Automobile - - Ethos - by STEVEN COLE SMITH

THE WORLD’S MOST no­to­ri­ous race­track was al­ready 41 years old when, in 1968, Jackie Ste­wart re­ferred to it as “the green hell” im­me­di­ately af­ter win­ning the For­mula 1 Ger­man Grand Prix. Ste­wart had to bat­tle not only the track, treach­er­ous in the best con­di­tions, and 19 other driv­ers, in­clud­ing pole sit­ter Jacky Ickx, but also se­vere rain and fog. It was, Ste­wart said much later, the tough­est of his 27 F1 wins. Fit­tingly, it was also the race where driver Dan Gur­ney de­cided it might be a good time to in­tro­duce the full-face hel­met to F1.

That’s the sort of place the Nür­bur­gring was and is: glo­ri­ous, mis­er­able, so tough to mas­ter. But Ger­man racer Ste­fan Bellof did just that in 1983 when he lapped his Porsche 956 in a record 6 min­utes, 11.13 sec­onds around the Nür­bur­gring’s 12.9-mile Nord­schleife cir­cuit. Film of the record-break­ing per­for­mance proves there was no cel­e­bra­tion, no high-fiv­ing; Bellof emerged with his typ­i­cally be­mused smile, but a quick shot of Nor­bert Singer, Porsche’s chief en­gi­neer and the 956’s de­signer, showed him dis­play­ing an ever-so-brief “Take that!” smirk. “We didn’t cel­e­brate,” Singer, now 78, re­calls, “be­cause it was sim­ply what was ex­pected of us.”

Bellof’s lap was ex­cep­tional, but his record stood for decades in part be­cause there was lit­tle sub­se­quent toplevel com­pe­ti­tion on the Nord­schleife in cars that might have had a chance to top it.

Cer­tainly the ’ Ring has seen its share of pro­duc­tion car record runs lately, though, as pub­lic­ity-seek­ing man­u­fac­tur­ers con­tin­u­ally top each other. The lat­est—as of this writ­ing, any­way—was the Lam­borgh­ini Aven­ta­dor SVJ, which lapped the track in 6:44.97 in July with fac­tory driver Marco Mapelli. It took the fastest pro­duc­tion lap ti­tle from the Porsche GT2 RS (see page 46), which had taken it from the Lam­borgh­ini Hu­racán Per­for­mante.

While there is lit­tle doubt Porsche will again seek the pro­duc­tion lap record at the track, on June 29 Porsche in­stead went af­ter Bellof’s over­all record with a full-out fac­tory ef­fort, 35 years and one month af­ter Bellof set his time. Ear­lier this year, the com­pany un­veiled the Porsche 919 Hy­brid Evo, which took a 919 Hy­brid race car that had com­peted at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2017 and— freed from the FIA World En­durance Cham­pi­onship rules—mod­i­fied it sub­stan­tially for all-out speed and ac­tive aero­dy­nam­ics for max­i­mum down­force or re­duced drag where each was needed.

First stop for the 919 Hy­brid Evo was Bel­gium’s SpaFran­cor­champs on April 9, where fac­tory driver Neel Jani lapped the 4.35-mile Grand Prix cir­cuit in 1:41.770, beat­ing F1 driver Lewis Hamil­ton’s pole-win­ning and lap-record time of 1:42.553 set in a Mercedes-AMG F1 W08 last year.

That was es­sen­tially a shake­down for this as­sault on the Nür­bur­gring Nord­schleife cir­cuit. Au­to­mo­bile was one of only two out­lets from the U.S. in­vited to at­tend the closed ’Ring ses­sion, and it was in­struc­tive and im­pres­sive to watch the Porsche mo­tor­sports team in ac­tion—pre­pared, pre­cise, and tak­ing noth­ing for granted.

Porsche re­tired the 919 Hy­brid at the end of last sea­son. The com­pany wanted to di­vert some of its WEC re­sources to a For­mula E pro­gram, and with only Toy­ota to com­pete against in the WEC, it had lit­tle else to prove—the car won 17 of the 33 races it con­tested, in­clud­ing Le Mans in 2015, 2016, and 2017. This 919 Hy­brid Evo project “is a trib­ute to the team, a farewell tour,” chief en­gi­neer Stephen Mi­tas said. In­deed, a red band that en­cir­cled the car’s body con­tained nearly 250 names of peo­ple who worked on the pro­gram.

The record lap it­self was al­most an­ti­cli­mac­tic. Miche­lin brought a spe­cial tire for the at­tempt and had eight sets warm­ing in elec­tric blan­kets. Timo Bern­hard got a new set each time he came in.

Bern­hard was a per­fect choice to drive. He is close with the Bellof fam­ily, hav­ing raced in its an­nual kart­ing event held as a trib­ute to Ste­fan. In 2015, on the 30th an­niver­sary of Bellof’s death, Bern­hard raced with a hel­met painted just like that of his hero.

The na­tive Ger­man has an ex­cep­tional record in mul­ti­ple cars at the Nür­bur­gring, and frankly, few Porsche fac­tory driv­ers have earned the level of re­spect Bern­hard has, thanks to his will to win, his pro­fes­sion­al­ism, and the fact that he is, above all else, a good guy. At 37, he is ar­guably at the peak of his ca­reer.

So Bern­hard took the Hy­brid Evo out for a test run early on this Fri­day morn­ing, and even tak­ing it easy, he turned a lap in the mid-6-minute range. With now more than 1,100 com­bined horse­power on tap from the hy­brid sys­tem and the lit­tle 2.0-liter tur­bocharged V-4 engine, Bern­hard ripped past the pits in a muted roar. Sec­ond time out, quicker. Third, still quicker. The team, per­haps three dozen Porsche work­ers, sensed that the fourth run would be it and gath­ered at the tim­ing sign at the end of pit lane.

The num­bers flashed on the screen: 5:19.546, about 51 sec­onds faster than Bellof. Cheer­ing, flag-wav­ing, and back­pat­ting en­sued.

Bern­hard emerged from the car with a grin and say­ing all the right things, es­pe­cially about the pre­vi­ous record holder. “To me, Ste­fan Bellof re­mains a gi­ant,” he told us. “To­day my re­spect for his achieve­ment with the tech­nol­ogy avail­able back then in­creased even more.” Hit­ting a top speed just short of 230 mph, Bern­hard ad­mit­ted to scar­ing him­self sev­eral times, but the in-car video shows just how fast a 919 Hy­brid is when freed from the rules. Down­force, Bern­hard said, was in­cred­i­ble, al­low­ing him to run full-throt­tle through cor­ners where he had never con­sid­ered do­ing so be­fore.

As for chief en­gi­neer Mi­tas, he was happy but not quite de­lighted. Al­though the track had been cleaned early in the morn­ing, it was dirt­ier than ex­pected and warmed up quickly on an un­sea­son­ably hot, hu­mid day. No one would say it out loud, but it is a good bet the team was hop­ing to lower the record by a full 60 sec­onds.

Might this trig­ger an as­sault on the over­all record from other man­u­fac­tur­ers, sim­i­lar to the mu­si­cal chairs be­ing played by their pro­duc­tion cars?

“I guess we’ll see,” Mi­tas said. But the smirk he wore, so sim­i­lar to the one on Singer’s face 35 years be­fore, seemed to say, “Sure, let ’em try.” AM


The dis­tance Timo Bern­hard cov­ered in the Porsche 919 was within 7 feet of the track length when Ste­fan Bellof set the bench­mark.

Be­fore it tack­led the ’Ring (right), the 919 Hy­brid Evo took down the lap record at Spa (top).

There was likely more lap time in the car, but that didn’t quell the team’s cel­e­bra­tion.

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