Let me start off by saying I like Tesla. I really do. I was seriously impressed when I first drove a Tesla Roadster over a decade ago. That impression stayed with me all the way through to when I took the first ever lap of a Tesla at the Nürburgring. Tesla makes good, fast cars that I enjoy.
I also like Elon Musk. I’ve always had a fondness for people who dream big and have the wherewithal to bring those dreams to life and share them with the world.
So believe me when I say that it pains me that he is really starting to piss me off with all this Nürburgring record crap.
For those of you who haven’t been paying attention, when Porsche set a very impressive lap time of 7:42 at the ’Ring with its new electric Model S competitor, the Taycan, the response from Musk and Tesla was as swift as either of those cars in a straight line. Tesla, Musk declared on Twitter, would be sending a car to the Nürburgring, with the heavy implication that the goal was to beat Porsche’s time.
In other words, “Anything Porsche can do, we can do better.”
And it’s true that for right now, at least, Tesla is still the leader in EVs and the automaker with the most experience in that arena. The Model S is a very fast car, especially in upper-spec trims, and in numerous ways it trumps even the newer Taycan. It also says a lot about Musk that he doesn’t want to get upstaged, but it tracks with how the guy operates.
But the ’Ring doesn’t work that way. Let’s count the ways in which this is more than just the standard Elon Musk Twitter Bullshit.
To date, Tesla has never engaged in a speed competition on any level before. Blake Fuller built a Model S for the Pikes Peak Hillclimb a few years back. Tesla support? Nada. The much-delayed Electric GT series spent years trying to turn a Model S into a race car, but it’s not a company effort. Tesla engineers? Hanging out in the Bay Area, I guess.
Meanwhile in two short years Jaguar managed to turn its new-to-market iPace into a full-blown racing series in conjunction with the increasingly popular Formula E series. If you as a manufacturer have never prepped a car (or crew) to push the limits, how can you expect to show up at a moment’s notice and take on a manufacturer like Porsche that’s been doing that very thing for decades?
Additionally, Tesla has never had a manufacturer presence at the Nurburgring at all—at least not until this month, it seems. It is not a member of the industry pool that automakers must belong to if they want to use the Nürburgring for testing. (All those camouflaged spy shots and videos you see on Jalopnik? They’re often from that.)
This has several ramifications, the main one being that they have no information on how their car will perform at full chat around the circuit. Porsche, on the other hand, has a testing base at the ’Ring and has done thousands of kilometers of testing with the Taycan alone there. Now this testing is mainly for driveline endurance, as the ’Ring puts more stress on a vehicle than almost any other track.
However, while Porsche’s people are doing these tests they also have a record attempt in the back of their minds. So every lap they are getting more and more information on how to set the car up for a fast lap. Its engineers are using this information to make the Taycan a tenth of a second quicker here and two tenths quicker there.
This is what you need to attempt a lap record. Tesla has none of this information.
Setting lap records is not something you can just do at the drop of a hat, especially at the Nürburgring. Look at how the crowdfunded Dodge Viper team struggled to break the seven minute barrier. They got very close, but for one reason or another they had small (and some not so small) issues that left them just shy of that mark, even though they had spent months in planning and had several days to make the attempt. Great drivers, great car—but not enough time on the track. Musk wants to do this with minimal planning (that we know of) and 30 minutes of track time.
To complete this circus, add one former Formula One world champion turned would-be YouTube star, Nico Rosberg. Shortly after Elon’s tweet, Nico put it out there that he would be happy to have a go in the Model S around the ’Ring for the record.
I, of course, have a huge amount of respect for Nico’s abilities. He has immense talent behind the wheel. And he’s clearly done the Nordschleife before, but in all the years I’ve lived there, I’ve never counted him as an expert on that course the way some drivers are.
Regardless of how much talent you have, the Nürburgring is a very special track. It requires a ton of laps to gain enough knowledge for even the best drivers in the world to set a record-breaking time. I know this from personal experience—I have worked with several ex-F1 drivers and more than a few FIA World Champions at the ’Ring.
Porsche works driver Lars Kern was in the hot seat for the Taycan record attempt. Lars already has production car Nürburgring lap records for Porsche (in the GT2RS and the Taycan) and has done hundreds if not thousands of laps in testing for Porsche prior to setting the record.
As proof that being an F1 driver doesn’t necessarily equate to fast laps at the Ring, please remember that Porsche has the services of one Mark Webber at their disposal. Notice Mark has never been the one behind the wheel of any Porsche lap record attempts.
It’s also unclear what car exactly Tesla will use for this attempt. Speculation and spy photos indicate it may be a prototype for an even faster three-motor Model S due out next year, possibly with the even faster “Plaid Mode” options.
From the images we have seen of the car that Tesla reportedly has sent out to Germany, it is carrying components that are not stock. The two most visible changes are the modified rear wing and the Michelin Sport Cup 2 R tires, which to my knowledge are not currently available as an option on any Tesla model.
Now manufacturers cheat all the time at setting records at the ’Ring; usually, they’re just a bit less blatant. (Also, as some folks have pointed out on Twitter, at least one car out there appears to be a Lemon Law buyback vehicle, which is very odd.)
Tires especially make a big deal at any race track, but they especially matter at this one. When I tested Porsche’s GT2 RS with the Cup 2 R tires I found them closer to a racing slick than any street tire I’ve ever driven before. But as far as I can tell these tires appear nowhere on the Model S’s option list. This is one upgrade that Elon can’t do with an over the air update.
The addition of the rear wing (in conjunction with Musk’s tweet about “modifying the car for safety especially through Flugplatz”) is most likely for stability, as the Nürburgring is a circuit that requires a fair amount of downforce to keep the cars stable at the high speeds car will reach there. But hey, if they had been testing their cars at the ’Ring they’d know that by now, right?
Again, this record attempt car may be a prototype for something better and faster down the road. But I say show up with a car that’s available to the general public, like the Taycan is, and then we can talk records. That’s how Porsche does it and it feels right. Going about things the other way—record first, production (limited or not) later—always feels off.
We sent Tesla a detailed list of questions about the record attempt earlier today, but were told “We’re not releasing any further details right now, but we can keep you posted when we do.” It’s also unclear when this attempt may even happen, though Road & Track reports it could be Sept. 21. This tracks with what Musk himself has tweeted.
As much as I would love to see head-to-head battle between Tesla and Porsche, the way Elon has gone about this makes a mockery of the difficulties faced when pushing cars to the limit. And the haphazard way they went about doing the Laguna Seca lap doesn’t do much to give me confidence. I definitely don’t want to see the ’Ring attempt happen the same way, with no official timing.
When you watch racing on TV or lap videos on YouTube, it all seems very easy, but that belies the fact of how much work goes on behind the scenes to make everything work at this level. I have written numerous articles on this site documenting the effort it takes both on the factory level with Volvo and on the privateer side of things with my Pikes Peak Corvette. To just decide to send a car out to one of the most difficult and dangerous tracks in the world on a whim because a competitor pissed in your sandbox is not only foolhardy, but potentially dangerous.
Musk is the very visible face of Tesla, but there are thousands of Tesla employees behind the scenes that work their asses off to make Tesla a success. I’d be frustrated to be constantly caught up in drama not of my own making and have to then pick up the pieces from the fallout. Musk has an amazing ability to get things done that others deem impossible. I just wish he’d recognize the magnitude of what he’s are asking his team to do and the potential for not just failure to achieve a record but also for serious injury. I have to assume he wouldn’t risk a pilot’s life in a SpaceX rocket unless he was 100 percent certain it was safe.
While this record attempt is not on the same level from an engineering standpoint there is still huge risk in sending an untested (at the Nürburgring) car out to set a record. There is a very good reason why manufacturers use this track for endurance testing. It simply puts stresses on a car that they cannot replicate anywhere else in the world.
My advice to Musk: If he really thinks the Model S can do this—and I am rooting for it to—his company needs to take the time to do it right. Regroup, test, develop and come back next year with guns blazing. That’s the only way to do the ’Ring properly, and safely.
Robb Holland is a professional race car driver and Jalopnik contributor who has competed in the British Touring Car Championship and at Pikes Peak, among other things. He divides his time between Colorado and the Nürburgring.