In its 90 years of history and relevance the Nurburgring has cemented itself as an epicentre of car racing, automotive development and ultimately as a mecca for car enthusiasts. The Ring has an old soul and a strong heartbeat, so it still hosts competitive events as well as the general public who bring whatever car they have, or can lay their hands on, to experience the legendary Nordschleife part of the circuit.
It’s a development home to many an automotive company, so setting a fastest lap on one of the most recognisable and toughest tracks in the world always lands some solid publicity. In that respect, those times certainly matter for the car brands.
However, since there is no actual agreement on the rules or an independent sanctioning body to officially oversee those rules that don’t exist, lap times probably shouldn’t get the publicity they do. After all, there’s no way of telling if the time was set in a stock production car all the way down to the tires, or if the car has had the engine breathed upon along with the brakes and suspension before being put on the stickiest rubber the development team can find.
The reality is, of course, that those lap times are rather unlikely to be attainable in the same model car you drive off the dealers lot. This is hardly news to someone who has thought this through even vaguely, however, it’s probably worth bearing in mind that if the car has been developed at the Ring for handling then there would be little point building a car there but having to change it too dramatically to get a fastest time. It will have been developed for a consistent fast time and then tuned to get the absolute fastest out of for a few laps. That may well make it matter because the chassis is capable of making that time, and some people purchasing the car will make those performance modifications such as tires and brakes to maybe get it pretty near the actual final spec for a super hot Nordschleife lap time.
The common dismissal of lap times made with the argument that times are set by a professional driver with way more talent than the people that generally buy the car is neither here nor there. Driver talent is the single largest variable to any car made anywhere or any time, and the point of a single lap time is to know what car is capable of, not the driver. I think we can safely assume the car companies hire the highest skilled and most consistent drivers they possibly can, and at that level we can assume they all come from the thin folder in the filing cabinet marked: Drivers That Can Extract Every Last Millimetre Of Performance Out Of A Car.
But because pretty much none of us will actually buy a car and go to the Nurburgring having developed a skillset equal to those drivers hired by the car makers, it begs the more pertinent question:
Does developing a car on the Nurbugring really matter?
Those that enjoy Top Gear may remember James May claiming that sending a car around the Nurburgring “just spoils it”. He also wrote a piece called “Why The Ring?”, where he goes further into detail about why he believed the Nurburgring ruins cars and ultimately making the point that it destroys the ride and feel of a car.
Now, far be it from me to argue with one of the most respected and recognisable automotive journalists on the planet… Wait. Of course I’m going to argue.
Cars, as James May points out, have always been developed to some degree or other on a race track. However, race tracks are generally fairly short affairs with a fairly consistent surface. These short pieces of purpose built road are absolutely nothing like the roads you and I drive upon daily, wether around town, for a long drive across the country or when taking a spin of the wheel through the local twisties just for the hell of it.
In stark contrast, the Nordschleife is 12 miles long. It has variable surfaces, cambers, dramatic drops and climbs as well as a total of 73 turns varying from long and sweeping to tight and technical. All this is topped off with a straight over a mile long where a cars top speed can be achieved.
For some perspective, that’s a long enough piece of road that it’s not uncommon to experience different weather conditions in different parts of the track.
Setting a car up to perform over a short three and a half mile track with 18 turns such as Silverstone in the U.K is one thing. Setting a car up using a track long enough to have varying weather conditions and without a consistent surface is a completely different affair. That’s much closer to the roads we as consumers actually find ourselves on. A car designed to perform on a flat and well controlled circuit is not much use to us whether hitting the back roads or the freeways, however a car designed to be consistently well performing across a broad variety of corners, corner speeds and surfaces certainly is.
Now, back to the point James May made. He is right to a degree, but I don’t think you can blame the Nurburgring itself. Certainly, when a car is designed and tuned to be nothing but fast then the nice ride is inevitably dialled out for the sake of performance. That’s not simply down to where the car is developed though. That’s down to *how* it’s developed and the desired result.
The Nurburgring can, and has been, used to develop pure race cars for the road, but all the ingredients are there in the track to also help develop a super smooth luxury machine that can handle all environments without falling off the road when pushed a little. So If a car maker develops a luxury sport sedan that rockets around the ring, but doesn’t have the ride around town to justify the luxury part of its designation then that’s on management and the development team. Not the Nurburgring.
If a full on sports car ends up being super well handling but totally devoid of soul on a windy road, it’s worth pointing out that the Nordschleife is in fact… a windy road with an old soul and a strong heartbeat. It’s not the Nurburgring’s fault how car companies use that.