KGP PhotographyCar and Driver
- Automakers are continuing to test future models at the Nürburgring racetrack in Germany during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Many procedures have changed in order to maintain social distancing requirements.
- We spoke to representatives from Porsche and Jaguar Land Rover as well as a spy photographer who frequents the Nordschliefe.
While much of the global auto industry has been forced to shut down by the coronavirus pandemic, some of it is still working hard—especially the engineers developing new models. We were intrigued to see pictures and videos from prototype test sessions at the Nürburgring—while most of Germany is under lockdown conditions—so we decided to take a closer look at the challenges of vehicle engineering in the age of COVID-19.
Public activities at the Nürburgring have been suspended, with forthcoming events either cancelled or postponed. The Nordschliefe 24 Hour race has been pushed back from May to September. And Rock Am Ring, one of Germany’s largest outdoor music festivals and an event that normally features a lineup replete with hair metal acts has been axed for 2020.
Yet the “industry pool” test sessions that run throughout much of the year, where participating automakers send prototypes out for development work, have continued throughout lockdown, even as pretty much every European car factory has been shut down. For a sense of the number of cars still lapping the 12.9-mile circuit, check out the video below from last week. Other large European test sites are still partially open, including the Millbrook proving ground in the U.K. and Idiada in Spain, but none is as important to the continent’s automakers as the Nordschliefe.
As you would expect, the need to maintain isolation has changed procedures somewhat.
“As all the OEMs using the track have their own facilities there is no interaction between engineers from different areas and companies,” Phil Talboy, Jaguar Land Rover’s European engineering operations manager told C/D. Talboy is coordinating the company’s ongoing development work from Germany despite having just become a father for the first time. “We are operating with a reduced team having split them into two groups, who have no interaction with each other, and only people who need to physically work on or drive the vehicles are in the facility. We have no visiting engineers and are delivering a reduced amount of testing using the local team only as well as having strict hygiene rules in place.”
Talboy says that data acquired through testing is being uploaded to servers so it can be reviewed and worked on remotely, while video conferencing allowing analysis that would normally take place at JLR’s test facility to be done from the U.K.
It’s a similar story for other automakers, all of which are using social distancing in their own facilities—normally ensuring a two meter separation between employees and disinfecting cars between different occupants. They are also ensuring that drivers won’t need to leave their cars while at the Nürburgring, which is some distance from the various OEM workshops. We’re told that access cards are being held up so they can be scanned through windows and that automakers are requiring employees to use disposable gloves before using the pumps at local gas stations.
“Our first priority is the wellbeing of every colleague within the Porsche family during these times,” a Porsche spokesperson told C/D. “Any engineering work is conducted on a case-by-case basis, and only if the local authorities allow it and if the CDC guidelines can be strictly enforced.”
To that end, Porsche’s development engineers are often bringing cars to and from Stuttgart in a single day—a 410-mile round trip—rather than staying overnight at the Nürburgring. Accommodation is scare anyway, with most of the local hotels and restaurants shut down.
Germany’s system of government leaves much decision-making in the hands of its 16 constituent states, with the one that contains the Nürburgring, Rhineland-Palatinate, being one of the most permissive in terms of the activities it has allowed during lockdown. The state’s golf courses are still open, while being closed in most other parts of Germany, and an international tennis tournament is set to be held next month, albeit without spectators.
While it certainly looks like fun, testing at the Nürburgring plays a vital role in both the dynamic development of future models and also durability testing. That’s why the continuation of work here is so important to the large automakers. As Porsche’s spokesperson puts it: “there are deadlines you have to stick to not to disturb the whole process. We have cut down on all non-essential work, but some work can only be carried out on a track.”
Without the continuation, many new models would face significant delays once the automakers emerge from hibernation.
Life at the Nürburgring has also become far harder for the many spy photographers who are drawn there to capture images of future models, although many are still working hard to do so. Stefan Baldauf, who took images of a Porsche 911 GT3 prototype last week, reckons that there were only about half the normal number of cars circulating industry pool sessions and also many more restrictions on access to the best-known areas with a view of the track.
“They have closed all famous public areas around the Nordschliefe, and they had more marshals around the track,” Baldauf said. “The place sometimes known as ‘YouTube corner’—the Brünnchen—is closed and they have locked all the gates, put up extra fences and concrete walls. There are lots of police present and they are stopping anyone who looks like a tourist.”
Baldauf, a Nordschliefe veteran, says he used his dirt bike to reach inaccessible parts of the track where he could work in peace. “Let’s be honest, you’d rather have pictures taken on the Nordschliefe than on local roads.”
One thing that isn’t working is the Nürburgring’s PR department, which hasn’t responded to several attempts to get official comment on the partial reopening. But the famous track looks set to get busier, with reports in the German press suggesting that the “tourist driving” sessions on the Nürburgring, the ones that keep appearing on YouTube in crash videos, are set to resume this week under similar isolation rules.