Just recently, Bugatti took a pre-production, monstrously powerful Chiron out to break the 300-mph barrier that, until now, was said to be elusive only by virtue of the limits of modern tire technology. But while Bugatti hit nearly 305 mph, the company wants everyone to know it could’ve gone faster.
Bugatti announced its speed run, in which it claimed to hit nearly 304.8 mph at the massive Ehra-Lessien test track in Germany, via email on Monday. The run used special Michelin tires, and Bugatti subsequently announced its retirement from “the competition to produce the fastest serial production cars,” saying it has shown times that it “build[s] the fastest cars in the world” and will “focus on other areas” in the future.
Bugatti sent another email just two days later, basically saying that it could’ve gone faster by taking the car to a higher altitude—and thus lower air density and aerodynamic drag—but decided against the idea for safety reasons. It felt almost like insurance for its retirement from the game, in case someone else goes out there and breaks its newly set marker.
From the press release:
The Ehra-Lessien high-speed track in Lower Saxony is the only place in the world where such high safety standards are applied to record attempts. The 21-kilometre three-lane high-speed track is lined with crash barriers, and rescue services are available at the north and south ends. Special mats are used to clean the carriageway before each test.
But Bugatti had to accept one major drawback: the test track in Ehra-Lessien is 50 metres above sea level. Unlike higher-altitude locations used for high-speed runs in the past such as in Nevada, the higher air density of 1013.25 hPa is almost the same as at sea level. The higher the track, the lower the aerodynamic drag.
Bugatti said in the email that by its calculations, the Chiron that made the run—which was referred to as both “pre-production” and “near production,” but is based on the standard, quad-turbocharged W16 Chiron that makes a rated 1,500 horsepower—could’ve gone about 15.5 mph faster in a higher-altitude place like Nevada. The press release read like a lab report, with paragraphs full of numbers and mentions inertia calculations.
Calculations are just that, though, and Bugatti said it didn’t want to chance making the Nevada run in real life.
“Safety comes first at Bugatti,” the company’s head of development, Stefan Ellrott, said in the release. “The route in Nevada is very long and only goes in one direction: security forces would have taken too long to get to the scene in an emergency. In addition, the track has a slight gradient of about three percent. It wouldn’t have felt right to set a record there.”
All of this seems a bit strange from the outside, though.
Why Nevada? Why the “Here’s what we could have done” press release? Why only one pass, and not the average of two to account for wind direction and other external factors? Why so many numbers?
Nevada might sound familiar, since it’s where Koenigsegg made a roughly 280-mph run in the Agera RS on a closed-down highway a couple of years ago. The run happened on an 11-mile stretch of road between Las Vegas and the town of Pahrump, and the Agera RS went around 272 mph in one direction and 284 mph in the other. Jalopnik asked Bugatti if it meant that specific stretch of road, and a representative for the company said it didn’t. Just “Nevada.”
“We took Nevada as an example, not any road in particular,” the representative said, mentioning that Jessi Combs’ recent fatal jet-car run shows the dangers any speed run entails. “Since the last record run had been done there and we knew by our calculations that due to the altitude we would be faster there, we did consider it as an option, but soon decided against it, as explained in the press release, for safety reasons.”
Those reasons were, as mentioned above, that “security forces would have taken too long to get to the scene in an emergency” in Nevada.
The representative said Bugatti doesn’t “look at others that much” when asked about comparisons, but Jalopnik asked Koenigsegg what safety precautions were in place for the Agera RS run, and founder Christian von Koenigsegg referred Jalopnik to Koenigsegg owner Jeffrey Cheng, who put together the event.
Cheng wrote via email that in the run, he and those involved were “very well prepared” in terms of safety, and that the State of Nevada “would not allow [them] to undertake such a dangerous event without a mountain of preparations being in place.” Those precautions, Cheng said, included a “comprehensive safety plan,” multiple fire trucks, strategically located ambulances, a landing site for an emergency-evacuation helicopter, and two additional helicopters on site for backup.
“Additionally this the particular stretch of highway is surrounded by flat desert with no concrete obstructions or barriers to impact,” Cheng wrote, adding that a 300-mph crash would have been bad regardless of location—Bugatti’s choice or theirs. “Obviously if the car lost control at those speeds the result would have likely been catastrophic regardless as the car could have easily flipped over and over and destroyed itself.”
Cheng compared the apparent privacy of the test track to the public event held with the Agera RS run, also noting the changes that occurred in the Agera RS when running it at the Nevada altitude. When asked if its Chiron event was public, Bugatti told Jalopnik that Ehra-Lessien is a closed track with “strict safety regulations and access control,” thus it isn’t really possible to make it public. There was one journalist there, though, Bugatti said.
Cheng said the particular stretch of highway used for the Agera RS run has an elevation of 3,000 feet above sea level, and that the boost on the vehicle was reduced during the run. (Pahrump has an elevation of 2,690 feet, according to City Data, and Las Vegas 2,000.)
“The altitude automatically resulted in a boost reduction of around 20%,” Cheng wrote. “We could have increased boost back to “standard” but elected to leave it at its reduced level initially. As it turned out the record was broken without ever setting the boost to even its stock setting let alone turning it up!
“I’m not saying that we could have reached 300mph because we admit that 300mph would not have been achievable simply due to the gear ratios. But we certainly could have gone well into the mid 280s in a two way average. But once the record was broken we did not feel the need to tempt fate further for a few extra miles per hour.”
The record Cheng is referring to, as well as the five world records Koenigsegg announced that it broke, are all listed here. Koenigsegg claims top speed for a production vehicle, and while the group did not have a Guinness representative at the event, Cheng told Jalopnik that the speed was verified by two different independent agencies: RaceLogic and Stalker Radar.
Cheng also mentioned Bugatti’s lack of a two-way run, which Bugatti said was due to the track itself.
“In Ehra, we decided to do the run in one direction only,” the representative said via email. “Again the reason is safety, since the track (and, thus, the safety rails) are designed for one direction, and the tarmac is used up in this one direction, too. Then again, Ehra is virtually completely flat, at sea level.”
In addition to all of that, there was that “Here’s what we could’ve done” press release two days after the one about the speed run, which seemed almost like a qualifier in case another supercar goes out on a closed highway and breaks 300 mph as well. Bugatti, at least, said it wasn’t much to be suspicious about.
“We just see that very often the physical forces behind such a speed run are forgotten or fans are unaware of them,” the representative wrote. “I, myself, thought this to be highly interesting when I learned about it. There is really no level playing field between different runs. Then again, we really just wanted to showcase the capabilities of our team and, of course, of our car—one last time.”
One last time it is, even if Bugatti thinks it could’ve gone a lot faster.