The secret world of the £1 million prototypes. The drivers, the test centres and the priceless prototypes – we join the world of automotive testing.
THE SECRET WORLD OF CAR DEVELOPMENT
From concept to showroom-ready, we take a look at the people, the places and the prototypes behind a new performance car’s evolution.
What does it take to be a factory test driver on the Nordschleife? We head to Opel’s Performance Centre to find out. Text by Bob Harper. Photography by Gus Gregory.
Sitting next to Volker Strycek for a lap of the Nordschleife is an education – he’s intimate with every bump, kerb, crest and nuance. If the name’s familiar it’s because as well as heading up Vauxhall/Opel’s performance car and motorsport division he’s an accomplished racer, too. He won the first-ever DTM championship in 1984 in a BMW 635 CSi E24, was overall winner of the Nürburgring 24 Hours in 2003 in a V8 Opel Astra and is also one of the drivers of the N24 Kissling Motorsport Opel Manta. Although racing is still part of Strycek’s life, it’s his work at the Opel Performance Car (OPC) centre at the Nürburgring that’s his priority, particularly training the next generation of engineers.
Part of the reason for our hot lap is so Strycek can demonstrate what he’s looking for in his engineers. ‘If you’re not on the limit you can’t discover or understand what the car is doing,’ he says, pitching the Insignia GSi down the hill at Breidscheid. ‘Our engineers go through extensive training at the Nordschleife to fully learn the circuit, to know where they are, which kind of bump is coming, where the braking area is, where the real turn-in points are.’
Selecting candidates often starts at the Technical University in Berlin, where Strycek has been a professor since 2006, and his latest protégé, Stefan Fiedler, was one of his students. Fiedler gained experience of working with Strycek on a Formula 3 project and at the end of his studies he approached Strycek to see if an internship would be possible. After his initial time with the company, Strycek asked Fiedler to try out for his team at the OPC.
‘First I went to the proving ground at Dudenhofen where professional drivers coach you, and if you’re good they let Volker know,’ says Fiedler. And while driving ability is important, it’s not the be all and end all, as Strycek explains: ‘We need engineers who are able to feel what the car is doing. To understand why the car is behaving well or behaving badly, that is the crucial thing.’
Once potential candidates have passed the initial assessment it’s time to be tested at the Ring. Not everyone passes. ‘For sure, these young guys will have been playing on the PlayStation, but driving on the real circuit is totally different… it’s not so easy, and very often we send these young engineers home,’ says Strycek. ‘Stefan was one of the lucky ones who made it this far, but then the gruelling work of really learning the Nordschleife started.’
‘To take part in the industry pool testing days you have to be capable of driving flat-out for six hours a day, so the training is very rigorous,’ says Fiedler. ‘Day after day, 20 or 30 laps a day. At the end of each day you’re really empty.’
Stefan had problems with his neck getting used to the G-forces that it’s subjected to lap after lap. There were also little things about the circuit that he found tricky to master: ‘When you’re driving through Fuchsröhre you have a big compression and shortly after the compression you have to brake as you approach Adenauer Forst, and to start with I found it really hard to lift my foot from the throttle to the brake as the compression is so big there – there were lots of small things like that that I had to overcome.’
While industry days aren’t as busy as some race weekends, there can still be 60 cars on the Nordschleife and Fiedler reckons this is what he found hardest to cope with. ‘Driving in the traffic is difficult, especially if you’re trying to keep to the same line and braking points as the lap before. Sometimes you need to let faster cars past, and it’s hard to judge in the mirrors where it’s coming, how fast it’s coming, should it pass me before the corner or in the corner or after the corner… It’s the same when I need to overtake.’
The demanding regime lasted more than three months, and once Strycek and his team were confident Fiedler was ready, he was assessed by a professional driving school for a second opinion. Fiedler was then certified as a bona fide Nordschleife industry day test driver. But it didn’t end there, as a grinning Strycek explains: ‘Now he knows the circuit, the proper training can really start. Now we have to train him to set up the car, to feel what is happening.’
The work at the OPC is rigorous and Fiedler is now immersed in chassis development. Strycek: ‘We’ll dive right down into the hydraulics of the damper – we’re talking about thousandths of a millimetre – friction in the piston, shim stacks, everything in the whole combination makes a car totally different and at the end of the day, much more grippy and turning in a better performance. You can’t do that on the normal road, you have to run absolutely to the limit to feel what the car is doing. We’re talking about damper speed in bump and rebound, high-speed, low-speed damping, deep, deep development in everything – bushings, anti-roll bars, spring rates, and these parts have to combine perfectly.’
Test cars are driven extensively on the roads that surround the Nürburgring, too. After each change that’s deemed to have worked on the track, a car will also be exhaustively road-tested to make sure that it applies to on-road behaviour, too.
While chassis development is the OPC’s raison d’être, it does highlight other issues. For example, the first seats for the Insignia GSi were rejected by Strycek as being ‘like garden chairs’ – a hot lap of the Nordschleife with the seat designer as a passenger proved his point. Fiedler also pointed to brakes that might have been up to the job when testing commenced, but as chassis revisions helped the car to go significantly quicker are no longer be good enough. Ultimately, every day at the OPC is a school day. ‘It comes step by step,’ says Fiedler. ‘You’re always in contact with colleagues, and you drive with them and they give you a hint and you learn from everybody, especially Volker. Every day I’m learning.’
Right: Stefan Fiedler (right), a recent recruit to the Opel Performance Centre team, gets guidance from boss Volker Strycek on analysing a car’s handling behaviour.
‘DAY AFTER DAY, 20º R30 LAPS A DAY. AT THE END YOU’RE REALLY EMPTY’
TIMELINE OF A PROTOTYPE
Metamorphosis from concept to finished product involves a myriad of processes. Text by Adam Towler.
THE SECRET WORLD OF CAR DEVELOPMENT ‘THE SIMULATORS ARE THE MUTANT, FRANKENSTEIN CARS’
When a new car goes on sale to the public, it’s usually the result of a six-year process; one that begins with an idea and flourishes through the digital space and on to the opaque world of the automotive development industry. Using the latest Bentley Continental GT as an example, below we’ll detail the different types of cars involved in that development process and what their roles are in realising an incredibly complex product. Before that, consider that initial styling sketches and digital engineering work will have begun in year two, following the first 12 months of product idea generation, profiling, and the definition of requirements, competitors and target markets. By the third year, prototype vehicles will be running in digital form, amassing thousands of virtual miles before a wheel is turned in reality. The same year, the first physical test vehicles will start to appear, still up to four years before the finished product is ready for customers.
SIMULATORS (YEARS 3-4)
Simulators are what we commonly refer to as mules. You know the kind of thing: the chopped-up luxury saloon running around with the guts of a new sports coupe underneath its familiar – albeit distorted – exterior. These are the mutant, Frankenstein cars. In the case of the Continental GT, Bentley purchased 25 Panamera development cars from Porsche (examples from later in the development process) and contracted out their modification to a specialist firm, which removed a chunk of metal from the wheelbase in line with the specification of the new GT. Fitted with a Bentley engine hooked up for the first time to a PDK ’box, this is where the physical gestation of the new Continental GT begins.
PROTOTYPES (YEARS 4-5)
With the digital prototype phase completed, simulators accruing miles and the final styling model signed off and into its refinement stage, this is the point – usually around three years before the car will reach customers – that the first prototypes of the car will appear. They are rarely seen in public, and if so are usually clad in fake panels to disguise the real thing. The cars have been built by hand, and therefore are extremely expensive – think millions. It’s the increasing adoption of digital design and prototyping that is reducing the number of these costly prototypes that need to be built. For the Conti, 25 physical prototypes were made, but for larger and more mainstream brands that fleet will be far larger.
PRE-PRODUCTION (YEARS 5-6)
Somewhere up to two years before launch the first cars start to be built using a repeatable production system – tooling, in other words. In VW Group speak, these are known as VFF – Vorserien Freigabe Fahrzeug, or pre-release vehicle. Most of the core engineering work is done by now, but much fine-tuning lies ahead. These are the cars you’ll see, wearing body disguise or camouflage patterns, pounding around testing facilities, braving the cold in the arctic, or high-speed running in the desert.
As the process evolves, a reference VFF car will be kept and updated with newer parts based on the fleet’s development. These cars are then replaced by PVS (Produktions Versuchs Serie – production trial series) as the car nears the final 12 months of its development. Changes at this point are small – a minor ECU calibration, work on wind seals, tuning of the exhaust note. The final development vehicles are known as the 0-Series, and should be representative of the final car. It will be from one of these that the exact specification is frozen, then replicated potentially millions of times on the production line. Despite being ostensibly identical to the cars that you or I may buy from a showroom, 0-Series cars can never be sold. They’re often used for international press launches, dealer events and possibly future training work, but many end their lives in crash testing and almost all will eventually be scrapped – 0-Series Bugatti Chirons, included.
Leo Roeks, Ford Performance director, reveals the key locations it uses to test prototypes. Text by Will Beaumont.
- LOMMEL, BELGIUM
‘This is where the complete vehicle gets together because the body engineering and the chassis is done in Merkenich, Germany, and the engine development is done in Dunton in the UK.
‘Lommel is huge. We have this one route, we call it the handling road – it’s very bendy. Then we have an outer durability road, a big loop around Lommel, which we use for ride development. Lommel is important, especially on cars like the Fiesta ST, where vehicle dynamics is key.’ (Other manufacturers head to locations such as Germany’s Contidrom tyre-testing facility for similar testing procedures.)
- NARDO, ITALY
‘Nardò, in southern Italy, allows us to do high speeds and warm-temperature testing. Plus we have certain criteria we have to fulfil on the test track with performance cars. In theory, we could do that in Lommel, but there is a lot of traffic, a lot of people as well, so we don’t want to bring other people into danger.’ (The Papenburg proving ground in Germany also offers high-speed handling facilities that are used by other manufacturers.)
- ROVANIEMI, FINLAND
‘We have used North America in the past, but the logistics of getting in and out is expensive. It’s not difficult, just expensive. So, for cold-weather testing, with ice and snow, we use Rovaniemi. It’s easy and it has everything.’ (If Europe has a mild winter, some manufacturers will air-freight cars, at huge expense, to New Zealand for their cold-weather testing.)
- DUNTON, UK
‘We do some verification work with prototypes in England on public roads close to Dunton, our development centre. There are very nice country roads around Dunton. What else is different in the UK? Obviously the cambered roads, so we need to look at torque-steer, overtaking, that kind of stuff. We have to try it in the UK.’
- NÜRBURGRING, GERMANY
‘The Nürburgring is very, very long, so you can go at a high speed. It’s also very bendy and up and down, then you have a long straight, so there’s something very special about this long circuit.’
‘We have to do long-distance trips, so that you spend lots of time with a vehicle. Normally you get in and out, in and out, and everything is OK. If you sit for a longer time in the car, you come up with different things you don’t like. Like ride behaviour: it gets annoying if it’s too hard for long.’