Tesla's attempt at setting new lap record spurs debate

A Tesla Model S on the Nurburgring racetrack in the western German mountain range of the Eifel near Adenau last week.
A Tesla Model S on the Nurburgring racetrack in the western German mountain range of the Eifel near Adenau last week.PHOTO: REUTERS

The Silicon Valley carmaker's challenge has prompted questions about whether it is playing fair

FRANKFURT • Tesla Inc's attempts to humble Porsche with a new lap record on Germany's legendary Nordschleife racetrack have re-ignited a controversy about the value of lap times, as the circuit steps in to quash claims of cheating.

Porsche and United States-based Tesla are battling to establish supremacy in lap times for four-door electric sports cars, but comparisons are not exact, as conditions - ranging from car modifications to tyre types - vary with each test.

"We want to have circumstances that can be understood and replicated," said Nurburgring spokesman Alexander Gerhard, adding that the racing-circuit operator had moved to tighten rules by which a carmaker can claim a certified lap time.

Setting a new record time for four-door electric cars would give Tesla's ageing Model S a boost just as German rivals Audi, Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Porsche prepare to launch their own electric cars.

Automakers use the Nordschleife, one of the world's most treacherous courses with 40 right-hand and 33 left-hand turns, to hone a vehicle's sporting characteristics and burnish a car's image for marketing purposes.

Tesla was spotted this week with a variant of its Model S sedan at the circuit, which is 20.8km long, with slanted cambers and a 300m altitude difference between its highest and lowest points.

German car magazine Auto Motor Und Sport said a Tesla was seen recording an unofficial time of 7 minutes and 23 seconds, which would beat a lap time set by Porsche's Taycan, which Porsche says achieved a lap time of 7 minutes and 42 seconds.

But Tesla's challenge has prompted questions about whether the Silicon Valley carmaker is playing fair.

"The car was heavily modified," said Mr Stefan Baldauf, who photographs prototype vehicles being tested on the circuit for a living.

He added: "Aside from a roll cage and the driver's seat, the interior had been stripped out. The windows were blacked out, so it was hard to tell."

Mr Baldauf added that the Tesla also appeared to have semi-slick tyres, used on only racing circuits and unsuited for everyday use.

A Porsche spokesman told Reuters its Taycan was tested using standard tyres.

"A comparison is hardly fair if this is the vehicle used to demonstrate that Tesla is faster," Mr Baldauf added.

Notary Jens Boehle, who certified lap times by Porsche, said: "Scope for cheating is as big as you can imagine. Is it a prototype vehicle, a standard road legal vehicle or a specially modified racing version of a standard road car? These are just some of the questions that need to be answered."

Tesla chief executive Elon Musk responded on Twitter this week. "The final configuration used at Nurburgring to set the record will go into production around summer next year, so this is not merely for the track."

Tesla declined to comment on its lap-record effort.

Officials are trying to standardise speed-record attempts, Mr Gerhard said.

In some runs for the record, cars were allowed to make a flying start using a 20.6km stretch of the track.

"We now mandate that the full 20.8km is used," Mr Gerhard added.

"And we employ a notary to measure the time following rumours that another manufacturer had cheated by speeding up video footage."

It also mandates where timing devices should be located.

On Twitter, Mr Musk confirmed that Tesla is using the Nordschleife to market its "Plaid" mode on a 7-seater Tesla Model S.

"We expect these track times to be beaten by the actual production 7-seat Model S Plaid variant that goes into production around October or November next year," he said.

Porsche says its 919 Evo hybrid race car holds the overall record for all vehicle categories, with a lap time of 5 minutes and 19 seconds, set this year.

Nurburgring hopes the new rules, introduced this year, will help revive the circuit's popularity as a venue for competitive benchmarking.

"We want to be a believable benchmark," Mr Gerhard said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 26, 2019, with the headline 'Tesla's attempt at setting new lap record spurs debate'. Print Edition | Subscribe