Racing for Speed

Since motor car was invented, human did not stop trying to raise top speed. In early days, such work was mainly because of practical needs, for instance, even the fastest pre-war car, Alfa Romeo 8C2900, can barely reached 125mph, thus one can see how necessary to raise speed. 

As automotive technology developing, top speed became irreasonably high, especially after speed limits were legislated by governments. How many drivers need to travel at over 150mph? However, car makers still continued their race for speed, solely for the purpose of lifting their image. "The fastest car in the world" is always a fascinating title, every sports car maker wants to acquire it. The real battle started in the '60s by two of the most admirable sports car makers - Lamborghini and Ferrari. 

Ferruccio Lamborghini established his company in the early '60s intended to rival Ferrari. Of course, for a new sports car maker, the fastest way to make name is to build "the fastest car in the world". Therefore in 1966, he created the mid-engined, V12-powered Miura, the first 170mph sports car in history. 

2 years later, Ferrari responded with front-engined Daytona, whose 4.4-litre V12 developed more horsepower at 352hp. Road test found it was 2 mph faster than Miura. 

Enter the '70s, the title of fastest car still controlled by these two Italian marques. In 1971 Geneva motor show, Lamborghini unveiled Countach prototype, which claimed to be 200mph ! However, when the production car launched in 1974, old engine and inferior aerodynamics made it actually slower than Miura, although many people still believed it could do 200mph, simply suggested by its space-age styling. Luckily, Ferrari's contemporary mid-engined 512BB also appeared to be slower than its predecessor, mostly because of smog control. 

As oil crisis hit the sports car market, the battle silent down for a few years until 1984, when Ferrari launched its Group B limited production supercar, 288GTO. Racing technology including Kevlar body, twin-turbo 32-valve V8 engine helped it to taste 180mph top speed. 400hp was also a record high in road car. Meanwhile, within a year, Maranello created another supercar, the boxer-engine Testarossa. 390hp from 12 cylinders enable the same speed as GTO, but this car is a production car which eventually built more than 10,000 units. 

At the same time, Lamborghini upgraded its Countach LP500S to Countach 5000QV, boasted by 5.2 litres 4-valve V12 good for 455hp. Due to inferior aerodynamics, it topped roughly the same as the Ferrari GTO and Testarossa. By the way, Aston Martin collaborated with designer / coach builder Zagato and created a car simply called "Zagato", with 432hp 5.3-litre V8 and a drag-free body, it was claimed to be capable of 187mph (300km/h) ! However, since only 50 were built, no wonder no test data was available. 

When nobody seems to be dominating, Porsche 959 stunned the world in 1987. Built according to Group B rules like Ferrari 288GTO, it also employed Kevlar body and twin-turbo engine, but the Porsche flat six good for 450hp, accompany with 0.32 drag-coefficient, no wonder it reached 197mph in a test held by AMS magazine. 

Ferrari responded a year later with F40. Even more racy than the 959, but twin-turbo V8 output 478hp. Although overall performance was better, top speed was marginally lower because of higher drag. 

Entered the '90s, the competition raised to the toughest ever seen. Lamborghini was lucky to launched its 202mph Diablo just before the new battle broke out, until now it is still the fastest production car. In 1992, Bugatti EB110 raised the record to 211mph, Jaguar then recorded 217mph in its XJ220 development car. Both of them were powered by a 3.5-litre turbocharged engine. 

LEFT : Bugatti EB110 Super Sport. RIGHT : Jaguar XJ220

A year later, McLaren F1 rewrote the record to 231mph, this is the final record. A few years later, Gordan Murray suddenly appeared to be eager to find out the real potential of F1, thus disabled rev-limiter and recorded 240 mph. This is the final record *. 

* There were several Porsche 962-based road cars appeared before 1993, they may be even faster than McLaren F1. Nevertheless, they were not qualified in our scope because of their racing car root.


Where to record top speed for supercars ?

Autobahn, Germany  

As many car enthusiasts know, Germany's Autobahn is one of the most famous super highways in the world that has no speed limit. Autobahn is a highway network interconnecting major cities in the country, it was building since the 30's under Hitler government's policy to make Germany the most modernised country. Consists of many multi-lane long straights and high speed bends, though not all sections has no speed limit, it is the most perfect public road to record top speed. Driving in Autobahn must remember that never engage the fast lane if you are not fast enough, otherwise you may be slammed by a 200mph supercar from behind. 

Ehra-Lessien, Germany  

This is Volkswagen's test track. 2 parallel long straights connected by arcs at both ends. Cars accelerates in the 9 km long straight, where speed will be recorded, then slow down, enter the arc, record speed again in the other long straight. As a result, 2-way average speed can be calculated. In 1998, McLaren F1 measured 240.1 mph there. 

Nardo, Italy  

Strangely, Fiat built the fastest track in the world. It locates in Nardo of Northern Italy. This is simply a circular loop, with slope to compensate the centrifugal force. McLaren F1, Bugatti EB110, Jaguar XJ220 and Lamborghini Diablo were all tested there. 

Nevada desert, USA  

Although running on sand, Nevada desert is the only place for breaking land speed record, because it has unlimited "straight". Thrust SSC set a supersonic record there.

Copyright© 1998-2000 by Mark Wan
Return to AutoZine home page