In pursuit of a legend

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When Porsche decided to challenge the most celebrated of all lap records – Stefan Bellof’s, at the Nordschliefe – Motor Sport had a ringside seat

Porsche 919 Evo

The familiarity of the scene is uncanny. A gaggle of Porsche engineers huddled around the latest prototype racing car, preparing it in readiness for an attack on the most formidable track of them all.

Three and a half decades ago it was Norbert Singer crouched by the forward-hinged door of Stefan Bellof’s Rothmans-liveried 956 in the Nürburgring’s small ‘T13’ paddock. Today it’s Porsche Motorsport’s Andreas Seidl – Porsche’s LMP1 team principal – having a few words with factory driver Timo Bernhard before he too commits himself to an all-out lap of the Green Hell.

The tableau might appear similar, but the circumstances couldn’t be more different: the former a snapshot from what began as just another qualifying session at just another round of the World Sports Car Championship; the latter a meticulously stage-managed moment of singular importance and laser-guided intent. It’s a day many thought would never come. Some believed it should never come. Whatever, if all goes to plan the longest-standing and most emotionally charged lap record of them all will finally be broken.

To understand how we got to this moment you have to appreciate the magnitude of Bellof’s record-setting lap. Here was a young German driver, blessed with unsettling speed and tipped by many as a future Formula 1 world champion. As a Porsche factory driver he was understudy to Derek Bell, Jochen Mass, Jacky Ickx and Hans Stuck, but his raw pace and utterly fearless approach immediately thrust him into a realm his supremely talented team-mates freely admitted they didn’t wish explore.

His performance in the 1983 Nürburgring 1000Kms – held on a one-off shortened circuit configuration due to construction work for the new GP circuit – would become the stuff of legend. Despite encountering traffic he set a qualifying time of 6min 11.13sec – a full five seconds faster than Mass and 25 quicker than Ickx. In the race he pulled a 36sec lead over Mass before handing over to Derek Bell, but when he got back in the car with a reduced lead he pushed even harder. Shortly after setting a new race lap record of 6min 25.91sec he had a 160mph crash at Pflanzgarten, destroying the car but making his reputation as a stellar, but untameable talent.

The Nordschleife would never again be used in this configuration. Nor would it host top-flight world championship racing, leaving Bellof’s qualifying and race lap records to stand unchallenged. Bellof’s death in an accident at Spa-Francorchamps in 1985 – while attempting to overtake Ickx around the outside at Eau Rouge – tragically cemented his legendary status.

It was long thought the opportunity to challenge Bellof’s lap times would never come, because no manufacturer would have the balls to do it. This theory didn’t reckon on Porsche’s 919 Tribute Tour. Billed as a celebration of the 919 Hybrid’s remarkable domination of the World Endurance Championship (WEC), which resulted in three consecutive Le Mans 24 Hours victories and three consecutive WEC title doubles, in truth it’s a wake to mourn the premature passing of Porsche’s LMP1 programme, which was canned a year early in the immediate aftermath of dieselgate.

The 919 Tribute is a clever exercise. One that proves that even when it withdraws from competition, Porsche Motorsport never stops competing. So, while Toyota remains the last factory team standing in the WEC’s top-tier LMP1 class, Porsche has taken its all-conquering machine on a farewell tour with a difference. One intended to give fans a last chance to see the car in action, steal some limelight and – crucially – break some lap records.

In order to achieve the latter, Porsche created the 919 Hybrid Evo – a monster of a machine, freed from the constraints of WEC regulation. Back in early April, factory driver Neel Jani set the fastest-ever lap of the Spa-Francorchamps circuit, eclipsing Lewis Hamilton’s Formula 1 2017 pole position time by more than 0.7sec and running an absurd 12sec faster than the regular 919’s pole time from the 2017 Six Hours of Spa.

In May Porsche fielded the 919 Evo and a Rothmans 956 for an evocative parade lap at the Nürburgring 24 Hours, neatly sparking a speculation wildfire about a possible attempt on the Bellof record. Though Porsche remained tight-lipped, a brief and unpublicised test session on the Nordschleife in early June added grist to the rumour mill. Then, unofficially, Porsche admitted it would be running the 919 Evo in anger, but tantalisingly wouldn’t say when.

“It was thought the opportunity to challenge Bellof’s lap times would never come, because no manufacturer would have the balls”

The cloak-and-dagger nature of the Nürburgring assault ramped up considerably when I received an email from Porsche GB’s PR manager. He had been told in confidence by the factory that, weather permitting, the record attempt would be made on June 29. There wouldn’t be a massive international media bunfight, but if we were content to travel out to Germany the night before and promised not to get in the way, we could loiter in the background during the record attempt the following day.

All of which is how we find ourselves at the Nürburgring on the eve of what we know will be a momentous, hopefully successful and in all likelihood somewhat controversial day. We join the team for dinner in a suite above the GP circuit pit lane. Such is the tight-knit bond between the LMP1 team it’s a bit like gate-crashing a family get-together. There are a few speeches, but in essence this is a moment for everyone to wish Timo Bernhard well for the challenge that awaits the following morning.

For a man who has been tasked with driving an 850kg, 1200bhp projectile around the Nordschleife he looks and sounds remarkably calm. As a five-time outright winner of the Nürburgring 24 Hours that’s not entirely surprising, but there’s no denying that what lies ahead of him has more to do with ‘The Right Stuff‘ than regular motor racing.

“This place is different,” he says with admirable understatement. “The margins are so small and the consequences so great you simply can’t attack the lap in a car like this as you would at, say, Spa. I have to stay away from the kerbs, so the line is slightly different to the one I know. If I can make a clean lap we will have the record, but by how much I don’t know.”

June 29 dawns with near-perfect weather. Great news as the notoriously fickle weather in the Eifel region of Germany rarely misses an opportunity to throw a spanner in the works. We need to be up and out early as the team wants to make the most of favourable track temperatures before the asphalt soaks up the heat of the day. We’ve been advised there will be an installation lap at 8am, followed by a maximum of three attempts on the record, so we head to the T13 paddock nice and early to see the car being prepped.

Once the small paddock clears of marshals’ cars as they head out to take their places around the 12.9-mile circuit, all that’s left is a Porsche Motorsport truck and trailer and a large rigid framed tent, within which is the 919 Evo and a small bank of data screens. There’s also a stack of Michelin slicks – of bespoke construction and compounds just for the ’Ring record runs – already toasting beneath their warming blankets and stacked in sets, one for each run.

Porsche sets Nurburgring record with 919 Evo

The dilemma facing us is where to go next. The circuit is so big and the car so fast there’s no chance of heading out to find a trackside vantage point from which to see it flash by on a record run and then get back to the paddock before it crosses the timing beam, but to come all this way and not see the 919 Evo out on track seems crazy. In the end we jump in our car and head for Pflanzgarten 1 to see Bernhard on his installation lap. The clatter and slap of rotor blades heralds his approach as the chase helicopter pursues the 919 up the hill from Bergwerk to the Karussell, then on to Höhe Acht – the highest point on the lap – before jinking through the Wipperman and Brünnchen sections away behind the trees to our right.

Then, in a flash the 919 Evo is upon us, bursting into view as it spears down the incline towards the Pflanzgarten jump. Though clearly not in maximum attack mode, it’s a mighty impressive spectacle, the sharp rasp of the 2.0-litre (700-plus bhp!) V4 petrol engine overlaid by the whine of the 440bhp MGU and a thwack as 850kgs of car punches a hole in the cool morning air.

Back at T13 there’s an ordered hubbub around the car as the team goes through its checks, swaps to a fresh set of tyres. Bernhard hops out and heads into the truck for a debrief, then reappears 20 minutes or so later and jumps into the car for his first attempt. There’s no opportunity for an out lap, so he heads the ‘wrong’ way out of T13 and onto the Döttinger Höhe straight, weaving to get some heat into the tyres before turning around and blasting back towards the start.

This is pressure with a capital P. Yes, he’s spent hours in the Porsche Motorsport simulator, but as Bernhard explained the previous evening, the Nordschleife isn’t somewhere you can apply everything you do on a virtual lap. The bumps, the kerbs, the proximity to the barriers and the blinding speed of the place mean he’s driving very much on feel and instinct rather than by sim-honed rote.

In an explosion of noise and energy Bernhard and the 919 Evo smash by the T13 paddock and plunge down the Hatzenbach. Ahead of him one of the most fearsome sections of the lap – the shimmy up and over Flugplatz and the flat-out charge towards Schwedenkreuz and the ludicrously daunting plunge into the Foxhole.

While Bernhard fights in the eye of the storm his efforts are played out on the bank of computer screens back at base camp. Scanned by expert eyes, his inputs appear as real-time data traces, the peaks and troughs plotting a lap of unimaginable speed. He’s in radio contact with the team, but unsurprisingly the airwaves remain rather silent while he’s on the lap.

When he crosses the line to complete his first proper run there are knowing smiles from the team. They’ve broken the record with a 5min 31sec lap, but there’s also a sense they know there’s plenty more to come. Stephen Mitas, chief engineer for the 919 Evo confirms as much, nodding at the screens as he says “That’s already pretty tasty. And he’s not even warmed up yet…”

The team falls back into the now-familiar routine of prepping the car while Bernhard is debriefed. There’s an added sense of focus now, with much attention on the suspension. I see mechanics calmly changing a rear damper unit as one of the many precautions taken to ensure the car is as fresh and safe as it can be. Mitas confirms the stresses exerted on the car are far in excess of anything seen in the WEC, so they can’t be too careful.

After his second lap – a 5min 24.375sec – there’s a whisper he might not go again, but then Bernhard strides out of the truck and climbs in once more. Does he need to?

“It’s a mighty spectacle, the sharp rasp of the 2.0-litre (700-plus bhp!) V4 overlaid by the whine of the 440bhp MGU”

No, not really. The point has been proved. Yet the team obviously knows there’s more in the car. Question is, is there more in Timo?

Porsche 919 Evo timesheet Nurburgring record

Just 5min 19.546sec later we have the answer. The release of emotion from the engineers is palpable. Clear enough to know there will be no more runs. For Mitas, the man who pushed for the Evo to happen, it’s a very special moment: “This is what motor sport should be. Something extreme. Something at the limit.” In modern motor sport, where teams tend to behave as though they are delivering pre-determined outcomes rather than pulling off surprises, moments like this are rare indeed.

More by luck than pre-planning, after the hugs, whoops and back-slapping celebrations I find myself in Timo’s path as he walks away from the car and back to the truck. I shake his hand and ask ‘How was that?’, while giving him an exaggerated wide-eyed expression. He laughs, puffs out his cheeks, widens his eyes and says with absolute conviction, “That was not a walk in the park, I can tell you!”

With a brief pause in proceedings I take the chance to ask Mitas if he could print me a data trace of the record lap as a souvenir. He says ‘yes’ and takes me into the truck. This is the inner sanctum, filled with more data engineers, all working at compact fold-down desks. There’s a big screen at the back of the trailer, where to my immense joy the guys are about to take their first look at the in-car footage.

What follows is a privilege Bellof’s engineers – and the wider world – were denied: the chance to ride alongside the driver on the fastest-ever lap of the Nordschleife. It’s a truly gob-smacking spectacle. We shake our heads, suck air through our teeth, even watch through our fingers at times, almost unwilling to look, but unable to tear our eyes away from the unfolding drama. It’s the only time I’ve ever watched in-car footage and had that same slightly nauseous sense of awe and foreboding I get when watching on-board footage from the Isle of Man TT. The speed is insane: 205mph into the Foxhole compression; a little under 190mph through the Lauda Kink; 229mph on the Döttinger straight and an average speed of 145mph. Even though it’s just us in the truck, we break into spontaneous applause.

I’m heading towards the door of the truck, data sheet in hand, when Bernhard walks in. I’m normally slow to pounce in these moments, but with rare presence of mind I seize the chance to get Timo and Mitas to sign my treasured piece of paper. As the hero of the day signs and dates the data sheet we have another brief exchange. It’s utterly revealing.

“Never in my whole life have I experienced anything like that. The speed was so intense I could feel my brain struggling to process things through some sections of the lap. Everything was happening so fast.”

But surely that’s what you’d hoped this lap would feel like? “Yes! Absolutely. Nothing in my career has felt anything like this. Nothing. I’m glad it’s this way. I wanted it to be something beyond what I know, but this… I’ll never feel anything like this again.” His words fade to a reflective pause and for a few seconds the silence speaks more eloquently than any words either of us can muster.

Looking back, I genuinely think this was the moment when what he’d done began to sink in. The significance of the lap, the commitment he’d shown, the intensity and absurdity of the speed. And his name mentioned in the same breath as his hero, Stefan Bellof.

“Does this effort count for anything? Personally, I believe Bellof’s 1983 qualifying and race laps remain the records”

Should Porsche have taken the record? Does this effort actually count for anything? These questions and more were swirling around cyberspace within moments of Bernhard’s time being announced. Personally, I believe Bellof’s qualifying and race laps in that remarkable 1983 Nürburgring 1000Kms meeting remain the lap records. Achievements enshrined in our hearts and the history books as absolute benchmarks, set by a mercurial and ultimately tragic genius during a live race meeting. Among traffic, in a racing car with half the power and downforce and on a bumpier Nordschleife.

Still, I believe the purists’ ire is misplaced, largely because Bernhard and Porsche haven’t sought to diminish Bellof’s legacy, but mostly because it is something Bellof himself would surely have relished: the fastest racing car in the world pitted against the toughest circuit in the world.

Consequently I believe this new and frankly astonishing outright lap record enriches rather than erases Bellof’s sacred piece of motor sport history. We’d long suspected that, given the opportunity, a modern-day Ringmeister in a contemporary machine would blitz it.

Thanks to Porsche and Bernhard, now we know.

Porsche 919 Evo

919 HYBRID vs 919 EVO

Spot the difference between racer and record chaser

Aero Combination of passive (flatter nose, widened rear wing and deeper front and rear diffusers) and active (front and rear DRS) aerodynamics generate 53 per cent more downforce and 66 per cent improvement in aero efficiency for vastly increased cornering speeds.

Weight Because it’s effectively a one-lap time attack car, endurance racing kit such as air jacks, lights, air-conditioning and many of the on-board control systems have been jettisoned to achieve a 39kg weight saving over the standard car’s 875kg.

Engine Porsche increased the turbo boost and fuel flow of the  2.0-litre V4 petrol engine meaning power jumps from 500bhp to 720bhp. One limiting factor is the exhaust energy recovery system – effectively a turbine within the exhaust which generates electrical energy. This is now working beyond its design limitations of 120,000rpm due to the increase of exhaust gases.

Hybrid Unlike the WEC-spec 919, which had to manage its electrical energy to deliver boost at pre-determined points on the circuit (mainly in the early exit phase of low-speed corners), the Evo’s more powerful hybrid system delivers electric energy whenever the throttle is open. Power is up from 400 to 440bhp, bringing the Evo’s total output to 1160bhp.

Porsche 919 WEC hybrid

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