Fast and Loose: There’s No Oversight for Nurburgring Lap-Time Claims ""

By | October 20, 2017

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Numbers don’t lie. They defy interpretation. That’s one reason why car-obsessed souls pore over performance numbers such as horsepower, acceleration times, and lateral grip with religious zeal. We’ve all watched with varying levels of envy, awe, and stupefaction at how ’Ringmeisters tame what Sir Jackie Stewart once called the Green Hell. The German Nürburgring’s Nordschleife, a 12.9-mile hilly, twisty, and frighteningly fast ribbon of asphalt through the Eifel Mountains, has become the go-to benchmark for sports-car and supercar goodness, with the barometer of performance being the clock.

But who’s in charge? Who is scrutineer of the ’Ring-running cars for technical compliance to production-car standards, as would exist in organized competition under FIA, SCCA, or IMSA? How do we know that they retain their production street trim and tune with legitimate production-issue parts? Lastly—and here’s where the lap times start to bend under the weight of absolute truth—who is responsible for the official timing of the lap?

No one. All the timing numbers and stats on the Nordschleife spreadsheet for a claimed “road-car lap record” must carry an asterisk with a caveat: “unofficial.”

A fast lap around the Nordschleife means street cred on Mullholland, the Tail of the Dragon, over the Stelvio Pass, up the Hakone hill-climb in Japan, and even at your local Cars and Coffee gathering—anywhere gearheads assemble. Manufacturers make grand hay of resetting the “road-car lap record” on the Nordschleife, as Porsche just did with its 911 GT2 RS by posting a six-minute, 47-second scorcher. That’s 10 seconds quicker than the Porsche 918 Spyder supercar, which broke the road-car lap record with a time of 6:57 only four years ago. It’s also five seconds quicker than the Lamborghini Huracán Performante’s much scrutinized time of 6:52.01, set late last year.

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The Lamborghini Huracán Performante ran a much scrutinized time of 6:52.01 in October 2016.

The Nordschleife circuit itself, which does not include the modern Grand Prix course, is 12.9 miles (20.8 km) in length, but even that is not entirely accurate as it relates to these lap-record attempts by road cars. Most of the attempts are terminated 656 feet (200 meters) shy of a technically complete lap, coinciding with the entry and exit of the small pit lane that most manufacturers use as their staging point, marked T13 on many Nordschleife track maps. Therefore, lap times are of a 12.8-mile (20.6 km) lap, not the full length. Successive flying laps are only allowed when the circuit is closed to any other activity on it at the same time. The rental fee to ensure this sits at the equivalent of a cool $70,500 per day. Many manufacturers therefore conduct record attempts during the hour right before or right after the track is open for what are called Industry Pool days, when the circuit is open to manufacturer testing. But the attempts do not technically take place during the proper Industry Pool period.

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In 2013, Nissan claimed the GT-R NISMO was the world’s fastest volume-production car. Later, engineers admitted that the car had been significantly modified.

Porsche has made as big a deal over Nordschleife lap times as any carmaker. The company made an epically big deal about setting the road-car lap record in 2013 with the then new 918 Spyder, driven by Marc Lieb, who was a three-time class winner at Le Mans and twice FIA GT champion (and went on to an overall win at Le Mans in 2016). That 6:57 lap, witnessed by Sport Auto magazine, used factory stock Michelin Sport Cup tires and the factory Weissach weight-reduction and aero package, although the removable roof was permanently affixed in place. This would turn out not only to be an impressive lap but one that set another record of sorts: It provided more tangible details on verification and car specification than nearly any attempt before or since.

Two months later, Nissan claimed to have broken that record with its GT-R NISMO, becoming the “world’s fastest volume-production car.” However, engineers later stated that the record car had significant modifications from the standard car. Another recent example is the Honda Civic Type R, current holder of the front-wheel-drive production-car record, except it was wearing sticky nonstock tires during its record-breaking run earlier this year. And therein lies the exact problem with Nordschleife records: no third-party verification.

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The Honda Civic Type R, current holder of the front-wheel-drive production-car record, was wearing sticky nonstock tires during its record-breaking lap.

There was a recent rumor that at least one manufacturer’s claimed lap times were arrived at by stitching together the best segment times of several laps in order to come up with a more impressive, ideal total lap. While it’s very hard to put in a perfect lap at the very long Nordschleife, such a stitched-together lap time is fantasy.

Even Porsche is somewhat circumspect about the whole concept. We asked Frank-Steffen Walliser, Porsche’s head of GT racing development, for some insight. Walliser stated that nobody acts as scrutineer for the record attempts, and he actually finds some fault with this. “This is why Porsche hires a notary to verify the timing of all our attempts,” noted Walliser. “We also use two different cars with two different drivers so that we can establish that the lap time is repeatable. Our aim is to generate objective results.

Walliser said Porsche has asked the management of the Nürburgring “to work on this, to define clear rules for record attempts, and to provide clear definitions on several items like weight class, whether cars must carry a production engine number or VIN, and a minimum production figure to avoid specially built ‘record cars.’ Perhaps even conduct a chassis dyno test to show the car’s power level at the time.”

Walliser also said that, while there is no requirement for any manufacturer to use a roll cage at the Nürburgring, Porsche always does for safety reasons, but it’s a bolt-in cage, rather than welded. (Welded cages afford far greater structural stiffness and therefore a greater performance benefit.) However, to compel the track to provide timing verification or any other third-party scrutineering is a bit much. Racetracks hold events, stage races, and provide safety support during official race weekends. They are not in the business of scrutineering cars or handling the timing of what amounts to a private event.

General Motors has been testing at the Nürburgring for many years, and the company confirmed that there’s no independent verification done of lap-record attempts. When Chevrolet publishes a Nordschleife lap time, as it did recently with the Camaro ZL1 1LE (7:16.04), it uses a video recorder and a separate timing device to document the lap. But according to a spokesperson, Chevrolet uses a strictly stock vehicle with production tires, production brakes, and a stock state of engine tune. The only nonstock deviations conform to a GM edict that require a roll bar, racing harness, helmet, and HANS device during any high-speed testing by anyone anywhere. And although the vehicles are largely production representative and GM said the roll bars the company installs are not designed to improve chassis stiffness, the harness certainly improves lap times to some extent. (Most automakers use harnesses in testing at the Nürburgring, not just GM.)

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The only nonstock deviations on the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE were a roll bar and a harness.

But here’s one common trait of all these cars that have reset the “road-car lap record” at the Nordschleife over the recent past: They are all seriously, shockingly, ridiculously fast cars. Many of them can lap the ’Ring—and likely any track—faster than most outright race cars of 10 to 15 years ago. Perhaps they couldn’t keep up that pace over the duration of a full race, but certainly for that one magic lap. There are also no regulations requiring the record-attempting cars to have onboard fire-suppression systems or other commonplace racing items like master electrical shut-offs, master fuel shut-offs, or racing-style break-away shut-off valve (to prevent pressurized fuel igniting in the case of a heavy impact). Yet they outperform many dedicated race cars, which are absolutely required to carry such equipment.

So, while we have no proof that manufacturers cheat at the endeavor of setting new Nürburgring records, there is nonetheless no mechanism to verify legitimacy when claiming those records for a production road car in street trim. It’s all a gentleman’s agreement. There’s no scrutineering official from the Nürburgring or ADAC (German auto club) or the FIA in pit lane, inspecting cars with a body jig and testing boost pressures and wastegates. The lap timing itself is not regulated at all.

Which, from a glass-half-full perspective, makes timing and scrutineering at the ’Ring an opportunity that is there for the taking.

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