Around 40 years ago, nearly every technological development had something to do with speed. The Concorde and the Countach represented pinnacles of engineering partly because of technical prowess, but sheer top speed was the winning point.
Bragging rights disputes in fast car engineering continued all the way to the mid 1990s. When McLaren created the F1, capable of a ridiculous 231mph, it was thought that the next car created by Ferrari or Lamborghini would trump that. However, as with the Tupolev Tu-144, the next car along didn’t make speed its primary concern and it took a decade for the McLaren to be dethroned. The Concorde was never dethroned as the fastest commercial jetliner, as that has not seemed to be the primary goal of the most recent innovations in air travel.
Last week Boeing’s 747 was launched. Boeing also launched the 747 in 1966. Forty-five years later, the 747-8 Intercontinental has arrived as the latest, greatest plane. Its top speed is Mach 0.855, less than half Concorde’s Mach 2 speeds. Speed, as it happens, is no longer the most important aspect of either supercar or jetliner design. The fastest car in the world is the supremely comfortable, luxurious and quite refined Bugatti Veyron. The creation of each car reputedly costs $3 million in terms of engineering finesse and stress testing, but Bugatti sells each for one-third of that price. Speed isn’t affordable or desirable anymore; the better selling supercars come from Aston Martin, which prides itself on design excellence and pedigree, not performance.
After a curious partnership with Mercedes that formed the representatively disappointing SLR, McLaren returned with the bizarrely titled MP4-12C. With a name less ambitious than its ancestor, the “F1,” the MP4-12C unsurprisingly disappoints in its effort to claim top speed. Weighing nearly twice as much as the legendary F1, the MP4-12C has comfortable seats, a standard driving position and is less likely to result in driver death than the F1.
In another illustration of speed’s fall from grace as the pinnacle of engineering, Zach Bowman of Autoblog made the rather odd comparison of the $100,000 Jaguar XKR with tens of acres of Tennessee farmland and a homestead. With reliability woes and a general sense that the fast car was relatively pointless, the automotive journalist chose the house and acreage over the car.
Even at the razor’s edge of high speed, attention focuses on innovative speed rather than top speed. This weekend in Australia, the world’s fastest racing cars arrived in Melbourne to compete for the opening race of the 2011 Formula 1 championship. They aren’t the fastest F1 cars, which drove in the late 1990s and reached speeds around 230-240mph at Italy’s Monza circuit. Running at nearly 10 times the velocity of road cars and with five to six times the amount of pure power, the cars at the turn of the millennium were exceptionally fast and rather dangerous. Crashes during the Ferrari years of 2000 to 2004 were spectacular and only non-fatal because safety engineering kept pace with engine technology.
This weekend marks the fifth year of slower F1 cars, running louder and less complicated V8 engines rather than the ferocious V10s of legendary drivers like Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost, Niki Lauda and Stirling Moss. The reasoning is safety, the underlying motive is competition and the justification is price. Keeping the cars slower saves poorer teams money and allows them to compete for top positions.
Speed in its pure and raw form has declined from the forefront of imagination of regulators and fallen from the priority list of engineers and racing drivers. Top speed itself, unavoidably associated with pollution, has become unattractive and even embarrassing. Of course the new Ferrari can reach 208mph, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find that tidbit amongst the literature about its luggage space and road-holding capabilities.
Udayan Tripathi is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. The INTERNATIONALIST appears every other Monday.