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The Fiasco Over What Is The Fastest Car In The World

You’d think it would be an uncomplicated question. What is the fastest car in the world? Far as I know, there’s only one world, right? However fast any bunch of cars can go, presumably, at some point, one is going to be the fastest. At worst, maybe there might be a couple tied for fastest? Right?

Not so fast, though. It turns out that in the high stakes prestige affair of crowning a car as the fastest, there may in fact be somewhat more considerations than you’d think. And “considered” such matters would appear to need to be. Indeed, dispute about the very the definition of what is a “car” led to some considerable controversy in 2013 regarding which car did or did not qualify to wear the crown.

Before we dive right into that matter, we should first introduce the players in this little drama of ours. Three cars are especially important to this story. The first of these is the Bugatti Veynon Super Sport: the reigning king. You might call it the European Union of sports cars, produced by a Franco-German collaboration. Owned by Volkswagen, the car is assembled in the small French town of Molsheim. The Bugatti accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in 2.4 seconds, driven by an 8.0 liter W16 engine that works up 1,200 bhp. The Guinness Book of Records has certified it as reaching the track speed of 267.8 mph.

The competition for Bugatti is, first, the Hennessey Venom GT, with a speed of 265.7 mph. With its 7.0 liter V8 twin turbo engine producing 1,244 bhp, it has been certified as accelerating from 0 to 186 mph in 13.63 seconds. And second is the SSC Ultimate Aero, which has twice been crowned the world’s fastest car, in the past. It has recorded a certified speed of 256.18 mph, giving it the title the first time around, which it kept for almost three years. It was the second time wearing the crown, though, which involved all the controversy. Before getting to that, in addition to identifying the players, we have to also know the rules.

To be clear, here, any claims about a car being the fastest in the world are really about whether it is the fastest “production” car. Production car, you ask? The only cars that qualify under this rule are ones that can be bought commercially. Vehicles, that could perhaps be called cars (even if they more resemble rockets), but are only legal to drive places like the Utah salt flats, don’t count. Only a car that can be legally purchased and driven on city streets counts as a production car.

At least part of what is intended by such a rule is that only cars qualify for the race, as it were, if they are not modified from their commercial form to amplify their race track speed. That would seem to make sense. If the point is to evaluate production cars, surely cars customized for racing would be disqualified. Isn’t that a straightforward matter? Well, actually, it turned out to be a little more complicated than expected.

The story begins in 2010. It was then that Bugatti first took the crown as the world’s fastest car away from the then reigning champ, the SSC Ultimate Aero. And Bugatti remained top of the hill, until April of 2013. In the early days of April, John Hennessey, proprietor of the Venom GT, announced that his car had set the production car record with a dizzying speed of 265.7 mph, back in February. This though had not been a certified test. As a consequence, such a run posed no threat to Bugatti’s record. And, anyway, the Venyon Super Sports speed record was officially higher than the Venon GT, at 267.8 mph. So, what was the big deal? The big deal turned out to be, Hennessey also remarking that in fact his speed did made his the fastest production car in the world. His reasoning was that, as he pointed out, Bugatti placed a speed limiter in their commercially purchased cars.

So it turned out to be. In fact, Bugatti Venyon Super Sports bought commercially had a safety system installed that prevented the car from exceeding 258 mph: a speed 10 mph below the track record of the car. When this situation came to the attention of the Guinness Book of Records a great storm of controversy soon followed. The Guinness adjudicators concluded that this was the kind of modification for speed testing purposes that the rules disqualified. The Bugatti, in their new estimation wasn’t in fact a production car. Its crown was duly revoked. The Hennessey’s speed though had not been officially certified, so the crown for fastest car in the world reverted back to the prior record holder, the SSC Ultimate Aero.

A strange situation this one surely was: the point of a rule against modified cars was, one would understand, to disqualify cars not sold commercially. For instance, cars taken off a commercial production line, and modified specifically for racing purposes where intended to be excluded. The present situation, though, was a little more difficult to align with the rules. The Bugatti, after all, wasn’t modified for advantage on the track, but for safety on the street. This was certainly a modification that made the car faster on the track than on the street, yet the production car hadn’t been modified to be faster, but rather to be slower. Clearly this was an unusual situation; how exactly was the rule to be applied?

To this day there are rather strong feelings among auto aficionados about what is the correct interpretation of the rule and whether the limiter-less Bugatti should be allowed to compete. For its part, though, Guinness finally came to the conclusion that such a ruling was contrary to the spirit of the rule and just days later did a full about-face, reinstating the Bugatti as reigning champ as fastest car in the world.

Whichever way you cut it, though, it seems a bit odd calling such cars production cars. They are assembled from a variety of system sources, hand assembled in craftsman-like processes and result in a very small handful of the cars only ever being on the market. All this just goes to show that the definition of “production car” may very well just be in the eye of the beholder. But who can deny that rules are made to be broken?

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