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A Pair of Aces - Rowan Atkinson decides: Bugatti Veyron or McLaren F1?

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Has the Bugatti Veyron finally wrested the supercar crown from the McLaren F1? Long-time F1 owner Rowan Atkinson spent two days living with a Veyron in an attempt to find out.

I have to put my hands up and confess: it was always going to be a challenge for me to carry out this particular comparison with any degree of objectivity. I am pretty familiar with the McLaren F1, having driven over 30,000 miles in various examples over the last 12 years, but prior to this test I had driven the Bugatti only once, a quick blast down an autoroute near the Bugatti assembly facility on the French/German border. To compare a long period of exposure to one car with the briefest exposure to another can, like making a value judgment between a marriage and an affair, go one of two ways. You can accord too much significance and value to the thrilling brief encounter, or you can set too much store by the comfort of the familiar.

To level the playing field, I knew that somehow we needed to contrive more drive time in the Veyron than Bugatti would normally allow for a test of this nature, so I can’t tell you how relieved I was when it agreed that we could have its precious offspring for a couple of days. It’s not as good as having it for a couple of years, but it’s a damned sight better than having it for a couple of hours. Two days is sufficient time for the novelty to start to wear off. Long enough to get a little bit bored with it. Long enough, basically, to acquire an owner’s perspective.

You may think that, with cars like these, the ownership focus is only ever on exploring the outer extremities of the performance envelope, but that is not the case. Their stratospheric performance levels are pretty appealing, sans doute, but any half-decent British kit car manufacturer could build you a rocket ship with comparable acceleration, if not top speed. What is special about the F1 and the Veyron, at least in theory, is that they combine warp-speed capability with usability, practicality and reliability. Neither was designed to be a track day special. They were designed to be usable every day and, given that fact, I feel that my primary aim here should be to try to describe what it would be like to share your life with these cars. When you wake up in the morning, with the McLaren and the Veyron outside your house, which would you be inclined to take on a 300-mile motorway journey in the pouring rain? Which would you choose for an eight-mile dash up a mountain road? Which, if you were honest, would you be happy to drive to the shops?

These activities may seem bland but to me they are important, because a rarely spoken pleasure of supercar ownership is that of doing ordinary things with an extraordinary tool. When Concorde was flying, for me what made it so special was the routine blandness of the supersonic commute to New York. You could, of course, do tourist day trips to Cairo for no reason other than to hit Mach 2 over the Bay of Biscay. An enjoyable experience, I’m sure, but to sit on that daily 10.45 flight from Heathrow with a plane-load of business people on their way to work, where no-one applauded when the aircraft became airborne and you arrived in NY two hours before you took off, travelling at speeds which, we were unaware at the time, a passenger aircraft would never attain again – that was special.

Another equalising wish was for both the cars on test to be exactly as their manufacturers intended. This McLaren is a standard unmodified F1 road car, just as designer Gordon Murray first envisaged it. It is not a converted racing car and it has no body kit, no chin spoiler, no added rear wing, no after-market brake conversions. The Bugatti, similarly, is just as nature intended. This is largely because its main functions are controlled by software and therefore, like most modern cars, it is effectively a sealed unit, for which after-market ‘modification’ is a faintly ludicrous notion.

To start proceedings, a day at Rockingham Motor Speedway in the English Midlands, a huge American-style oval with an infield track, constructed only eight years ago. Our two cars are assembled in the milky sunlight, the McLaren looking like a very delicate little flower next to the bulbous muscularity of the Bugatti. In fact, the Veyron is not that much larger a car, its seven inches extra length not significant, its seven inches extra width rather more so. This F1 is a 1997 car, powered, as you may know, by a custom-built BMW 6.1-liter V12, developing 627bhp and 651Nm (480lb ft) of torque. Figures considered titanic until its test companion appeared ten years later. For those who aren’t aware, the F1 has no electronic aids whatsoever. No stability or traction controls, no ABS, not even servo-assisted brakes. When did you last drive a car with non-servo disc brakes? The engine was technologically advanced for the ’90s, with electronic engine management and variable valve timing, but in effect the high technology stops at the clutch, which is carbon – very nice, very light – beyond which the drivetrain is so simple, it verges on the vintage. The driver of a blower Bentley would feel very much at home. No power steering, simple manual ’box, rear-wheel drive, rifle-bolt gear change and cast-iron brakes that require a good push to function.

With the Bugatti, of course, at the flywheel the technology is only just getting into its stride. The engine, as you may know (I keep saying ‘as you may know’ because I’m unsure of how many anoraks are in our readers’ wardrobes), is bogglingly complex, described as an 8-liter W16 (two narrow-angle V8s conjoined in Siamese fashion) with four turbochargers, which develops 1001bhp and 1250Nm (922lb ft) of torque. It powers the first double-clutch gearbox to appear in a supercar, a seven-speed miracle of engineering, given the power and torque it has to handle, that was developed by British firm Ricardo. For me, DSG technology has at last provided a proper, lovable alternative to the traditional manual gearbox. In a gearbox timeline, these two cars neatly book-end the automated manual, in my opinion the worst kind of road car gearbox ever invented. I feel sorry for Ferrari 360s and Aston Vanquishes, stuck with such coarse mechanisms for the rest of their days.

Unfortunately, if our plan was to test these cars to the limit, this was not the day to do it. The track was in a lethally slippery state. The nearby circuit of Donington Park is similar: a track that has good grip when it is properly dry and is quite predictable if it’s properly wet but in the in-between state of autumnal damp is like an ice rink. The infield at Rockingham is a perfectly nice little circuit but, unsurprisingly in cars with the performance potential of these two, it felt like a kart track and the F1 was a real handful. At the most modest speeds, it was four-wheel drifting and skitting about and the understeer in slow corners was dreadful. I’ve noticed this on the road with the McLaren, the tendency to go straight on coming out of slippery roundabouts. I was tip-toeing round but still managed to spin it a couple of times. Not a comfortable experience.

By comparison, the Bugatti was a breeze.  It was the first time that I’d driven, on a racetrack, a car with a full regime of electronic nannies, and the reassurance imparted by its four-wheel drive and endless diffs, clutches and stability systems is just astonishing. Go into a corner too fast, accelerate far too hard and you hear the dugga dugga dugga of the ABS and ESP braking this wheel, sending power to that wheel, and suddenly you’ve slowed without any fuss and are pointing in the direction you want to go. The Veyron was so much easier to drive than the McLaren, it was hilarious.  

Except, of course, you’re not really driving it at all. The car is driving itself. You’re just issuing commands about where you’d like it to go and it computes the optimal way to make that happen. In the McLaren, you’re the lone sailor in the little dinghy, in sole and direct charge of what happens and when. In the Bugatti, you’re the captain of the destroyer, with hundreds of ratings and midshipmen scuttling about, realising your declared wish to set a course for Alexandria. On this track, in these conditions, your role in the Bugatti is managerial, investing you with a dangerous impression of personal invulnerability. It feels a bit like a computer game: if you crash, all will be put right by the press of a reset button.

Accompanying the Bugatti was its official driver, a charming French racing driver called Pierre-Henri Raphanel, who ironically in the late ’90s was a pilote of McLaren F1s, the GTR racing versions that enjoyed unpredicted but startling success in GT Endurance racing, including an outright win in the Le Mans 24 Hours in 1995. The racing success came just in time to stop the F1 project becoming a major loss for McLaren: having had the ambition to sell 300 road cars, ultimately it could sell only 71. To the relief of all, the money earned from the manufacture and servicing of the 28 racing GTRs propelled the project into something resembling profitability.

Anyway, according to Pierre-Henri, you can push the Veyron into corners up to 30% faster than you should, and the electronics will always sort you out. Thirty per cent. That is a huge margin of error. For myself, I found it extremely difficult to travel faster than my instincts were telling me would be safe in an electronically unmanaged car. In cars with the power/weight ratio of these, I would never find it easy to accelerate down a wet road with the pedal to the metal. In the Bug, it’s a breeze; you can do it with impunity. But in the Macca, it would be madness and my brain finds that difficult to forget.

So, the slippery track allowed the Veyron to shine but in fact the conditions benefited neither car. The Bugatti could show off its amazing self-control but not its performance. It was a shame also for the McLaren, which on a dry track is a lot of fun. The front end has proper grip, you can get the power down properly and it flies. And the engine sound is totally addictive… It is quite muted up to a certain throttle opening, making it a very pleasant motorway cruiser (more later of the contrasting experience in the Veyron), after which it develops the most thrilling animalistic howl, the sound of which, I can assure you, you would never tire. It still understeers in what I assume is a deliberately safe set-up and the steering stiffens to an irritating degree in tight corners but otherwise it is involving, predictable and a hoot. The gearbox, although definitely requiring masculine effort, has a wonderfully tactile change, if not the fastest. When accelerating at full chat I often change gear without the clutch, because the lack of flywheel effect allows the revs to collapse almost instantaneously when you release the throttle, facilitating a very quick snatched change if you time it properly.

The McLaren brakes are not good. They are probably best described as ‘very 1992’. They are Brembo, quite sophisticated things in their day, but they seem poor by modern standards. You can see why some F1 owners have developed their own.

Also, it isn’t an easy car to get out of. The McLaren has its own challenges because of the necessity to clamber into and out of the centre seat, but the Bugatti’s problem is a footwell of extreme depth relative to the door jamb. I thought it was just advancing middle age that was making my egress feel difficult, until a 15-year-old sat in it and, after a pause, said: ‘How do you get out of this thing?’

The McLaren is also – and this did surprise me – much the quieter car, with a more compliant ride. The F1 engine is the smaller, of course, but it is also so much more delicate and refined. The power band is flatter and the animalistic howl that it emits at higher revs is thrilling but not overwhelming. By contrast, the Veyron unit is physically huge and sounds even huge-er: when it gets truly wound up above 4000rpm the noise it makes is absolutely terrifying, a thunderous, basso cacophony that shakes you to your very core. It sounds more like a diesel locomotive than something automotive and petrol powered. And the acceleration – well, if I tell you that the sensation is indescribable, then hopefully I won’t have to describe it to you. Every passenger grabs frantically at the sides of his or her seat when they first experience it. Nought to 60, 2.5 seconds. Nought to 186mph (300kph) in just 16.7 seconds. In a car weighing over two tons. Amazing. Significantly quicker than the McLaren. And subjectively even quicker than that because of the racket the engine makes.

Even at a steady, motorway cruising speed, the Bugatti is noisy. Not, I discovered, because of the engine. Slip the car into neutral at high speed and the noise level hardly drops – because it’s all road roar, most likely the sound of those gigantic, 365-section run-flat tires thumping coarse British tarmac. With its restricted view, its wider girth, more jiggly ride and that incessant road noise, I found the Veyron the far more tiring car on a long journey. It suffers also from a serious lack of luggage space. Anything larger than the tiniest of squashy bags has to live on the passenger seat. So, if you’ve got a passenger… Well, exactly. Two people cannot go away for the weekend in the Veyron unless they DHL their luggage on ahead. In the McLaren, by contrast, there are two large luggage panniers with custom-fitted cases. And you can take an extra passenger as well. As someone once said to me, ‘Room for the wife and the mistress.’ Although, to be honest, I wasn’t sure what kind of world he was living in.

Which is best? Ha! I suspect that most readers of this magazine would better appreciate the McLaren, because it is the ultimate representation of the computer-less sports car, a culture that an older generation better understands. But, I have to tell you, the Bugatti is adorable. It is blissful, extravagant nonsense. Mad, bad but surprisingly safe to know. It is a truly great car, blisteringly fast, its modernity showing up clearly the period deficiencies of the F1. However, although the Bugatti is the better tool, the McLaren might be the more special car. It is the more practical (surprisingly), the more rare and the more involving: in the McLaren, you’re definitely the driver. In the Bugatti, although you have the steering wheel in front of you, often you feel more like a well-informed passenger.

I know that one mustn’t be too cynical about the Veyron’s electronics, because the truth is that the car would be unmarketable without them. Try to sell a 1001bhp road car without electronic stability control and half your customers would be dead within a month. In such circumstances, customer relations can suffer.

If you’re torn, if you’re really torn and cannot decide which to plump for, you should remember one thing. The McLaren will continue to go up in value, the Bugatti will almost certainly go down. However, it would be a shame if mere rationale excluded the Bugatti, so in my view it would be most sensible to buy both, so that the depreciation of one can be offset against the appreciation of the other.

There. Not tactful neutrality but sensible compromise.

Thanks to Rockingham Motor Speedway, near Corby in Northamptonshire, www.rockingham.co.uk, and to Bugatti for making the Veyron available.

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