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The fast life & times of Andy Wallace

By Andy Wallace, 03 Jan 2020 Features

Andy Wallace in Bugatti Chiron

The British race veteran tells Ash Westerman & Cameron Kirby what it’s really like to hold a Bugatti Chiron wide open at nearly 500km/h

This is the second time I’ve broken a speed record.

The first was the McLaren F1 record of 386.6km/h in 1998. I was young [aged 37] and naive when I signed on for the McLaren record. When you are young you either don’t really know or don’t care, but as you get older, you do think about things more, and you’re more aware of possible consequences.

If I thought about it logically when we talked about this Chiron attempt, I may have said, “Nah, it’s okay, you guys go ahead [without me]”, but in the end, I said, “All right.”

I walked away after saying I’d do it and I thought, “You must be barking mad.” But I don’t have a death wish; over the years I’ve driven quick cars, and at the end of the day, I’m a car enthusiast.

And I have been going fast for a long time. I was offered a Le Mans drive by TWR in 1988. They set up a test at Paul Ricard, which I knew from driving a 500kg F3000 car that stayed glued to the road. Now I was in this great big Jaguar XJR-9, running the low-drag Le Mans set-up, and at 330km/h it was swerving all over the place, using the whole width of the track. You really had to manhandle it: no power steering then, of course. It was a shock to the system.

Andy Wallace at Le Mans

There was no Le Mans test weekend back then, but I studied the gear charts before practice, and I knew 6000rpm was 320km/h. On my first lap I ran it up to 6000rpm on the Mulsanne straight and I said to myself, “This is as fast as I want to go.” You’re in the grooves worn in the RN138 by heavy trucks, you catch a slower car and need to go around it, you put on a bit of lock but the camber pushes you back, you put on a bit more, the back of the slower car is rushing up to you, you climb up the camber and lurch down the other side, and you almost steer into the opposite barrier. There I am thinking, “This is jolly fast”, and another XJR-9 comes past like I’m tied to a post.

So the next lap I held the throttle down, my toes curling up in my shoe, got to the kink which everybody said was flat, but I lifted. But on my third lap I managed the kink without lifting, and then it was all right. We were doing 397km/h that year.

Andy Wallace at Le Mans

Dunlop were very unhappy with the safety margin of the radials, which were only good for 400km/h and we were just about on that, so they insisted we went to cross-plies. Suddenly, even with the same rolling diameter, the gearing was all wrong. That’s because cross-plies grow at maximum speed. So instead of gearing for 397km/h, we geared for 370km/h, and that, with the tyre growth, got us back to 397. But it felt like at least 480. You tell yourself, “If a tyre goes bang now I’ll hit the barriers so hard I won’t know anything about it.”

People ask, “Do you feel safe? Is there fear?”

There are risks; you can’t pretend there’s not. But everyone in the Bugatti team is so good at their job – the engineers, all the team – that you eliminate the risk as much as possible. I was aware we are doing something special when we set the record in August.

Andy Wallace in Bugatti Chiron

But it’s still a huge jump in speed. If you drive at 300km/h then it’s a real shock, even to take the Chiron to its [electronically limited] max of 420km/h; you have to get used to it. You have to work up to these things gently to try and acclimatise. But it’s still a complete shock to be up at mid and high 400s.

In terms of preparation, it’s all very methodical, as you’d expect. During the week at the track, first we validate all the data – wind tunnel, etc. We do that at 250km/h, nice and easy, then we know how accurate the data modelling is relative to the real world at Ehra. Then we go up in 50km/h increments.

Andy Wallace in Bugatti Chiron

On the day of the record, first we waited for the cross-wind to be not so strong, then did a full lap at 200km/h, to make sure temps and pressures were stable. Then we attempt a few serious runs, adding a bit of speed, then you know what you need to do: into the banking at 250km/h, down some gears, see the exit, then bang, pedal flat. You just flick the switch in your head and do it.

While you’re doing the run, you’re not just sitting in the car driving, you’re monitoring various things, checking off a list in your mind; it’s busy. In terms of the feeling, it’s really amazing to come off the banking at the end of Ehra-Lessien and hit the flat section, and pin a Chiron Super Sport for 57 seconds. It just accelerates and accelerates, really strong, and it’s not until you pass 450km/h that you realise the rate of acceleration is decreasing, but you’re still accelerating – it’s almost unbelievable to think about the number.

Andy Wallace in Bugatti Chiron

The main issue is directional instability. See, getting up to 450 is quite manageable, but after that the car moves around a lot and you have the feeling that you’re not controlling the car as much as you’d like. It’s nice to have full control, and after about 450 you realise that’s not true anymore. It’s nothing to do with the tyres, nor the aerodynamics, it’s just physics. It’s not as if there are any vibrations – it’s super smooth – it’s just that the front wheels are spinning so quickly it’s the inertia, the gyroscopic effect … you make a steering input and the car just wants to keep turning. If there’s a cross-wind and you get pushed to one side of the track and you turn slightly to get back, it just wants to keep turning, so you are continuously turning, left and right, just to go straight.

If you watch the video it’s hard to see, it looks like I’m just sitting there and it doesn’t look too difficult. But if you look at the white line and you look at the side of the car, you notice the distance from the white line is changing ... you’re doing 132 metres per second, and it’s moving around.

Andy Wallace in Bugatti Chiron

At 447km/h there’s a surface change on the track; when you hit it at that speed, it feels like a jump, like all four wheels are coming off the ground. You brace yourself for the ’jump’, but you don’t lift – that would make it much worse – so you keep it flat and there’s this whump where it feels like it’s lifted and landed back down, four square.

It’s intense, but I’ve been doing crazy things in cars for a long time. It’s just another day, in that sense.