Avoidable Contact #17: Cheating Nissan, Bitter Porsche.


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Story by Jack Baruth Okay, class, put away your books. Time for a pop quiz. It’s just one question, and it’s multiple-choice: Which car holds the official Nurburgring lap time record for production automobiles?

a) Nissan GT-R
b) Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1
c) Porsche Carrera GT
d) Radical SR8

So, what did you pick? It doesn’t matter. Whatever you picked, you’re wrong. It was a trick question. There is no “production car record” at the Nurburgring. Period. It doesn’t exist. You may find that shocking. After all, don’t the British car rags continually natter on about the “production car record”? Didn’t Edmunds.com recently devote several terabytes of hype to the idea of the GT-R setting a “production car record”? Isn’t there, like, a totally official list on Wikipedia somewhere? There has to be a record! Everybody talks about it all the time!

Sorry. There’s no “Nurburgring lap time record” for a simple reason: Real lap time records are set by real race cars, using real timing and scoring equipment, during actual competition or sanctioned practice sessions. They aren’t “self-reported” for the same reason the World’s Strongest Man Contest isn’t held by having everyone mail in their “results”: because people can, and do, lie and cheat.

Despite the obviousness of this concept, it is not yet universally understood that one cannot simply claim a lap time on the Internet and have it be “official”. Case in point: I happen to be a member of a small Web forum for Midwestern racers and open-lapping drivers. A few years ago, we had a bit of a tempest in a teapot when a fellow claimed that his $5000 project car had lapped Mid-Ohio in a certain time. He’d obtained this time by taping a stopwatch to the dashboard and timing himself during a NASA HPDE session. While this fellow was a competent driver, we were rather skeptical about his reported time, not least because it would have put him on the pole of the American Iron race which had also occurred that weekend, and his old sedan was pretty far away from being an optimized AI car. Furthermore, those of us who have to race under the cold glare of an accurate-to-one-ten-thousandth-of-a-second transponder system rather objected to the idea of just banging a stopwatch somewhere around the start/finish line every lap. It’s pretty easy to gain or lose a few seconds by sloppy stopwatching, you see. After much discussion, the driver in question agreed that the time probably shouldn’t be considered “official” in any sense, and everybody calmed down. It wasn’t that we didn’t trust him; it was simply that recording one’s own lap time is not, and will never be, the equivalent of setting an honest, independently timed lap under controlled conditions. It’s just plain common sense.

Or is it? After all, didn’t Nissan recently manipulate the all-too-willing media into “witnessing” and then reporting “official Nurburgring lap times” for their all-conquering R35 GT-R? First, there was the pretty-hard-to-believe 7:38 time which the fine journalists at Edmunds advertised, excuse me, reported, followed by the no-really-you-have-to-be-kidding 7:34 time, and finally the don’t-insult-our-collective-intelligence 7:29 shared with the world in a breathless press release a few months later. The Nissan media blitz was so successful that when Horst von Saurma obtained a 7:50 time from a real production GT-R, it went virtually unreported by the major automotive rags. Where’d those twenty-one seconds between von Saurma’s drive and Nissan’s “test” come from? The Internet had many answers, none of them credible, and none of them particularly persuasive to anyone who has ever driven the Nurburgring in anger.

And now, Porsche - the company which has had perhaps the most storied relationship with the ‘Ring, the company which has been testing production cars in the Black Forest since the Fifties, the company which has historically set the benchmark for excellence around the North Course – has called Nissan out on their self-reported times. Without quite saying as much, Porsche has implied that Nissan cheated at the ‘Ring. Did they? If so, how?

The answer is simple: Nissan did not cheat, because it’s impossible to cheat when there are no rules. There’s no official lap time record, remember? What they did do was knowingly manipulate a credulous, ignorant media and general public into misunderstanding the GT-R’s capabilities. It’s not the first time they’ve done it, and they aren’t the only guilty parties.

Here’s how it was done.

Automakers have been testing at the “Green Hell” for a long time. According to Karl Ludwigsen in his must-read Excellence Was Expected, Porsche was timing its production cars at the ‘Ring as early as the Fifties. Back then, ten minutes was considered to be outrageously quick for a street car, and it took a fairly hot Porsche, such as a 550 Spyder, to make it around in that time. Rest assured that a ten-minute lap isn’t exactly screwing around; I ran an automatic-transmission SLK200 at a slightly sub-ten-minute pace (approx. 9:15 “bridge to gantry”, which is the shorter distance) two years ago and was either at full throttle, ABS activation, or serious slip angle for the whole time, and the SLK200 had modern tires and 167 horsepower compared to a 550 Spyder’s 110 ponies.

For the next forty years, Porsche used the ‘Ring as a development arena for its street cars. It’s important to note that Porsche rarely, if ever, publicized its lap times; from Stuttgart’s perspective, that would be no more interesting to a customer than the frequency resonance data from a particular Autobahn. Why would their owners be concerned with lap times for a street car? Don’t forget, this was before the World Wide Web made keyboard racers of us all. Back then, there were two kinds of Porsche owners: people who drove street Porsches on the street, and people who drove racing Porsches on the track, and they were not necessarily the same people, and the former group didn’t pretend to be the latter. Porsche wasn’t shooting for “bragging rights” with their lap times; the intent was simply that each new car be faster than its predecessor.

It took an inspired act of marketing to make ‘Ring times worthy of public consideration. Somebody at Nissan noticed that no street car had been “officially” timed at under eight minutes, so in 1996 they hired one Dirk Schoysman to accomplish the feat in the R33 Skyline GT-R. After some amount of fettling, fussing, and lapping, Dirk dutifully turned a 7:59, and the “Nurburgring record” was born. The fact that a little bit of the “German mystique” rubbed off on Nissan as a result was, of course, entirely not coincidental. At around the same time, journalist and erstwhile racer Horst von Saurma began posting his own “Supertest” results for single laps on the ‘Ring, starting a race for Nurburgring supremacy that has persisted to this day. For no particular reason that I can understand, the self-reported ‘Ring time has become the gold standard by which performance cars are judged.

Let’s take a moment to talk about lap times. Consider the following: Last year, I set the fastest Spec Focus lap at the NASA National Championships at 1:45.620. At this year’s Champs, the best lap was 1:48.170, despite the fact that the Spec Focus rules now allow wider tires and lower suspension. Do you really think I’m two and a half seconds better than the best guy was this year, particularly considering that he was driving a better-equipped car? Of course not. Mid-Ohio was slow this year because it rained the day before and washed the rubber off the track, taking a couple of seconds off everybody’s lap. Consider, if you will, that on a track the length of the ‘Ring the equivalent rain-washing time gap would be nine and a half seconds. Lap times set on different days, under different conditions, simply aren’t comparable. It’s that simple. Some days are hot, some days are cool, some days there’s rubber on the track, some days there’s oil. The same competent driver, in the same car, might have a fifteen-second variation from one ‘Ring session to the next. Think about that.

Now consider the fact that the published Porsche times and the von Saurma “supertests” are usually the product of a single day’s session. They take a completely production car out on the track and run it. Simple as that. And since we already know that the same driver can produce vastly different lap times, it’s obvious that these ‘Ring laps are only useful as a very general guideline.

Nissan’s stroke of marketing genius in 1996 was to realize that they could attack those “official times” using a completely different methodology. By taking the track for as long as they needed, with a full support crew, an endless supply of tires and tuning equipment, and a motivated racing driver, they were able to simply obliterate those existing “records”. It’s commonly understood that a weekend of development and effort can knock five or six seconds a lap off the times of a Showroom Stock racer on a two-minute track. That equates to twenty seconds or more at the ‘Ring, and that’s a big gap.

Porsche’s response to this was to, well, pretty much ignore it. It took Porsche a long time to concede that the Japanese might even be capable of building a decent car, much less one that would hustle on a racetrack, so they put the 7:59 GT-R lap down to a publicity stunt and continued to set their times by sending Herr Walter Rohrl out on the track for an afternoon. Meanwhile, von Saurma continued to build a database of lap times by “Supertesting” production cars.

At about the same time, the British motoring enthusiast public, enraged by speed cameras, limited track time on their island, and the general “F-the-motorist” stance of their own Government, began to make regular, organized pilgrimages to the ‘Ring, and consequently the British motor rags started obsessing over ‘Ring times in a big way. The “trackday special” companies – Radical, Ultima, Westfield, et al – started attacking the “production car record” with cars that redefined what “barely legal” meant. (Oh, come on! Not that kind of “barely legal”! Shame on you!) To no one’s particular surprise, it turned out that 1500-pound sports prototypes with full downforce and motorcycle engines are considerably faster than real street cars, which is why various companies are claiming “production car” ‘ring records all the way down to an “estimated” 6:55, courtesy of the Ultima GTR720. It’s absolutely possible to buy a street-legal car in the UK that will turn a 7:20 ‘Ring lap; you have several choices that will turn that time or better, actually. You had just better hope there are no speedbumps on the roads between your home and Germany, because two-inch ground clearance and massive carbon-fiber splitters tend to be incompatible with “sleeping policemen”.

Nissan knew that ‘Ring times would be a critical component of their marketing push for the R35 GT-R. Their potential buyers, weaned on Gran Turismo games and generally rather enamored of meaningless driving statistics, would accept no less. Never mind that the average GT-R owner would find himself being lapped by Showroom Stock Chevy Cobalts during a trackday; they’re a numbers crowd, they’re addicted to numbers, they repeat the numbers endlessly on the Internet, they love the numbers. The GT-R would have to develop the numbers.

What happened next was almost surreal. The impressionable people at Edmunds were invited to witness “production car testing” at the ‘Ring, where touring-car hotshoe/F1 washout Toshio Suzuki proceeded to set some very interesting lap times with a “production” car. These times were duly reported as a “new official record” and picked up by the world in general. Never mind that the lap times of a turbocharged car in factory hands require an entire shaker of salt to be taken seriously; never mind that the car could have been in any state of tune from the dampers up without Edmunds’ being any the wiser; never mind the fact that the car’s performance was very far away from what one might reasonably expect given the stated power and weight. Edmunds reported it anyway, and the “new production car record” flew around the Internet. Mission accomplished. Numbers delivered. Thanks, Edmunds!

A little journalistic integrity would have gone a long way here; it also would have helped to have someone on the staff who had, oh, I don’t know, raced something at some point in the past. It hardly mattered for long, as Nissan then cheerfully reset its own record to 7:29 in private testing. Again, this was accepted as gospel by the motoring press. A car with approximately the power-to-weight ratio of a Porsche 993 Turbo runs thirty-four seconds faster around the ‘Ring than said Turbo? Sure, why not? Must be the magic electronics and, er, downforce.

Journalistic stupidity is like blood in the water; it draws sharks who are eager to profit as a result. The next Mako to strike was General Motors, which proceeded to set a couple of “production car” times in caged cars! Here’s a hint, friends: Rollcages make cars faster. Simply replacing the Autopower cage in our ’94 Neon ACR with a stiffer custom cage took 1.5 seconds off our lap time around Mid-O – equivalent to seven seconds on the ‘Ring. Why? The car twisted less and planted its tires better. Caged cars go faster. It’s as simple as that. But GM claimed it was for “safety”, and the Press As A Whole swallowed the explanation without comment. The final blow was the Viper ACR’s outrageous 7:22 laptime, which is, ironically, probably the most “legitimate” time of the bunch despite being the lowest. The problem is that the Viper ACR is only nominally a street car; it’s America’s answer to a street-legal Radical SR8.

It’s now possible, therefore, for pimply seventeen-year-olds whose driving experience is limited to piloting Mom’s Camry around the local Fashion Bug’s parking lot to authoritatively draw a “comparison” between, say, the 8:28 laptime set eight years ago by von Saurma in a naturally aspirated 993 and the 7:24 of a Corvette ZR-1 - but it’s a house built on sand. The conditions are simply too dissimilar to really understand anything about the way the cars actually perform. For that, you’d need to have your own test drivers, your own private time at the ‘Ring, and standardized conditions under which to test.

Porsche happens to have all of the above, so it’s not really a surprise that they have, at long last, decided to enter the Nurburgring publicity game with a bang. Their new test times for the 997 Turbo and GT2 are more aggressive than what they have previously reported, and their GT-R test time appears to line up pretty well with von Saurma’s independent test of a production car. They’ve taken a relatively bold step in publicizing their times; it’s really the first time that one manufacturer has offered a direct public commentary on another car’s Nordschleife capabilities. Apparently, the gloves are off, which is probably bad news for competitors who rely on ‘Ring times to give their cars a little bit of that much-desired Green Hell mystique. At this point, even the most unrepentant PS2-player has to admit that Nissan’s “test” was more of a “stunt”. Keep in mind, there’s nothing unethical about that; there are no official rules of “testing” at the ‘Ring. It’s manipulative, it’s scheming, it’s too clever by half, but it isn’t “cheating”.

The amusing thing about all of this planning, posturing, and boost-twiddling is that, in the end, it amounts to nothing. A better ‘Ring time doesn’t make for a better car, particularly for Americans who rarely find themselves doing triple-digit speeds along one-way, Armco-lined rural roads. It doesn’t even necessarily make for a better track car; any car which has been optimized for the bumpy, transition-heavy Nordschleife will feel like a rolling boat on a flat Alan Wilson course. The best thing that could happen to Nurburgring testing would be for all the stopwatches to disappear, because at that point the manufacturers could get back to Porsche’s original rationale for testing there: simply improving the vehicle beyond its predecessor. No trickery, no stupidity.

It won’t happen, at least not until one of these fresh-faced “engineers” is decapitated by a barrier in the course of setting some hilariously deceptive sub-seven-minute lap. At that point, somebody at Nissan, Porsche, Chevrolet, or Chrysler might realize the fundamental ridiculousness of fighting for imaginary bragging rights. In the meantime, the rest of us can enjoy the show, while understanding that it means absolutely nothing. Go have a good time in your car – but if you want me to believe in your good time, you’d better put a transponder behind the bumper, okay?

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Jack Baruth

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