Another month, another fresh batch of Burgerkingring-related stupidity. This time it’s the General Motors PR machine and its ever-reliable Southern California appendix stirring the hype for the new Camaro ZL1 1LE, which obtained a seven-minutes-and-change time when driven by an engineer around the course.
Nine times out of 10 I ignore this stuff entirely, but insofar as I was at the Ring just two weeks before the Camaro crew got there I thought this would be a good time to remind everybody out there why these times are completely and utterly meaningless.
Let’s start with the core, unspoken assumptions of publishing Ring times:
1) The Nurburgring is the world’s greatest racetrack;
2) Times set on the Nurburgring translate, in some degree, to a vehicle’s likely prowess on fast roads as well as on other racetracks.
In my opinion, the first assumption is almost exclusively the province of people without a racing license. The Ring is hugely challenging, it is highly memory-intensive, and it is remarkably dangerous. Yet the same is also true of BASE jumping with a blindfold on. As a race track, the Ring is mostly a follow-the-leader affair. There’s only one line through most of the fast sections. I don’t claim to have mastered the track but it’s plain to see that in cars of equal capability you’d have maybe ten opportunities to pass at most — this, in a track about five times as long as Mid-Ohio or Laguna Seca.
Very few experienced racers regard the Ring as anything other than an exercise in memory. If you can remember all of your entry and exit marks, you’ve accomplished ninety percent of the battle, because much of the track is simply a matter of knowing where you can keep the throttle pinned. From there, it’s a dyno test. Yes, there are fast turns. I was driving a relatively low-powered car at the Ring (you can always look at my Instagram if you want the details) and I was often doing 120 mph or more with some angle in the steering wheel. But in general, the Ring is a very pretty, very charming combination of memory test (for you) and dyno test (for the car).
As to the second assumption, the Ring is more like a German road than like any racetrack. It’s narrow and smooth with some major bumps that are scattered seemingly at random around the place. There are no potholes but there are also no turns like the Carousel at Nelson Ledges where you have to multiple-apex an asphalt corner. (The two Carousels at the Ring, of course, are banked, concrete lined, zero-apex affairs.) I’ve driven nearly 80 road courses across the planet and the Ring is like none of them. It’s also not like any American back road out there. So a car tuned at the Ring to excel at the Ring will be best suited for… the Ring.
It is rare for a Ring test result to not correspond approximately to the quarter-mile trap speed and lateral-g measurement of the car in question. The only exceptions to that are aero-related exceptions, which is why the Viper ACR does so well and why we keep seeing wings sprouting on production cars. Most wings are absolutely useless at the 80-mph maximum street-car corner speeds of most racetracks. At 150 mph, however, they allow you to keep your foot down for a little longer between Kilometers 11 and 13 of the Ring. Woo-hah!
So if Ring times don’t mean much for the overall excellence of a production car, what’s the point in setting a time? Well, there is no point — except for marketing. Which leads to my next complaint about the times: virtually all of them are set by ringer cars. This goes double, triple, and quadruple for forced-induction cars. Given the ease with which some mook in a California strip mall can liberate an extra 200 hp from a supercharged or turbocharged V-8, do you think that the manufacturers absolutely limit themselves to stock boost, 91 octane, California emissions trim?
Even if you assume the manufacturer operates with absolute ethical perfection in the matter of tuning the car, what’s to stop them from dyno-testing the next five thousand cars to come off the line and picking the strongest one? Absolutely nothing, obviously.
Periodically, you will have a situation where somebody takes a couple of nominally stock cars from dealership inventory to the Ring, as was the case with the previous-generation Viper ACR attempt. But if you think that the talent and knowledge amassed around those cars didn’t result in them being set up to a degree of excellence you’ll never attain as a casual ACR owner who likes to go to Sonoma four times a year, you’re still kidding yourself.
And, of course, the temptations to game the system are almost too strong for anybody to withstand. Every time Chevrolet sets a record in the Camaro or Corvette, the press obligingly prints lists of cars that are “slower” than the Camaro or Corvette. Yet I rarely see these disparities in the real world of experienced drivers at track days. Supposedly this Camaro is faster than a Ferrari Enzo around the Ring. Would you be willing to bet your home (for Gen Xers) or your retirement (for Boomers) or your iPhone (for Millennials) on it being true at Laguna Seca, with free choice of tires and plenty of setup time for both parties?
I’m certain that the ZL1 1LE is a very fast car. It has all the numbers in its favor and it was developed by some of the best and most committed performance engineers in the world. But this ‘Ring-record stuff is nothing but dust in the wind, so to speak. Don’t buy a car based on its Ring time, or on what it does in the hands of a “pro driver” who can be affected by everything from the weather to a headache to his list of potential sponsors for next year’s IMSA season. All of these things are eminently malleable. Focus on the best available objective numbers, the most trustworthy subjective impressions you can scrounge from the media, and your own impressions. Then make your choice and live with it. That’s all that matters. As for me? Well, first I see the Ring (time), then I sigh…
[Image: General Motors]