The value of data

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Andrew Frankel

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This month Land Rover announced that its new Range Rover Sport was the fastest SUV yet to lap the infamous Nordschleife northern loop of the Nürburgring race track. Quite what anyone might then chose to do with the information is less clear.

Somehow over the last 20 years, a fast time around this race track has become the Holy Grail for car manufacturers. And for those who make racing cars or extreme road cars with a brief to perform well at track days, there is some point to it. The track is unlike any other in the world and is sought out as such by car enthusiasts wishing to pitch themselves against what is commonly held to be the most challenging circuit you can visit. This also makes it a good place to develop cars and tyres, so long as you don’t make the mistake of concluding that if a car feels good and goes fast here, such talents will naturally translate to the rather different challenges of the public road.

But now its purpose has been perverted by public relations. Not long ago a major car manufacturer had a PR chief who appeared literally unable of making a speech about anything without mentioning the Nürburgring. And now there are lap records for everything from supercars to hot hatchbacks, SUVs to electric cars.

Can we as enthusiasts who buy cars really be so daft as to let something as irrelevant as how fast a Range Rover can circulate this track affect our buying decision? Is anyone really going ring Porsche and cancel that order for a Cayenne Turbo because a Land Rover has gone a meaningless number of seconds faster around this track?

But here’s the thing: the time it takes a Range Rover to lap the Nürburgring is, of course, an entirely useless piece of information. But then so is almost all data held in highest regard by people who produce this material (car manufacturers), process it (motoring journalists like me) and consume it (that’s you). Here are just a few examples.

1. The good old 0-60mph time. Almost entirely meaningless. Measure two cars with identical power, torque and weight, but one with front wheel drive and a manual gearbox the other with four-wheel drive, launch control and double clutch transmission and you’ll get two entirely different results. It’s actually a better measure of traction than performance and unless you’re really that bothered about traffic light Grands Prix, it’s really pretty unimportant.

2. Top speed. More meaningless by the day. Thirty years ago when normal cars were far slower than today it gave some indication of the car’s likely comfortable cruising speed (I used to work on the basis of 85 per cent of v/max), but today when even a diesel powered Vauxhall Astra will double the motorway speed limit, it has almost no value at all beyond the world of Top Trumps.

3. Power. Unless seen in the context of the weight it must carry this figure can be worse than meaningless and actively mislead.

4. Torque. See ‘power’ above and add an additional almost always unseen variable which is the shape of the torque curve. A car with a smooth, flat curve from little more than idle to little less than maximum power will feel far more responsive than one which simply spikes to a higher figure.

5. Fuel consumption. Don’t get me started. Official figures have always been deeply dodgy and now the ridiculous cycle manufacturers are required to use to calculate them (which does not require a car cruise at motorway speed and is so full of loopholes car manufacturers employ armies of engineers simply to exploit them) has been rendered even more laughable by hybrids. Which is why Porsche has been able to claim its 875bhp 918 will really do 94.1mpg.

6. CO2. See ‘fuel consumption’ above. Until the CO2 emissions of the usually coal-fired power stations providing the electricity used by any plug-in hybrid is taken into account, this number will be useful for lowering your tax bill and nothing else whatsoever.

But the single worst aspect of all of this is that we remain susceptible to all this rubbish, and those of us like me who peddle it knowing it’s rubbish are the worst offenders of all. Am I going to stop quoting these figures in cars I test for Motor Sport? I am not, because they are expected of me. Is Land Rover or anyone else going to stop spouting useless data extracted from a race track in Germany? It will not because valueless though they are, these numbers remain interesting. Fact is, the 8min 14sec recorded by the Range Rover Sport would have qualified it over half way up the grid for the last ever 1000km race held on that track in 1983. And the truth that dare scarcely speak its name is that is a stat of which I am secretly, shamefully and staggeringly impressed.

 

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