On foot or on horseback, in planes or in cars, the need for speed – to cross the line first, to outrun all who have come before – seems hard-wired into humans.

Henry Ford raced his 1904 Arrow to 91.37mph (147km/h) across frozen Lake St Clair, near Detroit, Michigan, scaring him silly. Months later on a Belgian beach, Louis Rigolly broke Ford’s record, hitting 103.55mph in his monster Gobron-Brillié racer. In 1938, the Jaguar SS100 was advertised boasting a 101mph top speed, helping make it the supercar of its day.

Five decades would pass before a production car would top 200mph, a feat generally credited to the 1987 Ferrari F40. In 2006, the $1.25m Bugatti Veyron – with 1,001hp from a 16-cylinder, quad-turbo engine – broke the mould, making 250mph-plus speeds achievable in utter luxury. The 1,200hp Veyron Super Sport hit a Guinness-certified 267.8mph in 2010, and that is where we stand today.

It should be obvious where this is heading.

A nice, round 300mph seems an irresistible target. A mere 32.2mph beyond Bugatti’s current mark, that 300mph earthbound velocity – in a street-legal car – seems tantalisingly within reach.

Intrigued by that theoretical target, some of the international masters of speed – Sweden’s Koenigsegg, Britain’s McLaren, Italy’s Pagani and Bugatti of France – weighed in on what it might take to smash it.

The pursuit starts, quite simply, with power, according to Christian von Koenigsegg. More specifically somewhere between 1,600hp and 2,000hp, enough to propel a dozen garden-variety cars to the grocery. Von Koenigsegg, whose 2005 CCR clocked a then-record 241mph, believes an engine displacing roughly 10 litres might be sufficient. That is twice the size of the 5-litre, twin-turbo V8 in his $2.8m Koenigsegg One:1, which manufactures a scarcely believable 1,356hp.      

Why so much power? Blame the air around us, which is determined to resist motion and slow us down. The force required to push an object through the atmosphere increases at the cube of velocity. Translated: a car that needs 200hp to overcome aerodynamic drag at 150mph would need 1,600hp – eight times more nominal power – to reach 300mph.

“You know what it feels like to stick your hand out the window of a car at speed? Basically, to go really fast, we need to talk about power and aerodynamic drag,” says McLaren Automotive chief design engineer Dan Parry-Williams.

Cheating the wind, while maintaining stability and dissipating several industrial ovens’ worth of fossil-fuelled heat, are key challenges in breaking 300mph.

Horacio Pagani, whose artful Pagani Huayra soars to 231mph, says that advances in aerodynamics, lightweight carbon-fibre construction and tires have put 300mph within reach. Von Koenigsegg notes correctly that specialized racing machines have been doing it for decades.

“To just do 300mph is kind of easy, as you can see from old cars on the salt flats,” he says, referencing the machines that have chased land-speed records on the world’s salt pans for decades. Those straight-line killers, however, would be atrocious in curves and illegal on the street. The challenge, von Koenigsegg says, is to engineer a 300mph car that is street-legal, safe, versatile and enjoyable, from a weekend cruise to a winding racetrack.

Combining Promethean power with everyday drivability was among the Veyron’s signature accomplishments. A 4,300lb (1,950kg) ingot of pure decadence, the Bugatti also proved that an SUV-like curb weight was no detriment to earth-scorching speed.

Willi Netuschil, Bugatti’s head of engineering, declines to divulge the company’s next target, but promises that the Veyron’s successor would be even faster. After 10 years and 450 Veyrons produced, Netuschil notes that the Bugatti’s speed record for both hardtops and convertibles still stands, a testament to the company’s achievement.

To challenge the likes of the Veyron, engineers say, a supercar must be essentially a ground-hugging airplane, a configurable wing that can slice the atmosphere without going airborne. The Veyron required a second ignition key to unlock its full power, lower its body to 2.6in (66mm) and retract a spoiler and underbody flaps to minimise drag while preserving stability.

Such shape-shifting cars clamp themselves to the pavement – what’s known as aero “downforce” – then become more streamlined to reach warp speeds. The merely 202mph Ferrari 458 Italia uses composite winglets that, deformed by the wind, change shape to reduce drag. McLaren engineer Parry-Williams takes the exercise into the sci-fi realm.

“What if drivers didn’t need to see through the windscreen?” he posits.

In the self-driving cars of future, he offers, the pilot might recline as the car’s greenhouse automatically shrinks around him. Tucking this “active canopy” away could halve the car’s frontal area, a literal aerodynamic drag since the beginning of automobiles. The bullet-shaped result could soar to record speeds using far less power. Tires, meanwhile, might also change shape at high speeds, narrowing their contact patch to resist friction and heat, as with skinny-tired salt-flat racers.

Reflecting von Koenigsegg’s efforts on his new Regera model, as well as McLaren’s feat with its P1, some builders envision a hybrid system playing a role, perhaps via a scheme that reserves  a measure of electric energy for a final burst to 300mph, akin to the pushbutton jolt exploited by  Formula 1 drivers.

It’s all a long way removed from 1994, when von Koenigsegg began developing his first prototype. Back then, he says, a 400hp Ferrari was considered absurdly endowed.

“Today, you get that in a Mercedes E-Class, and a Tesla offers 700hp in a family sedan,” he says. “Our extreme machines have to move beyond everyday performance cars.”

Such performance in extremis invariably leads to a more prosaic roadblock to 300mph: the world’s longest and fastest tracks can barely contain these beasts, saying nothing of public roads.

Pagani says he has taken cars over 200mph on the German autobahn, but that other countries' roads – and speed limits – make such forays inadvisable. “You might as well take the train,” he deadpans.

Germany’s Ehra-Lessien track, with its nearly six-mile long straightway, helped Bugatti and McLaren (with its ‘90s-era F1) set their marks. But Ehra-Lessien, the test facility of Bugatti corporate parent Volkswagen Group, has now barred would-be competitors, including Koenigsegg.

The One:1 is already proven to accelerate faster than the Bugatti, and simulations convince von Koenigsegg that it could set a new mark at 273mph.

“But we can barely find a road to do 400kph [about 250mph], let alone a six-mile long empty road,” he says.

Pagani acknowledges the eternal allure of such speeds, but along with McLaren’s Parry-Williams, he professes his company’s main objective is to create beautiful, engaging sports cars, not to chase records.

To Pagani, sheer speed is “important in an absolute sense, a pleasure, but dangerous and expensive.” Then, alluding to such cars’ traditional handicaps on twisty roads: “It’s better for me to date a beautiful woman, where you can actually enjoy the curves.”

For others, the race toward 300 continues. Last February at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, appropriately, John Hennessey’s $1m, 1,244hp Venom GT reached 270.49mph on the same 3.2-mile landing strip used by the Nasa Space Shuttle, with just enough room to brake before the pavement ended.

Yet that Bugatti-beating speed carries an asterisk: Nasa would not allow a second run in the opposite direction, as required by Guinness rules. Unfazed, the Texas-based Hennessey is hard at work on a successor, the 1,400hp Venom F5. His target? 290mph, just 10mph shy of a barrier that would have seemed quixotic not long ago.

All Hennessey needs is a longer runway, or perhaps a roomier planet, to put his car in the record books – if only temporarily.

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