There was a muted ‘whruuuum’ as the engine approached an apogee of 1,500 newton-metres of torque.
The speaker was trim, energetic 44-year-old Butch Leitzinger, Bugatti’s so-called Official Driver for the North American market. The setting, fittingly, was the cabin of the French automaker’s latest object of desire, the 2013 Veyron 16.4 Grand Sport Vitesse, an open-top version of the Veyron 16.4 Super Sport. Capable of 254.04mph under strictly controlled track conditions, the Vitesse is, and will likely remain for some time, the world's fastest production roadster.
“We've got a clear line of sight, and there are no oncoming cars.”
Leitzinger, a semi-retired racecar driver, explained that he would downshift the seven-speed automatic gearbox manually, using the steering-wheel-mounted paddles.
“Currently we're in third.”
He squeezed the paddle. The tachometer jumped, and the dual-clutch transmission shifted instantaneously, without transmitting even the mildest bump through the chassis.
He squeezed the paddle again.
The revs jumped again, with no perceptible sensation other than a minor increase in the pitch of the soft thrum emanating from the 1,200-horsepower W16 engine – which for purposes of weight distribution and related considerations is located mid-Veyron, just behind the cockpit.
The car, wearing a pearlescent shade of orange called Tangerine, ambled at a walking pace. There was a moment to consider the bright new leaves sprouting from grapevines, whose manicured rows flanked both sides of the narrow asphalt strip. A canopy of evergreens cloaked the hills east of the Silverado Trail. The Veyron's carbon-fibre console shimmered gold and amber in the California sun like the feathers of a rare bird.
“I'm going to take it to about 90 miles an hour, and then I'm going to apply the brakes.”
There was a muted “whruuuum” as the engine approached an apogee of 1,500 newton-metres (1,106lb-ft) of torque, and the bucolic Napa Valley became a rushing terror. Leitzinger's action precipitated a kind of temporary transmogrification. Had a rearward-facing dashboard camera been installed, it would have captured something akin to the individual depicted in Edvard Munch's The Scream, framed not by blood-red skies over a twisting fjord but by a pair of titanium-grilled carbon-fibre air intakes – which, in the event of a rollover, double as decapitation-prevention devices.
Leitzinger tapped the adjacent pedal and the Vitesse's 28 wheel brake cylinders squeezed 12 brake pads against four massive ceramic silicium carbide rotors. As the car shed speed, Leitzinger commented on its utter lack of torque steer – that tendency in some front- and all-wheel-drive cars to pull to one side under hard acceleration. “It's just dead straight,” he said. “I've got to talk to the engineers and find out exactly how they did it.” His passenger made a note to conduct a similar inquiry, but was distracted by a sudden spasming in his legs, perhaps a neuro-muscular byproduct of the accelerative forces.
Leitzinger has no doubt witnessed many peculiar reactions to the Veyron since assuming the role of Official Driver in 2006. Following his father into auto racing at the age of 18, Leitzinger worked his way from the sport's lower rungs to its upper echelons, winning the American World Sports Car Championship twice and the 24 Hours of Daytona three times. In 2001 and 2002, he drove for Bentley in the American Le Mans Series, and when the newly re-animated Bugatti – a relative of Bentley by way of the Volkswagen Group – started selling the Veyron in the US, they came calling. “I was the only American they knew,” Leitzinger said.
The driver elaborated on the nature of his work as the Veyron's official chaperone. “Before people drive the car, they think, 'You need a racecar driver to tame it.' Honestly it's not that at all. My job is to say, 'This isn't a racetrack. We have to conform to the laws. But do that and notice what the car is doing.' Because the car's performance is so overwhelming, they're barely able to notice anything about it.”
Leitzinger was similarly circumspect about the Vitesse's $2.47 million price tag. “When you get behind the wheel, you can see where the money went. This isn't a car with a diamond-encrusted clock. Compared to a racing car, the Veyron is much more complex. It's a pretty easy job to make a car go fast; just keep putting in bigger engines and taking weight off. But to make a car fast, safe and comfortable while complying with regulations, it's extremely difficult.”
Also obscured amid the hand-wringing is the fact that the Veyron is not just a car, but a research environment, and that a variety of manufacturing techniques devised during its development have percolated into other VW Group vehicles, among them the261mpg Volkswagen XL1. Asked to describe the Veyron-XL1 cross-pollination, Bugatti's engineering team wrote in an email that lightweight carbon-fibre composite construction techniques devised specifically for the Veyron “very significantly contributed to minimizing the one-litre car's fuel consumption.”
For a brief time, Leitzinger allowed this journalist to take the reins of the Veyron. Not wanting to induce a second, possibly expensive attack of jumpy leg syndrome, said journalist was content to explore the hypercar’s surprisingly sedate side.
Though its suspension is decidedly firm, the ride remained well short of harsh, even on pockmarked rural asphalt. At 60mph, while discussing the curious fact that several Veyron owners own more than one Veyron, there was no din to shout over, as both wind and engine noise were minimal. At one point, Leitzinger hinted that he occasionally enjoyed spooling the Vitesse's four turbochargers up just to hear the noise.
The subtext was clear. With foot on the gas, the insistent harmonics of four bespoke turbines swelled from the carbon fibre intakes. The car’s velocity increased in step with the song, prompting its driver’s right foot to retreat. Waste gates vented their pent-up exhaust gases, and the Vitesse released a great vaporous sigh that evoked nothing so much as a deeply exasperated dragon.