How a legendary German track is ruining sports cars for you and me

The Nurburgring is known far and wide by car nuts as perhaps the single most important track in the world. Its the track that nearly killed Niki Lauda and has been the benchmark by which all tracks are judged. The ‘Ring has become the crucible of speed and the yardstick of performance.

This is a problem.

The Nurburgring’s domination of car development not only distorts our perception of performance, it also makes cars less fun to own.

Before I get into my reasons, it’s important to understand how the Nurburgring has come to be the automotive performance benchmark.

First opened in 1927, the ‘Ring is one of the oldest tracks in motorsport. It was designed to mimic road courses like the Targa Florio that dominated early motorsport. While it may have lacked some of the dangers of road courses – like livestock and the odd peasant – the ‘Ring was fast and intimidating.   

The Nurburgring’s domination of car development not only distorts our perception of performance, it also makes cars less fun to own.

Unlike most tracks, the Nurburgring is both long and narrow. It strongly resembles a road course with substantial elevation changes and notoriously bad sight lines. Drivers in the carrousel, a hair-raising and infamous corner at the ‘Ring, are advised to aim for the tallest tree, because it is impossible to see the exit of the corner.

This fearsome reputation has only been heightened over the years. Legendary Formula One driver Sir Jackie Stewart dubbed the Nurburgring “the green hell.” And while there hasn’t been an F1 race held on the ‘Ring since 1976, the bends that nearly killed Niki Lauda are still there being driven by passionate drivers of all skill levels to this day.

But it’s not just the combination of racing heritage and narrow, road-inspired track that has made the ‘Ring into the global racetrack pinnacle. For much of its post WWII existence, the Nordeschliefe section of the Nurburgring has been open to the public. Average, buttoned-down Germans are out there every weekend pounding their Golfs, Opels, and Bimmers around the famed circuit.

This might be where the current obsession begins. After all, you can’t just show up to Laguna Seca or Monza on any random weekend and expect to throw your Civic around the bends at breakneck speed. This accessibility captures imaginations, especially after the folks from BBC 2’s Top Gear filmed two of their most memorable challenges on the Nurburgring Nordeschliefe.

Nurburgring

Plus, the fact that anyone with a Playstation or an Xbox can drive the track from their couch helps increase the ‘Ring’s legendary status.

So we have a track that is hallowed, unique, and substantially more like a back-road than any ordinary racing circuit on the planet. These qualities all make the Nurburgring stand out, and they all make it seem like a better place to evaluate what a car might be like on your hometown highways.

Cadillac, desperate to compete with Germans, hit the Nurburgring in a serious way in the early 2000s. The 2004 CTS-V was the first car Caddy honed at the ‘Ring. And while that choice may have been as much about marketing as handling, it started a trend amongst American automakers.

Now, almost every weekday, the track is reserved by the automotive industry for testing. In the last month there have been several headline stories about new records at the ‘Ring. And I should know; I wrote some of them.

Nurburgring times have become a performance figures mentioned along with top speed and zero-to-sixty times. It’s the ‘handling’ statistic.

The problem is that the focus on this statistic both makes cars ostensibly worse and misleads the consumer.

A Nurburgring lap time may not mean nearly as much as you think. Case in point: The Viper ACR.

This car held the top lap time for production cars – depending on how you measure these things – twice. Sounds good, right? Well, yes. Sort of.

The Viper ACR is an amazing car that I happen to like a lot. But guess what? That lap time doesn’t tell you much about how fast that car actually is.

The focus on ‘Ring times both makes cars ostensibly worse and misleads the consumer.

With over 600 horsepower, rear wheel drive, and essentially no electronic driver aids, the average driver – even the average sports car driver – has no hope whatsoever of getting close to those speeds…anywhere.

The Viper is one of the most terrifying cars in the world because, when it was designed, Dodge was obsessed with its ‘Ring times. 

The Nissan GT-R is the same way. It’s an amazing car that we all want to like because of its badass performance and neat-o ‘Godzilla’ nickname. The problem is, though, the GT-R is actually kind of a mess.

Yes, it’s fast and has some of the best handling dynamics you could ever ask for, but actually living with it is going to be a problem.

The suspension is bone crushing and I have been inside jets that are quieter. But its not just the sort of things that make old people unhappy that makes the GT-R a tough car to own. The steering is so light and active that the car dances at speeds above 50 mph. Even when you are going in a straight line, the car is constantly moving side to side as it grabs imperfections in the road.

I understand that the GT-R is a performance car built for raw speed rather than the niceties of comfort and luxury. The focus on speed to the exclusion of other characteristics, however, is problematic.

Viper ACR Nürburgring

Not only does time at the ‘Ring mess with the driving experience, it also tacks on extra cost to a car.

When the Lexus LFA first came to the Nurburgring, it posted a pretty pedestrian time. In fact, it was slower than the new Camaro Z28. Furious, Lexus went back to the drawing board and came up with the ‘Nurburgring Package’, a less comfortable and more expensive version of the LFA that would not have been noticeably faster under most conditions.

So the Nurburgring produces expensive, uncomfortable hellcats that may not even be that fast under other conditions. And that’s partly because of the nature of the track.

Driving talent has as much to do with ‘Ring times as the car’s setup.

The bad sightlines and narrow roadway of the ‘Ring make driving the track proficiently a tour de’force. And, unlike shorter tracks, the ‘Ring is so complex that only a few drivers really know it. The few who do have spent their entire lives on the ‘Ring’s tarmac.

The Nurburgring produces expensive, uncomfortable hellcats that may not even be that fast under other conditions.

Top Gear perfectly proved this point when it asked ‘Queen of the ‘Ring’ Sabine Schmitz to round the ‘Ring in less than 10 minutes in a diesel-powered Ford Transit van. During her many attempts, Schmitz passed Porsche 911s and other performance-oriented track-taming machines using driving skill alone.

Arguably, ‘Ring test drivers employed by automakers know the circuit very well indeed. Regardless, a car’s Nurburgring lap time can differ wildly from year to year.

If you’re having a hard time swallowing the simple fact that ‘Ring-focused changes made to a car worsen it in the real world, let’s look at the sales figures of the Viper and the GT-R. Both are undoubtedly skillful cars, cars that many people dream of owning. But the people who can afford them don’t buy them. Instead they buy cars like the Audi R8 or Porsche 911.

The Audi R8 and Porsche 911 may lack some of the ultimate performance of ‘Ringmeisters like the Viper ACR, but, day-to-day, you honestly won’t be able to tell. You will notice, however, comfortable seats, firm but forgiving suspension, and quality interior components; things that can kill ‘Ring times.

If you want to spend a few days a year at a track like the Nurburgring with something that feels like a racecar, buy a dedicated track car. It will cost you far less than one of the ‘Ring beaters – and you won’t have to drive it to work in agony. I hate to say this because I love cars that are forged at the ‘Ring but I just wouldn’t want to own one a car that holds a ‘Ring lap record.

So, the next time you hear about the latest record-beating lap time from the ‘Ring, remember to look at what that car actually is and whether that insane performance is going to translate into a car that you actually want to own. I would wager that – for the most part – it won’t.

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