Nürburgring: The New Automotive Seal of Approval

September 5, 2008

In the past, performance automobiles were held to fairly simple standards. For decades, basic statistics like peak horsepower, 0-60mph times and top speeds were held in the highest regard. Many sports cars lived and died by these numbers, at least in the public eye.

Of course, as with anything in life, change is inevitable. As enthusiast trends have evolved, the benchmarks used to evaluate performance are starting to evolve along with them.

Particularly in the past decade or so, more and more attention has shifted away from sheer straight line performance, as cornering, braking and the overall balance of a vehicle has become a bigger interest for a broader range of enthusiasts, many of whom might’ve focused more on statistics like quarter mile times previously.  As such, the automotive performance community found itself in need of a new a benchmarking system – a new standard for performance that took all these elements into account.


Meet Germany’s Nürburgring, a purpose-built race track considered by many to be the toughest, most dangerous and most demanding road course in the world.

Built in the mid 1920s, the ‘Ring’s original purpose was to exhibit the talents of German automotive engineering and racing teams, and the course’s initial design was based upon that criteria. Throughout the next six decades, the Nurburgring hosted various race events, including the Forumla One World Championship, the German Grand Prix, and the 24 Hours Nürburgring endurance races, amongst many others.

As technology progressed over the years, the racing on the course got faster and, in turn, more dangerous. In the interest of safety, the Nürburgring course layout underwent various changes throughout the years. But despite these changes, the Nürburgring has claimed scores of lives throughout its history. As a result a new, much smaller GP course, called the GP-Strecke, was constructed in the early 1980s, adjacent to the original Nürburgring course, and has become the host to many of the major racing events that are held at Nürburg now.

However, the main road course, known as the Nordschleife, spans a tremendous 12.9 miles in length and contains over 100 corners of nearly every conceivable configuration. Hairpins, s-curves, various banking corners, steep elevations, drops, and sharp crests (which can cause fast-moving cars to go completely airborne) are all part of a lap on the Nordschleife course.


Another awesome, yet somewhat insane aspect to the Nordschleife course (at least from an American perspective) is the fact that it has been open for public use for over 80 years. That’s right – it’s considered a one-way public toll road. If you have a road-legal car, you can drive the Nordschleife. Although there is no blanket speed limit on the course, it is considered a public road, it is monitored by police and certain rules specific to driving the course are enforced. But for all intents and purposes, one of the gnarliest race tracks in the world is ostensibly a public road.


Because of this unique feature, over the years Nordschleife has become a very popular attraction for both automotive and motorcycle enthusiasts, and without the burden of oncoming traffic and rigid speed limits, foreigners come from around the world to test their skills on the Nordschleife. The course’s notoriety also increased significantly when popular video games like the Gran Turismo series began featuring the course.

Over the past few years, on Internet forums and within the automotive press, more and more attention has been given to cars’ Nordschleife course times, so much so that companies like General Motors, Nissan, Lexus, Audi, BMW and other high-performance brands have begun using the course as a proving ground for prototypes and, in the case of production or production-ready vehicles, as bragging rights for whose vehicle can claim the fastest lap in their respective vehicle segment. You may remember when the new Nissan GT-R stole the production vehicle record from the Porsche 911 GT2 this spring, only to have that record of 7 minutes, 29 seconds topped by Chevrolet’s new ZR1 Corvette (7:26.4), which in turn quickly lost the crown to the Dodge’s Viper SRT-10 ACR (7:22.1).


Even more recently, Cadillac stole BMW’s thunder in the sedan segment when the 2009 CTS-V topped the BMW M5 by fourteen seconds to take the title of the fastest production sedan around the Nordschleife. Right in front of the hometown crowd, too. Nice.

So I guess the question is this: Are we past the era where basic drag strip-style performance figures are even relevant? With a venerable gauntlet as comprehensive and demanding of nearly every performance aspect of a car as the Nordschleife course is, a compelling argument can be made that we’ve collectively moved on.

But then again, when a new 260hp Chevy Cobalt SS is only 2 seconds slower around the ‘Ring than its much bigger brother, the 416hp 2010 Camaro SS (in the Camaro’s defense, that Cobalt did in fact set the record for front wheel drive sport compacts), a strong argument can be made for the notion that different performance cars serve different performance purposes.

Either way, the times are a-changin'.