2007 Bugatti Veyron vs. 1996 McLaren F1
I think all of us have expressed a certain level of skepticism toward the Bugatti Veyron at some point, what with the car’s tortured gestation, its obesity problem, its sheer excess, and the seemingly blind adulation of the automotive press. The pointlessness of the whole exercise, really. Yes, it has incredible performance numbers, but will it ever stand up to the likes of the great cars of automotive history? For instance, would it ever stand up to the McLaren F1, reportedly the world’s most complete super car? Unfortunately, the two cars were produced in different eras, so the likelihood of getting both together for an afternoon romp isn’t likely at all. To add insult to lingering injury, test driving the Bugatti looked set to slip through my fingers in a similar ”right place, wrong time” fashion to the McLaren, which has always been a gaping hole in my super car education.
Then something weird happened. After years of trying to synchronize schedules, a friend called to ask me if I’d like to drive his F1. We set a date. Then just days later, I was told we had another chance to drive the Veyron and asked if I would like to do it. I graciously offered to help out: “Well, I was planning on getting my hair cut that day, but if it gets you out of a hole…”
Fittingly, it’s the McLaren I get to sample first. Not much gets me out of bed at 5:30 a.m. on a Sunday, but the promise of an early morning blat in what everyone is only too quick to tell me is the greatest-super-car-there’s-ever-been has me awake before the alarm goes off. I arrive at our rendezvous point early, and a few minutes later the air pulses with the busy, brittle sound of a McLaren F1 stalking into the Travelodge parking lot.
Oh. My. God. It looks sensational: tight, lean, and dart-like, its carbon panels hugging the hardware like an exquisite shrink-wrapped jigsaw. I’ve been up close to F1s before, but never as a preamble to actually driving one. All I can liken it to is the time I (literally) bumped into Michael Schumacher in the reception area of the Nürburgring Dorint Hotel during the launch of the Ferrari 550. Then it was just me, him, and a very awkward silence. Now it’s me, the F1, and a whole kaleidoscope of butterflies. To be honest, I’m almost scared to touch it. The sheer beauty of the engineering and materials—carbon, In-conel alloy, gold leaf—lend it a Fabergé-egg-like quality.
There’s no graceful way to get into the central driving seat, so you stick your right leg into the footwell, then advance, backside first, dropping into the thin, scooped-out seat while simultaneously folding your left leg into position. Just don’t try it from the right-hand side, for you’ll succeed only in collecting the gear lever up your pant leg.
Once in, the view is extraordinary. There’s a focus and single-mindedness that gives the F1 a weapon-like, military feel. It’s not fancy or faddish, just functional. The instrumentation is fabulously clear, the powerful black typeface staring back at you from the plate-sized tachometer. All the switchgear is brutally simple. And then there’s the pint-sized starter button that lurks beneath a protective flip-top cover, like a trigger in a jet fighter.
Push the starter and cynicism withers in the presence of what is arguably the finest road-car engine ever made. It crackles and simmers at idle but barks with the most ginger tickle of the throttle. Tingles shiver through the bulkhead. It feels like you’re wearing Paul Rosche’s 6.1-liter, 618-horsepower masterpiece like a rucksack.
Press the clutch (modestly weighted but deliciously positive), slot the gearlever into first, gently dial in a few thousand revs, contain your quivering left leg, and slowly release the clutch. There’s a bit of a judder but we’re up and running. I’m driving the legendary McLaren F1 at last!
It’s more refined than you’d think, although there’s significant engine and road noise. Conversation is possible, but only with raised voices, your passenger having to lean forward to make sure you can hear. Chuntering along at low speed, the V-12 engine displays admirable tractability. The biggest thing to get one’s head around is the speed with which the revs drop between gears. Dither and the shift feels awkward, the engine dying then rousing as you engage the next ratio. Be more positive, build some speed and punch the up-shift home, and you’re rewarded with a delightful sense of oily gears meshing precisely.
It takes me at least an hour to work up the courage to squeeze my right foot to the floor in second gear. The result is an intoxicating, overwhelming yelp of acceleration. Revs leap, rear tires strain, scenery blurs. Senses fade under the onslaught. I’m speechless. For a moment I swear I can’t hear, either, as all my cerebral energy is channeled into scanning the road ahead. Stab the clutch, punch into third, squeeze down the pedal again. More magnificent, explicit acceleration, raw and violent, instant and addictive. My ears are working again now, just in time to hear that animalistic V-12 drawing fresh air into its hungry lungs. The noise intensifies with throttle opening and engine loading, swelling to a point where it resonates through one’s whole body, tough as tungsten, sharp as steel. Nothing—not an Enzo, a Carrera GT, a Koenigsegg, or a Zonda—has the F1’s murderous response or that feeling of minimal mass and almighty impulsion. Never has a throttle pedal connected you so directly to such a limitless source of excitement.
What quickly becomes apparent is that you really have to drive the F1. It’s not deliberately recalcitrant, but it does very little to flatter your driving. You are the one who matches engine and road speed, you are the one who has to roll your right ankle between brake and throttle, you’re the one to judge the braking just so. It’s a totally interactive machine: demanding and, in my relatively short time with it, rather intimidating, too. The steering is heavy, the brake feel is dead and unresponsive to your initial pressure on the pedal. There’s also disunity between the reactive front and the slightly woolly rear, which doesn’t fill you with confidence on turn-in. Despite all this, it’s a machine you want to master, or at least nurture your skills to a level where you can really feel at one with it. Richly rewarding, it’s a car of which you’d surely never tire.
A week or so later I’m standing next to a Bugatti Veyron. Once again I’m struck by the compactness of the car, overwhelmed by wonderment at just how they’ve managed to conceal such a gargantuan powertrain within its beetle-backed body work. It’s a remarkable achievement, but I’m not star-struck like I was upon meeting the McLaren. Perhaps only time can bestow such charisma on metal and composite, but I suspect the F1 always had about it that aura of specialness. Maybe that’s the difference between a road car conceived and built by a Grand Prix race team and a super car conceived and built by Volkswagen.
For a car with such otherworldly abilities, it’s a decidedly real-world machine to enter. No rituals, no gymnastics; just open the door and drop in. The interior has an apparent air of luxury, but strip away the admittedly impressive machine-turned center console and you’re left with a lot of featureless leather. It’s not an event in the manner of the McLaren, or indeed a Pagani, a Koenigsegg, or an Enzo.
You sit low. A glance over your shoulder reveals the open-air engine, flanked by two high-rise, alloy-finish air intakes. It’s like you’ve been swallowed deep within the bowels of the beast. The W-16 starts on the button with a deep exhalation, turbos spooling up and down audibly with each stab of the throttle, big central exhaust pipe emitting a bellowing baritone blare. It’s imposing but certainly not musical.
Find “D” with the gear selector, slowly press the throttle pedal, and the Veyron shuffles obediently forward. No fuss, no furor. It really is as easy as driving a Direct Shift Gearbox–equipped VW GTI. It’s comfortable too, with decent ride quality, excellent air-conditioning, and a tremendous stereo.
Perhaps because everything seems so familiar, there’s little sense of intimidation. You simply drive the thing like any other car. Of course, you’re subconsciously aware of that sleeping giant behind your shoulders, but given small throttle openings it’s like driving a big AMG sedan: all tidal torque and laughably early up-shifts.
With all-wheel drive, an automated ‘box, and stability control, you can dispense with the lengthy and prudent getting-to-know-you phase required by the McLaren. To be honest, you simply itch to find a stretch of road big and quiet enough to let it rip. Sadly, the highway is busy, so we head for the hills instead and find a terrific tree-lined mountain road that’s broad, smooth, and quiet. We manage to persuade our chaperone (ironically it’s former McLaren F1 Le Mans racer Pierre-Henri Raphanel) that we want only one person in the car for the pictures, and he reluctantly steps out, against his better judgment.
Relieved to be on my own, I rumble off into the hills, waiting a polite distance before swallowing hard and planting my foot in the floor. There’s a slight pause, then an explosion of motion that sends all the fluid sloshing to the back of my head. The needle on the power gauge spins determinedly through its arc. It’s a bizarre sensation, quite unlike anything I’ve felt before. Rather than feeling as if I’m charging through the scenery, it feels like the scenery is being ripped from underneath, like that trick where you pull the cloth from a fully laden dinner table without moving any of the plates, glasses, or cutlery.
With no interruption in acceleration, the headlong rush is all the more surreal. In fact I don’t think I breathe during the first onslaught, hitting 140 miles per hour on a straight where you’d normally be lucky to nudge 100. Naturally, I turn around and repeat the experiment on the way back toward the photographer’s waiting Nikon. It’s still disturbingly ridiculous, but at least I remember to breathe this time.
By the tenth run up and down, I’ve throttled back, adopting a short-shift regime governed by the power gauge, which allows me to enjoy the remarkably benign chassis. It belies its bulk miraculously, changes direction repeatedly with utter conviction and composure, and finds sufficient traction to plough furrows in the tarmac. The car is completely effortless to drive quickly, but evidence of just how hard the brakes have to work to contain two tons of projectile, even at what feels like moderate pace, eventually comes. The rear brakes are virtually ablaze. Oops.
I never do get to experience the Bugatti at full-cry on the highway. Bizarrely, I’m not that bothered. A car defined by numbers demands that you achieve them. Every last one of them. So, unless we were to hit 253 mph, I suspect I’d feel short-changed. After all, it wouldn’t be at all exceptional to drive a Ferrari 599 at 150 mph, so why should 200 mph feel special in a Bugatti?
Progress has brought us faster super cars than the F1. It has also brought us more exploitable super cars than the F1. Thanks to Bugatti we now have a faster and more exploitable super car in one extraordinary package. Trouble is, compared with the McLaren, the end result is almost passionless.
Of course, being hurled down the road by 1000 horsepower is an extraordinary sensation, but like riding a rollercoaster it requires no skill to experience. You simply strap yourself in, scream a lot, then emerge feeling mildly nauseated. Volkswagen climbed an engineering Everest to create the fastest and most usable super car the world has ever seen. What a shame they never thought to take in the view on the way to the summit.
Magazine Issue: Winding Road Issue 14