In its 90 years of history and relevance, the Nurburgring has cemented itself as an epicenter of car racing and automotive development as well as a mecca for car enthusiasts. The 'Ring has an old soul and a strong heartbeat. It still hosts competitive events as well as the general public who bring whatever car they have, or can lay their hands on, to experience the legendary Nordschleife part of the circuit.
The Nurburgring is a development home to many an automotive company, so setting the fastest lap on one of the most recognisable and toughest tracks in the world always lands some solid publicity. In that respect, those times certainly matter for the car brands.
However, since there is no actual agreement on the rules or an independent sanctioning body to officially oversee those rules that don’t exist, lap times probably shouldn’t get the publicity they do. After all, there’s no way of telling if the time was set in a stock production car all the way down to the tires, or if the car has had the engine breathed upon along with the brakes and suspension before being put on the stickiest rubber the development team can find.
The reality for us, the general car buying public, is that those lap times are rather unlikely to be attainable in the same model car you just drove off the dealer's lot. The Nurburgring lap time version will likely have had some extra tuning to get the absolute fastest out of the car for a few laps when the stopwatch starts. That may well make it matter because the chassis is capable of making that time, and some people purchasing the car will make those performance modifications such as tires and brakes to maybe get it pretty near the actual final spec for a super hot Nordschleife lap time.
The common dismissal of lap times is that those times are set by a professional driver with way more talent than the people that generally buy the car. That is neither here nor there. Driver talent is the single largest variable to any car made anywhere or any time, and the point of a single lap time is to know what car is capable of, not the driver. I think we can safely assume the car companies hire the highest skilled and most consistent drivers they possibly can and we can assume they all come from the incredibly thin folder in the filing cabinet marked: Drivers That Can Extract Every Last Millimeter Of Performance From A Car.
But, because pretty much none of us will actually buy a car and go to the Nurburgring having developed a skill set equal to those drivers hired by the car makers, it begs the more pertinent question: Does developing a car on the Nurburgring really matter?
Those that enjoy Top Gear may remember James May claiming that sending a car around the Nurburgring “just spoils it”. He also wrote a piece called “Why The Ring?”, where he goes further into detail about why he believed the Nurburgring ruins cars and ultimately making the point that it destroys the ride and feel of a car.
Cars, as James May points out, have always been developed to some degree or other on a racing circuit. However, racetracks are generally quite short affairs with a fairly consistent surface. These short pieces of purpose-built road are absolutely nothing like the roads you and I drive upon daily, whether that's around town, for a long drive across the country or when taking a spin of the wheel through the local twisties just for the hell of it.
In stark contrast, the Nordschleife is 12 miles long. It has variable surfaces, cambers, dramatic drops and climbs, as well as a total of 73 turns varying from long and sweeping to tight and technical. All this is topped off with a straight over a mile long where a cars top speed can be achieved. For some perspective, the Nurburgring is big enough that it’s not uncommon to experience different weather conditions in different parts of the track.
Setting a car up to perform over a short three and a half mile track with 18 turns such as Silverstone in the U.K is one thing. Setting a car up using a track long enough to have varying weather conditions and without a consistent surface is a completely different affair. That’s much closer to the roads we as consumers actually find ourselves on. A car designed to perform on a flat and circuit with minimal variables is not much use to us whether we're hitting the back roads or the freeways. However a car designed to be consistently perform well across a broad variety of corners and surfaces certainly is.
Now, back to the point James May made. He is right to a large degree. But, can we blame the Nurburgring itself? Certainly, when a car is designed and tuned to be nothing but fast then the nice ride is inevitably dialed out for the sake of performance. That’s not simply down to where the car is developed though. That’s down to *how* it’s developed and the desired result.
The Nurburgring can, and has been, used to develop pure race cars for the road but all the ingredients are there to also help develop a super smooth luxury machine that can handle all environments without falling off the road when pushed a little. So If a car maker develops a luxury sports sedan that rockets around the ring but doesn’t have the ride around town to justify the luxury part of its designation, then that’s on the brands management and their development team.