Here are the definitive, objective truths: a Manufacturer goes to the Nürburgring and the Manufacturer’s Car does a lap around the Nürburgring. From there, how those numbers are reported to us, the general public, are where some ambiguities can arise. Here is why.
Unlike basically everything else in this world, from the Olympics to the Guinness Book of World Records, there is no overseeing or governing body that verifies Nürburgring lap times. You can see how this might pose a problem.
That’s like a marathon runner running a marathon by himself and coming back and reporting his time and everyone believing him at face value. Some may question what the issue is here. Isn’t a lap time simply determined by how long it takes the car to go from start to finish?
Here’s the thing, though—nobody is enforcing manufacturer honesty or preventing lap time sleights of hand.
I’m not saying that manufacturers will straight up lie about a lap time (though, some have been known to “create” one by taking times from separate ones choosing the fastest bits from each). There are certain mechanicals that a car can use that will help it set a better time.
Tires are a great example. “Tires make a huge difference,” Jalopnik contributor and Nürburgring expert Robb Holland told me during a call today. “The best street tire versus a racing slick—the differences are massive.” Could the differences amount to seconds—even minutes—in lap time differences? Absolutely.
For turbocharged cars, a manufacturer could easily up the boost or tweak the ECU for the lap. It could fit a roll cage in the car, which would be safer for the driver, but then you’d need to strip the inside for the cage to fit. That removes weight, which also helps with the performance.
Could the manufacturer also alter the car’s aerodynamics? Since the Nürburgring isn’t a private racetrack, most of the time people are able to get “spy” shots (“spy” in quotes because sometimes it’s as easy as going there and taking a picture of a car on a public access day) and an extra wing is pretty damn hard to hide. Additional underbody aero isn’t out of the question, though.
Just with these aspects, a manufacturer can freely tune a car for the Nürburgring and there is no rule that says that they must sell the car in that state of tune to the public afterward.
In regards to the official videos that are released, there’s also no telling what the track conditions are like on that day. We don’t know what the air temperature is or how the pavement feels. These conditions directly affect how a car performs on the track.
In 2013, when there was that whole McLaren-won’t-release-a-Nürburgring-time-for-the-P1 thing, then-EVO editor Nick Trott wrote in an editor’s note:
I couldn’t give a monkey’s about the cult of the Nordschleife lap time. Never have. The chase for a notable lap time has become a form of motorsport in itself, but a motorsport without a governing body, without appropriate safety measures, without independent adjudicators, and a motorsport that is governed by the ‘competitors’ themselves. The result is a pissing contest, a trivialising of the Ring’s history and a chase for lap times that puts lives at risk.
This is why any manufacturer Nürburgring claims should always be taken with a grain of salt. Without a dispassionate second- or third- party there standardizing everything, the manufacturer and whoever else it’s partnered with that day controls the narrative.
If anything, the laps themselves are usually masterfully driven and entertaining as all hell to watch. Just don’t forget who is releasing the video.