Bugatti is in the midst of launching the Chiron, a new car set to be the fastest in the world, a shining beacon of engineering prowess. But Bugatti won’t do a speed run in the car until 2018. The company said that everything is going according to plan, but I’m a little skeptical that things are perfectly fine behind the curtain.
To understand why, you need to go back to 2003, when Bugatti was launching, again, a new car set to be the fastest in the world, a shining beacon of engineering prowess: the Veyron.
It was already seven years after the company first showed a concept version of the car and two years before the vehicle would make its first delayed delivery.
Things didn’t go great.
The car nearly crashed in its first outing. According to a Popular Science story at the time, pre-production vehicle spun out in front of journalists assembled at Laguna Seca in 2003. Things got worse from there, with the car getting delayed from an originally expected mid-2003 launch to 2004, then 2005. Management of the project changed when the man in charge retired. The front end got reworked to pass crash tests, and there were other alterations to the car’s suspension, brakes, and aerodynamics.
This was all, of course, after the company switched the entire engine layout for the car, having started as a concept with a Y-layout “W18" cylinder engine—basically, three banks of six cylinders. Later drivetrain boss of the Veyron project Karl-Heinz Neumann stated that the W18 was “basically six of our three-cylinder engines.” They couldn’t get it to make more than 555 horsepower. It also had, amazingly, a five-speed manual transmission.
Since the Y/W18 didn’t work out, a year later the car got its W-layout 16 cylinder engine with two banks of not-quite-inline VR8s. At first it made about 630 horsepower, as Bugatti claims. That, as you can imagine, took a lot of work to get up to the final, mandated 1,000 hp figure.
The main issue was that the Bugatti operated outside of VW’s ordinary development procedures, so problems with the design were only discovered once they already had a car that they were in the midst of testing. Testing which was, at some undisclosed point, delayed because one of their development mules got damaged grazing a wall at the high-speed Nardo track.
When the project’s second manager, Bernd Pischetsrieder, test drove what the team probably hoped was the final version of the car, he hated the thing and ordered the whole dynamics of the vehicle to get changed. Popular Science quoted him saying that the steering, for instance, “does not function as well as it should.” The team had to design an entirely new steering rack after that.
Remember that the car was designed backwards. The previous king of the supercar world before it was the McLaren F1. When the F1 became the fastest production car in the world, it was a happy accident. McLaren didn’t design it to be faster than anything else on the road; McLaren designed it to be as good as they could make it. That it happened to do 240+ was a bonus.
The Veyron was specifically planned to do 252 mph, whether or not Bugatti knew how to make that happen. It was a direct order from Ferdinand Piëch, and it had nothing to do with engineering and everything to do with ego. Piëch made his name in the Volkswagen family empire building up Porsche’s Le Mans program in the ‘70s into the ‘80s, before he made his name again backing Audi’s Quattro development.
Anyway, Piëch was the dude who oversaw the legendary 917 program, birthing a car that for decades was the fastest car at Le Mans and the fastest car on any closed circuit. Only in the late ‘80s did cars start going faster than the great 917, ultimately peaking with the ‘Project 400' 252-mph WM Peugeot. Pïech commanded that his new Bugatti supercar would go faster. The Veyron, after years of work, brushed onto 253.
Bugatti has been clear that what it was doing with the Veyron was stretching the absolute limit of what they knew about thermodynamics at the time. The company was really at the bleeding edge of what could be done.
Bugatti wasn’t waiting for the right moment to unleash the Veyron’s top speed, or carefully picking who could drive it flat out. Bugatti was struggling, all under the doubtful eye of the press. Was Bugatti particularly kind to its naysayers? No. The engineer most directly responsible with developing how the car drove actively argued against everything journalists were writing, attacking their “miserably researched reports” that questioned his baby. Thankfully all of these reports remain chronicled in the news section of the Bugatti Page, in original reviews of the Veyron such as this one by the Wall Street Journal, and in news reports like this one in Autocar.
It is with all of this in mind that I begin to think about the new Chiron. Bugatti debuted the car earlier this year and says that it is faster than any Veyron before it. But the Chiron, they also announced, will be limited to 261 mph (that’s 420 kph, nice) for customers.
This is slower than the de-limited speed of the fastest Veyron, the 265 mph Super Sport of 2010. Now, Bugatti has the Chiron right now. And they have Ehra-Lessien, the high-speed bowl where the Veyron hit its top speeds. But Bugatti has declared that they won’t do a top-speed run in the Chiron before 2018.