GET IN, BUCKLE UP, AND HOLD ON AS WE TOP 200 MPH
Basem Wasef, Wired.com
As automotive milestones go, hitting 200 mph in a car is more elusive than you might think. Just 25 years ago, even the most offensively priced, outrageously sculpted supercars were incapable of such speed. It wasn’t until 1987 that Ferrari crossed that Rubicon with the stunning F40. But even that is open to debate, because as late as February 1991, the fastest production car tested by Car & Driver was an F40 that could muster a mere 197 mph.
Even now, the list of near-misses is longer than a Maybach 62. Porsche’s venerable 911 Turbo S runs $160,000 but peters out at 196. The Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG “Gullwing” is an iconic piece of kit (and a significant financial commitment at $189,600), but is electronically limited to 197 mph; Audi’s race-inspired R8 GT will cost you $196,000 and only get you to 199.
To put 200 mph in perspective, at that speed you’re covering 293 feet per second. It’s the kind of velocity rarely seen on a track and virtually unattainable by anything found in showrooms, mostly because speed-sapping aerodynamic drag increases exponentially as you accelerate. In other words, the faster you go, the more power you need to go even faster. Case in point, the utterly bonkers Bugatti Veyron 16.4 Super Sport. The world’s fastest production car needs a mere 270 horsepower or so to cruise at 155 mph. But to pass the double century en route to its top speed of 256 mph, most of its 1,001 ponies are unleashed.
And yet, you don’t need a seven-figure Bugatti to hit 200. Hell — you can drop $111,000 or so on aCorvette ZR1 and hit 205. Still, even that is beyond the means of the 99 percent. But an automotive wish-fulfillment outfit called World Class Driving will let anyone with $4,995 experience the kind of speed only a guy like Sebastian Vettel typically sees.
I joined the high-speed thrill ride at Mojave Air & Space Port in California’s high desert. To verify Vmax — automotive speedos can be prone to error — I tucked a Garmin zumo 660 GPS in my pocket.
The guys at World Class Driving assembled an impressive coterie of cars, any one of them enough to get the most blasé auto aficionado worked up. Not all of them are quick enough to get me to 200 mph, but they were helpful for honing the skills I’d need to get there.
The cars, in ascending order of value:
Jaguar XKR: $96,125
The British 2+2 is the entry-level offering here, a nod to Jaguar’s marketing connection to World Class Driving. It’s a nice enough luxury coupe, but pales in comparison to the rest of the fleet. Still, with 510 horsepower on tap it’s got a potent bang-for-buck ratio and allows you appreciate how much more insane the rest of the cars are.
Audi R8 V10: $158,100
Ingolstadt’s spiritual successor to the legendary Acura NSX features a lively 5.2-liter V10; stomp it, and you’ll hit 60 mph in 3.7 seconds. But the engine isn’t potent enough to push you past 196 mph. Need more speed? Step up to the R8’s sibling, the Lamborghini Gallardo Superleggera.
Lamborghini Gallardo LP 570-4 Superleggera: $237,600
This car looks mean, because it is. The feather-light (for a Lambo) rocket features loads of carbon-fiber and polycarbonate, along with a 570-horsepower V10 that absolutely screams. Sixty mph comes and goes in 3.4 seconds, and you’ll see 202 mph if you’ve got a long enough road. Mercy!
Bentley Continental GT Supersports: $267,000
Bentleys are almost absurd, because nothing weighing 2.5 tons should be this fast. But you can make anything fly if you give it a big enough engine. Beneath its vented hood, the Supersports packs a massive twin-turbo 6.0-liter 12-cylinder engine with 621 horsepower and a thundering 590 lb-ft of torque. Maximum velocity is 204 mph – in a car weighing 4,940 pounds.
Ferrari 599 GTB: $310,543
This curvaceous Speed Racer lookalike is designed more for the open road than the track, but it’s still a Ferrari. It will take you to 205 mph in total luxury. Yes, it costs as much as a starter home, but does anything sound so spine-tingling as a 6.0-liter V12 at full throttle? No.
Mercedes-Benz McLaren SLR: $495,000 (in 2009)
This marriage of Mercedes luxury and McLaren racing is enough to make a gearhead’s heart skip a beat. Or 12. The hand-built 617-horsepower supercharged V8 engine is nestled into a carbon fiber monocoque and doors that open like wings. Oh sure, it’s got an automatic gearbox and notoriously touchy carbon-ceramic brakes. But it’s a freakin’ McLaren, and it’ll take you to 206 mph.
No one in their right mind would toss a rookie the keys to a six-figure car, so we spent the morning learning about braking zones, apexes, and high-speed handling by doing cone-demarcated car control exercises. Swapping between rides reveals each vehicle’s unique personality.
The Lamborghini’s cockpit fits like an expensive Italian suit, but this particular car has led a life harder than Keith Richards. The odometer reads a stratospheric 63,000 miles, the suede steering wheel has been rubbed raw and it’s on its second V10 engine. But when it comes to feedback, this Lambo still has the touch. The engine screams seductively, the steering is more communicative than an all-wheel drive car has any right to be, and the brakes, despite a disconcerting lag followed by a sudden jolt, could stop a jet. Unlike the Lamborghini Aventador, its surprisingly civil sibling, the Superleggera is twitchy and slightly unrefined. It makes you work for it.
The Jag, though plush and suavely finished and almost stereotypically British, feels a bit pedestrian against the Bentley. But then it should, because the Winged “B” is nearly three times more expensive. You pay a lot for exquisitely quilted leather, knurled chrome bits and no end of delicious details. You also pay for a 12-cylinder that pulls like a locomotive. The Bentley feels like a rolling mansion and is almost as heavy, yet it goes like stink and does so almost silently.
As enticing as these cars were, they were also mere opening acts for the stars of the show, the ones that would take us beyond the double century.
Full Speed Ahead!
Though my top speed will be achieved during purely straight line driving, exceeding 200 mph on a 14,500-foot runway requires making a running start, looping back in an enormous U-turn, and accelerating from 60 mph.
I’m told to lock my hands at 3 and 9, bury the throttle and accelerate relentlessly until my instructor yells, “Brake! Brake! Brake!” I am warned that this may sound like, “Great! Great! Great!” amid the racket of a car approaching 200 mph. Point taken.
Another lesson: Rather than stabbing the stoppers immediately, the most prudent way to slow down is to lift off the throttle, allow the car settle a moment, then jam the left pedal hard and let the anti-lock brakes do the work. If my entry speed is sufficient — and I don’t wrap several years’ salary worth of car around a pole or crush the delicate lights that flank the runway — I should join the 200-mph club without running out of tarmac or talent.
First, I get a feel for the process with a reconnaissance run in the Audi. It’s fun, but relatively understated and surprisingly clinical, a mere appetizer to the feast ahead. Pedal mashed and hands clamped in a death grip, the scenery blurs. Reference points I’m told to follow rush past so fast it’s almost impossible to process. It’s much like the strangely calm yet harrowing perspective offered by skydiving. Although the planes parked in the distance barely move, immediate surroundings pass so fast they almost seem to melt.
Soon I’m doing 160. 170. 180. The speedometer needle sweeps swiftly. I reach 192 mph, according to my trusty Garmin, before running out of tarmac. My instructor is using every bit of his lung capacity to overcome the deafening roar and tell me to reverse thrust. I pause a moment to relish the speed, then slam on the brakes. The Audi dives for China as the end of the runway approaches far faster than I’d like.
After returning to the paddock, I learn the Lamborghini’s hydraulic front end lifter is stuck in the “up” position, which would essentially turn the vehicle into a sail at speed. This would be bad. I skip the de-commissioned Lambo. My first real stab at 200 mph will be in the Ferrari.
Yes. I know. Life’s tough sometimes.
Like the Lambo, this Italian has led a hard life, and its carbon ceramic brake rotors have been replaced, a job that runs a cool $46,000. Still, I won’t hesitate to clamp down firmly on them. The last guy who went light on the brakes overshot the runway, filling the grille with weeds and bruising his ego.
I make my running start, loop around and accelerate. The Ferrari shudders with a disconcerting jolt each time the gearbox swaps cogs. A deliciously loud, raspy sound crescendos from the V12 as I blast through the gears. The car charges valiantly to 150, but everything beyond that takes great effort. Time slows. The speedo needle crawls. I catch glimpses from the corner of my eye, but all of my attention is focused on the landscape streaking by, not to mention the dwindling pavement in front of me.
My instructor gives the signal. I stand on the brake pedal. Carbon pads clamp down on carbon rotors, creating brake dust more expensive than my TV. The car scrubs off speed with impressive haste. My instructor screams out the magic number, “207!”
I later check that against the Garmin, which reads 201. The discrepancy is plausible, since my consumer-grade GPS probably cannot track speed as quickly, or accurately, as the car’s computer. I suppose it’s also possible that Ferrari might be a bit generous. Either way, I crossed the double century.
Now the SLR calls.
The low-slung car, almost running on fumes, feels unsettled and jumpy as it barrels down the runway, skittering over irregularities. It’s the same drill: Accelerate to about 60, turn around, and stomp on it. The SLR lurches with ruthless efficiency, the guttural sound of the exhaust rising with each shift of the five-speed automatic. Wind noise is soon competing with engine racket for decibel supremacy, the cabin becoming louder as the speedo spins. As with the Ferrari, eking out those last mph unfolds with Hitchockian suspense. I begin to wonder if I might run out of runway, even as the speedometer continues climbing. 202. 203. 204. The needle reaches 205.
I lift off the throttle. The nose dives and the rear spoiler flips up, acting as an air brake to hasten deceleration. Calm returns to the cabin, and the car’s Mercedes DNA becomes apparent. I’m doing 70 mph and it feels like I’m sitting still. I finally bring the car to a stop and check my Garmin…
203 mph. I’ve done it. I’ve crossed another item off my bucket list.
On the freeway heading back home, I find I’m driving slower than usual. But I suppose that’s to be expected; after all, nothing feels more superfluous than speeding on public roads when you’ve just spent a day chasing 200 miles per hour.