Known to insiders as one of the best-dressed executives in the auto biz, Bugatti CEO Stephan Winkelmann also has served in some of the industry’s seeming dream jobs, as head of both Lamborghini and Audi Sport. Now he takes Bugatti into the future as the iconic French brand celebrates its 110th anniversary. But doing so is not without potential snarls.
The Chiron is supposed to top 300 mph, and your predecessor promised a top speed run by now. Is there a delay?
When I started at Bugatti, one of the first things I did was to test-drive the car. Being used to all the other supersports brands, I had never driven a Bugatti. For me it was so surprising and above all what I had experienced before. I was really blown away. Then I sat with my team and started asking about what is in the pipeline next and what is important. And I put my priorities in. To me, a top speed run is not on the agenda. For me, performance has a lot of facets, and the Chiron besides being a hypercar is a car covering a lot more than other supersports cars. When I read in the past about the car and what we communicated about it, we were missing a big part of what the car is all about. You have cars of nice designs or others that are supersports cars that are fast and performing. It is much more important than showing one little slice of what this car is able to do. In this world, to talk only top speed is not a priority for me.
What does 110 years mean to Bugatti?
We have to think that the brand is much more than what the Chiron is. We are looking into Ettore Bugatti and what he did. He was passionate to a level of perfection that was incredible at that time. We have to explore more than just looking at top speed. Being a French company, it is important that we emphasize the past racing cars like the T35, the limousines, and GTs like Atlantique. You put those three cars together, plus the Veyron that kick-started the brand. All these have elements of performance, luxury, and being good looking.
The legacy is to increase the value and being here even in a half century from now. These cars have value that is accepted by everybody. It’s not just about scarcity like the T35, where the value is so high it’s incredible. You cannot change history, and Bugatti has a hole between the 1950s and the end of the ’80s. But this is part of the brand, and it makes the brand different from all the others.
Do you see the Divo as a Chiron variant?
With the Divo, my first exercise, I looked at what we can do as a different approach in terms of performance, because we are known for longitudinal acceleration and top speed—and we’ve been limited to 261 mph (420 kph), which for me is enough. I personally did more than [250 mph], which for me was exciting, but when I went on the handling part of the course, this was equally if not more exciting—accelerating, braking, getting into and out of corners. The idea with Divo translated into design, weight reduction, and more downforce to really showcase that top speed is important but not everything.
The Nardo circuit has a handling [circuit], and there is so much we can do with an existing car. We have a lot of ideas for the future. We are constantly looking for new ideas, to test ourselves to see how quickly a product can be realized and see market reaction. We sold the Divo in four weeks’ time then showed it at Pebble Beach, and for me, everything was done in a way that could be controlled. It was an incredible success, even to someone like me who expects a lot.
There was a Supersport version of Veyron. … Is the $5 million Divo the Chiron’s version of that, or will there be something in between Chiron Sport and Divo?
With an unlimited budget there would be room for incredible things. The Chiron Sport is not a supersport, and it is not a Divo. The Divo is outside the Chiron business.
Will Bugatti look to reprise the success of the Vitesse version of the Veyron with a convertible Chiron?
We decided in the Chiron project not to do an open-top version.
Is Bugatti a one-model company? Are there plans for a second model line?
Ettore Bugatti did more than one car; he did many body styles, four-door, two-door, open car—whatever was possible, he tried to do. The brand today, 20 years after the restart, we are ready for more than one model. Not to say we can do it, but the brand is ready. We have to find the resources and many priorities in the Volkswagen Group. If we did a second model, it would enter into a different segment. With the 110th anniversary celebration, we can most assuredly look back and celebrate our roots and look into France and what Ettore has done. But to look into the future is much more important. We have to have the legacy of tomorrow, the icons—not just making a statement today. We have to do something we subscribe to as being what Bugatti stands for today but also something greater for tomorrow. It’s on us to shape the future.
Some media reports claim you said the second Bugatti will be an SUV.
I never said we are building a Bugatti SUV. The press said it because I pushed for the Urus at Lamborghini. Coming from my background, what I said is that we are looking into every segment, body style, and region. It has to be an approach good for the world and not one part. We have an idea of where we want to go.
It’s not about volumes, but in terms of visibility, if you sell 100 cars or 1,000 cars, there’s still no visibility. But we cannot do a copy of what we do today. So a second car has to enable us to sell more than we sell today. It would be a different segment with a different price tag, but above all the other competition. The price is not about positioning Bugatti out of this world. It’s about innovation, about materials, craftsmanship, all the things that are important to create a car which survives longer than the others and becomes a collectors’ item.
How does the business model work for Bugatti? How many Chirons do you have to sell to be profitable? Are you sold out of the current model run of 500?
We are selling all 500. If you want one now, you have to wait until second part of 2021. So we’re not doubting that. What we have to do is create out of one model a brand, a car company, which is creating news, not only for the few lucky owners but to build into the myth of Bugatti. It is not easy to achieve because we had to do it in a way that is consistent. With the leverage we have, we can do more.
What is the volume split between North America, Europe, China, the Middle East, etc?
The biggest market is the U.S. Then we have U.K., Germany, and Switzerland in Europe, then the Middle East and Japan. We have no homologation for China and no plans for it. But we have customers in China despite this. The willingness to own a Bugatti is so strong.
I have always taken a profit/loss and 360 approach in my career—at Fiat, at Lamborghini, and Audi Sport. And I will take the same approach for Bugatti, to create a value out of it that would be high enough to reinvest and make money for shareholders. I compare it to being a designer confronted with so many issues—crash safety, the quality of gaps and profiles, fuel consumption, passenger space—which makes a big difference between being that and being an artist who has no limits. If you want a powerful, strong brand, you can’t do it without thinking of investment and return on investment. There is a weight you carry as CEO, and I take this seriously. I know the one way. And I would act the same way if I had joined Bugatti 30 years ago.
What happens to Bugatti when the next recession hits?
It happened to me at Lamborghini. It’s clear you have to be humble enough to understand what you cannot do anymore and what you can continue to do. The market is cyclical and has ups and downs, but that is not going to stop our long-term strategy for Bugatti in general.
Where is Bugatti in 10 years?
Wow. Bugatti is ready for more. There is an opportunity of a product range that could be all electrified. With a headquarters in France. A global presence [in China] which today we don’t have. And amongst the hypercars, we could still be the shining star.