With one minute to go, there was silence around the timing screen. Cameras were primed but voices were hushed. Andreas Seidl, head of Porsche’s racing department, just stood watching with a nervous smile.
And then we heard it, long before it came into sight. This was no multi-cylindered symphony of some automotive work of art, but the flat blast of a rather small four-cylinder engine working in unholy alliance with all manner of hybrid electric trickery. But, my goodness, it was fit for purpose.
Through the last right Timo Bernhard came, the car almost across the kerbs as he tried to wring every last tenth of a second from the Porsche 919 Evo. The engine blared one last time, speared forward across the line and then, for the briefest moment, time seemed to stop.
A load of digits had appeared on the screen but at first they appeared not to make sense. These were not numbers that had ever appeared here before. Not even close, in fact. But then it started to dawn. This was enormous. This was history. This was a lap of the Nürburgring Nordschleife in 5min 19.546sec. Allow me to put it another way.
The Nürburgring is not a quick circuit, not like Spa, Le Mans and Monza are quick. But during those not quite 320sec, the 919 carried Bernhard around the world’s most difficult track at an average of 145.4mph. I’d like to say that it’s going to take a while for me to get my head around those numbers but it’s not true.
Having done a few hundred laps of the place myself, I know I will never truly comprehend the enormity of what happened one sunny morning on 29 June 2018. Bernhard had told me his plan the night before. “It’s not like Spa, where we had a precise target and had to put everything on the edge to reach it.” At Spa, team-mate Neel Jani had lapped the car 0.8sec faster than Lewis Hamilton’s pole position for the 2017 Belgian Grand Prix. “Here we know we can beat the record because it was set 35 years ago and we know how dangerous this place can be. I have to drive with that in mind.”
Spool forward a dozen hours and Bernhard and I are talking again but now he’s the holder of the new lap record and grinning from ear to ear as he rightly should be, given that it may take longer than most of us will live before someone else takes it away. “Okay, so maybe there were one or two points on the lap where it got quite, er, interesting. But towards the end of the lap, I could see from the delta that it might be possible to go under 5min 20sec. So then you need to find a way and maybe push a little more than intended…”
A few more details for you. The 919 Evo generates a total of 1140bhp from its petrol and electric motors, it weighs less than 850kg and has 53% more downforce than the triple-Le Mans-winning 919 race car upon which it is based. This story had to be written before a full data download could be done, but I can tell you that through Pouhon at Spa, it generated 5.5g of lateral acceleration. I can also tell you that at the ’Ring, Bernhard did 229mph on the straight, in so doing overspeeding the front gearbox, which is not allowed to do more than 223mph. I expect he will be forgiven. If you know the ’Ring, you may find it somewhat sobering to read that he did 200mph over the crest at Schwedenkreuz and 200mph again into the compression at the bottom of the Foxhole.
All sorts of other details shed light on what was required to do that time. The team booked the track back in January, when the 919 Evo didn’t exist, but when it came down to it, the weather window after which the track temperature would be too high was exactly 90min wide. And the Michelin slicks had such a short lifespan that to do his lap, Bernhard had to drive the wrong way around the circuit for a kilometre, do a U-turn and start there, because if he did a full warming-up lap, the tyres would have been shot before he started. Oh, and such were the additional loads the car was capable of generating that it required an additional power steering pump to double assistance levels just so Bernhard could get it turned into the quick corners.
What does this all mean? The 919 Evo is not a car eligible for any race and the time was not set during a session with dozens of other cars to negotiate. In many ways, it makes what the previous lap record holder Stefan Bellof achieved in an unmodified Porsche 956 in 1983 during qualifying for the 1000km race seem all the more incredible. Bernhard certainly thinks so.
So leave that on its pedestal: it deserves to stay there for all time. But just as a feat in its own right, an example of what an exceptionally talented team can do when the stars align, I think Bernhard’s lap is one of the most impressive accomplishments in the history of motorsport. Who and what might be required to break it is beyond my powers of imagining.
The 1983 Nürburgring 1000km was the last time pure prototype sports cars raced at the ’Ring. All the drivers knew it was the end of an era. All wanted to be the one who left the most enduring mark there.
Step forward 25-year-old Stefan Bellof, the most mercurial talent in sports car racing at that time and possibly ever. New to the Porsche racing team and teamed with the massively experienced Derek Bell, he wanted to be quickest on his home track. So for one lap in qualifying, he strained every sinew and took every risk there was to take, the result being a 6min 11sec lap, fully 5sec quicker than anyone else out there.
He didn’t let up in the race, either, despite lacking qualifying boost and tyres. He set a new outright lap record of 6min 25sec, then two laps later destroyed the car in an accident from which he was fortunate indeed to walk away.
The following year, Bellof won the World Sportscar Championship in a Porsche, only to be killed at Spa a year later in a Porsche when finally he took one risk too many.