Fast driving and fast talking with a Le Mans winning Bugatti test driver
We grab Le Mans winner Andy Wallace for an interview in a Chiron
I had a bit of a weird weekend last month. For a start, I was working on a Sunday. But I was also on a day trip to a very secret location in Germany, owned by Volkswagen Group and used for high-speed testing. And for reasons I can’t quite fathom (okay, it’s because James May had to drop out of the trip to film The Grand Tour), I’m in the passenger seat of a Bugatti Chiron. And we’ve just done 150mph across a car park. Because Chiron.
I say ‘we’, because behind the wheel is ex-racing-driver Andy Wallace. Yes he’s won Le Mans, but more importantly he’s the guy who has repeatedly set the internet alight with his extraordinary back catalogue of top-speed road-car records.
In some ways he’s very much your usual retired racer. He’s still clearly eating well, working out and looks trim. He’s also quite short. Where he differs from some other legends I’ve met is his demeanour – he’s funny, charismatic and definitely the sort of guy who’d spill some amazing stories after a few beers.
30 minutes of madness
I have half an hour with Andy and the Chiron, and thanks to the pouring rain we’re unable to use the 21km high-speed track to get the Chiron up to 260mph. So the car park it is, but Andy’s still able to nail the Bugatti for a good couple of seconds in between giant pools of water. He lines it up for another run, floors the throttle and my vision goes blurry.
“It’s got amazing grip in the rain,” he says as the digital horsepower readout on the climate controls tops out at 1290, “but when you have lots of standing water all these supercars will start floating over puddles – there’s this thing called physics and you can’t ignore it.” I’m not so sure Bugatti hasn’t found a loophole, given that my internal organs don’t feel right anymore.
The home for my chat with Andy. It's one of Bugatti's demonstrators for the Middle Eastern market
I’ve been in Very Fast Cars before, and have ridden a few 200hp superbikes. But the way the little Bugatti accelerates even harder as you pick up speed means your internal organs don’t get a break. From standstill it feels as fast as a Tesla P100D or Honda NSX – but once all four turbos kick in it does something absolutely extraordinary – it starts accelerating at an ever greater rate. It’s a really weird feeling, because essentially the faster you go the harder the car accelerates. And as we hit 150mph I actually feel queasy.
“The actual rate of acceleration doesn’t drop off until you’ve gone waaaay past 300kmh”, remarks Andy, before pointing out we lost 200hp on the last run because of the soaking wet surface limiting traction. In other words, we’re a full Fiesta ST down on power and my breakfast wurst already wants to come out all of my holes.
Chiron? Check. Empty test track? Check. Car key? Ah.
Top speed, bottom trembling
The Chiron is limited to 380kmh but with the speed key you can increase this to 420kmh, so long as you don’t turn the steering wheel more than 90 degrees. I ask Andy how fast he’s been on the public road. The answer surprises me.
“Although you can use the speed key on the Autobahn onramps, I’ve not been past 370kmh in Germany. But…” he whispers, “on the press launch in Portugal we banged off the 420kmh limiter a few times.” Legend.
And apparently you don’t need a dead-straight road either to enjoy the Chiron’s speed. “On some of the Portuguese roads there are several bends but it doesn’t matter,” explains Andy. “You get such a positive feel from the car thanks to all the aero working. It’s not the usual case in a car where you get a positive feel from the front end at the expense of a scary and light rear end. It goes to 377kmh without any problem and as you get to the limiter it just slows down gently to sit at 380, there’s no hard limit.”
Chasing the past
Andy cut his teeth maxing out road cars back in March 1998, when he first visited the same track we’re on to hit 240.14mph in the McLaren F1. I ask him how that experience differed from hitting higher speeds in the Veyron and Chiron.
“The difference there is that of course the McLaren only had 627hp. With that much power you need a lot less drag to do the high speeds, but because of that you have a lot less downforce. If you watch the video [below] it doesn’t look that alarming, but when you’re doing 360kmh – that’s 100 metres per second – if it’s just wandering about a little bit it doesn’t feel very comfortable! You know you shouldn’t correct too much but you want to… you’re basically trying to manage the weave, but it’s probably managing you!”
The last word: Veyron vs Chiron
When the Chiron was unveiled there was a sense that the internet wasn’t very impressed. People were muttering that it ‘only’ another 500hp, and only a few extra mph. But Andy explains how it’s a quantum leap forward when you’re the one with your foot on the accelerator.
“It’s 21km for a lap of Ehra Lessien,” explains Andy. “With the Veyron you had to come through the banked corner at one end at 200kmh, down onto the flat, accelerate like crazy and reach the speed record at the time which was 431kmh. So you needed to carry speed through the banking to hit the top speed.”
But here’s the kicker:
“With the Chiron you can go all the way through the banking, completely stop the car on the flat and then accelerate all the way up to 431kmh. Oh, and then you can stop again way before you get to the next bit of banking. It’s a completely different thing to the Veyron.”
As if that didn’t ram the point home, he goes on: “Where you notice the big, big, big, big difference between the Veyron and Chiron is just talking about acceleration – the Chiron goes from 100 to 300kmh so much quicker than a Veyron it’s like a completely different world. That elapsed time is so, so much shorter.”
And with that, my half hour with one of the world’s fastest men is over. One thing will stick with me forever though – and that’s just how effortlessly the Chiron redefines my definition of fast.