What does it take to beat the world’s toughest supercars—including the Dodge Viper ACR, Maserati MC12, Ferrari Enzo, Pagani Zonda F Clubsport, and Nissan GT-R—at the world’s toughest track?
To find out, Team Corvette returned to Germany’s famed Nürburgring in May with a ’12 ZR1 fitted with a set of Michelin Pilot Sport Cup Zero Pressure tires and Performance Traction Management (PTM) technology. (Both features are new this year.) Piloting a production car with absolutely no performance modifications, Corvette Vehicle Dynamics manager Jim Mero—the same man who laid down a 7:26.24-second lap time at the ’Ring three years ago in an ’09 ZR1—set out to topple all unofficial production-car lap-time records on the 20.8km course.
And that he did. On the second of only two full passes the Corvette was allowed to make during its two weeks at Nürburgring, he recorded a 7:19:63, establishing a new best for the breed and demoting many of the world’s more exotic supercars to second string. Chevrolet was quick to publish a video of the ZR1’s lap on its YouTube channel, and the seven-minute, driver’s-POV action thriller has been a topic of conversation on Corvette (and other automobile) forums and blog sites ever since.
VETTE recently sat down with Mero, Corvette Vehicle Line Director and Chief Engineer Tadge Juechter, and Corvette Communications Manager David Caldwell. In the conversation that followed, the trio shared the history of the Corvette-Nürburgring relationship, and revealed some of the secrets of clicking off clock-busting lap times on the world’s most demanding race course.
VETTE Magazine: Unlike Sebring, Daytona, Watkins Glen, and other domestic racetracks that share a fantastic history with Corvette, the Nürburgring is relatively new to America’s Favorite Sports Car’s story. Why do you go there?
Tadge Juechter: We validate [Corvette] track performance all over the place. We have our own Milford road course on property here in Michigan; we have Spring Mountain out in Nevada. We really try to make sure the Corvettes are robust at a variety of venues. The Nürburgring is the granddaddy of them all. It’s a very long and challenging track, where elite competition goes to prove their metal. We like to make sure the Corvette will perform as designed in that environment.
VM: How often do you go to the ’Ring?
Jim Mero: We went in 2005 when we brought out the Z06, and again in 2008 when we brought out the ZR1.
VM: Why isn’t Nürburgring a long-term proving ground for Corvette testing?
David Caldwell: There are a million reasons why it’s a really good proving ground from an engineering standpoint: the severity of the track; the length of it; it’s such a test of durability, heat, and airflow, but…
Juechter: …It’s extraordinarily challenging logistically, and it’s very expensive. It is not part of our Corvette-program mission to be at the Nürburgring continuously trying to improve our times. We only go when we have some big incremental performance improvement that we want to validate.
VM: What was that reason in 2011?
Mero: This year we have new tires and new chassis tuning, so we brought the ZR1 and Z06 to do that final validation.
VM: Is it true that each manufacturer, including General Motors, records and validates its own lap times at the Nürburgring, and that there is not a track lap-timing system governed by the track’s officials?
Juechter: Yes. This is not a policed activity. There is no governing body that controls the establishment of Nürburgring times.
VM: So how do you prove your lap times are legitimate?
Juechter: We’ve tried to be really open and honest about what we’ve done. We show video evidence of how we run the lap, where we start, where we finish, and how we time, but there really isn’t a standard.
VM: So comparisons between Corvette’s and other manufacturers’ claimed lap times might be skewed, but not by Chevrolet?
Juechter: You’ll hear different claims from different manufacturers, and they get compared on an equal-weight basis. You have to take them all with a grain of salt because you’re not sure how they’re being run.
Mero: …And there’s no tech barn at the end of the lap where [officials] tear down your motor, tear down your car, and make sure everything’s legal.
VM: As of press time, Corvette holds the second-fastest claimed lap time for a production vehicle at Nürburgring, and the fastest claimed lap time with video proof. Did you bring a “ringer” to the ’Ring—that is, a Corvette that has hidden performance enhancements, as compared to a production model?
Mero: We run a legit car. You have my word that ZR1 was bone stock except for safety equipment—Sparco racing seats, a harness bar (not a full ’cage), and a fire bottle—and data equipment.
VM: Why do you put an in-house engineer in the driver seat instead of one of your highly qualified Corvette Racing drivers?
Mero: The fastest guys in the ’Ring are not the guys who are the fastest drivers in general; it’s the guys who have the most laps on the ’Ring. We’ve had [Corvette Racing’s] Jan Magnussen at Nürburgring for us in the past, but he doesn’t have the time in his schedule to commit to two to three weeks of continuous running on that track to learn the sweet spot of every corner and the sweet spot of whatever car he’s driving in that corner. It takes 100 laps, maybe more, to find the perfect setting, the perfect point to accelerate, and where you want the car rotated in each corner. Those guys just don’t have the time to commit to doing it.
Juechter: Corvette Racing’s drivers are accustomed to cars with massive downforce. Taking a production car that’s realistically tuned primarily for street driving and taking it at its limit around the ’Ring is a specialized skill. Like Jim says, it takes a lot of laps to learn not just that track, but also that car on the track.
Another reason we use Jim is that he’s the guy who has to balance all the performance attributes of the chassis—both track and street. You get a professional race car driver there who’s used to dictating how he wants the car set up and that’s fine for the track, but the Nürburgring [is one of Corvette’s testbeds] for tuning that eventually goes out on the street and lives in the real world.
Mero: Give a guy a couple thousand pounds of downforce and slicks, and then stick him in a car with no downforce and full-treaded tires, and he struggles for an awful long time, like Jan Magnussen did in 2008. We have an issue with a lot of guys—prior Corvette Chief Engineer Tom Wallace being another one. It took us a lot of trips to get him comfortable in a ZR1 because he’s used to massive downforce and slicks. Take that all away, and it’s a whole new learning curve for him.
Juechter: And it’s nothing against the professional race car drivers. Jan Magnussen—even when we’re hanging around other professional race drivers—they talk about him with reverence. So we’re not in any way trying to diminish those guys’ capabilities. It’s just a matter of getting used to that kind of vehicle on that track.
VM: With no governing body to guide your actions at Nürburgring, what are your self-imposed procedures?
Juechter: When we first went with the Z06, we parked on the start-finish line and started from a dead rest. That’s the time that’s been published to date. Later, we found out pretty much everybody else does flying starts, so now that’s the way we do it. We’ve always taken the most conservative way, because we don’t want to be called on the carpet by any other manufacturers or media outlets [claiming] that what we’re saying is not truthful.
VM: Do you have private use of Nürburgring when you record lap times?
Juechter: No. The entire time we’re at Nürburgring, lots of other manufacturers run cars during what’s called “industry pool.” It’s pretty much a free-for-all. There are people on the track in the way, doing their own testing, so you can’t run fast, continuous laps. The ZR1 fast-lap video we produced was the quicker of only two continuous laps we were able to run during that entire time.
Mero: In 2008, we were able to rent the track for 45 minutes before industry pool opened. Because of local noise ordinances, they’ve done away with [private rental]. This year we had a German liaison who was able to negotiate with the Nürburgring and get us one lap at the end of the industry-pool session on three consecutive days [Tuesday through Thursday] of the second week we were there. It was one lap and one lap only. They call it the “last lap of the day,” and that’s pretty much how we did it this time, as opposed to renting the track and getting three or four cuts at it.
Juechter: Normally on a track you’re able to do repeated laps and get into a groove. At the ’Ring, you go out and take a running start, you’ve got one lap, and you’re done for the day. We were able to do that twice on the ’12 ZR1 and once on the ’12 Z06.
Mero: In 2008 I ran multiple laps. This year I went out and warmed up the ZR1’s tires at the end of the straightaway, and then Nürburgring’s course control called me by radio. I did one lap, and it was over.
VM: What’s the difference between a continuous and a synthesized lap time, and which one of these does GM publish as the Corvette’s official numbers?
Juechter: A continuous lap is just what it sounds like—we run from start to finish without stopping. Other manufacturers publish lap times composed of segments from a variety of different laps. That’s a synthesized lap time. We do a continuous lap. As I mentioned earlier, we record and publish the video of it to prove it.
VM: Is there another reason you released the video to the media?
Caldwell: Yes. The video is Chevrolet’s way of saying, “This is it, and here’s what happened.” There’s a transparency about it—a way to give people a peek inside the secret world of what testing a Corvette is about. We’re pleased to let people see a little bit of insight into what is normally an internal thing.
VM: You mentioned data acquisition. Do you use it solely for chassis tuning and other engineering purposes?
Mero: No. There’s so much traffic during the industry-pool hours that we take a couple hundred channels worth of data, and the only way we can gauge where we’re at relative to the 2008 lap on each segment of the course is to look at the comparative data.
One of the things I want to stress is that we just don’t roll into the ’Ring once every two or three years and set these kind of lap times without a guy like [Corvette Engineering Specialist, Ride and Handling Simulation] Jeff Mosher spending 12 to 14 hours a day looking for every half or tenth of a second in each turn, to cut our learning curve down for that car on that track. Subjectively, if we’re going to sneak up on the ultimate ability of the car, we’re going to be there for several months. Remember, each day we only see each of the Nürburgring’s 150-plus turns about 12 times. That’s because of traffic. With those conditions, it’s hard to optimize the car in each turn unless Jeff is processing and reducing data. Then we can sit down every night with him and talk about the Corvette’s reaction to the track, and find the car’s capability rather quickly.
VM: Did you set a perfect lap time? Regardless, is your lap time unbeatable?
Caldwell: “No,” to both questions. Tomorrow somebody could run a lap that’s faster, and that would be great. There’s no defense in this business, only offense. People ask, “What’s the official record?” There isn’t one. This is all unofficial in the land of legend.
VM: Is a fast lap the only reason you go to the ’Ring?
Mero: No. We went over there for business reasons, to tune the Corvettes on the Michelin Pilot Sport Cups for the European market. You don’t sell Corvettes in the winter [in Europe]; you sell them in the summer. The three laps that we ran for time at Nürburgring were free, compliments of the track, whereas in the past we’ve paid for that time. We were there for engineering reasons first, and fast laps second.
VM: What public misperceptions about Corvettes at Nürburgring 2011 do want to set straight?
Mero: The biggest one that personally offends me has nothing to do with my driving. It has to do with the fact that General Motors was in bankruptcy, and now that it’s made a profit, we’re just running over to Europe showboating and running fast laps. That couldn’t be further from the truth. As I already mentioned, we went over there to engineer a car for Europe, and while we were there the ’Ring was gracious enough to let us run the last lap of the day on three consecutive days, and that’s how we recorded the fast lap.
Juechter: I want to answer some comments I’ve seen on the Internet about the steering wheel in the video—that it is not our production ’12 steering wheel. It’s true that we used a pre-production car for this activity. We had to. We shipped the Corvettes over by boat, and there’s a very long lead time to get them over there. Some of the cosmetic stuff that’s new for ’12 wasn’t on these vehicles because they’re pre-production.
VM: Finally, what benefit do American Corvette owners get from your testing and running fast laps at the ’Ring?
Caldwell: One of the reasons we do this—and we think Corvette owners agree with us when it comes to the ZR1 and Z06, especially—is, it’s on us to remind people that we have these two very high-performing Corvettes, and [to show] new and different ways to prove they are among the highest-performing cars in the world.
Mero: Also, when the next Corvette models are going to be engineered, we feed the data we tabulate at the ’Ring back in. That’s what happened in 2008.
Juechter: Now anybody can buy a ZR1 or Z06 with the Michelin Pilot Sport Cup tires that were validated at the toughest track in the world. It’s a demonstration of the tire’s performance capability.
To watch Corvette’s Nürburgring fast lap online, visit www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ykb6iswc0k.