I've been in the same room as George Clooney, just as I have been in the same room as a Bugatti Grand Sport 16.4. The experiences were very similar - everyone was in awe of the star attraction. Men and women alike left the George Clooney press conference at the 2007 Dubai International Film Festival marvelling on his good looks, personal charm and charisma. Likewise, people left the Bugatti press conference earlier this year with strong feelings about the car's unique looks, luxurious interior and claims of 1,001hp and a top speed of 407kph.
After both press conferences, I didn't think I'd ever get any closer to either subject ever again, and I am still waiting for George Clooney to remember where he left my phone number. However, I was invited to take the Bugatti on an afternoon jaunt to Kalba, a largely speed-camera free drive to a coastal town on the Omani border, with some rare winding roads, to test out the handling. Pierre-Henri Raphanel, Bugatti's official driver, or pilote officiel as his business card proclaims, accompanied me on the drive. He took to the wheel first so I could keep an eye on the road signs and make sure we didn't miss the exit from Emirates Road. As we made our way out of the traffic, he explained to me that the car is both "civilised and a rocket".
At the civilised end of the spectrum, the seats, while being low-slung, are still very comfortable and make you feel like you are reclined in a quilted leather hammock. Raphanel also explained that the car is "high presence, low profile". I found this rather hard to believe given the speeds it is capable of and the heads that turned wherever we went, but he went on to explain that the car was designed to be either driven hard or taken to the opera. True enough, it does purr quietly at sedate speeds, and you could indeed pull up to the theatre without being mistaken for a race car driver.
Also at the civilised end of the spectrum, the car is ridiculously easy to drive in the automatic mode, ideal for heavy traffic. And bizarrely, it is so easy to get comfortable in the Bugatti that it is not hard to imagine using it for your daily commute. But nobody cares about how a Bugatti can transport you to the office. Like going on a date with George Clooney, the one question everyone will ask you after you've driven a Bugatti is: "So, what was it like?"
It was like a surreal dream of controlled madness. On the open road, with the flat, straight miles rolled out ahead of you, the removable roof left back at the hotel in Dubai and the gearbox set to manual, the scream of the high revs before each gear change is primal. On top of all that, the air intakes are located just behind your head and, as you flatten your foot to the floor, it sounds like the lungs of a giant athlete taking in huge gulps of air before performing a feat of unimaginable prowess. Raphanel urged me to go faster and faster, my pitifully short 27-inch legs strained to put pedal to the metal - it is a very deep well under the steering wheel and the pedals are much closer together than the Honda Civic I'd driven to the hotel. As the speedometer needle shot past the 200kph mark, I could barely hear, and the wind caused a grin to be plastered across my face. The Bugatti cap that Raphanel had earlier plonked on my head was on the verge of flying off and my sunglasses were rattling around the bridge of my nose. I pulled the cap off my head and tossed it on Raphanel's lap as I was vaguely aware that I was travelling at some speed in excess of 250kph.
Somewhere around 270, I slowed back down again having reached 66.3 per cent of the car's top speed and not having troubled the full stable of 1,001 horses. It was exhilarating and strange but at the same time, there was no insane shaking and not once did I feel as if I was going to fly off the road or do serious harm to myself, Raphanel or the Volkswagen Golf GTI that was transporting the photographer and by that stage, struggling mightily to keep up. Like I said, it was controlled madness. Like agreeing to go on stage with Ozzy Osbourne but stopping just short of joining him in biting the head off a live bat.
After enjoying the sweep of the winding roads to Kalba and temporarily deafening myself by flooring it in sports mode in a tunnel, Raphanel took over the wheel for little while to show me, as he put it, "some tricks". Earlier, he had sped up on a straight road and then slammed on the brakes while taking his hands of the wheel and clapping his hands to demonstrate how quickly the car can stop at high speed. After eight claps, we had almost come to a total standstill. This was, he said, to demonstrate that unlike most cars, the brakes work better the faster you go.
But his best trick was to get the car up to 300kph. Uphill. On a series of bends. All I could do was laugh maniacally and then realise that not once did I feel scared. I wonder if a date with George Clooney would have the same effect? email@example.com