Chasing Bellof

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It is one of the most legendary laps ever completed and regarded as unbeatable. With the help of a high-tech simulator, we decided to have a go 

If you’re a connoisseur of commitment or a buff of the balls-out lap, Stefan Bellof’s supreme effort in a Group C Porsche 956 around the Nürburgring Nordschleife is an enduring source of wonder. Not least because some 34 years after he left his Porsche Motorsport bosses shaking their heads in disbelief, his unofficial lap record of 6min 11.13sec, set in qualifying, still stands.

History shows he crashed out of the race the following day, his Rothmans Porsche taking flight at Pflanzgarten and destroying itself against the Armco. But not before setting a new official lap record of 6min 25.91sec. Leading by some 30sec, he didn’t need to push so hard. Yet for Bellof, apparently unflustered by his brush with disaster and in only the second race of his first season as a factory Porsche driver, there was no other way. Such an unforced accident could have cost him his seat, but much as David Richards stood by the young and wayward Colin McRae after a series of colossal – and costly – mishaps, so Porsche understood and indulged Bellof’s irresistible impulse to find unfathomable speed.

And no wonder, for his was a prodigious talent. Incandescent. Instinctive. Untameable. Inimitable. Unbeatable, too. At least when it came to raw pace and unflinching bravery around the toughest and most dangerous circuit of them all. Of course we all know the fate that befell him two summers later: killed in another Group C Porsche at Spa-Francorchamps, attempting an impossible move on Jacky Ickx at the foot of Eau Rouge. His death was a tragedy, but one that somehow deified him. It could have defined him, too, were it not for that incendiary and enduring qualifying effort.

It’s thanks to that lap that we’re clearing security at Toyota Motorsport’s Cologne HQ, prior to being escorted to Toyota Gazoo Racing’s simulator. Our aim is simple: to attempt to lap the Nürburging Nordschleife in less than 6min 11.13sec from the cockpit of Toyota’s virtual TS050 LMP1 car. 

The exact circuit that Bellof raced is no longer used for competition – hence the use of a simulator programmed with the original route – and in theory it should be easy: more than 30 years of engineering progress separates the TS050 from Bellof’s car, giving levels of speed and grip that the young German could barely have imagined.

For added spice, Toyota Gazoo Racing’s Anthony Davidson’s is joining us. A Toyota driver since 2012 and 2014 World Endurance Championship winner, Davidson is here to help me get to grips with the specific challenges of the sim, give some useful tips on how to drive the TS050 and offer a rather surprising confession. “I’m a bit ashamed to admit this, but I’ve never actually driven the Nordschleife. Not even on a tourist lap. Fortunately I’m young enough (just!) to be a part of the PlayStation generation, so I have ‘driven’ it a bit in a console game. And obviously I know its reputation and its place in history.

“Can I imagine driving the TS050 there? Yes, I can. Though I don’t think I’d want to! At least not to try and really attack a lap. I think as drivers we’re all a little bit crazy, but doing a lap for real in the P1 car would be pretty wild. Too wild, maybe. It would be insanely quick and there’s zero margin for error. It would be a long way outside the parameters for which the car was designed, so it would be a massive challenge to get the car working as it should. We’d have to lift the ride height and that would hugely compromise the aerodynamics. It’s simply not designed to cope with the extreme demands of that circuit. 

“Group C Porsches clearly had massive grip, but the way the tyres behaved and the way they handled is very different from today’s LMP1s. They had a bit of give and didn’t mind sliding a little. The way today’s LMP1s run is very precise. There’s massive grip and downforce, but there’s not a huge amount of feel so you get very little warning when you exceed the limit. I’m sure the Nordschleife was at the edge of what a Group C car should be doing, too, but at least the cars gave the drivers something to work with. The limits of our car are much more defined. You’ve got quite a challenge ahead of you.”

The sim room itself is like something from Tony Stark’s man-cave. Initially built for Toyota’s F1 programme, it’s by far the most imposing sim set-up I’ve seen. Mainly because the car – or rather the central tub and nose of a TS050 – is mounted two metres off the floor on a large platform supported by stout hydraulic rams that give six degrees of freedom: 0.6m lateral, longitudinal and vertical movement, capable of generating ±38 degrees of yaw and ±27 degrees of roll and pitch.

Fed by images from five projectors, the vast 220 degrees wraparound screen is also raised, which ensures you feel rather small and intimidated before you’ve even climbed the alloy stepladder and slotted yourself into the cockpit. I get the sense this is not going to be easy as I imagined.

The TS050 cockpit is snug and rather claustrophobic. To get in you shuffle onto the sidepod, thread your legs in, then attempt to slide your torso down before cocking your head to the left as it passes through the small door aperture. Once in it takes a few seconds for the alien nature of the driving position to hit you. Tucked in a semi-foetal position, feet up high, legs bent at the knee, elbows drawn back towards your ribcage, shoulders hugged by the moulded seat. Much like the real cars themselves, the driving position is a little bit NASA.

Visibility isn’t great. In fact it’s a bit like wearing blinkers. There is some peripheral vision through the side windows, but your focus is dead ahead through the far distant bubble windcreen, the base of which is a good metre from the steering wheel. The funny thing is once you’re in the view of the wraparound projector screen looks uncannily authentic, despite the very obviously pixellated trees and general lack of photo-realism you might be used to with the latest PlayStation or X-Box driving games.

According to Toyota’s senior simulation engineer Ian Hogan, visual realism is sacrificed for surface detail. Laser-mapped by expert XPI Simulation the track information is integrated with wind-tunnel data and a detailed physics model built around the TS050’s chassis kinematics so that the sim’s behaviour is as close as possible to that of the car.    

It’s much more convincing than the view you get from an single-seater sim cockpit, almost certainly because the closed-cockpit environment offers more to distract your eyes. You know you’re not in a real car, yet it soon begins to feel more real than you ever expected.

Ian is located behind me in the soundproofed control room. Brightly lit and separated from the sim floor by a big window, it looks like a recording studio booth or, weirdly, a kind of human aquarium. I’m not wearing a crash helmet – that would be daft, not to mention hot – but I am wearing headphones so Ian and I can communicate. He’ll be telling me which buttons to press on the steering wheel, and I’ll be trying not to swear too much as everything I say is piped back to the control room.

The challenge that faces me is threefold: that of the taking on the Nordschleife; driving the TS050 with no prior experience; and, perhaps the trickiest aspect, learning the vagaries of the sim itself. I’m not sure why this triple-whammy didn’t occur to me before, but just moments before I’m due to start the realisation hits me like a bucket of cold water. The driving might be virtual, but the challenge is all too real. 

I’ve driven a number of sims before – McLaren’s included, though not in an F1 car, and an LMP2 Alpine A450 at Base Performance Simulators. I’ve come close to suffering the debilitating motion sickness that renders some drivers unable to function, but fortunately I’ve got better at suppressing the onset of nausea. My main problem each and every time I’ve visited a sim is a reluctance to suspend reality sufficiently to truly submit to the experience. 

My biggest issue is braking, for although there’s convincing pedal effort, there’s almost zero feel. As Davidson has already warned me, braking in the TS050 is hard enough in real life because it changes according to how much energy is being harvested by the regenerative braking. To remain consistent in feel, retardation and, most critically, front-to-rear balance, the recovered energy needs to be used. If the batteries are full the regen system is offline, so there’s none of the extra resistance from the electric motor generators. At which point the brake balance goes and, most likely, I’ll spin like a top before I can say Flugplatz.

To make matters worse I’ll have to deploy the electrical energy – close to 500bhp of it – manually via a little green button on the left side of the steering wheel. The TS050 normally does this automatically, but because the car has never run on the Nordschleife that’s a luxury I’ll be denied.

After a pre-flight briefing in which I come to pity LMP1 drivers for their onerous and bewildering administrative workload, the time comes to climb the steps, slide into the cockpit and do my best to beat Bellof. The first few minutes are utterly alien. The steering is weighty, loading up and kicking back convincingly through corners, but I’m not getting a true sense of connection. There’s little sense of speed and, despite the best efforts of the sim platform’s hydraulic rams, no sustained embrace of lateral, longitudinal and vertical g.

Despite the disconnection it’s an overwhelming experience. The circuit feels narrow and twisty, the car bulky and intolerant of indecision. I can’t feel the brakes and I can’t summon the spare processing power to deploy the hybrid energy quicker than the TS050 harvests it. On the rare occasion I try the boost, the uplift in pace is such that things happen way too fast. I know where I am on the lap, but the corners are coming at me in fast-forward, which exacerbates my lack of confidence under braking. This is so much harder than I expected. 

Deep breath and focus. Slowly but surely I feel myself getting drawn into the screen. I’m less conscious of my surroundings and more immersed in the driving. It’s totally addictive and, judging by the dryness of my mouth and the solid thudding in my chest, convincing enough to fool my adrenal gland. 

I know I’m entering the matrix when we make the headlong charge through Quiddelbacher Höhe flat in sixth before the briefest stab of brakes after the Flugplatz crest, a downshift to fifth then pin the throttle and hold on tight through the long, scary right-hander. It’s the first time I truly feel the speed and the first time the view through the screen tallies with the physical effort of the steering. It’s a massive rush and graphic illustration of what the Toyota can do. 

The more I become at one with the sim, the greater the impression of speed. Fuchsröhre is flat in sixth, on the limiter at a little more than 180mph. There’s no jeopardy as such, but inevitably time is becoming a factor. Not just that infernal 6min 11sec lap time – which is becoming more and more impressive at each of my failed attempts to beat it – but the fact we need to be leaving Toyota Motorsport’s HQ and catch our flight home.

The pressure is building. I’ve got just one incident-free lap in the bag – a 7min 26.43sec – but it’s pretty lame. More a case of just getting around rather than truly attacking. Things are coming together now I’ve had a handful of attempts, but it’s all hellishly edgy. The high-speed sections are a cinch because the TS050 (set to Silverstone aero and gearing) is absolutely nailed to the track, but the slower sections are a nightmare. And all because of the dreaded variation in braking behaviour.

I lose count of how many times I get to the Karussell or thereabouts, and then drop the car under braking for an apparently innocent section. Putting my best sectors together I’ve done a theoretical 6min 49.14sec, but if I could only keep going far enough to see the considerable first-half improvements mirrored in the latter half of the lap we’d be in the hunt. 

Each time I crash it’s massively frustrating because the sim invariably needs rebooting, as the off-track environment isn’t fully modelled. To make matters worse, when I crash, the effect of a stationary car and moving scenery me feel instantly sick – cold sweats, swimmy head, watery mouth. Proper pass-me-the-bucket stuff. I soon learn to shut my eyes as soon as I know I’ve lost control of the car, but feeling ill makes a frustrating situation a hundred times worse.

Then the sim starts crashing. Not literally, but as I begin to summon the spuds to drive the TS050 harder, so the sim’s binary brain struggles to cope with the information it is receiving. Bumps and compressions that up until now have stayed just within known parameters suddenly exceed all reasonable limits. The sim platform’s rams can’t replicate the degrees of movement of a car designed in 2017 attempting to go flat out around a track built in 1927, so it shuts down. With an audible bang and a shuddering jolt.

The rebooting process burns valuable minutes and pumps yet more unwanted psi into an already pressured situation. We came here to break a record. The record. I’m feeling sick and clammy. The gods of the Nordschleife are toying with Toyota’s technology. Our flight home is due to take off in less than two hours. It’s now or never.  

The lap feels like a good one. My nemesis – the bumpy descent through Hatzenbach – goes smoothly. The heart-pounding rush over Flugplatz, Schwedenkreuz and toboggan run down Fuchsröhre are edgy, but all pass without incident. Actually I’m wishing for taller gearing and less downforce so I can make more time on the straights. I even get through the tricky low-speed tripwires at Wehrseifen, Breidscheid and Ex-Mühle without stumbling. 

If I can only get beyond the Karussell I’m in with a fighting chance, but no sooner does that thought enter my head than I touch the kerb at the innocuous Steilstrecke and the TS050 kicks sideways. I almost catch it, but the clumsy half-spin screws the lap and trips the sim again. To make matters worse it was by far my best effort: I’m more than halfway into the lap – with just three minutes gone – when I kiss the kerb and spin. Damn it!    

I know what’s coming, but the finality of hearing Ian through my headset telling me we’ve run out of time is shattering. The lap’s there for the taking. I know it. Ian knows it. Even Davidson knows it. And yet – infuriatingly – it remains just out of reach. I’m beside myself with frustration and disappointment at letting myself and everyone else down, but then I experience something of an epiphany.

If I’m honest I think I came here in the belief it would take a few attempts, but breaking the record was going to happen. Not quite a formality, but as good as. My complacency rather underestimated two colossal factors: Bellof and the Nordschleife itself. By the common consent of his peers, Bellof was exceptional. They also suggested he may not have been wired up to acknowledge fear or self-doubt as they did. And the circuit? Well, I hadn’t credited how far beyond a modern LMP1 car’s comfort zone it would be.    

Both of these freakishly potent aspects have conspired to derail our plan, but in the process they have given clarity and scale to that immortal 6min 11sec lap. Can it be beaten? With sufficient simulation work, a radically altered (but still compromised) set-up and a suitably fired-up driver, yes, I’m convinced it could. More than three decades of engineering progress has to count for something, surely? Is it going to happen? Highly unlikely. 

To be honest I rather hope it doesn’t, for Bellof’s is so much more than a record waiting be broken. It’s an epitaph to one of the greatest laps ever driven, by one of motor racing’s brightest talents. To everyone who has ever driven – or dreams of driving – the Nürburgring Nordschleife, Stefan Bellof remains the ultimate benchmark. Long may that continue. 

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