It's not all about lap times.
Among those au fait with motoring, and the enthusiasts we all are, the mere utterance of the name 'Nurburgring' is bound to spark debate. Not just general discussion, but a heated back and forth over lap times and manufacturer claims as to who's quickest. It's the ultimate Top Trumps for track cars – bragging rights above all else. Whether or not it's fair to judge a car by its Nurburgring time is another story altogether, but the Nurburgring is a vitally important aspect of car development.
Every manufacturer, from Hyundai to Porsche, has a base of operations at the famed Green Hell. Even Ford, a brand who openly defies the notion of making bold claims as to Nurburgring times, regularly tests and hones its high performance vehicles on the circuit before releasing them on the road to the buying public. Why, though? What's the obsession with this one single circuit? Why not Laguna Seca, or Spa Francorchamps? There are a few very good reasons why the Nurburgring is the home of automotive development, with all of them combining to make the Nurburgring, and the Nordschleife in particular, a completely unique setting that tests every facet of a cars ability to ensure when it hits the road, it's more than ready.
Usually, when it comes to track driving we tend to look at things quite simply – limiting the basic information to whether a corner swings left or right, whether it's on camber or off camber, and to a small extent, whether a section is uphill or downhill. These little insights help regular track drivers eke out extra seconds where it counts. That's not what development as the Nurburgring is about though. Not every car is built to set hot lap times, and if every Hyundai Elantra and Toyota Camry was engineered to do so, we'd all have chiropractors on a monthly retainer.
No, when it comes to the Nurburgring, the Nordschleife's topography makes it a unique test of many facets of a vehicle's setup. Nowhere else in the world does a single track provide such a varying degree of conditions. The Nordschleife, or Northern Loop, is a 12.93 mile track comprising 73 turns – 33 left and 40 right. As if the sheer number of turns wasn't enough to make you dizzy, there's the variance in track conditions. At its lowest point, Breidscheid, the Nordschleife's altitude of just 1050 ft. above sea level is low enough to give naturally aspirated engines almost full power with minimal losses. At its highest point, Hohe Acht, the Nordschleife peaks at 2024 ft. above sea level. That's nearly 1000 ft. in variance along a single lap.
At its highest point, naturally aspirated engines start to become asthmatic, meaning from one point on the track to another, a vehicle's final power outputs can vary immensely. When it comes to tackling the maximum 17% gradients at certain points along the track, the loss in power, and the way an engine is tuned, becomes vital towards seeing how a vehicle would handle real world situations with steep inclines, and indeed performance at altitude in whichever market's a vehicle is shipped to.
The Nurburgring is more than just lots of turns and steep ascents and descents though. The surface is rapidly changing from one stretch to the next, and the strain put on tires and suspension is immense, especially when the correct lines of the track are driven. Certain sections, for example, demand crossing over multiple kerbs – each one throwing the car into a potentially dangerous off-camber situation. This is where manufacturers test the resilience of the suspension setup, the ability for a car to soak up sudden changes in road camber without unsettling the overall ride/handling balance.
Further along the track, the famous hairpin, titled the 'Caracciola Karusell' exerts huge forces upon the suspension. Banked steeply (gradients in excess of 16 degrees) the Karusell exposes vehicles to high compression loads, not just for a brief moment but for an extended period. After hundreds of laps tackling the Karusell, if a vehicle's suspension isn't broken, chances are it won't ever break in a real world driving scenario – at least not without extreme abuse. The same can be said for various other corners and straights, with surfaces ranging from rough to smooth, on-camber to off-, and grippy to slippery.
In these situations, manufacturers can test numerous suspension geometries, tire options, and springs and dampers to ensure that a single setup will cope with anything the real world has to offer. It's been said that just one lap of the Nurburgring equates to hundreds of miles in the real world. The thousands of laps performed by various manufacturers are often said to emulate more than a million real-world miles. It's this process that ensures that even in a relatively brief development period, a vehicle is engineered to withstand the test of time.
However, as much as the Nurburgring is the ultimate proving ground for testing and development, a road car isn't really ready for the road until it's been refined there. Developing a suspension setup for example that only suits the Nordschleife would result in something overly harsh on the road. Thankfully, the roads surrounding the Ring are also ideal for development, comprising altitude changes, changes in surface, potholes, gradient changes, and some of the most beautiful driving scenery the world has to offer.
The Ring is a mere stone's throw away from any number of great driving roads, and of course the famous German autobahn. This freeway seems all but normal; however certain sections are completely derestricted in terms of speed limits. How is this important for testing? Well, what better way to test an engine's reliability than to run it at high speeds for prolonged periods of time? A vehicle's cooling system is also put to the test here, having to dissipate heat rapidly. So too are the vehicle's aerodynamics – at those speeds a reduced drag coefficient vastly reduces fuel consumption, an increasingly important factor in modern vehicle development.
It's not all about the lap times when it comes to Nurburgring testing; nor is it just about the race track itself. Nurburgring development encompasses a far greater range of aspects than a mere track test, and it offers more to manufacturers than any other development facility in the world. This is why the Nurburgring is the home of automotive development – and it's why as much as we shouldn't always believe every manufacturer lap time claim, we should very much admire the efforts that go into development on the famed circuit.