It's 6 A.M. The light is soft and the air cool. In two hours, it'll be about 95 degrees F., the sun pouring heat onto the pavement until the place feels like one giant hotplate. Around here, oil isn't a dirty word; how does 90 cents a gallon sound? Thanks to vast oil reserves and even bigger natural gas stores (14 percent of the world's total), tiny Qatar, thrust out into the Persian Gulf like a sandy thumb, has the highest per capita income on earth.
Somehow this leads one to expect Bugattis on every street corner, Ferraris used as taxis. It isn't like that. There are signs that Qatar is a coming nation. The whole place is a sprawling building site, the new Pearl-Qatar resort, an island built on reclaimed land north of Doha, is dripping with opulent hotels and pretentious shops. But mainly it's chaotic, grubby, barren; and most of the largely immigrant population look like they're lucky if they earn $100 a year instead of $100,000. It is, we decide after a few days, the armpit of the world.
For now, though, where we are doesn't matter. We have a 1001-horsepower Bugatti Veyron Grand Sport and a 661-horsepower Lamborghini Murcielago
SV, a fistful of notes that amounts to very little money but lots of fuel, and a crumpled map of Qatar. We'll head north first in search of long, quiet straights, then back through Doha and to the south of the country where the dunes rise up and flow all the way to Saudi. After the sun dips behind the soft mountains of sand and the only light is provided by the vast flames venting out of the nearby refinery towers, we have an appointment with the Qatar Racing Club dragstrip in Doha's industrial area.
Before we slide slowly out of Doha's suffocating traffic, Bugatti's pilote official, Pierre-Henri Raphanel, calmly runs me through the Grand Sport's controls. You sit low, the side glass up at shoulder height; the steering wheel is small, and the little metal paddles attached to the rear of its spokes barely move. Their action is incredibly light when you consider the thunderous forces at work. Twist the key, push the Start button, and a high-pitched starter motor squeal is quickly replaced with a breathy, deep, but unremarkable noise. The W16 is smooth and sounds vast, but doesn't have that inertia-free feel that usually characterizes a supercar. This is heavyweight engineering, and yet the pedals are so light to operate. The throttle -- set quite a lot lower than the brake, which feels odd -- feels almost like it isn't connected. I later discover it definitely is.