When Porsche suddenly announced its withdrawal from the World Endurance Championship at the end of last year, most imagined that was the last we’d hear of its triple Le Mans winning 919 Hybrid prototype. For good or ill, Porsche was off to do Formula E, once more leaving far behind the world of prototype sportscar racing in which it has achieved so much more than any other. Or so we thought.
Witnessing the fastest lap of the Ring ever
But team principal Andreas Seidl thought otherwise. Running the car to regulations laid down in a massively proscriptive rulebook was his job but what, he wondered, might it achieved if unshackled from such restrictions. So he presented the idea of the 919 Tribute Tour to the board – where one of his former chassis would be diverted from its journey to the museum and go and show the world what it could do when allowed to run unfettered. The board’s reaction was both good and bad: yes they liked the idea and hoped he’d do very well with but, no, they’d not be putting their hands in their pockets to finance it. If it was to be done, Seidl would have to find the means elsewhere. So he went to his sponsors and technical partners and they paid for it instead.
The result was the Porsche 919 Evo, the 919 they’d have designed from the start had the rules allowed. With 720bhp from its V4, 2-litre petrol engine and a further 440bhp from its hybrid drive system, it was up to 100bhp more powerful and, at just 849kg some 39kg lighter. But the night and day difference were the aerodynamics, where being able to run not only any diffuser and wing package they liked complete with active DRS led to an increase in downforce of a barely believable 53 per cent.
The car ran first at Spa, with team-regular Neel Jani driving and came back having taken a 0.8sec chunk out of Lewis Hamilton’s pole position time for last year’s Belgian Grand Prix. And I think that got the world’s attention. Back in the days of the Porsche 917 in early 1970s, the fastest sports cars were often as quick as the F1 cars of the same era but to be quicker than the quickest in 2018? That was something else.
But it was also not the main event. Though no-one outside the team knew it, it was merely the appetite-whetting palate cleanser for the big test to come. And that test was the Nürburgring.
Of course it was. There is no race track more synonymous with Porsche than this, unless you count the old Solitude circuit on the outside of Stuttgart, and none that is use today. And no-one has ever gone quicker around its fearsome old ‘Nordschleife’ northern loop. That’s courtesy of Stefan Bellof who, back in 1983, put it all on the line in qualifying for the 1,000km race. Why? Partly because he was new to the team, a 25-year-old hot shot with a point to prove, but chiefly because everyone knew it would be the last time that top level sportscars would be allowed to race there. Set the lap record and it would stand in posterity.
So he climbed into his Rothmans 956, weaved his way through the traffic and did a lap in six minutes 11 seconds, fully five seconds quicker than anyone else could go. In the race without qualifying boost and tyres, he set a new lap record of six minutes 25 seconds before smashing the car to pieces, but thankfully not himself.
And whether you take the race or qualifying time as the lap record, both have stood untroubled these last 25 years. What better way for Porsche to celebrate its heritage in sportscar racing and its history at this track than to fire the 919 Evo into the Hatzenbach and see what it could do?
As for a driver, it was always going to be Timo Bernhard. He is German like Bellof, Porsche and the Nürburgring, a double Le Mans winner and five times Nürburgring 24 Hour victor. A factory Porsche driver, nobody alive would be more suited to the task.
So we gathered in the old pits where the Evo sat under a simple Porsche awning while members of the race team fussed over it. I asked Seidl if all was well: “yes, all is fine. The car was ready days ago, we’re just going through our normal procedures.”
Soon Timo turns up, racing snake fit in his bespoke 919 Tribute overalls. Last night he was chatty, chilled and great company. This morning he’s saying nothing. The signal comes, he wriggles down into the cockpit and prepares to go to work. Doors slam, fingers wave and suddenly, quietly the 919 is moving. He drives the wrong way around the track for a kilometre, turns around and comes flashing past us. Six minutes and 38 seconds later he’s back. It’s faster than any road car has ever been around here but slower than Bellof. ‘Don’t worry,’ says Holger Eckhardt, the team’s genial PR boss, ‘that was just a warm-up lap.’
And so it proves. On the next lap Bernhard posts a five minute 31 second lap, turning both of Bellof’s records to dust. But he’s not happy with the set up. The car is bobbing about too much on the straight, so they fiddle with the damping at the front, adjust the ride height and send him out again. This time he does a five-minute 24-second lap, a whole minute faster than Bellof’s quickest race lap. Up and down the pits some are laughing, some are gasping but most are just staring in disbelief at the timing screen. He hops out the car and, briefly, it seems we’re done. The record has been punted into the far, far distance where it will be almost impossible to retrieve. What point is there in risking all, all over again? And make no mistake, the risks here are as big as they can be.
But this is Porsche, and today is the only day they have. Track temperatures are rising and in a few minutes the decision will be made for them – the Michelin slicks are so soft that even in the cool morning air are already at their peak for less than a single lap.
Timo gets back in and disappears for what we all know will be the last time. Silence descends upon the Nürburgring. If we could all hold our breath for the next five minutes, we would.
Everyone is down by the timing screen when he comes back and when he throws the car over the line and it flashes up 5min 19.6sec, wild cheering erupts. This is history being made in front of us and every single person who sees it knows they are witnessing something important, something that has never been done before. Something incredible.
Timo returns, cuts the motor and is almost dragged from the car by his team. There are tears and cheers, hugs and slaps on the back. Professional instinct makes me want to get in there, get a microphone under his nose and record his unprocessed thoughts. But I can’t do it – how could any outsider barge in on a moment like this? It is special enough just to watch.
Later he tells me it was a clean lap, that there were one or two ‘interesting moments’ but none that genuinely alarmed him. He is pleased for the team, glad he was able to help but most of all, touchingly modest about what he has just done. “Do you know,” he told me. “It just makes me realise exactly what Bellof did all those years ago, in traffic, with technology 35 years older than this.”
And then I see his in car footage, the 200mph he pulls into compression at the bottom of the Foxhole, the 190-something he does over the top of Schwedenkreuz and I realise that what Bernhard did today may have been very different to what Bellof achieved all those years ago, but it is no less incredible for that. It is by a distance the maddest thing I’ve seen being done on four wheels.
I can’t tell you how fortunate I felt to have been there to witness it, for to see the 919 Evo run is a sight no one could forget. And the good news is if you’re going to the Festival of Speed, you can see it too. I asked Seidl if he was planning an attack on Nick Heidfeld long-standing hill record of 41.6 seconds and he said absolutely not. The car will be doing demo runs only. But these guys are racers and have a racer’s spirit and I don’t think they know how to go slow. I don’t think they will go for the record, but whether they do or not, it should prove to be one of the sights of the weekend.
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