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We Have Ignition

The fastest car in the world is about to retire. TG is having one last hurrah at a place where a Bugatti Chiron doesn’t seem so powerful after all.

TopGear Reporter
October 3, 2023
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We Have Ignition

When exactly do astronauts receive their ‘badass soundbite’ training?

Universally, they’ve a knack for memorable space-quips. Apollo 14 veteran Edgar Mitchell gave us “From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck, drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say ‘look at that, you son of a b***h’.”

John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, described the tension during countdown as “knowing you were sitting on top of two million parts— all built by the lowest bidder on a government contract”. My personal favourite analysis of a space shuttle launch comes from real life TOPGUN graduate Hoot Gibson, who flew five of its 135 missions. “You just hear a massive explosion and pray you’re going up.”

Close your eyes for a second and remember the shuttle. You’re imagining the launch, aren’t you? An undeniably spectacular sequence of mechanical, chemical and sonic events as 2,000,000kg of hardware, humans and fuel roared off the pad, doing 0-100km/h slower than a Honda Civic Type R but breaching the sound barrier less than a minute later, on the way to 27,000km/h. Eight kilometres a second.

Bringing the orbiter (that’s the black and white winged bit where the astronauts and cargo sit – only when the orange external tank and twin solid rocket boosters (SRBs) were attached was the whole assembly strictly a ‘space shuttle’) back to Earth was just as treacherous as firing it skywards. As I’m sure you know, the whole point of the shuttle was reusability. Unlike the Mercury and Apollo rockets designed to jettison spent stages into the ocean, the orbiter was Earth’s removals lorry, lugging experiments and equipment into orbit then ‘gliding’ home. The SRBs parachuted into the ocean after launch. Only the relatively cheap liquid hydrogen and oxygen fuel tank was allowed to burn up in the atmosphere.

But that’s exactly what would happen to the returning orbiter, were it not for 24,300 silica tiles so effective at absorbing heat you could lob one in the oven with your Sunday roast and then pluck it out without singeing your fingers. These lightweight blocks protected the shuttle from extreme cold of -379°C in orbit and shielded its aluminium airframe from the 1,260°C fury of atmospheric re-entry. Meanwhile, reinforced carbon panels on the nose cone and leading edges of each wing bore the brunt at the higher friction areas where temperatures soared to over 1,650°C, despite their edges being just 6–12 mm thick.

After 12 minutes of radio blackout the orbiter had survived trial by white hot plasma. The tiles had done their job, but now the orbiter is 90,000 feet high, doing twice the speed of sound, it’s out of fuel and it’s a lousy aeroplane. At 100 tonnes, it’s about two-thirds the mass of a Boeing 747 with a fraction of the lift, so its descent rate is seven times steeper than a jumbo.

Small wonder the pilots nicknamed it ‘The Flying Brick’. And because it’s got no propulsion and the landing gear can only be lowered once, as the speed drops below Mach 1 and the commander takes over from the autopilot, they have just one shot at landing safely.

It's a bit of a sleeper.

Having performed a spiralling loop to shed speed, the orbiter rushes in to touch down at 362km/h – around 160 km/h faster than an airliner. A combination of rudder airbrakes, a parachute and several hundred extremely clenched backsides at mission control bring it to a halt after a round trip of 7 million kilometres.

Then there was the small matter of unloading the crew, hitching the powerless orbiter onto the back of an adapted jumbo jet, and flying it cross country from Edwards Air Force Base, California back to Cape Canaveral, Florida for recommissioning.

You’d imagine the palaver of a $750k piggyback involving three fuel stops and an awful lot of double-checking bolts would get on NASA’s nerves, and it’d build a runway closer to where shuttles lived and launched. It did – in 1976. But while Florida is a useful place to launch a rocket (close to the equator to employ the Earth’s rotation as a slingshot, handily on a remote peninsula, with plenty of ocean for spent bits of rocket to fall into), it’s not especially helpful for landing space planes. For the early years of the shuttle programme, landing in the desert was preferable – less swamp and wildlife to smush.

From 1984, 78 shuttle missions ended in this verdant nature reserve: the John F. Kennedy Space Center’s shuttle landing facility, now the launch and landing facility, or LLF. It’s a whopper, at 4.5 km (15,000ft) long – 2.4 kilometres longer than the strip at the heart of the TopGear test track. It is a vast space, bookended by swamps, and on the horizon, the towering vehicle assembly building where Saturn V rockets were readied for the moon.

What with modern rockets either landing themselves vertically or back to being as single use as a firework, a gigantic space plane runway is now as much a white elephant as the orbiter itself. But the LLF has found one new purpose as a vehicle proving ground. If you’ve got something really fast you want to test, this is one heck of a laboratory. John Hennessey’s Venom F5 hypercar has been down here at over 430 km/h. One of the chaps who now operates at the LLF, Johnny Bohmer, drove his modified Ford GT to 500 km/h here last December. He almost got it stopped before the end, too…

Frankly, I’d come here just to walk along it, marvelling at the plaques laid in the high friction surface marking where each shuttle mission’s wheels came to rest. Being born long after the Apollo programme, for me the shuttle is space travel. It was never as routine as imagined. It never paid for itself.

And with two orbiters and 14 crew lost, it was a risky piece of kit. But what’s amazing is that for a few decades, it seemed... normal. We got used to launches and landings on the news, and footage of astronauts floating about on the International Space Station gobbling globules of weightless water. The space shuttle contained 2.5 million moving parts. It was the most complicated machine ever made. And now it’s a museum exhibit.

The same ‘been there, done that, don’t care’ curse applies to very few cars. Most automobiles that achieve the improbable are well recognised and celebrated. If there’s an exception, it's the modern day Bugatti. Masterminded by late Volkswagen Group supremo Ferdinand Piëch as a crown jewel for Wolfsburg’s motoring empire, in 1999 he demanded a machine capable of achieving 1,000PS (735 kW) and 400km/h. After five years of toil, his engineers delivered him the 1,001PS, 407 km/h Veyron. Always helps to exceed the boss’s expectations.

A R70m VW with a fancy jacket and astronomical numbers. Not shuttle numbers, still impressive, though.

Even as Bugatti evolved its quad-turbo 16-cylinder hypercar into the Chiron and the 450km/h+ Super Sport, it’s never been able to outrun the naysayers who give Ferrari a pass for passion and love Lambos for their lunacy. A Bugatti is just a numbers car. A 740kW Audi TT. R70m for a Volkswagen. Precisely because it makes huge speed a supposedly easy business, big Bugs don’t quite get the love.

Like the shuttle in 2011, the Chiron is now being decommissioned. All are sold, and it’s a safe bet the architecture of future Bugattis will look a little different now that Mate Rimac is in charge. To close this chapter, someone at Bugatti sussed out that only 19 people had ever driven one to 400 km/h, which is rather a waste of what it was engineered for. To boost those numbers, a handful of loyal owners have been invited to the LLF to give theirs the beans in one of the few locations on Earth it’s safe and legal to do so. I’m doing my best to blend in among the billionaires.

The fastest I’ve ever driven is 304 km/h down Le Mans’ Mulsanne straight in an Audi R8. That’s blitzed in today’s practice run, as my weapon of choice – a 1,177kW Chiron Super Sport belonging to Bugatti USA rather than any of the nearby designer haircuts – waltzes up to 340km/h. This mere canter is to familiarise myself with the runway’s perspective melting width, its slight camber, and the brake pressure required as I thunder past the ‘FINISH’ flags 1km before the runway limit. To really authenticate my Kennedy experience, my mission then gets scrubbed at T-minus 10 minutes. 

A biblical thunderstorm crashes in and rain is bouncing a foot off the surface as forked lightning thwacks the facility. I’ll have to come back tomorrow, early doors.

Having failed to sleep much, I return at dawn. The rain doesn’t, but several aircraft are cleared to land, which delays my run from early morning to post-lunchtime. Then the Chiron’s fiendishly pernickety tyre pressure sensors get cantankerous. It’s now 28°C, and the engineers are grim-faced. The course is measured such that, in an ideal world, I ought to cross the finish at exactly 400 km/h. At current temperatures the heat soak from the massive W16 will be immense. I’m told it’s unlikely I’ll be getting maximum power.

I’m more anxious about furnace cabin temperatures wilting the video cameras, and my ability to drive. A fireproof race suit is mandated here, packaging me into a medium-rare boil in the bag snack for a nearby alligator. Nature offers other hazards too. Flamingo-like wading birds called spoonbills call the Cape home, and if one of those comes through the windscreen at 400 km/h, it’s goodnight Ollie.

The view a second before I get the thumbs up to roll will never leave me. I’m backed all the way to the runway's edge. The dashboard confirms that Top Speed mode is active, trimming out the rear wing, closing the front flaps and confirming that at last, the tyres are satisfactory. I’d been instructed to trickle the car off the line and bleed the throttle in from about 50 km/h, but with only having one shot and the rising temperatures – well, what would you do? I’m not ashamed to admit I pretty much gunned it.

Maximising the runway's length. Forgot to check for centre.

With a momentary chirrup from all four tyres, the Chiron teleports away. It’s not as gut-wrenching as the maddest EVs, but the relentlessness of the surge is eye-watering. Five seconds later it’s striding past 200km/h. I’m leaving the paddles alone. Over to you, algorithms. 

After 12 seconds I see 300 km/h and for the second time today I’m closing in on 320. That was the easy bit. This is where time starts to slow down. My eyes are scanning the horizon for the brake markers but the windscreen is filled with a shimmering waterfall of heat haze. Beyond 350km/h is where the car has to dig in. Beyond shuttle landing speed, where crosswinds start to attack at the most critical phase. 380 km/h. I’d been told to let the car wander. Don’t fight it with a snatch at the wheel, or it’ll unsettle the balance and I’ll be responsible for two skid marks you can see from space.

Up to 385 km/h.. The sense of the car mercilessly battering physics, accelerating in a vacuum, is now diminished. 390 km/h. Nature is holding us back, and I know I must be running out of room, but the horizon mirage is still masking where I am relative to the braking point. 395 km/h. 

A horrifying idea enters my head. What if the brake flags have blown over in the gusts and I’m about to use a Chiron for the world’s fastest Jackass stunt? Just before the shiver travels fully down my spine along with a message to lift my right foot, the finish whips past and I squeeeeeeeeze the brakes. Two tonnes of blood, sweat and tears slows straight ’n’ true down to 50km/h, where I volte-face 10 lengths from the dirt.

Up next: Joining the 500 club. Ambitious.

My satellite verified vmax was 401.7km/h. All I’ve done is sit down and press a pedal, but my throat is dry, palms are drenched and my heart’s still on overboost a quarter of an hour later... It’s a bungee-jump-into-shark-infested-waters-sized dopamine hit. A pretty visceral reaction from just a soulless numbers car.

So, I’m into the 400 km/h club, and one day it’ll cease to bug me that I was 0.6 km/h from cracking a nice, round imperial 250. Shuttle pilot Jack Lousma was once asked what he thought of the shuttle’s runway. With a typically slick astronaut’s retort, he replied: “I wish they’d made it half as wide and twice as long.” Couldn’t agree more.


Originally published in TopGear UK Edition 372

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