Before they ruined it with two chicanes, the circuit where they hold the Le Mans 24 Hours used to have the very long Mulsanne straight. During races Derek Bell, five-times winner of the endurance classic, used the time taken to cover its length for admin and relaxation. He’d check the dials and make any necessary adjustments. He’d wiggle his feet to improve circulation, much as you do on a long-haul flight, and if it was night he’d look for the various constellations in the sky. All while driving at 240mph on what otherwise does duty as a public road. If you have ever driven at half this speed, you may find this rather astonishing. In fact, it’s nothing of the sort. In part this is because Bell is the greatest sports car driver Britain has ever produced, but in the main it is because speed is relative.
Damon Hill used to say that every time he climbed back into a Formula One car after his winter break its speed would take his breath away. Yet after a few days, or even a few laps’ acclimatisation, he’d be fully “dialled-in” to its performance and invariably wishing he had a few more horsepower under his foot.
Nine years ago I was lucky enough to be looking after the road testing department of Autocar magazine when it became the only publication to date to road test the McLaren F1. That day it did 0 to 60mph in 3.2sec, 0 to 100mph in 6.3sec and 0 to 200mph in 28sec. On the longest private runway in the UK my nerve failed at 211mph, at which speed it was still accelerating quite hard. Later, given more space and a considerably braver driver in the person of the former Le Mans winner Andy Wallace, the McLaren recorded a maximum speed of 240.1mph.
So let’s enter the world of Formula One, where cars have upwards of 200 more horsepower than the McLaren F1’s 627 and a lot less than half the weight. But, if you apply the typical pub 0 to 60mph test, they’re slower than you might think. The problem is not power but finding a way of putting it on the tarmac. I can remember the McLaren road car would not take full throttle in first gear without vaporising its rear tyres, so what a McLaren race car must be like I can scarcely imagine. Of course, they now have traction control to ensure the rear wheels don’t spin but they’re still limited by having only two-wheel drive and grooved tyres. The result is that a typical 0 to 60mph time for a modern grand prix car is around 2.7sec, just half a second quicker than the McLaren road car. Indeed, there are many other kinds of racers, such as hillclimb cars with much larger rear tyres, or rallycross cars with all-wheel drive, that would have little trouble dispensing with a grand prix car to 60mph. The true picture only emerges after this point, when the grand prix car can finally transmit all its power to the road. For while the McLaren road car takes a profoundly impressive 3.1sec to go from 60 to 100mph, it would be reasonable to expect an F1 car to take rather less than half this time. The bottom line is simple: a modern Formula One car will reach 100mph from rest in 4sec or less.
Of course, the world’s fastest car in terms of top speed was the Thrust SSC (see Interview: Andy Green: Me and my motors). But while its supersonic speed is unchallenged, in terms of acceleration it is nothing to write home about. The car does 0 to 60mph in no less than 35sec, and 0 to 100mph in 47secs, so it is slower to the hundred than a 1.6 litre Ford Focus. In fact, this is being slightly mean — the car was accelerated as slowly as possible at first so as not to suck up great chunks of the desert floor into the two jet engines. Thrust SSC’s acceleration peaks at 4sec per 100mph speed gain, matching an F1 car. However, the really impressive thing is that the car keeps up this rate of smooth acceleration from 200mph all the way to 600mph, before the sonic shockwaves begin to make progress harder.
Don’t die before seeing a nitromethanol or top fuel dragster in action. It is one of those experiences that words alone are utterly unable to convey. Watching one leave the line assaults every sense you have: you can taste and smell the fuel, you’re deafened by the noise and, if you’re close enough, you can feel the ground shake. As for your eyes, you simply won’t believe them: a top fuel dragster will reach 100mph not in the 4sec it takes an F1 car, or even three or two; if you drive one of these insane machines and cannot get it into three figures in comfortably less than one second you’re an embarrassment. To be competitive at the top level in drag racing you need a car that will reach 300mph in less than 5sec and within one quarter of a mile. Pretty fast but still not fast enough. In our ultimate speed league, with an F1 car akin to a Ford Escort, a modern top fuel dragster is perhaps at the same level as a Porsche 911 would be in the normal road-going hierarchy. So, if you’re now wondering what is at the very top of the speed freak league, allow me to introduce to you the late Sammy Miller and his car, the appropriately named Vanishing Point. Vanishing Point was Miller’s dragster, but instead of powering it by something as inefficient and cumbersome as the internal combustion engine, he thought he’d cut to the chase and use rockets instead. One day in 1981 he went to a place in the US called Lake George, lit the fuse and held on tight. An impressive 1.67sec later he was doing 247mph. Suitably enthused by this, in 1984 he went one better and reached 386mph in 3.58sec within the specified quarter mile. To this day it is the fastest drag run in history. So Vanishing Point is almost certainly the fastest accelerating device that can have any claim to being a car. Every time Miller drove it, his nose and ears bled.
And there our story would end but for one man who cannot go without mention. Colonel Dr John Paul Stapp was a research officer at Edwards Air Force Base in California and, during the 1950s, investigated the effects of acceleration and deceleration on the human body. His human body. He built a rocket-powered sled and rode it 29 times, during which he suffered, among many less serious injuries, concussion, retinal detachments, a hernia, several broken ribs and two broken wrists. You’d need a decent book to do justice to Stapp so I’ll give you just the last of those 29 rides. In 1954, at the age of 43, he and his sled accelerated from rest to 632mph in 5sec. But the test wasn’t to see how fast the sled could go, it was to see how fast it could stop. From considerably faster than the cruising speed of a Boeing 747, he came to rest in 1.4sec. During that time Stapp decelerated at 40G. When he came round he found he was blinded on account of his eyeballs becoming temporarily fused to their lids. It would be nearly 30 years before anyone travelled faster across the face of the planet. Incredibly, this and his previous 28 trips on the sled did no long-term damage. Stapp died peacefully at home four years ago, aged 89.
HOW THEY COMPARE
Ford Focus 1.6 0-60mph 10.1 sec 0-100mph 36.0 sec Top speed 115mph
Ferrari 360 Modena 0-60mph 4.2 sec 0-100mph 8.9 sec Top speed 183mph
Caterham R500 0-60mph 3.5 sec 0-100mph 7.7 sec Top speed 150mph
Suzuki GSX R1000 0-60mph 3.5 sec 0-100mph 6.3 sec Top speed 180mph
WRC rally car 0-60mph 3.4 sec 0-100mph 8.7 sec Top speed 120mph
McClaren F1 0-60mph 3.2 sec 0-100mph 6.3 sec Top speed 240mph
Formula one car 0-60mph 2.7 sec 0-100mph 4.0 sec Top speed 220mph
Rocket powered dragster 0-60mph 0.2 sec 0-100mph 0.5 sec Top speed 400mph
Thrust SSC 0-60mph 35.0 sec 0-100mph 47.0 sec Top speed 763mph