Bugatti sits way above even the pinnacle of automotive brands but its President, Stephan Winkelmann, isn’t resting on any laurels. The Berlin born and Rome raised boss has some interesting thoughts and plans for the future of the marque. He talks to wheels’ Imran Malik about varied subjects including his time at Lamborghini, the loss of the manual transmission, what is feasible for Bugatti in the immediate future - and also where he gets those awesome suits tailored!
Welcome to Dubai, Stephan! How important is the Middle East market for Bugatti?
It is very important and among the Middle East for sure the UAE is the top market for us. We are dividing the world in three parts and we try to have a balance between the major regions - North America, Europe and the Middle East/Asia Pacific.
What was your proudest moment and achievement at Lamborghini and Audi Sport?
Every moment in Lamborghini is close to my heart and we did a lot of things but I think when we presented the Aventador in 2011 and then the Huracan and then the Urus these were major steps in reinvigorating the brand. For Audi Sport for sure it was the fact that we had a new strategy for the company, this took us quite a while but I was there for a bit less than two years so it was hard to do more but I am proud of doing the first rear-wheel drive car in the history of Audi Sport which was the R8, so this was a good moment.
It was a sad day when it was announced that Lamborghini wouldn’t make another car with a manual gearbox…
It is a pity but it was more important to develop new cars and keep the brand alive; developing two gearboxes for a small company is risky, you have a certain amount of money at your disposal and this was a decision that was taken for the best of the company. Nobody was ordering a manual gearbox anymore - and if one was ordered I wanted to see personally if it was a mistake on the order sheet, and it often was!
How different is it working now for Bugatti than it was with Lambo or Audi?
Lamborghini and Bugatti are similar in the approach; they are small volume, high investment companies – in Audi Sport it was about creating a company within the company because Audi Sport was imbedded in Audi and it was more volume oriented than the other two brands. It’s a dream to work for companies that are building cars that are represented at the top of the spear of the automotive world so this is a great honour for me.
How do you make sure that, over the life cycle, your products stay young, but also become a collector’s item?
It has to be long lasting and exclusive enough to be seen as a unique masterpiece decades for now. You can’t sign off designs that are trending at that moment - you have to create a design that has no age and is lasting. In terms of technology you have to be incomparable and you have to create new things to keep the momentum and to keep it fresh and in the minds of the people because in our world you have fifteen minutes of fame and then you’re gone, so if you don’t continue to be on the minds of the people you will disappear for sure.
The automotive market as a whole is changing drastically. Where and how does Bugatti stay relevant with modern technology yet hold on to the storied history of the brand?
This is one of the toughest things we have to achieve; to discontinue things by creating a new approach and keeping the same enthusiasm of the people which are in love with the brand today. For a brand like Bugatti this is harder than other brands because we are so performance oriented but we need to embrace two factors – daily usability and high performance which is usually impossible.
What else can you do to show progress rather than ever increasing horsepower figures?
For sure in terms of materials used (lightweight, stiffness), and power to weight ratio is one of the key elements and then to redefine performance maybe and to utilize horsepower in a different way. I am not a fan of straight, high speed because this is something you cannot achieve on normal roads you cannot even achieve on race tracks – you have to have a car which is performance oriented and handling but also a car which delivers on an emotional level and I think this is one of the things we need to highlight more in our cars and also the fact that a car like the Bugatti Chiron has two souls – performance and daily drivability and comfort. These two elements in one is incredible and I think our engineers did such a great job but this is not known enough so we have to focus more on this part of the game.
What are the pros and cons of being a part of the Volkswagen Group?
Being small is an advantage because you can get synergies out of what the group is doing in terms of, let’s say, new technologies which are creating synergies in scale also for small brands like ours, the purchasing power of a big group is different to a small car company and for us what we give back is we have customers that nobody would catch with other brands, so there is a give and take and I think this is a good balance.
In the Twenties and Thirties, Ettore Bugatti made race cars, GT’s, limos, open top cars - basically everything that was feasible; what do you feel is feasible now and what are your customers asking for?
You’re right, Ettore in the Twenties and Thirties did whatever he could do so all the body styles were feasible, he invested in these cars, there are still cars today which when you look at them you recognize that there was something special about Bugatti and I think the brand today is ready for more than one model. We looked into every body style, we have a lot of different ideas but it is doubling the size of the company; if you have to change a model you already have it’s a big effort for a company but if you have to add a model it’s a much bigger effort. If we speak about a second model we need to speak about a car which is for sure daily drivable and must be the best of the segment but we always have to think in a way that these cars remain stable for future generations in terms of value or even increase the value.
Will Bugatti will ever offer an SUV?
I was fighting for the Urus at Lamborghini, we made up our mind at that stage that the SUV was in my opinion the segment with the highest potential. I think that a car company like Bugatti can easily decide which body style would be successful but it is clear that we need to create something which is unique. We will see down the road because this is important – I have my ideas and we have to see if we can fulfill them…
From the other brands what do you like most?
I like two types of cars – daily usable cars such as performance SUVs and on the other hand I like those cars where you can create race cars out of them, so everything that is possible for GT3, GTE, these cars are very close to my heart.
You’re the snappiest dressing CEO of all the carmakers; where do you have your suits made?!
[Laughs] Since I was much younger I had an encounter with a tailor in Rome, who shall remain anonymous, and he made me a really nice suit. So, since I have known him for many, many years now, he has become my go-to guy!