Pierre-Henri Raphanel is a craggy faced French guy who has crow's feet bordering his eyes. Perhaps it's just the amount of time he spends in Veyrons, but they look like speed lines. When he isn't driving all carbon fibre Veyrons to impossible velocity, or driving them to tune up the handling he's usually demonstrating the car to prospective customers. Customers who have entire banks in their pockets. And to wide-eyed journalists like me.
His spiel is tremendous too. He explains with practiced eloquence for instance that the Veyron required three things to come together precisely. It needed someone with a vision - enter Ferdinand Piech. It needed a company with pockets deep enough to afford a project of this scale, complexity and expense. Piech had Volkswagen. And it needed a brand that had the history a car like it would need to be recognised as more than a powerful engine in a chassis. Which it found in Bugatti. That this confluence is impossible, unrepeatable. That's why there will never be another Veyron-like automobile.
The other star in Bugatti's people line-up is an unassuming man named Julius Kruta. Kruta is an automotive historian but is modest to the point where he will rattle off a museum's worth of car history from memory. And you won't notice how effortless his knowledge is in expanse and depth until you realise that he appears to know not only all the nuggets of information you've looked up earlier, but also adds to them the little details. Sometimes it feels as if he sat for high tea with Ettore Bugatti on a regular basis. The man is an author of gigantic volumes on auto history. All of which are impossible to purchase because they're all sold out. And Kruta, being himself, blames a short print run rather than take credit. Kruta's superb one-liner is, "Ettore wasn't meant to be an employee. He was meant to be a boss. When hired by a lorry company, Bugatti spent his days sketching fast cars. There was little his boss could do."
The other stars in the Bugatti show are the brothers Schlumpf - Fritz and Hans. They were utter, besotted petrolheads who also ran a successful textile business. It's perhaps ironic that it was India's emergence as a textile power that led directly to their ruin, remarks Kruta. But in better times, they resolved to buy every single Bugatti ever made. They told their suppliers to keep an eye out for old cars all over Italy and Europe and buying cars here and there for small pittances, amassed a collection that is deeply impressive. And valued at over ?312.43 billion euros today.
The 580- car collection includes all manner of exotics, including an unrivalled 120+ Bugattis. They have two of the three Bugatti Royales - the only other one belongs to Bugatti themselves. They have two of the only Silver Arrows outside Mercedes-Benz, a full-on racing SLR300 and much more. The Schlumpf Museum in Mulhouse, close to Molshiem is so large that it's easy to forget that this was the work of two men.
Pierre-Henri continues his spiel. We're driving at about 140kmph, illegal already in seventh gear. And he says, "We're using just 50 horsepower. That means we have another 950 in reserve." I lean over and crane my neck to see the meters. He's been waiting for this. The speed lines deepen, a smile breaks out and the Piloti Officiale of Bugatti plants his driving shoe into the carpet. The accelerator pedal is well sandwiched. And I'm stuck. The acceleration is unlike anything I've ever experienced. In sheer force terms, The g forces lock me into my seat, neck craned and all. It's not until the car rockets past 250kmph that he lets off and I straighten my neck out. It took barely an instant to do this. Raphanel then demos the most evil brakes on the planet. You almost hear the blood sloshing in your head as it slams, first against the back of your skull under acceleration. And then pooling at the tip of your nose when he starts to brake. A more scarlet demonstration of the law of inertia, I have never seen. He reminds me with a beaming smile that this is fully functional street car and pulls over.
Then it's my turn in the driving seat. For the scariest, most thrilling half hour of my life. We roll off, I wear the Veyron like a borrowed Armani suit for an evening at the awards - gingerly. My apprehensions are allayed quickly. The Veyron is incredible easy to trundle around in. Hell, it even seems to absorb the bumps in the road like a normal car might be expected to. That, Raphanel points out, is part of the charm of the car. The test phase included rush hour runs to ensure nothing overheated and there are, evidently, customers in Germany who think nothing of clocking commuting miles on their Veyrons regularly.
But I'm not here to commute, I'm here to scare the bejesus out of myself. So as soon as I hit the motorway and receive the nod from the man, I plant the throttle with intent. Acceleration in the Bugatti is unreal. The noise, for instance, is not mechanical, it's all air. The sound of air being tortured, routed (both in the sense of defeated and channelled), torn apart and consumed. The intakes sit just over your head. It sounds like an Airbus started up just behind your shoulder. Engines running. The throttle planting is accompanied by an almighty sucking noise. The rest is a series of whooshes, roars and hums.
In the meantime, driver and passenger are first firmly pressed into the carbon fibre seat. And then they slowly begin to climb the seat backs under the fury of the immense engine. When I let off the throttle, I'm for a moment, properly giddy. There's a wobble in my knee and tremors in my hands. Raphanel shrugs and says I didn't actually floor it all the way. That there is still more power to be had.
Now I have rolled the throttle to the stop on a litre-class superbike occasion, so I have at least been here before. But the Veyron is just relentless. Whenever you plant the throttle, no matter what speed, revs or gear you're in, it makes superbikes looks achingly slow.
Then just for kicks I shift it into Sports mode. Which, I firmly believe, is an inside joke that the engineers at Bugatti are playing on the world. The performance of this car is explosive. It brought 1001PS - Bugatti believes it's closer to 1020, but the officially certified figure is the lower one - to production when 500PS was considered epic. And it isn't a sportscar either. It's a two-tone GT that just happens to have the Herculean might.
As many have noted, the Veyron isn't pretty. It doesn't have that classical lilt of the Pininfarinas. In the pictures it looks less spectacular than it is as well. But when those twin intakes are vacuuming up whatever they possibly can, it matters not a whit. People cheer when Ferraris go by. People forget to when a Bugatti does. Note the singular reference - the Veyron is far rarer, far more exotic and a whole scale or two faster.
As I realised later, Pierre-Henri talked through most of the drive and the conversation wasn't yelled over the roar of the humongous engine, its double digit radiators and its various turbos. The cabin at street speeds and small throttle openings is quiet. Normal autoroute driving is calm and even the ride quality is great.
Then you open the gates to hell and stare at the leering face of the brute as soon as you depress the accelerator pedal. On the autoroute, in fact, driving the Veyron is much like a video game. You keep imagining what would happen if you planted the throttle. No matter how far the next car is, this always ends up with the other car being destroyed.
Destroyed is a word a lot of experienced journalists use to describe formerly superb-handling coupes that have recently had their roofs removed. The Grand Sport, on the other hand, has lost its roof, but nothing else. Bugatti has employed (still more) carbon fibre to restore the chassis stiffness and handling to its full glory despite the loss of the roof, a critical structural element. Bugatti say that the top speed is the same and the acceleration is exactly as fierce and astounding as the older, roofed car, despite the slightly increased weight. However, for safety's sake, with top off, you can only hit 347kmph. The roof itself is a la targa - you simply remove the panel and let the sunshine in. There is, it goes without saying, no space to store the panel in the car, so it's topless, but one moving, not convertible. To take care of stray showers, Bugatti has included a cloth roof, which they charmingly refer to as an umbrella, so your expensive bouffant remains in place.
Of course we never got to drive with the top down - it wasn't sunny enough to guarantee a dry day. Kruta later smiles and says that driving the Grand Sport with the roof on is not the full experience. With the roof off, it's a fighter jet, afterburners howling, sitting just over your shoulder.
The problem with the Veyron is that the intensity of the engine overshadows just how well-rounded a car it is. Sirish punted the car about on mountain roads near the factory over two years ago and he came back singing. This is despite everyone at Bugatti re-iterating at every step that the Veyron was not a Lambo-bashing, Ferrari-baiting supercar. That it has no racetrack intent. But a 2-tonne go-kart, is how Sirish describes it. Which it really is. It's flat, sticky and blazing quick around corners. Behaviour is impeccable and in feel, more early-30s than bashful early-20s in nature.
But the very nature of the car means that owning a Veyron is a considerable exercise. Read Sirish's article from two years ago (or at overdrive.in) and you'll note quirks like replacing tyres and rims at 15,000km and so forth. The Veyron may look like it will earn more frequent flyer miles than you - they can only handle the tyre-rim bit at Molshiem - but it's such an epic automotive experience that if I had the unfathomable riches that the average Bugatti buyer has, I wouldn't think twice. You can, of course, buy the Grand Sport in India starting at Rs 16.5 crore. Or the even more hardcore Super Sport for a mad Rs 23 crore.
Why? Because there will never be a street car that will do the straight line like the Veyron does. That I summitted - without much effort on my part, I'll admit - an automotive peak. I didn't earn a Veyron. But I did floor it.
Starts Rs 12 Crore
Starts Rs 12 Crore
- The Forum Art Gallery Residency
- The Hindu Photojournalism Awards
- Book Review: The Red Cat and Other Stories | Ritesh Uttamchandani