Our Editor-in-Chief heads to Ehra-Lessien with some brave pills to max a Chiron
Speed is relative. If you’ve been lucky enough to fly off on holiday this year, you’ll have done 150mph as you trundle down the runway, then cruised at 500–600mph as you battle with the tray table and in-flight food options. I have no doubt some of you will have been to the toilet at this velocity – congratulations. Clearly, our perception of speed is skewed by the environment. Back on the ground, speed is currency. In a world where bragging rights drive purchase decisions, the ability to say “My car is faster than yours” matters.
The Bugatti Chiron Sport has a claimed (and limited) top speed of 420kph (261mph). To date, no one outside of the Bugatti development team has experienced vmax in a Chiron. My task – if I pass my high-speed training – is to hit the magic number at Bugatti’s top secret Ehra-Lessien test facility. Why me? Because if a middle-aged ex-tractor driver from Essex can do it, anyone can.
Words: Charlie Turner // Photos: Mark Riccioni
To gain access to the Schnellbahn, with its 5.4-mile straight, I’m required to complete and pass the Supersport course – the highest grade of driver training within the VW group. I arrive at the security gates to be met by Michal Kutina, Ehra’s head of training, and after grabbing an R8 from the car park, head to the Schnellbahn for my first experience of the legendary banking.
Not wanting to waste any time, Michal nails the R8 and fires it into the corner at 125mph. At this speed, the car self-steers around the top level – something Michal duly demonstrates by taking both hands off the wheel and turning to talk to me. He exits the banking, swoops down into the middle lane and accelerates to the R8’s indicated maximum of 331kph – 205mph.
“You see? Easy. And in a Chiron, it’s even easier – you can sleep in a Chiron at 400kph.”
“And at 420?” I ask.
“It’s OK,” he answers coldly. “But if anything goes wrong, anything, do not try to catch the car, just brake as hard as you can – immediately – and you should stay between the barriers. Those who take this advice do OK. The guy who didn’t ended up in the hospital and the car split in two. When I went to see him to analyse what had happened, he said he thought he could catch it.”
On this happy note, I head out in the R8, guide it down the last section of the straight and into the banking at 125mph. As the angle builds, so does the force; the steering settles and the R8 pilots itself in a kind of analogue autonomy. The wall of death is just under a mile long and, even at 125mph, it feels like it’s taking an age to finish. Eventually, I see the exit, drop back a couple of gears and swoop down onto the curved six-mile-long return section and accelerate.
“Watch the pine needles on the outside lane – these can affect your grip levels,” Michal warns. “At Chiron speeds, you want to avoid all debris.”
We spear into the banking at the other end, exit onto the straight and fire the R8 down the 5.4-mile, arrow-straight tarmac. It’s a bright, hot day and there’s a mirage shimmering across the distance. The R8 builds speed rapidly initially, but, over 190mph, the acceleration slows as drag builds. Eventually we hit an indicated 331kph (205mph). There’s a slight breeze, shown by the windsocks all along the circuit, and I can feel it affecting the car’s direction – many tiny corrections are required to maintain it. I decelerate and enter the banking at what now feels like walking pace.
“When we exit the banking,” says Michal, “I want you to travel the whole lap at vmax – you must be at maximum speed the whole way.”
I duly accelerate up to 205mph and thread the R8 through a continuous, six-mile long left-hand turn. The additional load is making the car strain against the tyres, and the vibration increases to distracting levels. At 205mph, the force and millimetric accuracy of the steering inputs required to keep the R8 in between the lines is considerable. I find myself focusing miles in the distance, stealing glances at every windsock and making tiny corrections to compensate for the crosswinds.
“OK, you’ll be fine,” says Michal, checking his mobile phone. I assume this is test-driver speak for: ‘Nicely done, you naturally talented exemplar of a man.’ Duly signed off, I leave Ehra and drive to my hotel in a hire car to enjoy a performance athlete’s dinner of beer and currywurst, and find the world has gone into slow motion.
The following day I’m back and, with storm clouds building on the horizon, the wind speed is gusting up to 20mph. Never mind the windsocks – the trees down the straight are swaying busily. Sitting in the pit area at the end of the straight is a Chiron Sport. Luckily, Le Mans legend Andy Wallace is on hand to help prepare and guide me through the high-speed run. As the Bugatti’s health is checked by clever men with large foreheads and laptops, Andy and I install ourselves in the car and go through what you have to do to hit top speed.
Step one: get handed special ‘high speed’ key and insert into the slot to the left of the driver’s seat. Step two: get Chiron up to temperature with a gentle 125mph lap of the circuit in ‘cooking mode’. Stop, put Chiron into Park, twist key to engage high-speed mode, which changes the wing angle to reduce drag, drops the ride height, sets the tyre pressure monitors into high alert and does many other complicated things. Step three: drive off gently so you don’t activate the traction systems, which will cancel high-speed mode (not so easy when you have 1,497bhp under your right foot). Cruise to banking at 125mph while monitoring the windsocks, do not touch the brake (or high-speed mode is cancelled), exit the banking and send it. Easy.
Or not. Every time we exit the banking, the Chiron senses something isn’t perfect and cancels high-speed mode. Back to the pits.
Men with laptops identify that the system is picking up a pressure drop on the tyres, due to the cooling effect of the high-speed air passing over them after they have gained heat under load in the banking. For safety, the Bug’s preventing our high-speed run. Pressure is added to tyres and driver… we go again.
Now the Chiron’s happy and deploys all 1,479bhp, firing me at the horizon. Two hundred builds to 300 – the acceleration is too much for me to keep mentally converting from metric into Rees-Mogg. Three hundred, then four, and the Chiron is still accelerating hard enough to merrily rearrange my internal organs and it feels like it’s straining to catch the distant mirage on the horizon. The dotted lines on the tarmac have long since blurred into a solid stream.
At 400kph, we hit ‘the jump’, a surface change on the Schnellbahn straight that, at regular speed, thuds through the car with little drama. At Chiron speed – and in low-drag, high-speed configuration – we launch off it. The Bug has a little wiggle as we land, but, like that bit in Star Wars, Andy’s instruction to “keep it pinned” floats across my mind. I oblige.
We keep spearing at the horizon with relentless velocity. With the jump nailed, throttle pinned and speed climbing, confidence builds – especially when I glance at Andy, who doesn’t seem to be white-knuckled and wishing there was a brake pedal in the passenger footwell. At 410kph, the air pressure around the driver’s window causes it to open a fraction, adding more noise and drama to the velocity. At 415, my eyes dart from the speedo to the horizon as the banking looms out of the mirage… 418, 421. Even at this speed, the Chiron’s stable enough for a quick fist bump with my passenger. Time to focus on backing off the throttle as gently as possible. I’m breathing again. Huh. Must have been holding my breath this whole time.
Andy is laughing. “Bloody hell, well done,” he says. “That’s the fastest I’ve ever been in the passenger seat.” We head into the banking at twice the UK speed limit and it feels like crawling pace. Having brushed the brakes, the Chiron reverts from high-speed mode to ‘regular’ hypercar mode. It feels unflustered by the whole process – temperatures are fine, pressures bang-on as we return to base.
The team is overly flattering about the run I’ve done, but the reality is that it’s more a testament to Bugatti engineering than my driving. Everything is smiles and sunshine – until I utter nine seemingly innocuous words.
“Hey, can I have a go on my own?”
After some pained expressions, the matter is discussed in German. It doesn’t sound good. But despite my concerns – and their frowns – they seem to be OK with me flying solo. I head out to repeat the process – this time without a speed-record-holding co-driver and with the knowledge that the tyres have already been worked hard.
Heading into the banking, I notice the windsock is more erect, then wonder if that’s the correct terminology. As I’m considering this fact (and my choice of adjectives), I enter the banking, pilot my way around, drop to sixth, then fifth and, as the horizon opens up, I focus on the distance and floor it. The acceleration of a Chiron never fails to impress as we fly past the pits and over the jump. The Chiron squirms in the strengthening wind, a fact I feel through the seat of my pants, while adjustments are made not by steering but just tensing one hand or the other to guide it.
Pinning the throttle for more than a minute in a Chiron is a truly staggering experience. And, while the majority of my focus is taken up with staring into the distance and adjusting to every millimetre the car wanders on the road, this second run gives me time to enjoy the speed and consume the event, drinking in the intensity of it all, the noise, the engineering. Daft figures reappear on the speedo: 400, 406, 412. But this time, wind gusts are buffeting the nose of the Chiron and it feels as if we’re not going to better our PB. I start to process a few salient facts: length of road left, distance to decelerate and the fact that at top speed, I’ll be covering a mile every 13.7 seconds, the engine will be sucking in 60,000 litres of air a minute, and, with the rotational g-forces, the tyres will be doming in the middle, with heat – and therefore risk – raising exponentially. When a Chiron is at top speed, the maths become mad.
Time slows as the Chiron claws from 412 to 416. But then, as if punching a hole in the space-time continuum, it somehow finds more speed, matching our previous best of 421kph. I’m chuffed, and so focused on not using the banking as a launch ramp into Wolfsburg that I miss the moment I hit 423kph – in all the excitement, I keep the throttle wide open for a few more seconds, drinking in the velocity. But the data-logger records it: 262.84 miles per hour.
The Chiron remains unruffled. I don’t. I need a moment to take on what I’ve just done. Speed may be relative, but travelling at 262.84 miles an hour isn’t driving – it’s flying, piloting a piece of engineering where every element has to be working in perfect harmony to achieve that kind of velocity. When it works, when it all comes together and you’re charging at the horizon at a rate that’s barely comprehensible, there are few things to rival that rush.
I head back to the pits, euphoric, feeling privileged to dig into the outer edges of what the Chiron can deliver. It begins to sink in that I’ve experienced the pinnacle – and claimed the title of the fastest journalist in the world. Cruising back to the pits, I resign myself to the fact that my life will feel rather slow from here on in.