Nürburgring Record 5:19.55 The 919 Hybrid Evo has set the fastest lap around the Nürburgring-Nordschleife – obliterating Porsche’s own 35-year old record. Andrew Frankel witnessed a historic moment… Story: Andrew Frankel Photography: Porsche.
‘RING RECORD LAP! 919 Hybrid Evo sets new Nürburgring-Nordschleife record
It has stood these last 35 years, an éminence grise among all those interested in how fast a car can lap a circuit. Six minutes and eleven seconds: for three and a half decades it has been the measure, an expression not only of the concept of speed, but skill, technology and courage, distilled down into a concentrate and expressed in number form. It is, of course, the lap record set by Stefan Bellof at the Nürburgring in the 1983 1000km race, the last time top level sports car racing visited the world’s most revered and feared track.
“The place erupts. There is laughter and there are tears”
Except it’s not the lap record. And not just because of the extraordinary goings on I was privileged to witness on June 29th 2018, but because it never was. Bellof did lap the track in 6min 11.1sec but only in qualifying. In the race without qualifying boost and tyres the most he could manage was 6min 25.9sec and as lap records are always taken from races, that is where the real mark has always lain.
And to some there it remains to this day: for whatever double Le Mans and five time Nürburgring 24-hour winner Timo Bernhard and Porsche achieved with their 919 Evo that day in June, it represents the fastest ever lap of the Nürburgring’s ‘Nordschleife’ 20.8km northern loop, not the lap record. Indeed Tiff Needell, who was racing in Group C at the time but did not take part in that race, took to Twitter soon after the new mark had been made to make that very point.
And it’s a good one. However fast Timo Bernhard went he ‘didn’t do it with other cars on the track in the middle of a race. It makes what Bellof achieved all those years ago seem even more impressive.’ But here’s the thing: the person that quote belongs too is not Tiff, but Timo, speaking to me within minutes of climbing out of the car. And that was a major takeaway from that hot morning at the track when Porsche made such history – it didn’t diminish the achievement of Bellof all those years ago, it actually augments it.
Of course there have been the naysayers too, those who point out that the 919 Evo may be a racing car but not one that can race, because it has been developed from the 919 Le Mans car with no regard for any regulations. Its two-litre engine has been uncorked so it can produce 720hp with no restriction to its fuel flow. And if that sounds a lot, remember that F1 engines of over 30 years ago were making 1000hp from 1.5-litres even in race trim. And with an increase in the amount of energy the car can recover, the electrical output of the car was raised by 40hp to 440hp. Most significantly however it can not only run any wing pack it likes, but also incorporate full active aerodynamics so straight line drag can be decimated too. This is how the Evo gets to deploy half as much downforce again as that boasted by the 919 Hybrid of old, yet still it goes quicker down the Nürburgring’s main straight than its sister ever went at Le Mans.
Ok, so the car is not eligible for anything. Someone still has to be get in it and drive it around one of the world’s most dangerous sporting facilities at an average speed most people will not even have driven at, even briefly, just in a straight line.
But perhaps most impressive is the way Porsche chose to go about this challenge. Usually when a car manufacturer wishes to set a Nürburgring time, it is done in complete secrecy so that if anything goes wrong or the car is just not quick enough, no-one need ever know of the failure. But for its attempt to break the ‘Ring lap record Porsche invited a handful of journalists from around the world to witness the attempt first hand. Win or lose, stand or fall, there would be no hiding from it.
The night before we gather to have dinner with the team. Timo is not only here, he’s happy to chat. I take 15 minutes of his evening during which I ask him how big an achievement breaking the record would be compared to winning Le Mans. Annoyingly he’s so modest and clearly in awe of what Bellof did he’s keen only to point out that what he is about to do is far easier than what his late countryman did all those years ago.
So I ask him how hard he is going to push. A few weeks earlier team mate Neel Jani had done a lap of Spa 0.8sec quicker than Lewis Hamilton’s pole time from last year’s Belgian Grand Prix which was fairly astonishing but… ‘at Spa we knew what the target was and how hard Neel needed to push to break it. It was absolutely on the edge everywhere. Here you cannot drive like that: the kerbs are too high and if you make a mistake, well, in a car as quick as this, you can’t really afford to make a mistake…’
And there is some comfort in that: everyone knows that with the firepower at Bernhard’s disposal, breaking Bellof’s time will be easy. Thereafter the only question is by how much. He can take reasonable precautions and still come away with the job done.
Even so there is still a rather sobering moment later in the evening when we are all asked not to broadcast or publish any information in the event of an incident until its true extent can be reliably ascertained. And we all know what is being alluded to here. Even if he doesn’t go at ten tenths, this is a serious and seriously dangerous undertaking and while noone discusses it, everyone knows it.
The following morning we assemble at the enigmatically entitled T13 gate, the other side of which is the small link road built to connect the start and end of the Nordschleife when the old Sudschleife was being demolished to make way for the modern Grand Prix track in the early 1980s. It’s interesting to note that, so far as I am aware, the Nordschleife in its fabled configuration was in fact used for just one major motor race – that 1000km event in 1983. All other races, including all the F1 races were held on the combined northern and southern loops.
There is no chat now. Bernhard is nowhere to be seen, so I ask team principal Andreas Seidl where he is ‘preparing himself’ is the gruff reply.
Up close the 919 Evo looks formidable. It’s quite small but the aerodynamic modifications and the deletion of its redundant headlights make it look like some sightless creature from a dystopian future. This is actually the chassis that retired from the lead at Le Mans last year, with only four hours of the race left to run. Soon Bernhard appears from the innards of a truck, racing-snake slim in his 919 Evo overalls. He doesn’t wear the haunted look I’ve seen on the faces of riders about to tackle the Isle of Man TT course, but his brow and jaw are set. He means business.
The track opens at 8.00am and thereafter every second will count. It’s already warm and getting warmer, and Porsche’s calculations suggest that by 9.30am the track temperature will shift the Michelin qualifying slicks out of their operating range. Given that Timo must come in after every lap, change tyres and fiddle with the set up, time is very short.
He goes out and does an exploratory run. I watch from the Pflanzgarten where he passes me at ridiculous speeds, but he’s not trying at all. The lap is around 6min 40sec, not that much faster than a GT2 RS.
So new slicks go on and he has another go. This time he crosses the line after just 5min 31sec and all our jaws fall to the floor as one. He’s not just beaten the record, he’s smashed it into a billion pieces. I approach Porsche Racing PR chief Holger Eckhardt to congratulate him, but he says, ‘no, no. He’s still warming up.’
The next run is no warm up. Timo is weaving furiously even in pit lane as he drives the wrong way around the circuit for a kilometre, just so he can get a good run up. He flashes past, disappears off in the Eifel mountains and silences descends.
Seidl stands nervously by the timing screen. This project has been his baby ever since Porsche quit endurance racing at the end of last year, and whatever else the 919 Evo does, he knows what we know: this is the big one. Timo returns carrying barely believable speed into the last turn and blasts across the line. He’s done a 5min 24sec lap and at last the tension dissipates. It turns out the target was to take a full minute off Bellof’s race record lap. Bernhard climbs out of the car; the job is done. Or maybe not. A few minutes later he’s back, tyres are coming out of their blankets and he’s being strapped back into the Porsche’s interior. For all his intentions to not push too hard, the racer’s instinct has prevailed. He’s going to put it all on the line. Within a minute he is gone once again.
The wait is agonising, but soon we can hear the ugly blare of the 919’s motor as the car hurtles down the straight. Almost immediately he’s with us, slithering across the kerbs and over the line to record a lap of 5min 19.546sec. The place erupts. There is laughter and there are tears. More than anything there is relief, not just at a mission accomplished in which the team did something no-one else had ever come close to achieving before, but more at the knowledge that car and driver were still in one piece.
And then the data gets crunched. The car’s average – average – speed over that lap was 145.4mph. It turned into the crest at Schwedenkreuz at precisely 200mph and blasted down the straight at 229mph. Perhaps most bewildering of all for those who know their way around this place, Bernhard hit the compression at the bottom of the Foxhole at 204mph and never even thought of lifting. I’d like to say now that it will take a little time for me to get my head around such numbers so as better to appreciate what Porsche and Bernhard achieved that day. But the truth is I never will. Fact is, the harder I think about it, the more incredible it becomes. Had I not been there myself I might even have struggled to believe it. But I was, and the memory will be with me for the rest of my days.
Here: Bernhard celebrates with the Porsche team. Above: Our man Andrew with Timo. Below left: Timo in the pits straight after the final run.
“We are asked not to broadcast any information in the event of an incident”