Ringing in a Record: Porsche 919 Hybrid Evo Race Car
Porsche blitzes the Nürburgring record that for so long seemed untouchable
NÜRBURG, Germany — 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 top-level competition on the Nordschleife in cars that might have had a chance to top it.
"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. "
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 Spa-Francorchamps 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 anti-climactic. 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 profes-sionalism, and the fact that he is, above all else, a good guy. At 37, he is arguably at the peak of his career.
Might this trigger an assault on the overall record from other manufacturers, similar to their production cars?
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 back-patting 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."