Every decade or so, any given motoring journalist posits the recurring idea that, perhaps, high-end performance cars have hit their zenith. Is this the case here in 2012? In today’s installment, the 1st of a 3 part series, I discuss top speed.
This was certainly discussed at length by motoring fanatics during the late 80’s / early 90’s when hypercars such as the Porsche 959, Ferrari F40 and Jaguar XJ220 were all dancing near, on, or just passed the then-legendary 200mph threshold for production cars (197, 201, 217mph, respectively).
“Can cars get any faster?” was the question repeatedly asked in, say, 1992 – as had been asked in every decade prior to it since motorcars were invented 100 or so years ago. And that makes sense; 200mph is insanely fast for a production car. For many decades, the 200mph barrier was the carrot on the stick for performance automakers’ production cars, and of course it was eventually achieved with the Ferrari F40.
But as you probably are aware, McLaren attacked the world with the F1 shortly after the XJ220’s dismal moment in the spotlight as World’s Fastest Production Car, and promptly set the new record of 240mph. A record that would stand for more than a decade after.
So what gives? The motoring world is alight with discussions about production cars being “maxed out” in 1992, then a British boutique exotics maker destroys that perception with a 23mph increase in the top speed of production cars? Clearly we were nowhere near “maxed out” in terms of utter performance. Let’s not forget that the F1 is also naturally aspirated.
Enter Bugatti. VW Group had nothing better to do at the turn of the milennia, so they acquired the rights to the Bugatti marque and proceeded to engineer the insane Veyron (254mph) and it’s hyped up little brother follow-up, the Veyron SS (267mph) just a short while ago. Alright, fine, we can accept that. Why the hell not? Let’s keep this ball rolling!
But, can we? Rather, should automotive engineers keep pushing this envelope? Or as Jeff Goldblum put it in Jurassic Park: “Yeah, but your [engineers] were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
Increasing top speed is an exercise in exponential growth. Wind resistance, horsepower, torque, etc all increase exponentially as you go faster. This is why your car can do, let’s just say, 125mph with 150bhp but not 250mph with 300bhp. Physics frowns on such assumptions. With that in mind, consider that the Veyron SS needed approximately 200bhp more than the ‘regular’ Veyron just to increase it’s top speed by a scant 13mph (not to mention body modifications and other details). 200bhp for 13mph is a ridiculous trade off.
So what about the next milestone in top speed that is sort of like Lord Voldemort now – “one who should not be mentioned” – the 300mph threshold; is that just an idiotic notion?
Remember, 200mph in production cars was considered idiotic at one point too. The difference here is, once again, exponential growth of all the figures involved in making a vehicle hit 300mph vs 200mph. It’s not “50 percent more of everything” – it’s actually “several times more of everything”, be it power, torque, aerodynamics, light(er)weight materials, or what have you.
But wait, let’s remember another key thing: humankind has engineered vehicles that travel way faster than 300mph. Heck, the Voyager units are exploring the outer reaches of space at currently many many many thousands of miles per hour in speed. And here on earth, airborne vehicles hit mach 1 and more frequently. As for land based, rolling vehicles – there are some that hit mach 1 as well. But in simple ol’ motorsport, such as Top Fuel Drag Racing, 300mph is a common achievement. So the standard arrangement of internal combustion, lightweight frame and body, rubber tyres, pedals, steering wheel, gearbox and driver can, and has, achieved 300mph. So how about a production car – is 300mph possible? It definitely is.
However, 300mph is no joke. At that speed, every single second is a hugely intense, overwhelming experience. Petrol vanishes by liters per second, tyres are barely hanging on to dear life, the suspension is screaming in pain from the downforce, and it’s quite likely the driver is fighting the steering wheel with white knuckles and unable to breathe.
So while 300mph in a production car isn’t impossible to engineer (with appropriate advances in current technology or introductions of new technologies that make it more reasonable to achieve) is it necessary to try for? Also consider that in recent years, performance / exotics makers have abandoned the ‘quest for top speed’ in favor of expanding and enhancing other aspects of their vehicles such as acceleration, handling and overall track times.
So are the “top speed wars” over? Shall we just crown the Veyron SS the overall king of top speed and focus our attentions on other statistics for upcoming hypercars? What do you think?
Nino Batista is a professional motoring photographer and partner/editor for GTspirit.com. You will find Nino’s work on his Facebook page!