From Issue Three of the Gear Patrol Magazine.
We’re resurfacing this story in honor of Porsche smashing its own all-time Nürburgring record (6:11.13) in the new 919 Hybrid Evo race car — which just set a record of 5:19.546. That’s an astonishing 52 seconds quicker: the car achieved an average of 145.3 mph and top speed of almost 230 mph. Watch the on-board lap here. — Ed.
It causes helmeted brows to weep sweat; it makes men tremble with fear, with adrenaline. It makes an elite few cars into legends; most into failures. It is a Great White Whale, chased with roaring, burning obsession; it is the “Green Hell,” revered by the pious. It is a benchmark. It is the Nürburgring Nordschleife.
The small town of Nürburg is tucked into the foothills of western Germany’s Eifel mountains. The quintessentially European roundabouts dotting its roads are modest and calm; motorists give way to each other and mind their manners and putter past. In all, the town covers less than 1.5 square miles. On the nearly century-old racetrack that dominates the surrounding environs, life is markedly different. The gargantuan Nordschleife covers roughly 11 square miles of countryside and wends through stands of trees, over hills and past roadways, its smooth, maintained surface a slurry of tire rubber and graffiti. Indeed, it is a colossal, complicated wonder: 73 turns and 1,000 feet of elevation changes spread over 13 miles of aggressive, hungry tarmac.
Before the original track was completed in 1927, races took place on the roadways in and around the Eifel Forest — a practice that was deemed too dangerous. Designed to showcase the glory of German engineering prowess, the Nürburgring delivered thrills for decades. Automotive capability improved rapidly, however, and soon cars were too fast to make driving the Ring (as the track is known) a reasonably intelligent endeavor. Parts of the track were reworked, and the end result is what we have today.
The Nürburgring is divided in two sections: the Grand Prix circuit and the North Loop, or Nordschleife. The Grand Prix circuit — rebuilt a few decades ago in the name of safety — butts against a massive complex, complete with grandstands and a visitor’s center with a roller coaster and casino inside. There’s an entire Lindner resort hotel attached to that section, where fans can rent rooms with windows and balconies that offer views of the GP track, making the area a self-contained tourism ecosystem.
Jackie Stewart, the famed British Formula One racer commonly thought of as one of the best drivers to ever live, nicknamed this track the “Green Hell,” as a nod to its beauty and risks.
The Nordschleife is something else entirely. Here speed is democratized — at certain times anyone with a car can drive to the track, pay a fee and experience the thrill; race events take it a step further, pitting professional driver against professional driver. But regardless of proficiency and experience levels, the Ring treats all comers equally: as foes. It is menacing, brutal. Jackie Stewart, the famed British Formula One racer commonly thought of as one of the best drivers to ever live, nicknamed this track the “Green Hell,” as a nod to its beauty and risks. Some estimates put death tolls at around 80 since 1928, including competitors and spectators; others say there are at least 10 deaths every year. It’s an objectively perilous place, especially considering the number of amateur drivers who go lap for fun. Except for a few corners, there’s no runoff, which means no empty area to skid into should you leave the track. If you do go off, you’re going to hit something. At racing speeds, this is a terrifying notion.
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Which, counter-intuitively, is what draws people to the Ring. To defeat this track is to be the best. It is fantastically, arrestingly beautiful; it is technically challenging and remarkably dangerous; it is a necessary evil in the car world. So amateurs and racers come to learn or to compete — to prove themselves. But there isn’t a feat more extreme than battling the track directly, alone, for it is a crazed, unforgiving, serpentine devil. Solo missions to conquer the Ring and become a lap record holder are momentous undertakings that amount to much more than just bragging rights. Automakers bring their best cars and their best drivers here because the Nordschleife’s combination of turns and elevation changes make it the most intimidating, demanding track on the planet. If you and your car slay this giant, then you officially achieve legendary status.
Proficiency at the Ring is measured in minutes, seconds, tenths of seconds. If your car is fast, it’ll do a lap in under eight minutes. If your car is very, very fast, it will break seven minutes. If your car is astonishingly fast, it will hold the all-time lap record at 6:11.13. At the time this was written, Porsche held 23 of the top 100 production-car lap records on the Ring, besting all other automakers by double digits. If there is a winning Ring-conquering formula, Porsche has found it.
Cars configured like the record holder started at $929,000; its battery and combustion engine hybrid system drives all four wheels and generates 887 total horsepower.
That 6:11.13 time, for instance, also belongs to a Porsche: the 956 Group C prototype racing car, which scorched the track during a qualifying lap in 1982. Racing is important to the automobile industry — without the technology developed for racing, we would have incapable, boring cars across the board — and the 956’s record is a long-standing testament to the extremes that Porsche can achieve. But race cars are supposed to be fast. What’s surprising is that as far as production cars (generally, mass-produced cars that the public can buy and drive) are concerned, the fastest to ever lap the Ring is a hybrid.
Porsche’s 918 Spyder was sold in limited numbers (918, to be exact) in 2014 only. Cars configured like the record holder started at $929,000; its battery and combustion engine hybrid system drives all four wheels and generates 887 total horsepower. But the numbers that really matter surround the 918’s dance with the track. Besting the previous lap record by an eye-watering 14 seconds, the hybrid hypercar conquered the Nordschleife with a time of 6:57. It was the first production car to break seven minutes and retains the top honors despite other, newer attempts.
Which drives home what it means for a manufacturer to test at the Ring. If a car-maker can engineer and endeavor to conquer this track, their products will have the Nordschleife in its DNA. If you buy a Porsche, you know that your car has in some nearly direct way been developed on the most important race track in the world — on an entity that forces automobiles to be great.
By nature, records are always trading hands, though at unpredictable intervals. The 918 broke a four-year-old record to become reigning production-car champ. The 956’s record has yet to be touched, even after more than 30 years. Porsche’s incredible new luxury performance sedan, the Panamera Turbo, held its title as the fastest four-door to lap the Ring for only a few months, until being unseated by the new Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio; when an even more sporting Panamera inevitably comes along, it will likely capture that title again.
To be honest, I was really scared before the record lap. It’s always a thing to go for record laps. You know how dangerous this place is.
“It’s a special layout with these fast corners, some slow corners, blind corners, bumps, elevation changes, small jumps,” said Marc Lieb. “It’s so unique that you can’t find it anywhere else in the world. If you know that the car is quick on the Nordschleife, you know that it’s performing really quite well on all other tracks, and on the road as well.” Lieb is a pro racer who has a storied career: an overall win at the Spa 24 Hours endurance race in 2003, class wins and an overall win in 2016 at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and four championships at the 24 Hours Nürburgring, among many other victories.
His wins on the Nürburgring made him the ideal candidate to conquer the Ring on Porsche’s behalf. Lieb set the record lap in the 918 Spyder, a feat which, despite his pedigree and accomplishments, was still daunting. “To be honest, I was really scared before the record lap. It’s always a thing to go for record laps. You know how dangerous this place is. The Porsche 918 was well prepared and safe to drive. But to be honest, beforehand, I was not so relaxed.”
Little could illustrate the Ring’s intimidation factor better than a champion driver getting butterflies before a drive there. Lars Kern, the Porsche test driver who earlier this year drove the Panamera Turbo sedan to lap record victory (for a four-door luxury car, at 7:38), was nervous. “The simulation we ran said 7:38 should be possible — or is possible. But with the simulation you can never see the conditions — temperature, whatever. You are always under pressure.”
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As far as the Ring is concerned, track conditions unsettle drivers most. The elevation changes, size and location of the track mean that the weather can literally change from one section to another — clear and balmy here, cool and rainy there. This is good for testing the capabilities of a car in stressful, abnormal conditions. It’s not so great if you’re going for an all-out lap record. “We ended up having really bad track conditions,” said Dr. Gernot Döllner, head of the Panamera model line. “It rained for two weeks, so all the rubber was washed off. It wasn’t really totally dry. And it was a little bit too cold. [But] we ended up with a time almost exactly where we calculated.” Could they have put down a faster time? “With better conditions,” said Döllner.
We had limited time, we had a long shot-list — we had shit to do.
“It was going well and going good, but I always had one little mistake or two little mistakes,” says Kern of his record lap warm-ups. “It’s really quite impossible to have a perfect lap. And this is what makes it so challenging. There’s no room for mistakes. If you have a mistake, usually it’s a big [amount of time] off. This is what also makes it dangerous.”
On the topic of danger, Lieb doesn’t mince words about driving the Ring. “Be respectful of the track. If you go down and you think you will conquer the Nordschleife easy and you will conquer it with one hand, you will have a big crash at the end.” I drove the Ring. The pictures accompanying this story document the hour I spent there. We had limited time, we had a long shot list — we had shit to do. The time crunch and malfunctioning walkie-talkies dictated that I rocket between our photographer and the professional drivers in our 918 and Panamera many, many times over long, sweeping sections of the Ring. It was my first time on the track and I didn’t have time to be wowed or intimidated; I just had to drive it. I felt a foreboding sense of power as I took blind corners hard and plunged into violent dips with forceful compression. I saw the majesty and the allure of this track; I felt its grip, its evil finger beckoning me forward faster, faster. I think about it a lot now, and I want to go back. I wasn’t wearing a helmet. I didn’t have a performance car. I probably didn’t exceed 50 mph. But I caught a glimpse of the wild dragon and felt the urge to tame it. It’s the urge that thousands of amateur racers feel each week when they pass through the gates and pay their low entry fee. It’s the addiction they feed with every pass, every time their brakes lock or the tail wags, mistakes they’ll swear to correct on the next lap. The need to dominate this unbridled beast and its 73 turns, to perfect their skills and polish their machine.
And that really hits the nail on the head. Performing on the Ring isn’t about fun or bragging rights. It’s about domination. Domination over physics, over mental strain, over the actual weather. Domination over this circuitous, wild, 90-year-old road and its massive scale and manic layout.
On the track, alone, late in the evening, it’s hard to imagine the madness that happens there. It’s a different world entirely, watching the sun glow orange and pink just over the horizon, while standing on the silent main straight, with its clockwise vanishing point ahead and to the left, and a silly string explosion of curves back to the right. Even then, in the quiet, there’s an ethereal hum of potential energy. I could close my eyes and feel the scream of a redlining engine, taste the high-octane fumes that filled the daytime air, at this place where pistons and wheels ascend to the Pantheon or sink to the wayside. This is where physical effort and engineering might and clutches are maxed out. It is a battlefield, conquerable. It is the Nürburgring Nordschleife.