For the fourth time in the last 10 years, R&T has invited the manufacturers of the world’s fastest cars to a top-speed shootout where maximum speed, and as far as possible, acceleration would be measured. The only place in Europe where cars capable of more than 200 mph can be timed is Volkswagen’s high-speed track in Ehra-Lessien, some 15 miles north of Wolfsburg. For the fourth time, the VW press department courteously put this marvelous facility at our disposal and even catered a delicious luncheon! The hospitality was world-class.
This story originally appeared in the January 1995 issue of Road & Track.
The track consists of two parallel 6.2-mile straights linked by bankings on which cars are not subjected to side forces up to 125 mph. But cars routinely take these turns at much higher speeds. And the VW track permits speeds even higher than on Italy’s Nardo track where lateral g-forces intervene to create speed-consuming tire scrub.
Only cars with full road certification were invited, and all were supposed to exceed 200 mph. In alphabetical order the invitees were the Bugatti EB 110 S, Jaguar XJ220, Lamborghini Diablo SE, McLaren F1, and Ruf-Porsche BTR, to which we added the two supposedly fastest 4-passenger cars meeting our requirements: Ferrari 456 GT and BMW-Alpina B12. Alpina was first to respond to our invitation, but unfortunately, its demonstration car was sold two weeks before the tests and no replacement was available. Of the top-league cars, Lamborghini was not interested because a “normal” Diablo had reached just over 200 mph at our previous meeting. And, after long discussions, McLaren did not send a car.
This requires some comments. Last June, when I had dinner with Gordon Murray, McLaren’s technical boss, and Jonathan Palmer, the Formula 1 driver of the Eighties and now development test driver and marketing director for the McLaren road car, I told them the tentative dates for R&T’s top-speed tests were September 24-25, 1994, a date later confirmed that could not be changed as it had been VW’s choice. On the telephone Jonathan Palmer’s secretary told me that Jonathan would not be available that weekend. I replied that surely someone else could bring the car to Germany and confirmed the date. When later I called with final details, I was shocked to hear that McLaren would not send the car because only Jonathan was authorized to drive it for such tests. I argued that the cars would be in fairly good hands, those of Phil Hill and myself, both former Formula 1 drivers and Le Mans winners and Phil a World Champion to boot! Both of us are still in almost daily contact with very fast cars. But McLaren remained steadfast and did not participate.
The other manufacturers were very cooperative, with Jaguar even sending two cars. The 24th of September turned out to be a magnificent, sunny autumn day, which made everyone happy. Bugatti now produces a version of the EB 110 running on compressed natural gas instead of premium (98RON) gasoline. The 4-turbo, 60-valve, 3.5-liter V-12 remains unchanged, except for the engine-management system and gas injectors. The car does retain an emergency gasoline tank, while the CNG bottles are contained in the flanks of the car, where the fuel tanks are normally located.
CNG, more properly known as methane, is readily available in Italy and some other European countries and is much less expensive than gasoline. It does not seem to make sense in a car as expensive as the Bugatti, but perhaps Bugatti President Romano Artioli has a kind thought for those folks who spend all their money on the car and can’t afford to buy the fuel! Seriously, methane produces less exhaust emissions. It should appeal to ecologically minded people and could be one way to meet ultra-low emissions standards.
The Bugatti engineers were keen to take the opportunity to perform several tests of their own running on methane and had installed a big methane bottle where the passenger seat is normally located. This added some 265 lb. to the weight of the car, which precluded doing any acceleration tests.
Of the two Jaguar XJ220s, one came from the German importers and was well broken-in, having been tested by a German magazine. The other, from England, was brand-new and was said to have different brake pads.
Unfortunately, Alois Ruf’s latest car was not ready yet, so he sent a 3.8-liter, single-turbo BTR, based on a 1993 (964 series) narrow-bodied Carrera 2. The engine is said to develop 415 bhp, and the speed the car reached certainly proves it. It drives Ruf’s own six-speed gearbox (based on the old Carrera 2’s five-speed) via an electronically controlled Fichtel & Sachs automatic clutch.
The car had been driven from Bavaria for our top-speed test. The Ferrari 456 GT had been driven to Wolfsburg from Italy—an even longer journey—and was an absolutely standard car, complete with its beautifully fitted pigskin suitcases.
Timing on the VW track is fully automatic: You drive through the speed trap, and a little farther on, velocity is displayed on an enormous signboard. As soon as bright sun vanquished the morning mist, our team of ladies took note of the speed of the cars passing by. As there was no wind and the speed was virtually the same in both directions, only one display board was observed. On my stints, however, I always noted the speed on the opposite run to obtain the average.
While the Bugatti was run by the company’s test driver, Phil and I began putting the other cars through their paces. Each car was given one complete lap (13 miles) to bring engine and transmission up to optimal working temperature and, in most cases, two more laps for top speed. Remember, the official speeds shown are the two-way average speeds.
Ferrari 456 GT
The factory claims a speed of “over 300 km/h.” The test car missed the target by 0.3 km/h, though Phil noted that the needle of the speedometer was firmly stuck on 320!
Both Phil and I noted strong wind noise on the driver’s side. Phil tried to correct the problem by winding the window down and up again, but said he had to slow below 100 mph to get the window up. Phil: “This is surprising. This is the way it used to be with Ferraris. They were race-bred and they felt like they had been backed up from there.”
I have driven other examples, though, and I think this noise is untypical and must be due to maladjustment. Both Phil and I commented on the car’s excellent stability. Phil called it “the steadiest one of the lot in terms of just plain drivability under all circumstances.” But at that time, he had not driven the Bugatti. It seemed to me that the power-assisted steering was very precise up to the highest speeds and that, apart from the freak wind noise, the car was quite silent at speed. I also noted that the 3-position control of the shock absorbers really worked. On the fairly rough banking, there is a noticeable difference in ride comfort among the three positions. I also drove the car to its cornering limits at the bottom of the banking where the surface is perfectly horizontal, and the car drifted very neutrally, turning in slightly if the throttle pedal was released, which I like. I even could have done with a little more… but I think for the average driver and a car of this size and comfort, it’s all right.
I should also note that the Ferrari did its speed with the complete set of fitted leather luggage in place in the boot, and the pretty tool case, which may explain the missing 0.3 km/h!
Ruf-Porsche 911 BTR
Look at the performance, and remember this is a car with an automatic clutch—and the acceleration figures were taken with two people aboard, unlike with the other cars. If you feel this is not fast enough, Ruf will have a twin-turbo model based on the new 911 for you soon. But even this single-turbo car, based on the “old” narrow-body Carrera 2 and lightened only by the removal of some interior trim, is mighty impressive.
Phil thought the car was too high-geared, as it pulled only 5800 rpm in 6th. But, in fact, peak revs are only 6000, and in view of the high boost, Ruf thinks it wise to keep the rpm slightly below that level in the interest of reliability. But did Phil think the car was not fast enough?
“The car is quite steady,” said Phil. “It gets into a few strange little wiggles at first, but you find they have no intention to go anywhere.” I was not quite as kind. At maximum speed, the car tends to wander. You must correct it quite a lot, but it’s still manageable.
It is nevertheless remarkable that a car originally designed to do 165 mph is still quite manageable at 205, even if it means making the suspension rather harsh. Surely, when Ruf markets a car based on the new 911 Carrera with its new rear suspension and wider tracks, it will drive even better.
The brakes are outstanding, as usual with Porsches, and Phil found them “as smooth as anything.” He attributed rather strong wind noise to a badly fitting window frame, but I think it is inherent to the design of the 911, which basically dates back to a time when nobody really cared about such things. There have been improvements and the new 911 is even better, but there is a limit to what can be done.
What Phil called “the trick shift with no clutch pedal,” he found “delightful.” In fact, the system works beautifully and automatically adapts to any style of driving, from gentle to racing. However fast you shift, whether you shift up or down, the clutch adapts its speed to avoid any jerking. You can even make racing starts with spinning wheels. This being rather cruel, I asked Stefan Roser, a brilliant driver who acts as Ruf’s test driver and sales manager, to do the acceleration test, while I did the timing from the passenger seat. This meant 165 lb. additional weight (Stefan). But look at the acceleration figures: I don’t think anyone could do better with a conventional clutch.
What really impressed us is that this was the fourth time a Ruf-Porsche was among the fastest cars tested (the famous Ruf Yellow Bird achieved 211 mph in 1987, prior to the catalyst era). The cars were pushed ruthlessly but none of them ever had the slightest problem, which cannot be said of some other cars.
Phil was first in taking the Jaguar around and was timed one way at 211.7 mph, but performance soon fell off. A leak in the turbocharger cooling system was discovered and quickly attended to, but overheating had obviously done some damage. So we switched to the brand-new car sent by the factory. The best one-way speed obtained was 211.4 mph, only 0.3 mph slower than Phil had achieved on his only valid run with the well-broken-in car. Though none of those supercars is quiet by any stretch of imagination, this second car was much quieter than the first, another indication that something had been wrong with the first car. But the quality of the sound emitted by the Jag’s turbocharged 3.5-liter V-6 just cannot compare with the V-12s of the Bugatti and the Ferrari. From the roadside, the Jag was the quietest of the lot.
Phil commented, “The car is really delightful and steady as anything.” I did not quite agree with this and said that at maximum speed, there was some tendency to wander. On fast bends, however, I found it very stable. When you get it into a nice 4-wheel drift, as you can do on the lower level of the banking, it is beautifully controllable. Lift off the throttle and there is no sharp oversteer reaction. It just turns in nicely. Excellent! But the clutch pedal is very heavy, and though the steering is very quick and accurate, power assist would be a great help.
Both Phil and I agreed that acceleration was tremendous and turbo lag very acceptable. Here Phil was more analytical: “Power comes on in quick little increments that are difficult to control. But it’s lovely to drive.”
I thought getting in and out of the Jaguar was almost as difficult as in the central-drive McLaren. Phil and I agreed that although the brakes did stop the car well from high speeds, they became very rough as the discs got hot. The problem was the same on both Jaguars.
Running down the straight at speed, the Jag looked fantastic, but one can’t help thinking that this is a very large car for carrying only two persons and virtually no luggage.
Bugatti EB 110 S
We took over after Bugatti engineers had exhausted their methane reserves and switched to gasoline. The factory claims the car is just as fast on methane as on premium, and that was confirmed to the first decimal: Over the same one-way timing base, the car achieved exactly 213.1 mph on either methane or gasoline.
“Though it looks like a lash-up with all that equipment inside, it drives like the most beautifully developed car you could imagine,” said Phil. “It’s the most stable car I’ve ever driven here,” which I completely endorsed. The car is fabulously stable. And the 213.1 mph I drove over the strip was the highest speed I’ve ever driven.
The brakes, too, are impressive. I tried a panic stop from near maximum speed, and there was no drama. They remained smooth, with no hint of pulling or of fade. “No groan or rumble or feeling of uncertainty about them,” was Phil’s comment. Then, thinking about stability again, Phil added: “You can cruise at over 200 mph like you’re on an ordinary road… There is no tendency to steer peculiarly. It’s just amazing. The steering is lovely, and the gearbox delightful. It’s just an outstanding car!”
I was just as enthusiastic about the handling. I had had several occasions to drive Bugattis before, on both road and race track. Its power-assisted steering is one of the best I know of, and on the road I found the Bugatti quite comfortable—in terms of sports cars.
The biggest problem with the Bugatti? Its four (yes, four!) turbos of the 3.5-liter V-12 don’t make themselves felt below some 4500 rpm. So, on B-rated roads, you are off boost most of the time, unless you keep the engine spinning at more than 4500 rpm all the time, which you would do only when racing. Thus, except on the racetrack, you can’t make use of the all-wheel drive to accelerate early out of a bend. Even on the ideally suited VW test track, Phil quickly noticed the problem: “Power does not begin at anything under 4500-5000 revs. Below this, it’s got nothing, but from there up, it’s a song. I ran 8700 revs on both straights and the speedo read 345km/h [214 mph]—pretty accurate.”
We also noted that the clutch is quite heavy, but still acceptable for a car of this power. And what about noise? Both on the roadside and in the car, the V-12 emits a wonderful sound. On full song, the noise inside the car is quite tremendous, but cruising at, say, 100 mph, you could still listen to the radio or converse.
Comparing the speed of the Bugatti with that of the Jaguar, it must be noted that the Bugatti ran without external mirrors. At those speeds, the absence of mirrors may well have accounted for the difference.
I would like to thank all those who responded to our invitation and to express our gratitude to the Volkswagen press department. Special thanks to Harthmuth Hoffman, who was in charge of the organization, and track manager Peter Foerster for their wonderful hospitality.
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