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Bugatti Veyron to the French Riviera

evo10 Dream Drives: Bugatti Veyron to the French Riviera

A Bugatti Veyron, the mountain roads of the French Riviera, and the ghost of a racing driver. Peter Tomalin finds driving heaven

 
It slices through one corner after another, minimal roll, staggering grip, perfect poise at 100mph-plus

Reckon you could pass the 15 second test? Reckon you could pin a Veyron’s accelerator pedal against its backplate and hold it there for a full 15? Doesn’t sound much, does it, until you remember that this car gets to 100mph in something under 6 seconds. After 15 – assuming you’ve held your nerve – it’s well past 150mph and hurtling towards 200. Still sure you could do it?

‘So what’s the fastest car you’ve driven so far, Mr T?’ It’s the week before I’m due to drive the Bugatti, and I’m chatting with motoring ed Barker, who, unlike me, has already driven a Veyron. ‘Erm, Zonda, I suppose. Or the new GT2. That’s pretty bloody quick.’

‘Nah,’ says JB. ‘Veyron’s in a different league.’ And then he chuckles quietly to himself. ‘Bet you won’t be able to keep the throttle pinned for 15 seconds.’ I return his chuckle, with interest, but it’s a timely reminder of the enormity of what I’m about to experience. We’ve become almost blasé about the Veyron’s astonishing stats – 16 cylinders, four turbochargers, 1000bhp, 253mph, 1.2 million euros, plus taxes. I can tell you that when you’re standing next to it and about to climb in, those numbers suddenly loom very large indeed.

Welcome, then, to three of the most mind-altering days of my life. I would just like to reassure you that no drugs were consumed during the making of this feature, so if things start to get a little weird, you can blame it on a madly ambitious itinerary, sleep deprivation, an eccentric German with an Austin Powers fixation – and, of course, the world’s most incredible car.

Why the Veyron? Because it’s still the ultimate supercar – others may have challenged its top speed but none is suffused with the same absolute quality and integrity. And because whenever evo has had access to a Veyron in the past, the fates have conspired to keep me from it, the bastards. And the French Riviera? Because for me it’s still the most romantic and glamorous destination of all.

But there’s another reason to drive there, and it’s the discovery that Pierre Veyron, the old Bugatti test driver and racer after whom the supercar was named, lived for much of his life in the little coastal town of Ήze, just west of Monaco. He was quite a character – not only a Le Mans-winning driver, but also a member of the French Resistance during the Second World War. Sounds like we’ve all the excuses we need to pinch a Veyron for three days and head for the hills...

IT’S LATE ON A MILD, mid-September Friday afternoon when we arrive at Bugatti HQ at Molsheim, just inside the French border with Germany. The small, modern factory unit has closed for the weekend, the workers have headed home and all that’s left outside is a single, solid-black Veyron facing us across the car park. It’s a breathtaking sight, so much lower, wider and more chiselled than I’d expected. I don’t know about you, but I’d got it into my head that the Veyron’s a bit, well, porcine, not that much of a looker. In glossy black from stem to stern, it looks stunning.

A handful of senior Bugatti employees have stayed behind to meet us. I’m to be accompanied by sales director Karsten Jacob – mid-30s, dapper, ebullient and, like so many Germans, a fervent Anglophile, his hair (and much else besides) apparently modelled on Hugh Grant. Karsten, it turns out, is a huge fan of Blackadder, Four Weddings, Bridget Jones and the Austin Powers trilogy. I know this because he later reveals a rare ability to recall and re-enact whole scenes from any of the above.

There’s no time to lose – we’ve a hotel booked in Milan this evening – and after the briefest of briefings (chiefly to impress on me that if it rains I am to slow right down) it’s time to go. Tempting as it is to slip straight behind the wheel, I decide that the Friday rush hour may not be the best time to get to know a million-pound thousand-horsepower Bugatti and ask Karsten to take the wheel for the first stint.

As I open the passenger door there’s the unmistakeable scent of really expensive leather wafting up from the sumptuously furnished cockpit. You have to drop right down and over a fairly chunky sill to get your behind into the carbon-shelled, hip-hugging sports seats that are fitted to this particular Veyron, and when you close the door it’s cocooning and snug – comfortable for a couple of six-footers, though in age-old supercar fashion the wheelarches push your feet in towards the centre of the car.  The shallow side-glass and low header-rail make the view out a bit like wearing a giant full-face helmet and the thick Alcantara-clad A-pillars cut into your peripheral vision. But it does give you a feeling of incredible security, even when you know what’s about to be unleashed.

Karsten jumps in, sticks the conventional key in the conventional slot in the dash and thumbs the alloy starter button just behind the gearstick. The engine churns for a couple of seconds then catches with a deep, thunderous growl, overlaid with all sorts of whirrings and whooshings. It’s not a musical sound, not smoothly cultured like a V12, its slightly uneven beat suggesting two V8s or even four ‘fours’, but gloriously evil sounding, a vast presence just over your shoulder. Shall we go? Yeahhh baby!

MY INTRODUCTION TO THE surreal world of the Veyron’s performance doesn’t have to wait long. Just beyond the factory gates, in fact, on the road that leads to the first roundabout, which is about 200 yards distant. ‘Don’t panic,’ says Karsten. ‘Eh?’ I think. ‘The brakes are very good...’ and in that split second I realise he’s about to mash the throttle.

Instantly my notion of ‘fast’ is scrambled and redefined forever. The Veyron, big and solid and dense with engineering, transforms into a furious ball of energy. There’s tumult behind as multiple turbochargers blow and sixteen cylinders fire. Monstrous torque hits the rear wheels and the car twitches and squirms as its brains and differentials work frantically to contain it. We are cannoned along the tarmac, heads jerked back, feet going momentarily light, a mighty, malevolent whoosh from the turbos. But before I’ve got a handle on just how fast we’re travelling – 60? 70? 80mph? – Karsten’s hard on the brakes, the Veyron’s nose dips, and the giant tyres anchor themselves against the tarmac. We cruise up to the roundabout. ‘0-62mph in 2.5sec, 62-0 in 2.3,’ says Karsten. And the enormous carbon ceramic discs probably weren’t even fully warmed up.  ‘I never do much of a sales pitch. The car speaks for itself...’

Twenty minutes later, as we clear the heaviest traffic, it’s my turn. You’d expect to have to go through some multi-level initiation sequence to access the Veyron’s performance, beginning with an IQ test and ending with fingerprint recognition, but the truth is that any fool could just jump in and drive off.  Brake pedal depressed, the delicate gearstick for the twin-clutch ’box simply requires a nudge to the right to engage Drive, and if you want you can treat it like a full auto. Alternatively nudge it to the right again, or pull one of the wonderfully tactile aluminium paddles attached to the steering wheel, and you have manual control. Ease your foot off the brake and the Bugatti creeps forward; squeeze the throttle and you’re away into the traffic. I’m driving a Veyron!

What’s more, I’m driving a Veyron in Germany, and hello, we appear to be on an autobahn. Unfortunately it’s a very busy one, but eventually the lane ahead clears for a few hundred yards. I grip the thick, gently sculpted rim of the steering wheel a little more tightly and push the throttle half way down. Holy mother of… The W16 throws another haymaker, there’s a simultaneous explosion of noise and energy, and we simply rocket along the carriageway. Again the whole car twitches, like its muscles are being zapped with electricity, but any wheelspin is nipped almost as soon as it begins, so that hardly a joule of energy is wasted. Gearchanges come and go so fast and so smoothly you’re barely aware of them. After a few short seconds of head-spinning acceleration we’re bearing down rapidly on the cars in front and I back off. We were closing on 150mph. Karsten is laughing. ‘Bloooody hell,’ is about all I can manage.

Kenny P, following in our Jaguar XF camera car – or the Shaguar as Karsten has already christened it – tells me later that it was like watching some sc-fi spaceship go into hyper drive. And of course I have to repeat the experience several more times, just to be sure it’s as staggering as I thought it was. It is.

It can’t last. Soon we’re back to cruising with the commuter traffic, and then we’re into Switzerland where they have absolutely no sense of humour when it comes to supercars. Fortunately cruising is something the Veyron does rather well. It’s never what you’d call hushed, but neither is it ever necessary for Karsten and I to raise our voices that much – except when re-enacting favourite episodes from Blackadder of course: ‘Flanders Pigeon Murderer!’, ‘Ah, you have a woman’s hand my lord!’, etc, etc.

The ride’s generally very calm – only expansion joints on raised sections of motorway cause the runflat Michelin Pilot Cup Sports (absurdly wide 365s at the rear) to thump and skip, but even then the structure feels massively rigid, the Veyron absolutely planted. Both throttle and brakes are easy to modulate, while the steering inspires immediate confidence – beautifully weighted and ideally geared to makes the car feel instantly responsive and wieldy, but without a hint of twitchiness. Only once is it tugged off course by wheel ruts. In short, it feels utterly composed and secure, and I decide that if ever I’m to achieve 250mph, this is the car I want to do it in.

DARKNESS FALLS, the Swiss motorways slide past, and as we enter the Alps we can see illuminated fortresses and churches high on the towering hillsides, looking for all the world as though they’re floating in the night sky. Then it’s through the seemingly interminable St Gotthard tunnel, imagining the lonely moonlit pass hundreds of metres above us, and finally to the Italian border. You know you’re in Italy when the guy at the next tollbooth hands you your receipt not with an ‘au revoir’ or ‘arrivederci’ but ‘forza, forza!’, the traditional Italian exhortation to give it some welly. And who are we to disobey an instruction?

We’re homing in on Milan, not because it was the birthplace of Ettore Bugatti, though it was, but because it’s a useful resting point on our long haul to the coast. Alas our plans for a recuperative night’s sleep are scuppered when it turns out the ramp to the hotel’s underground car park is too steep – the Veyron’s chin begins to scrape the concrete at the bottom and Karsten wisely aborts. After more than an hour or fruitlessly phoning round to find another hotel it’s well past midnight and we’re all feeling knackered. Karsten decides to leave the Bugatti on the ramp, only to be woken at 2am by reception telling him he’ll have to move it as more guests have arrived. In not the best of humours he drives off into the night to find another hotel.

When we reconvene the next morning outside the Hilton Hotel in the centre of Milan we’re all a little bleary-eyed. What we’ve forgotten is that it’s Monza GP weekend and half the teams seem to be staying at the Hilton. McLaren technicians wander over to chat about the Bugatti and Kenny P spies Lewis Hamilton’s dad! But as I ease the Veyron through downtown Milan – it’s a pussycat around town, if a very wide one – and out onto the autostrada towards Genoa, all eyes are on us. There simply is no other car that gets as much attention as a Veyron and everywhere we go people whip out mobiles and start snapping. How crazy does it get? At one point, heading towards Monaco, we hear sirens approaching from behind – an ambulance and police car on an emergency call. The ambulance whizzes past but the police car slows to our pace – the driver winds the window down, out comes his mobile, he gets his Veyron pic, then back on go the sirens and he charges off.

The queues at the border crossing into Monte Carlo take forever, and the sun is now beating down on the Veyron’s black bodywork, but the 8-litre W16 with its ten (ten!) radiators and the seven-speed twin-clutch gearbox perform impeccably, while inside all is air-conditioned calm. Except that Austin Powers’ nemesis, Dr Evil, is just unveiling his latest weapon. ‘Gentlemen, we finally have a working tractor beam, which we shall call... Preparation H...’

We pause for a few shots on the hillside overlooking Monaco (did you know that a Bugatti Type 35 won the very first Monaco GP, in 1929?) but we don’t stop until we get to the smaller resort of Ήze (pronounced Ezz). It’s a magical place – apparently Bono and The Edge have houses here, but don’t let that put you off – and for many years it was home to Pierre Veyron. He died here in 1970 and is buried in one of the town’s three cemeteries. In his later life, when he was a successful businessman, he had a villa here, but as a young man in the 1930s he ran a garage business. We make some tentative enquiries but draw a blank. And then, while we’re chatting to a friendly local policeman something remarkable happens. There’s a sudden spark of recognition in his eyes and he points at a restaurant not 20 yards away. ‘This,’ he says in faltering English, ‘was Veyron’s garage.’ It’s true. There was even a newspaper article about it. We’ve arrived.

With still photos taken, we roar down to Nice for the night. Then, with another sparkling Riviera morning revealing the mountains behind the city, we’re soon heading up into the hills in search of some roads to do the Bugatti justice. It doesn’t take long to find them.

IF YOU SEE STREAMS OF BIKERS heading for a particular road it’s a fair bet it’s a corker, and so it proves with the N202. At one point it plunges into a vertiginous gorge and becomes one-way only, so if there’s no traffic ahead you can use its full width to carve the best lines through its myriad twists. Even better, the return loop is a recently constructed two-laner that runs right along the valley floor, several miles of beautifully surfaced serpentine tarmac, and again if you’re lucky to hit it when the traffic’s sparse you can drive virtually as fast as you dare. Better yet, it begins with a quarter mile of tunnel hewn through the base of a mountain. Behave? Not this time.

Enter the tunnel at a 30mph jog, window half open, flick down to second gear with the left-hand paddle, take a deep breath and pull the trigger. WWOOOOOAAARGHHH! The Bugatti smashes forward with almost shocking savagery. There’s something primeval about the Veyron, something wicked. The power possesses it, the noise engulfs you, and it’s all you can do to focus on the road and keep up mentally with its ferocious appetite for speed. Fifteen seconds? Not a chance. Six or seven maybe. And this, perhaps, is the frustration with the Veyron – where in something like a GT3 RS you have ample opportunities to explore the power curve, savour the changing timbre of the exhaust note, here it’s wham-bang-whoosh and you’ve run out of road. Again.

Through the sweepers that follow, the Veyron is simply awe-inspiring. The steering is wonderfully well judged; just a rock of the shoulders sees the nose turned in, then you can pour in the power and feel all four contact patches sucker onto the road surface as it slices through one corner after another; minimal roll, staggering grip, perfectly poised at 100mph-plus. The only caveat is that its limits are so astronomically high, its refinement so complete and its cockpit so luxurious that you never quite feel completely wired into the machinery. It feels like a minor gripe. I’m blown away, and I reach the end of the loop on a natural high. What a machine.

Pierre Veyron, who appreciated fine art as much as he appreciated fine engineering, would have loved it. It’s a true Bugatti, in all the strongest traditions of this unique marque, where form is as important as function and no expense ever need be spared. As Ettore Bugatti himself once famously said, ‘Nothing is too beautiful, nothing is too expensive.’ Yeah, baby, yeeaah!

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It may come as a surprise to many of you – but not those who followed the story from the start – that my most memorable drive in ten years of evo scribbling involved something with rather less power than the Veyron. Our home-built Westfield XI had just 65bhp from its MG Midget engine (roughly equivalent to just one of the Bugatti’s 16 cylinders) but the amount of sheer joy – and occasionally heartbreak – that it gave us was right off the scale.

We laboured long winter weekends getting the pretty little Lotus replica built, and when a tiny split in an oil pipe left us stranded with a seized engine en route to Le Mans we were distraught. But three weeks later we’d fitted a new engine and we were on our way to the Le Mans Classic, which it turned out was the much more appropriate event. Somehow – I’m still not sure how we did it – we managed to blag our way on to the circuit for a couple of parade laps. The rush of sheer unalloyed pleasure as we roared out of the pit lane and up towards the Dunlop bridge will stay with me forever. Peter Tomalin

CAR SPECIFICATIONS

 

Engine   W16
Location  Mid, longitudinal
Displacement 7993cc
Max power  1000bhp @ 6000rpm
Max torque  922lb ft @ 2200-5500rpm
Transmission Seven-speed DSG twin-clutch gearbox, four-wheel drive
Front suspension  Double wishbones, coil springs, electronically controlled dampers
Rear suspension  Double wishbones, coil springs, electronically controlled dampers
Brakes Carbon-ceramic discs, 400mm front, 380mm rear, ABS, ESP
Wheels  19.7in diameter front, 21.25in rear, aluminium alloy
Tyres Michelin PAX system; 265-680 front, 365-710 rear
Weight (kerb)  1950kg
Power to weight 521bhp/ton
0-62mph 2.5sec
0-125mph 7.3sec
0-186mph   16.7sec
Top speed  253mph
Basic price  1.2 million euros (plus local taxes)
evo rating 4.5/5


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