – and builds an entirely bespoke racecar around it. We’ll get to the astonishing facts and stats that orbit the Bolide, burn brightly then crash into your brain like the meteor it’s named after, but know this – it probably shouldn’t exist. If common sense had prevailed this engineering Everest would have died years ago, but it didn’t, which is what makes it so deeply fascinating. It’s the world’s greatest pub question made real.

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We’re at the Nardò proving ground in the heel of Italy’s boot, the first outside of Bugatti’s inner circle to get close to this unicorn... and experience it in full flight. We’ve been wedged into a live development session, but there’s an air of demob happiness about the engineering team as it’s their last official day on the programme. The Bolide’s hardware and software are frozen, proven robust and reliable, which means it’s basically finished minus the polished carbon and purple leather. Customer deliveries will start in the summer and the first two cars are already in production – one a pre-series car that Bugatti will keep, the other destined for the garage of the new gaffer, Mate Rimac.

Photography: John Wycherley

Normally passenger rides are a hard pass for us, but clearly there are things to learn here – especially as our pilot is chief test driver Andy Wallace, a man who’s helped nurture the Bolide from acorn to oak, has a Le Mans win on the CV and more Bugatti seat time than anyone else on the planet. It’s 6.30am and we’re both romper-suited up and enjoying a rounded Italian breakfast of sweet, strong black coffee while I gawp at the pair of heavily used and abused prototypes in front of us. “This particular car, I think it’s done close to 12,000km, and not going to Tesco and back... it’s been hammered. We have not driven this car with any sympathy whatsoever,” Andy explains. The car’s battle scars corroborate his story – a mess of raw carbon, gaffer tape and wires that disappear as you get further away from it, but are entirely fitting for its purpose: to be ruthlessly quick around a track, not parked up as an ornament in a billionaire’s marble and glass tower.

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The shape is sensational, hewn by aerodynamic purpose, but beautifully proportioned and small in footprint. A rare case of design and engineering both winning the argument. The shrunken horseshoe grille blending into the front splitter, the roof scoop, the ‘X’ lights, rear fin, wing, voids... it’s pure aggression, but with a refinement most racecars don’t bother with. And then it spins and woofs into life with a bass and hard resonance that only cubic capacity can deliver... now fully uncorked with the Chiron’s particulate filters and catalytic converters torn out. It’s at this point I realise conversing casually with Andy as he demonstrates the Bolide’s dynamic attributes is unlikely... plus the intercom’s not working. Sign language it is.

Fluids warmed through, Andy and I are ushered over. I grab the nearest helmet, which happens to be a homage to the gaffer taped exterior, and we hunker down in our seats. I say seats – these are pads stuck directly to the bespoke carbon monocoque, cocooning and tilted back with your heels somewhere in line with your bum. You can remove the wheel, but Andy doesn’t bother, skipping into his custom seat like a whippet. We roll out towards the evocatively named Dynamic Platform A – a mammoth square of tarmac, with two long straights peeling off at right angles – receive a new pair of slicks fresh out the tyre oven, and have at it.

19 minutes 52 seconds

Conversation is doable at idle, but drowned out once any throttle gets involved – it’s noisy, but not pneumatic drill harsh like a Valkyrie or AMG One. Andy asks what I fancy – a standing launch or a rolling one that holds you on the pitlane limiter before releasing the beans? “Both?” I say, naive to the pinball machine I’m about to go through. The moment of launch itself isn’t the full fireworks – there’s the briefest of pauses as the four turbos inhale and the engine crests 4,000rpm (no sequential turbocharging here like the Chiron, to save weight), then a mildly uncomfortable shove in the back, some wheelspin from all four tyres and finally the full hook up as you’re tossed down the runway... jaw clenched, knuckles white, blood pooled in the rearmost few centimetres of your torso.

Yes, a Tesla Model S Plaid can deliver similar forces off the line, but that’s administered in a silky, silent shock. The Bolide applies pure violence to every sense and cell in your body, and at the point when the Tesla would be running out of puff, at say 100mph, the Bolide kicks again, doubling down on its accelerative efforts, reminding you it’s barely breaking sweat. Neither is the driver. “It’s still a Bugatti. It’s still easy to drive and it’s comfortable and it’s got air conditioning, but it’s far, far away from a Chiron,” Andy explains. “There’s no auto setting for the seven-speed dual clutch gearbox, you’re in manual the whole time, but it will upshift for you at maximum rpm. If you had to stare at the tacho or the shift lights to see when to shift, that would actually take away from the driving pleasure I think, because it’s all happening so fast.” In a nutshell, your granny could launch the Bolide, whether she’d survive the g force is another matter entirely.

No track to circulate then, but that doesn’t stop Andy continuing his cruel assault on my internal gyrometer with some fast cornering on the skidpan. Needless to say, no skids are achieved, just limpit- like grip and worryingly high lateral g. At no point do I feel we’re remotely close to breaching the limits of adhesion, and the numbers explain why. The Bolide – with its Michelin slicks, nearly 3,000kg of downforce at its 236mph top speed, dry weight of 1,450kg (around 1,600kg with fluids) and claimed maximum lateral 2.5g (a Chiron is capable of around 1.2g) – will still be clinging on at the point your puny musculoskeletal system gives up.

 

 

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And the most shocking bit is to come. Note to self: tighten your harness before being teleported about in a carbon-fibre missile, because when Andy stands on the brakes I’m flung forward like a ragdoll, neck and limbs trying to escape through the exhaust-size air vents, body momentarily free from the forces of gravity. You can enjoy this visual feast on repeat thanks to the onboard GoPros, but the cause is clear – the Bolide’s carbon-carbon brakes have the largest eight-piston front calipers Brembo has ever developed for a track car. And the 390mm discs themselves (limited in size to fit behind the 18-inch wheels) are a microcosm of the entire car – designed to operate stupendously well within a very tight operating window. In other words, they basically don’t work at low speeds, but brake from vmax to 0mph and they’ll reach 1,000°C and haul off the mph like there’s a parachute flapping about behind you. They also run a five-stage ABS system, which is pretty unheard of in a purpose-built racecar like this.

Christian Willman, the Bolide’s technical project leader, explains the benefits. “When you have a high downforce car at high speed, you can push the brakes very hard, but as the car slows, the downforce reduces and you need to release the brake pedal step by step. At turn in, you must be off the brakes. Here you can push the brake fully until the point you turn in and even trail brake into the corner.” For billionaires with more money than talent, this means faster lap times and less chance of ending up in a £3.5m pile of carbon and Alcantara.

The Bolide applies pure violence to every sense and cell in your body

Truth is, for all my complaining about feeling queasy and getting battered about, that’s just a symptom of the Bolide’s brilliance. There’s a robustness to everything it does, a repeatability of otherworldly feats, a democratisation of miracles that’s become a Bugatti hallmark. Where would it be versus an F1 car around a lap? “A few seconds behind,” Andy says, humouring my question. “But it would be going a hell of a lot faster at the end of the straight.” No mean feat when you consider the Bolide was originally conceived as a 300+mph top speed car to steal the Chiron Super Sport’s crown, before the focus shifted to downforce and ultimate track performance. Could a road legal Bolide ever exist, I ask Christian, fully expecting a clip around the ear. “I would never say no, but it’s a lot of effort. The brakes would need to be completely different, the body panels have to have a thicker radius, the exhaust would need a silencer... it would be a completely different car.”

And for what? Want the ultimate, no holds barred road car? The Chiron already exists and a V16 hybrid successor is waiting in the wings. The Bolide is a different expression of Bugatti’s values, something raw and unfiltered, arguably the world’s greatest hypercar powertrain strapped to a true racing car chassis, that just happens to look knee tremblingly good. Sure, they’re only building 40 of them, they cost £3.5m each and you can only drive them on a track, but that brings a purity too. The Bolide is built for driving, not posing. For experiencing, not polishing. I ask Christian if customers will take their cars home, or leave them at the factory. “Oh they have them at home, I would imagine half of the customers have it as a collector’s car and only bring it out a few times a year. We make so much effort, if the car doesn’t run it would be a shame.” Just imagine having all that money, one of these masterpieces in the garage and not using it in anger. It’s enough to make you sick.

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