The air bag: Bugatti's Veyron is starting to attract competition, but without the might of VW behind these rivals, can they ever be truly safe, asks Kevin Hackett?
Need to beat Bugatti's speed can't be at the detriment of safety
In recent months, there's been much debate about what actually is the world's fastest production car. Bugatti has, for some time now, officially been at the top with its Veyron, but, despite that car's restricted 415kph top speed, other carmakers are now coming forward with claims that border on the insane.
Hennessey, an American company producing a Lotus-derived car called the Venom GT, reckons that it's trounced the Veyron and should be granted the official title of "world's fastest", after posting a speed of 427.6kph. Bugatti had previously set the record with its Veyron Super Sport at 431kph, but that was with its speed limiter removed. Hennessey argued that this invalidated its claim, as the Bugatti used was not in a state of tune available to ordinary customers, unlike its own car.
The matter was settled by Guinness World Records, who maintained that altering a car's speed limiter does not fundamentally alter its make-up. But after driving a Veyron Grand Sport Vitesse for a while along California's Pacific Coast Highway 1, I've decided that, even if Hennessey does "officially" beat this car at its own game, I wouldn't want to be in it when it does so.
Because the Veyron has the might of the Volkswagen empire behind it, and that means that it's the very best it can possibly be. Could the practically home-built Venom GT offer its occupants the same degree of safety when travelling at stupidly high speeds? Probably not.
I quiz Pierre-Henri Raphanel, who drove the record-breaking Veyron, on why the production car's top speed is electronically limited. "It is the tyres," he says. "Michelin developed the tyres specially with Bugatti, and when you think about what they are expected to do, it's no surprise that all the other manufacturers said they wouldn't be able to do it. These tyres have to offer ride comfort, stability at all speeds, as well as long life. They are not like racing tyres, where they're expected to only last for an hour or so."
When he was making his record-breaking runs in Germany, Raphanel says that Michelin was also on hand, constantly monitoring the tyres, lest they be deemed unable to achieve the set speeds without disintegrating with fatal results. Would he ever be tempted to try out the Venom GT at speed? "No," is his reply. "You have to keep in mind your responsibility as a manufacturer to the customer. That is why Bugatti insisted on using its standard road tyres, rather than special racing ones, for the world record car. There was never an option with this, even if it meant setting a lower speed than we could have with racing rubber."
Obviously, on America's public roads I was never going to get "my" orange-and-black Veyron at anything like its potential maximum speed, but that's not to say I was unable to feel the ferocity of its power delivery. Just a gentle squeeze of the throttle is enough to bend the laws of physics, literally pushing you into the back of your seat, as the numbers pile onto the digital instrumentation. All the while, the car's aerospace-derived spoilers and dampers adjust to your inputs with immediate accuracy, keeping the car planted firmly on the road surface. The whirrs, the buzzing and other weird noises are actually reassuring, because you know that this car, despite its fearsome capabilities, has its user's best interests at heart.
When it comes to cars like this, maximum speed is an irrelevance, because nobody will ever get to exploit it on a public road. There are only a couple of places on the planet where they can be tested flat out, and, no, the E11 is not one of them. Hennessey, forget the numbers. If you really want to make headlines with your Venom GT, make it better than a Veyron, not just faster.
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