The Drive Interview: Bugatti’s Chief Test Pilot Andy Wallace
Andy details what 300 mph feels like, how motorcyclists make better drivers, and strength-testing Michelin tires with NASA equipment.
Few can claim they’ve lived their lives on the fine edge separating greatness from tragedy. Where even just a fraction of a second, or a single miscalculated millimeter, can define a legacy or spawn tearful goodbyes. Andy Wallace, now Bugatti’s Chief Test Pilot, has been fortunate enough to toe the line straddling the brink and walk it each time.
Unlike Wallace’s calm and collected demeanor, his career fortunes have come fast and furious, graduating from karts to formula cars, with a short stint in Formula 1, and finally to the big show, Le Mans prototypes. The nearly 60-year-old Englishman has now driven for many big-name teams, including Tom Walkinshaw Racing, McLaren, Toyota, Panoz, Audi, Cadillac, and Bentley. He’s won the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Petit Le Mans, the 12 Hours of Sebring twice, and the 24 Hours of Daytona a staggering three times. The man simply can't stop driving incredibly long distances at extremely high speeds—which is how he ended up behind the wheel of a modified Bugatti Chiron last year doing 304 mph in the car's record run.
Exalted speed aside, this wasn't Wallace's first show. He's been flinging experimental sports cars to their theoretical top speeds since the early 1990s when he took a Jaguar XJ220 prototype to 217.7 mph at the behest of the firm's engineers because it sounded like fun. (They were hoping for 220 mph, hence the name.) Later on that decade, Wallace attracted the attention of Gordon Murray at McLaren, who believed his iconic F1 supercar was capable of more than the 231 mph achieved in early testing. In 1998, dressed in jeans, a collared shirt, and his racing helmet, Wallace set a production car record by hitting 240.1 mph around what is now Volkswagen’s Ehra-Lessien test track in Germany.
The mark wasn't broken until 2010, when Wallace's current employer Bugatti snatched it back at the same facility with the 267-mph Veyron Super Sport. Since then the pace has quickened—in late 2017, Koenigsegg dusted Bugatti with a 277.9 mph run in an Agera RS in the Nevada desert. In 2019, once Bugatti's engineers figured out how to safely set up a 300-mph car in the entirely capable Chiron, Wallace, now working as the company's chief test pilot, was called upon again to go faster than anyone had ever gone in a production car. He buckled in and grabbed 304.773 mph like it was nothing.
What is the sensation of speed at 300 mph? What does a person like this look for in a good driver? We caught up with Wallace a couple of months ago at an intimate gathering for the North American debut of the Bugatti Chiron Super Sport 300 + prototype that he drove to drop the proverbial mic on production speed records.
The Drive: Between racing Jaguars at 240 plus at Le Mans, the McLaren F1 record, and now the Chiron’s 304 mph run, how did it come for you to live a life at top speed?
Andy Wallace: The first-ever real record was with a Jaguar XJ220, but the Jaguars at Le Mans were truly insane pre-chicanes. In those days you were up against tire problems and this is eventually why they put the chicanes in. It's not a walk in the park, but then actually, none of these were a walk in the park to be honest. With the McLaren at 243 miles an hour, it's moving, right on the ragged edge and I think I said some crazy words about it, like nobody's going to beat this.
Now, you get in a Chiron and if you do 243 miles an hour, and I'm not exaggerating, you could actually have a coffee in the cup holder and sit there and sip it, so this is how far things have come. I’ve gone a bit on a tangent, but I think just being in the right place at the right time got me here. From a young kid, all I wanted to do was race cars, I was crazy about this and I had no money and no family money and it was almost an impossibility to get going but somehow, with a few twists and turns, it kind of happened and I found myself…
TD: Getting progressively faster?
AW: Yeah, I guess the biggest break was Formula 3, which was pretty big in Europe, actually big worldwide really, and winning that championship in the UK. And then going down to Macau for the big event at the end of the year in November, the Macau Grand Prix, where you have all the different country champions down there. Had a win in that and that kind of got the ball rolling, so then that's how I was invited to drive for Jaguar and then ultimately win Le Mans.
So I got the job by doing the speed with the Jag, first of all from the driving for them in the race car but then they were developing the XJ220 as a streetcar and they needed somebody to do development driving so I was just said okay, do you want to do this? Right, yes. Sounds great.
AW: So we fitted that in between the testing in the race car and then when it was all done, we thought well, should we go and see how fast it goes? We did it in Fort Stockton, Texas. We got it pretty close to 220 hitting 217.7.
TD: That's pretty close.
AW: I tell you, that really got my attention with, back in the very early '90s, just how fast that was. Then you sort of fast forward to the McLaren, I got that similar sort of luck really. I was racing for McLaren at Le Mans in '95 and '96. '98 I wasn't working for them anymore, but they just gave me a call and said “Hey, we're going to do this run, do you want to come?”
TD: And continued to spiral.
AW: That's it. I've been with Bugatti now for close to nine years doing all sorts of things for media drives, passenger drives, and development work. Then this [300 mph] subject came up.
I sat down with the head of engineering. He said, “This is what we were planning, what do you think?” Probably the sane person in you should say, “No, you're okay, I've been there and done all that.” But I'm intrigued by speed. I like the technology. And I like the solutions that you have to invent to solve the problems. It's never been any different right from early little, small race cars up to now, you're always trying to solve technical problems to reach a higher level. It’s about the things that need solving which have never been solved before because there's never been a need.
You know, you don't have to develop a tire to do 300 miles an hour because there are no cars that do 300 miles an hour. Well, there is now. These problems get solved, and you also work with the best people in the field, be it the engine guys, the gearbox guys, the tire guys, the chassis guys—they're all the top of their field.
TD: And it's been you just gravitating toward this insanity of engineering?
AW: Yeah, I think it's a straight yeah. Right place right time too, I suppose.
TD: You detailed to Car and Driver the mentality about going into the Mulsanne straight at Le Mans back in the day, saying that your biggest fear was the tire failure. What's it like knowing that for that minute you're going down that back straight, your tires could fail and shoot you off the track?
AW: With these things, there's a risk and you try to reduce the risk. You can't eliminate it, you reduce. We were running Dunlop tires as a team in '98 and all year we were using radial tires, as we are now. But they did all their calculations that year and said, “Listen, there is no way you can go to Le Mans with our radial tire. It can't do 250 miles an hour.” They said you're going to have to use a bias-ply tire, which you're probably a little bit too young to remember what that was all about.
AW: In the period, they were easier to drive on in some ways. The brake away is consistent and quite okay. They're massively inferior to the traction and braking, but if they stay together, that was more important and they should have been okay for over 300 miles an hour. The downside to those, if the radial explodes for whatever reason, generally the sidewalls will fail and there is a small possibility the tire could stay on the rim and it certainly doesn't throw too many bits off.
When a bias-ply breaks, you'll get a one-second warning which is a vibration as the tire is coming apart and then a piece will come off the tire and as the tire rotates, it will get a tail and the first thing it does is take your rear wing off. So, if you pop a rear tire, you're upside down in two seconds.
TD: So how do you deal with that possibility for 24 hours?
AW: It's long, yeah. I think…and to really stretch this, it's your job, you know. You're a professional racing driver and it's what I wanted to be from an early age, so you finally get to the big time in racing and if you think about it too much or you balk at what could happen, you just get replaced. I mean, you're a light bulb to a team. They can easily get another one in there so that's the first thing. It helps I won Le Mans at age 27. In your 20s, your imagination is like…
TD: You fear nothing.
AW: Nothing. And I convinced myself, okay, if it goes bang, it's going to be a massive accident, then there's gonna be one massive bang and everything's going to black and it can't be that bad, surely.
TD: [Laughs] It can't be that bad!
AW: So that's kind of the feeling, obviously you're not reckless but you're aware of that now, on top of that one of the reasons a tire would fail, more than just overloading the tire, is a very slow puncture. So, the pressure reduces, you're on the straight, you've got a lot of forces in the wheels and it actually almost feels like it's pumping itself back up. So you don't feel any different.
What happens is, as the puncture gets worse, the tire gets hotter and hotter and hotter, so the temperature goes up and up and up and up. The pressure stays roughly the same and finally, it fails. Of course, now we have pressure sensors, but what they did was invented a system of infrared heat cameras with three lenses, one to the outside, one to the middle, one to the inside of each of the four tires.That's all linked up to a little computer on the dash linked to four red buttons which were lights as well.
So the idea was if a tire started to get hot, that light would flash and if you pushed the one that was flashing, it would give you all three temperatures across the tire and you could make a judgment call about it.
In the middle of the race there's a lot of overtaking and you're racing hard, but on the laps where you're on your own down the three and a half miles [Mulsanne] straight, it actually only took 50 seconds to get down there…
TD: Yeah, because you're doing 248 miles an hour.
AW: It’s crazy isn't it? So, I found myself on my own, going down the straight and I'm thinking. I'm looking at the thing, there's no lights going on, and then I just get this thought pop in my head: maybe the bulb's broken. Maybe it's broken. They’re not going to flash [if something's wrong]. So I pushed it and then this one, then this one, then this one. I've checked them all now. Then I'm sitting there, after about another 20 seconds, thinking "Well, maybe now it's broken."
Honestly, I'm not making this stuff up, I actually thought that. Because you're going so fast, the trees are whizzing by so quickly and everything's under control, except it won't be if the tires go bang. It was stressful, and that's what makes these latest Michelin tires that we have on these cars so unbelievable.
TD: They're road tires but they're capable of doing 304 miles an hour.
AW: Absolutely and that wasn't the limit either. When they were testing, they went quite a bit above that.
TD: You have to account for some you know, plus or minus.
AW: Oh yeah, absolutely. We definitely needed a plus and incidentally, the only machine in the world that can test the tires that fast is the machine that they use to test the space shuttle tires.
AW: In South Carolina. So it's a huge drum with a very big radius to try and take out most of the curvature. You can push it right up against the drum, you can yaw the tire, you can camber it, you can reduce and increase the pressure. The idea is you try to fail the tire for whatever reason.
TD: Any which way you can to make sure you know where every failure point is?
AW: Exactly. And you get your confidence if it's always at the same failure point.
If it's random, you're in trouble. Of course, [Michelin and Bugatti] were happy and in fact, the tire exceeded their wildest dreams, to be honest. They actually came back and said, “There is no road in the world that you couldn't put that on that car and you could fail the tire.” Just from the structural point of view. Now, the loads involved, that’s a different animal.
The loads involved at 300 miles an hour on the tires involve a tearing force of seven tons. To try to understand, if you say a Chiron's roughly two tons, that's three and a half Chirons chained together and you pick those [three Chirons] off the ground, that is the force the tire can withstand. It's insane.
TD: That's ludicrous.
AW: It's absolutely insane, and yet, you can do it. And when you come back to the pit after you've done a run, you look at the tires and you can't tell them apart from a new set, you know. It's unbelievable what they've done.
TD: I was with Koenigsegg for their record run. The Michelin guys that were there, they just looked at the tires after every run and were like, “Yeah it's fine.” I was amazed by that.
AW: It’s really impressive, but there are lots of other areas that you would think about, like aerodynamic forces, drag, downforce, lift, that also rise in exponential increments with speed which affect the tires. We were trying not to have much downforce [on the car] because obviously if you have more downforce, you're putting more load on your tires.
But also equally, you don't want any lift, so to try and achieve that is quite tricky. We had the wind tunnel numbers, but the track is where we measured what we had. At 150, you've probably got a zero, zero, zero, zero front and rear aero load. But you'll notice that the faster you go, you'll gain rake on the chassis. The air suspension moves it back a little bit, so you get some downforce. The last day, we used 280 miles an hour. At 280 we had quite a bit of lift on the front, but still not enough load by calculations at 305 or whatever to matter on the tires or the lift...
TD: Wouldn't matter?
AW: It wouldn't take off at that point.
TD: After the record run, you said there was a joint in the track where at 277 miles an hour or somewhere around there it felt like a jump.
AW: Well, it's actually a joint from the new to the old [track surface] and you can just barely feel it in a normal car at normal speed.
TD: But at 277 mph, it's a jump?
AW: Yeah. It was 447 kph so it's probably 272 mph or something like that. During the week, I was calling it a jump and the engineers were getting a little bit cheesed off, to be honest. They kept asking, “Why do you keep calling that a jump?” I said, “Because it is” and they go, “No it's not” and then they're looking at their data, “Yeah, it's a jump.” [Laughs]
TD: So the engineers finally looked at it and said, “You're right”?
AW: [Laughs] Yeah.
TD: What's going through your head? Like, thinking I'm doing 272 miles an hour and I'm essentially lifting off the tarmac in a test where if I get this wrong at any point, I'm flipping and just going for a ride.
AW: Well I think the thing is, first of all it's not at v-max, luckily.
TD: It's pretty close, Andy, it's pretty close.
AW: [Laughs] It's close, yeah, it's close. But I mean at 272 or whatever, your aero balance is pretty good, and the weight distribution on the car is quite good too, roughly 45-55. It's a split second, and you're not lifting high off the ground, you're just momentarily up... but when it lands, there's a little bit of a wonder.
TD: That’s something that’d scare most people.
AW: It gets your heart going, that's for sure. But just, one other point to go back to that, when we talk about zero downforce, that sounds like the car's just going through the air. It's got no downforce, and no lift, so the car is happy. Nothing could be further from the truth. If you were at the top circuits of any of these cars, they create lift. So the lift actually was roughly two tons on top.
TD: But you've neutralized it out with the two tons of downforce. The actual aero.
AW: On the underside of the car, yeah, so you have the underside pulling it down by two tons and the top side lifting it up by two tons, roughly. That's a four-ton tearing force on every single body part. The rigidity and the structural integrity of that car has to be perfect. Because even if you change its shape, you immediately change the aero properties of it. It's possible that the shape could just change and a split second later you're gone. So all this needs to be calculated and to be much safer.
TD: Or you separate it like a Looney Tunes, the top half taking off and the bottom still with you traveling down Ehra-Lessien.
AW: [Laughs] Yeah, that might work. So again, that's why I say working with all these top people, they know what they're doing. There’s another issue which caught all of us by surprise, which is the weight of the spinning front wheels. At 200 miles an hour, even at 250, the gyroscopic effect is not significant so the steering controller and the suspension geometry easily overcomes any it. It doesn't when you go 300 miles an hour.
Suddenly, it's overriding all of the self-centering of the suspension geometry, the electrical power steering, it overrides everything so when you jump onto the old surface—it's a circuit that's used 24 hours a day for durability, running and testing, so there is a lot of ruts, so the car wanders—you're trying to keep it in the lane and I hope you can see the raw video of that, because the edited version for me is all artsy-fartsy and doesn't show you what's going on.
AW: It just looks like a walk in the park to me. Beautifully produced video but it wasn't like…
TD: …it doesn't show you what you were doing.
AW: Exactly, but the raw one was good. So, there's three lanes, you're trying to keep in the center lane and the car moves to the left. Right, first of all, any quick movement and not only will you move the car, you'll go all the way across and somewhere into the barrier.
So you'd be very gentle, but what you notice is, because of the gyroscopic effect, you put in an input, the car reacts, it goes over and it moves it back to where you wanted it, now it doesn't stop.
TD: You have to actually correct it again. So, it's a constant correcting that you're doing.
AW: Exactly, it's like the old game, again you're too young for this, what was it on the screen where you went dang, with a ball, doink.
AW: Exactly. And constantly you have to do that and also every minute move is more than you want. And what that does to you as the driver is interesting because I'm... I'm experienced at going fast but I always have something in the ear that I'm confident in what I'm doing, I'm confident in the machine and I'm confident that I'm controlling where it goes.
Even if that's misplaced confidence, it's that confidence that lets you carry on. When it starts going [Motions with hands moving from side to side] you start to reduce your confidence level. And then you get to a point where you go, actually I'm not really sure how much influence I'm having. When that happens…
TD: It gets into your head.
AW: Right, your eyes are on stalks, you're like okay, okay and you're feeling for anything.
TD: After the handful of times we’ve been able to talk, and the way you talk about your experiences, you come across as very calm, cool and collected. The speed and insanity of what you’re doing doesn’t seem to faze you. Where does your demeanor come from?
AW: Well, I think probably a lot of people can identify with this, you see, whenever you do something that you've done a lot and you're relatively okay at, you're very confident with what you're doing. For you, your interviews, your writing, and everything so that carries you a long way, doesn't it? So if you're asked to do something that's within the field that you're used to doing, you... I just look at it as it's just another job.
TD: What was your first top speed run that you ever did like? Race car, road car, whatever.
AW: It's funny because I very rarely go faster than the speed limit. That's really something strange.
TD: That seems to be a racecar driver type mentality.
AW: I absolutely... because I go a lot in the cars as a passenger with the customers and the media, and I'm... well, now that I say that, you and I probably went quite quick so you're not going to believe what I'm telling you now. In my normal life, when I'm driving my normal car, I'm really not going too fast and of course any built-up area residential area I'm super slow, slower than the limit. If I know the road and there's no turns and everything and I'm having a nice day, I might a little bit, but it's not something I do a lot of.
If you reverse back, I had this little Ford Fiesta, you probably know those, right?
AW: Quite a little thing and a tiny little engine. Wasn't very powerful and this was when synthetic oils were coming on the market. So what I did was I waited until one night, there was a road near my house about five miles long and I got in this thing and I had it absolutely flat out and I think it did about 87 miles an hour, something like that.
TD: (Laughs) With the steering wheel vibrating.
AW: It was shaking and everything and it was a bit of a thrill. This was with standard oil in. I then took it back to my house, drained all the oil out, filled it with this synthetic oil and then I went out and did the same thing again. Wasn't perfectly scientific but it went about three miles an hour faster, hit the magic 90. I came back, so for me then, that was already this is the victory I want this oil in my car, so it came from there.
TD: And it just snowballed.
AW: And it kind of snowballed. But because my living was racing cars, when you shut the door and you've got your helmet on you change into the person who is that driver. I'm pretty calm outside the car but actually inside, I'm not crazy and aggressive. I've got a job to do and I do it and nothing can get in the way.
That's a great question because it's difficult to answer it. I didn't just sit in the car and think, “Yeah, I'm just going to do this.” I was genuinely very...
AW: Apprehensive. I had total trust in everybody, but there are risks that you cannot eliminate, they…
TD: You're still controlling everything.
AW: That's right. If everyone’s done their job right, they'll give you something that should be able to do it, but just a small stone on the road…
TD: Could potentially be a very bad day.
AW: You hit it, you get a puncture, it's a three-dimensional accident, there's trees everywhere so it becomes…
TD: A very different story I’d have to write.
AW: That's right, a completely different story. We thought about that too, because that's a risk that needs to be reduced. Five hours with two guys and a machine with these big mats that they just completely eliminated all foreign objects [on the track] and then nobody was allowed on the track, this is the level [Bugatti] went to try to be okay. But you can have an instantaneous failure on anything…
TD: There are a million variables that you can't account for.
AW: That's it, imagine let’s say an engine fails and a rod comes out the side and lots of oil to go with it, it lands on the rear and it doesn't matter how good you are, you're having a massive accident.
So there’s definitely some apprehensiveness. In fact, I'll never forget these minutes in my life where I’d leave the area where the car was parked and do an entire 12-mile lap with the cruise control on at 125 miles an hour, which is great, you know, in a Chiron. It's like in idle.
TD: Yeah, like a walk in the park at that point.
AW: Yes, so you just sit there but it takes a long time at 120 mph to do a 12-mile lap. The reason for doing it is that you stabilize everything, tire pressures and temperatures, oil, water, everything stabilizes.
So now once you've been all the way around there and you've come down before the banking and front straight, you're talking on the radio, relaying everything's all fine and everybody's happy and then you're getting close to the banking when you're going to do it. So now you're like, shit, I've got to do it now. I've got gloves on but this is where you get the sweaty hands.
TD: You mentioned that in the behind the scenes of your record run in the McLaren F1 because you didn't have gloves on. Hell, you only had your helmet.
AW: Surprising isn't it, how times move.
TD: A little bit.
AW: That was 21 years ago, so there is…
TD: Doesn't seem that long ago.
AW: But yeah, you're only 21.
TD: I'm not that young!
AW: But you weren't very old in there. So, I'm coming up to the banking and I've got a very specific task to do, I've got things to monitor. I'm sitting there and then you're over the banking, you're still at 125. Cruise control comes off and from seventh gear, bam, bam, bam, fourth gear up onto the banking and because of the loading on the tires and the banking angle, you've got to be careful with your speed. That's why there was a 200 mph limit initially and then Michelin said to me, "okay, you can increase that up a bit before you leave but just right at the very end."
And then you go off onto the straight, but for you sitting there, the seconds are ticking down and you've got to do it when you get around the corner and this is a really strange feeling. The apprehension is still there. On the actual run itself, I got fast enough on the banking. In fact, the fastest I'd been on there and it actually shifted up to fifth on its own before I left the banking. And as soon as you come off it, bang. I think it was probably already about 150, 160 miles an hour. Then you're on the flat and now you've got the long straight.
You're in there and it accelerates like crazy, the numbers on that GPS speed, it just...yeah, just going round and round and round. And the jump is coming.
TD: The jump is coming and you know it.
AW: Yes, so you're sitting there, and you go okay, I know it's there, I know it's there, I know it's there and you're.........okay.
TD: Okay, we're good, keep going.
AW: I did probably 15 runs or so where I did lift after the jump because it just felt awful and I was swapping lanes. There was quite a strong crosswind as well, so this particular run, when it landed and it didn't feel too bad, I just kept it planted.
TD: That's an old land speed mindset. I talked to a couple of people who used to do it and when they would hit a rut they didn't see on their reconnaissance run and have that tank slapping effect, they would only just come off the accelerator enough to point the car and floor it back into going straight.
AW: Just keep going, yeah. Once it actually crossed 290 and it was quite early down the straight, I thought this was going to be a really good run, it felt like it was so I just kept it in. Problem is you've got to slow down to 125 for your banking.
You need a mile to slow down to 125. And then when you shut the throttle, you don't really want to shut it quickly because it changes the rake angle again and that will change the central pressure.
TD: And then it's going to go all over again.
AW: Yeah, it's gonna move and you might be okay but you might not so but then if you lift off slowly, you're gobbling that road at a mile every 11 seconds.
TD: You don't have the runoff to do that.
AW: No, so you've got to get off it quite quickly and when I started squeezing the brake, I got this feeling of all the control coming back from being somewhere in control to actually now in control and then I looked at the speed and I'm still doing…
TD: 190 miles an hour.
AW: No, it was worse, it still doing 225 miles an hour.
TD: That's... yeah, you're still moving.
AW: I'm 100 miles an hour too fast. But, inside your mind…
TD: It doesn't feel like it.
AW: No, it feels like leaving the autobahn after a quick run. So you look and you go, oh, that's not good. So you brake even more and then it's okay. That was a relief.
TD: Long ago, you said the McLaren F1 was the best car in the world. After this, how do you feel about that assertion? Everyone at Bugatti please close your ears for a second.
AW: [Laughs] No, I’ll just honestly tell you because it's a different era. If you drag that [McLaren] out now and you put it on the road, you'd have to be very, very careful what you do in that car. Because that car has no power brakes, there's no power steering, there's no stability control, no traction control, the change in pitch from on and off throttle is insane. It's a car that a lot of people have had accidents in. It's a car which for its time was okay, but in 2019, if you sell a car to a customer, it has to be pretty much foolproof and it certainly has to do what it says on the tin.
That doesn't make a car bad or not bad. I drove [an F1] last year before Bugatti for a video. They took an original Veyron, 1,001 horsepower and I drove them both and at the end of it all, they were relatively similar cars even though they're a little bit different in terms of time. But you can do pretty much everything in a Bugatti that McLaren could do, but you just did it so much easier and…
TD: It's much safer.
AW: Yeah, it's safer. You would be crazy to attempt [another top speed run] in the F1. Now that doesn't mean it's a bad car because I have to reiterate that during the time it came out and around the other cars that were available, it was head and shoulders above anything.
And another thing. I really feel strongly about this only because of my background as a racing driver, but all of these cars which are pretend track cars and they’re road cars, they're massively compromised on the road. So what you've got is a track car but it's not a road car. And on the other hand, on the track…
TD: It's not as good as it could be if it was just a straight track car.
AW: Yeah, I mean I was at Daytona two days ago doing a bit of historic racing in the Audi R8, that's the R8 before the R8 came out. This is a prototype car, an LMP1, so you put that on the track, it's a real racing car and it's fantastic. Now you take any of these track-focused cars and it’s a pile of shit compared to that. So it's not a racing car, then you put it on the road and it's massively compromised because it's trying to be a track car. Even if it's not breaking your spine, it's still annoying. I don't know whether it's just because I'm old, and I am old, but for me, if you're on the road, you want a road car.
AW: [Points to a Chiron] Now this thing does 304 miles an hour, but five miles down the road it's a limo. So I don't know, I'm trying to answer the question as where's the F1... I said it was the best car in the world and all that would never be beaten and whatever. Um, there's a lot can happen in 21 years.
TD: Yeah, things can change.
AW: You wouldn't want to take an F1 out in the dark, in the rain, or on an unfamiliar road and start driving quickly because the chances are you won't come back. You do it in one of these, piece of cake so.
TD: Okay, so based on that assessment, and you also do all these events with writers, journalists, and also customers, how do you feel sitting in the right seat given you don't know the people, the person's driving history, you don't know their style, or if they're lunatics or not?
AW: It's not my favorite part of the job, to say the least. My wife pretty much won't drive when I'm in the car because I'm a really bad back seat driver. “Mind that, watch that, be careful of that." So no, I'm a horrible passenger. I think what I'm bringing to the party with this is I'll drive the car first and I'll go into some safe areas where we can show what it can do and then sit in the passenger seat.
You can tell straight away if the person driving...it's not a case of whether you're driving fast or slow, it's how aware you are of danger. Once you've kind of got a bit of confidence with that, you can let them enjoy the car. But it’s hard around [LA]. You're in the traffic.
AW: Ah, I probably told you this last time when you were driving, but anybody who's got a motorcycle is a far better driver in a car because you have to be watching everything. But as long as the person you're with is listening to you, it's fine. You can sort of help them in certain places but at the same time, you're now looking at all the bits that can go wrong and relaying the information back. There's occasions where they're not listening, in which case I might just stop them and swap back again.
TD: How many times have you done that?
AW: It's rare.
TD: But it does happen?
AW: It does happen. It’s a 300 mile an hour car, but you don't need to do 300 mile an hour to get the idea or the pleasure from it and the acceleration is absolutely mind-boggling and you can use that everywhere if you pick your place.
TD: Right, we didn't do 300 when we drove together. We didn’t even clip the old 260 top speed, but it was still wild.
AW: No, but we went quite fast, didn't we?
TD: Absolutely. Can you describe what the world looks like at 304 miles an hour?
AW: You’ve been following the speed up from a lower speed and it's a little bit like I said, you know you're starting to feel like you're less influencing where the car is going than you were some miles before.
So from that point of view, your body is on full alert, anything it would tell you that this isn't going well, just any little things to make you think it's okay, it's what you're searching for. And as long as you can cling onto enough of those, you're going to stay flat. There is another thought that enters your mind. Because I've tried it lots of times before and we weren't quite so lucky [to hit 304], on Friday when it suddenly did it, my head was partly saying, “You get this over and done with now, we won't have to do it again." [Laughs]
TD: What’s the world look like at that point? Are you so focused on the road ahead that nothing else is going into your brain?
AW: Do you know, 50% of my attention was focused on the GPS speedometer.
AW: Yeah, to make sure we did it, because you know, it's no good lifting a bit too early and you haven't quite reached it so I'm looking to make sure it's above 483 kph and once it passed that and it kept on climbing and then it passed to 490, I was happy.
As for outside, you have to look really far ahead of you so that you don't overreact to the movements. When you see the raw footage, you see these white lines going by and you'll notice that this one is close to the center and then it's well it's over there and then it comes back in and then it's over there and this one actually disappears behind the center and then back. So that gives you an idea of how much movement there was.
You've got all that and that's really filling your attention so you've got a little bit left to see wow, that stuff is whizzing past really fast. That is almost irrelevant now because the other bits are more important. Each [run] felt really faster than anything I've ever known in my life. Obviously, because it is.
But it wasn't the thing I concentrated on the most. I was more thinking about where can I go to before I have to lift, making sure the speed was definitely over, making sure I didn't go too far.
TD: That's wild to hear that 50% of your time is looking at the speedometer just making sure that you did it.
AW: Just making sure everything is okay. I'm sure you've done the same thing, whatever car you've had, you've always gone off and thought how fast does my car go? That’s quite an inspiration.
TD: [Laughs] No comment.
AW: If you sort of got that in your personality and then somebody says can you drive the daddy of all cars as fast as it will go, part of you says, “Well no, you shouldn't really do it.” The other half says, “That would actually be pretty cool.”
TD: That brings me to the final question. After this life of living at top speed, what else do you want to do?
AW: Well, I think that's the great thing with the motor industry, just in general and racing car industry too, nothing stands still. There's always something greater, bigger, better, faster and at the time you think about it, it’s never obvious what that is. You know? If you'd have told me when we did the McLaren, “Well, forget that, there's a car, you know, it's coming out and it's gonna be all these things,” I'd say how can it be? But [the Veyron] was and [the Chiron] is and so, eventually we'll be into electrification and stuff. I'm a big fan of that already, I've been driving around in an e-Golf for the last 18 months and I absolutely love it, it's brilliant.
So when we start talking about these cars, supercars, electric supercars are going to have probably over two and a half thousand horsepower. That's a whole new game. That's something else and I don't know whether top speed is possible because you're talking about a lot of energy to go that fast. I don't know how much you can pack in but certainly in terms of acceleration, it's there.
TD: The Japanese eSpark Owl just did 0-60 in 1.69 seconds.
AW: Right, there you go. So the next barrier there is going to be one and a half seconds and you can't do it now with e's you will be able to. And then active aerodynamics, torque vectoring, maybe systems which shift weight across inside just to make the car corner better, etc. It never stops ever, and I don't think you can ever say okay, “You’re done.”
TD: We're done.
AW: Records are all about being broken too, so something is going to go faster than [the Chiron]. I wish them every success because it's already pushing everything. People still ask me, so when you get to a certain age, will you quit?
TD: Do you feel too old to keep doing it?
AW: No, at the moment I'm not, I'm okay. For a racing driver at the top level, I'm too old. Not that you can't do it, but the factories aren’t going to hire somebody who's nearly 60 years old. But for this [Points to the Chiron] I think a wise head probably helps.
TD: Better than a hot-headed, young person with something to prove?
AW: That's it. What do they say, there are old pilots and bold pilots but no old bold pilots?