When it comes to the vital statistics of a modern hypercar, surely none have as little relevance as its top speed. You can make use of a sub three-second 0-60mph time in most parts of the world without causing a ruckus—just find the nearest toll booth on a highway. Pin the throttle flat and for a brief moment, until respect for one’s fellow humans or fear of the speeding ticket takes over, it’s possible to experience of the torque and power.
But reaching the Vmax for most of these hand-built exotics remains an abstract idea, even on Germany’s derestricted Autobahns.
However, there is one paved road long and flat enough to finally run out of steam. It’s at a Volkswagen-owned test track in a town called Ehra-Lessien in Germany, located a few miles from the company’s Wolfsburg HQ. Among its features are a 12-mile (20km) high-speed circuit that includes a 5.4-mile (8.7km) straight, just the thing for finding out a very fast top speed. In 1998 it’s where McLaren found out its F1 road car would reach 240.1mph (386.4km/h), and where Bugatti then beat that production record with the 253.8mph (408.5km/h) Veyron in 2007.
Fast forward another nine years and Bugatti replaced the Veyron with the Chiron, another scarab-like hypercar but this time with an even more powerful 8L W16 engine, packing almost 1,500hp (1,103kW). But when the new car arrived, Bugatti revealed that its top speed was actually electronically limited to a maximum of 261mph (420km/h). It could theoretically go faster than that but its specially designed Michelin tires would fail under the extreme forces. Presumably that fact must have been gnawing away at Bugatti’s bosses, because the company decided to do something about that.
As with McLaren’s 1998 record run, the Chiron in question was subtly modified from standard, in this case fitted with an uprated safety cell, an aerodynamic bodykit, an engine that was massaged to deliver 1,578hp (1,177kW), and a set of specially made Michelin Pilot Cup 2s that the French tire company built to withstand the stresses of rotating 4,100 times a minute.
It also put Andy Wallace behind the wheel, a veteran British racing driver who made his name winning Le Mans in 1988—before the three-mile Mulsanne Straight got broken up by a pair of chicanes. Wallace is no stranger to Ehra-Lessien (he drove the McLaren to that 240mph record) nor to Bugatti; these days he’s on its payroll as a test driver (and last appeared on these pages testing a much slower, more LEGO Chiron).
Bugatti and Wallace spent four days at Ehra-Lessien, and eventually found enough confidence in the car to keep it flat over “the jump,” a resurfaced section of track that would unsettle the Chiron as it crossed it at warp speed. “After it landed and had a bit of a weave about I thought it was the best it’s been, the cross wind was a little bit less and I just kept it pinned,” he told Autocar.
The result was a scarcely believable 304.773mph (490.484km/h), giving the Bugatti hypercar bragging rights that will probably be difficult to beat—particularly since Bugatti, like Ehra-Lessien, is owned by Volkswagen. At the same time, Bugatti is a European company, and therefore works in metric, as do most of its global customers. You have to wonder if discussions have already begun about trying to find an extra 10km/h so it can break the 500km/h barrier as well.