Do Nürburgring times still matter?

Kieron Fennelly on Porsche and ‘Ring times

For more than a decade, the lap time achieved over the Nordschleife has been a benchmark for performance cars. This kind of data that justifies manufacturers’ marketing departments, enabling them to claim that their latest 550GT is not only vorsprung durch technik, but also can lap the Nürburgring faster than competitor X. This is not to deny the value of the Eiffel circuit’s unique topography in helping to refine handling and behaviour characteristics for production cars, and plenty of manufacturers make good use of it. Jaguar, for one, has substantial facilities at the track and any number of up market non-European cars such as the Chevrolet Corvette or the Lexus have been adapted to European tastes through extensive ’Ring testing.

Porsche has been associated with the Nürburgring since the early 1950s and, in recent years, has not been averse to claiming laps times for its new models as means of demonstrating the extent of the improvement over their predecessors. The trouble is the exercise has started to develop into a sort of Mickey measuring competition between certain manufacturers. So barely is the latest 911 Turbo coming off the production line than (usually) Walter Röhrl is despatched to thrash it round the ’Ring in the quest for a competition-beating time. Now, while this figure is no doubt interesting and useful, there are surely other criteria which are rather more important to potential purchasers.

It is one thing when these laps times are the efforts of privateers, but the new Turbo’s 7:39 was a fully fledged factory operation and you could argue that it has become so because certain people at Porsche had their noses put out of joint by the Nissan GTR a couple of years ago, when it appeared to usurp the 911 GT3 and briefly caused headlines of the shock-horror variety in the motoring press.

Whereas in the past such a setback would be forgotten quickly, the dreaded internet forums fizz for weeks on the subject and cause unease in marketing departments which spend much too much time peering at them and end up by losing their sense of perspective.

The GTR is a very different animal from a 911, as you might expect from a model which retails at half the price of the 911 Turbo. No one questions the integrity of the big Nissan’s engineering, or its outstanding accelerative or cornering abilities. But the GTR is another concept altogether: it combines the time-honoured Japanese hyper-turbo tradition with electronic wizardry of NASA proportions and a propensity to intervene in order to keep the kinetics of a car weighing 1900kg, with driver, on the straight and narrow. Contrast this with the new 911 Turbo which is lighter than its predecessor and the direct descendant of a racing heritage whose leitmotiv was lightness not huge firepower and the heavy artillery required to produce it.

All any 911 has in common with a Nissan GTR is that they are both high performance cars. The comparison stops there.

Porsche’s concern, obsession even, to compete with the GTR is in any case counterproductive. It devalues everything else that the latest 911 Turbo offers; from class-leading fuel consumption combined with a 194mph top speed, to an incomparable feeling of driver involvement. This 911’s combination of sobriety, versatility and technical prowess is staggering and is surely of far more importance than a 7:39 Nordschleife mark.

It may well be ten seconds quicker than the previous 911 Turbo, which is an impressive if not unexpected leap, but the whole achievement is completely overshadowed because the latest Nissan GTR was apparently clocked at 7:29 and this, of course, is what becomes the focal point of internet interest.

For Porsche it is something of a lost opportunity; the post-launch online debate should instead have been about subtle yet brilliant innovations like Porsche’s new Torque Vectoring (PTV), part of its traction management system, which is the difference between proactive electronic intervention and the reactive, catch-fence nature of handling electronics fitted to competitors. But in an age of instant communication, the corollary of which is an expectation of instant gratification, a more complex message (which by definition takes more time to upload) will always be the poor relation.

The entire business of Nürburgring times is rendered completely ridiculous, anyway, when Dunlop then employs Walter Röhrl to hurl a Cayenne around the circuit to promote a new range of tyres. Not even Total 911’s editor, who has admitted to a certain weakness for this most politically incorrect of SUVs, would concede that such an exercise has anything to do with selling Cayennes or tyres. It is just plain silliness and you might as well turn it into entertainment – SUV racing, a subdivision of truck racing. But even that has evolved from the standard vehicles of 20 years ago to today’s expensively re-engineered leviathans which have more in common with Formula One than any production lorry. So racing SUVs would end up being carbonfibre silhouettes anyway.

As the last rear-engined sports car, the 911 is unique, as is Porsche’s uncanny ability to extract a combination of performance and economy that is far ahead of its competitors. With Porsche this is genetic, a heritage that its marketing department does not always seem able to turn to its advantage. What a waste to get involved in this lap-time debate which is simply debasing. Zuffenhausen should take a leaf out of Maranello’s book. Ferrari is never seen chasing Nordschleife lap times. You have a feeling it does not need to.

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