By MATT BUBBERS
Special to The Globe and Mail
Friday, August 10, 2018
As a fearless 25-year-old racing driver, Stefan Bellof became a legend on May 28, 1983. He lapped the Nurburgring Nordschleife - the most difficult, most dangerous racetrack on the planet, the one the drivers call "Green Hell" - in 6 minutes 11.13 seconds, setting a record that most everyone believed would never be broken.
The grainy footage shows his Porsche 956 bouncing all over the track like oil in a hot pan. That day, he pushed the envelope, probing the outer limits of what is possible, like Chuck Yeager or Tenzing Norgay.
For 35 years, nobody even came close to beating his record, not until this past June when Timo Bernhard, a 37-year-old German racing driver and family man, smashed the record by nearly a full minute. He piloted a Porsche 919 Hybrid Evo around the Nurburgring Nordschleife in 5 minutes 19.55 seconds.
The video of his record lap, which already has 2.5 million views on YouTube, shows Bernhard's view from inside the cockpit. It's deranged and mesmerizing. It looks physically impossible. You'd swear the footage was sped-up.
"That's how it felt; it felt like fast-forward, there's no other way to describe it," Bernhard said over the phone from Germany. "The speed is so high. The track's just coming at you. It's very easy to get carried away, which means you don't know where the limit is anymore and you get quicker and quicker and then boom - then you have a problem."
His average speed during the lap was 233.8 km/h.
"Maybe you can say it's like flying a jet in a living room; it's a bit insane," he said.
A week before the record-breaking run, Bernhard's wife gave birth to their third child, a daughter.
"When she grows older, for sure she'll have the chance to see the video," Bernhard said. "If it's still cool in 10 years, I don't know. Maybe she'll say, 'Oh, that's slow.' " After the lap, he wrote on Twitter: "Having experienced the lap today I have an even higher respect for Stefan Bellof and what he achieved on the Nurburgring Nordschleife 35 years ago."
Bernhard was just 2 in 1983 when Bellof set the record. "His Rothmans Porsche was the first racecar I remember as a child.
He was quite an inspiration," Bernhard said. "I admired him because he was this normal guy with this massive talent."
People on the Porsche team who knew Bellof said he was an approachable, down-to-earth driver with a sense of humour and without a big ego. When he was 14, Bernhard met Bellof's father at a go-kart race. The two stayed in touch, and the elder followed the younger's career.
Preparations for the record run took six months. It calmed Bernhard down, to see everything was being done properly.
"We had four laps on the day ... By the last lap, everything slowed down a bit. I remember, my body was kind of getting used to this speed, recalibrating."
It looks claustrophobic inside the car, with only a letterbox view out the front window. Bernhard sits in a carbon-fibre pod meant to give him a chance of surviving a high-speed crash. He hardly ever uses the brakes, turning into one blind left-hander over a crest at 297 km/h with just a momentary lift of the throttle.
Bernhard didn't think about the danger, the near impossibility of surviving a crash if something went wrong at 300 km/h on this bumpy, narrow old racetrack.
"You don't have a scenario where you say, okay, I have this kind of chance if this or that happens. No race driver in the world would think like that," he said.
The high probability of certain death would be the first thing normal people think about, but that's why we could never be racecar drivers. His wife didn't say anything before the run. "She trusts me ... It was another day going to work, in a way ... [Driving] on the road is, for me, more dangerous than running a race car on the limit. You're fully focused and you have the right equipment."
The Porsche 919 Hybrid Evo he drove was similar to the car he and his teammates used to win Le Mans and the World Endurance Championship last year. The "Evo" version differs in that it is free from all racing regulations. It is, simply, the fastest car Porsche knows how to make.
Its 2.0-litre V-4 turbocharged engine makes 720 horsepower, while an electric motor on the front axle provides an extra 440 horsepower. Total combined output is 1,160 hp. Active aerodynamic wings and a full ground-effect underbody suck it to the ground like a vacuum cleaner. It weighs just 849 kilograms - much less than a Honda Civic - and hit a top speed at the Nurburgring of 369 km/h.
The 919 Evo proved itself faster than a Formula One car when, earlier this year, Neel Jani set a new lap record at SpaFrancorchamps, beating the one set by four-time F1 World Champion Lewis Hamilton.
"You always feel like you have unlimited power," Bernhard described. "And that's insane ... It's like a rocket on rails."
Top-level racing ended at the Nordschleife the year Bellof set his record. The cars were getting too fast, and the 20-kilometre track lacked modern safety equipment. Spectators had to camp out in the forest to watch the races.
There are dozens of world-class racetracks, all of them less dangerous than the Nurburgring, each with a lap record that's ready to be broken. But Bernhard put his life on the line to break this lap record, the one nobody had challenged for 35 years, because this is the one the matters.
"There's a certain myth about the Nordschleife. I think the older the track gets, the more attractive it is," he said. By virtue of the fact it has remained largely unchanged since it was built in 1927, the track has become an arena in which cars and drivers can be compared across generations. It has become a defacto measure of the worthiness of any new sports car.
When we spoke, Bernhard was at Hockenheim for Formula One Grand Prix, visiting his friend and Toro Rosso driver Brendon Hartley. In the pit plane, among the drivers, the new Nordschliefe record was big news. "It's probably the highest respect you can earn as a driver, respect from other drivers," Bernhard said. "Because they know how it is in the car and they see the difficulties of running a quick car like [the 919] on a track which is from another era."
Bernhard drove himself home after setting the new Nordschleife lap record. On the way, he got a phone call from Bellof's father. He thanked Bernhard for the way he and the team paid credit to his son, and to pay his respects to the new record holder.
Bernhard is, like his predecessor, a normal person with abnormal talent. His accomplishment will inspire the next generation of racing drivers to go faster still, to keep pushing the envelope and probing the outer limits of what is possible.