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Why Porsche's Nürburgring lap record happened
Like all good ideas, the 919 Evo's place in history has a round of beers to thank
It started, like all good ideas, with beer. Porsche was leaving top flight endurance racing and the team behind the 919 Hybrid – a three-times Le Mans winner – were consoling themselves with a few ales when they came up with a plan. Why not free the car of all its stifling World Endurance Championship restrictions, to see how fast a hybrid prototype can really go? Then take it to some iconic race circuits, to show the public exactly what a car with no limits can achieve…
Less than a year later, the 919 Hybrid Evo toppled a 35-year-old lap record at – where else – the Nürburgring. Sure, a ‘Ring record is trumpeted on a near-weekly basis, but this one came with no confusing caveats or qualifiers. It’s not the fastest front-wheel-drive this or seven-seat that; it’s simply the fastest car ever around the Nordschleife. Surely everyone can get excited about that.
While Porsche had been keeping its cards close to its chest, it dropped a severely big hint when the 919 Evo did a parade lap before May 2018’s Nürburgring 24 hours. The car may just have pottered round, but it did so alongside an old Porsche 956, just like the one Stefan Bellof set the 6m11.13s Nordschleife lap record in, back in 1983. You didn’t have to be Sherlock to piece the clues together.
I knew instantly that if there was one thing I absolutely had to see this year, it was the 919 taking on history. Thus I found myself, early on the morning of June 29, watching a gaggle of brightly coated safety marshals having a quick chat with Porsche’s pit crew before driving off to their posts, ready to be driven past quicker than they ever have been. Perhaps ever will be.
The calm among Porsche’s engineers was surprising, until I chatted to them and realised just how many months’ work has been spent on simulators and in test sessions leading up to this point. The 919 Evo’s lap record at Spa-Francorchamps, while outrageously impressive, sounds like a mere test session to get the car set up nicely for a bigger, more infamous circuit just over the Belgian/German border.
They were prepared, and so was Timo Bernhard, the man on driving duties. When Porsche announced the programme he’d stuck his hand straight up for this leg of the ‘919 tribute tour’, and he got the job off the back of his huge CV of wins at the ‘Ring.
Simulations suggested a 5m30s lap was within pretty easy reach, so the night before, he was in a relaxed frame of mind. “It’s not like going into qualifying,” he told me. “There’s no pressure, no competition. With this kind of speed, the challenge is not to get carried away. The kerbs are big and there’s a very fine line where you can go with this car.”
Track time began at 8am. Porsche wanted it earlier, for lower track temperatures, but the Nürburgring powers were concerned about the raucous noise the 919 makes on upshifts. The first lap was a gentle sighting lap, and as a few of us enthusiastically gathered at Pflanzgarten 2, we were ever so slightly disappointed by just how undramatic the car looked as it fired through. As we dashed back to the pits, we found out that gentle, undramatic lap was a 6m38s – quicker than any road car has ever been timed around the ‘Ring. Yikes.
A quicker, warm up lap followed. There seemed barely time to take breath between Timo leaving and returning to the pits, almost like he’d tripped through a loop in time and arrived back two minutes early; the so called ‘warm up’ was a 5m31s.
Cautious applause rippled through the team, before they wheeled in a new set of tyres (the 919 required brand new bespoke Michelins each lap) and Timo went out for a proper go. Louder celebrations this time, as he returned 5m24s later. Well within the team’s targets and 47 seconds ahead of Bellof’s legendary time. I started hammering out the story for TopGear.com, having not wished to tempt fate by pre-writing anything beforehand.
By the time the story was ready to go live, Timo had identified a few places he could tweak his lines and asked to go back out, returning with a 5m19.546sec which he and Porsche then settled on.
“I didn’t want to arrive and say ‘that’s the lap time I’m targeting’,” he told me afterwards, “I just wanted a car I was comfortable with and which I could generate speed in. Then in the end whatever lap time comes out, comes out.
“It wasn’t a qualifying session, it was to show this car can be run properly at a good speed. And for all the fans watching, they probably saw a car they’ve never seen before at that speed on this track. I know that Nürburgring fans are very special; if something is happening here, like our record attempt, people can feel it in the air. People talk on the phone and suddenly the place is packed. You feel the enthusiasm.”
He’s not wrong. Even online, the usual weary response to a ‘Ring record has been replaced by complete awe. While lots of people bemoan the lack of official regulation when it comes to timed Nordschleife laps, it appears the one way to get over that is with a car that follows no rules whatsoever. A car that, like all good ideas, was conceived over a table full of beer.