NÜRBURGRING, Germany — There is no question that Porsche’s premature end to its FIA World Endurance Championship LMP1 sports car racing program left a slightly bitter taste in the mouths of everyone involved, be they Porsche team members or fans. Even though the final 24 Hours of Le Mans for the Porsche 919 ended with a hard-fought overall win in 2017, several factors—ranging from parent company Volkswagen’s “dieselgate” to a desire to race in the Formula E series—meant that one of the company’s truly great race cars was being put out to pasture prematurely.
How to pay proper respect to the 919 Hybrid Evo? Send the car and one of the company’s greatest drivers, Timo Bernhard, after a record that has lasted well over three decades: the late Stefan Bellof’s astounding lap of 6 minutes, 11.13 seconds around the world’s toughest racetrack, the Nürburgring Nordschleife circuit, in a Porsche 956.
Bellof’s record was set during qualifying in May 1983 for a 1,000-kilometer race. Bellof, at the time the youngest driver signed to a factory Porsche deal, also set the race record at the track with a lap of 6:25.91—and two laps later flipped the car, emerging unscathed, casually signing autographs for fans as he awaited track cleanup. It was that brash but blisteringly fast persona that endeared the young German to a legion of fans, as he went on the next year to win both the World Sportscar drivers’ title and the manufacturers’ championship for Porsche.
But it was obvious to all involved that Formula 1 would come calling, and he moved to that series in 1984 and into 1985 with Tyrrell. But he couldn’t bring himself to leave sports car racing entirely, and in September 1985, Bellof was back in a privateer Porsche 956 at the 1,000-kilometer race at Spa in Belgium. With 75 laps in the books, Bellof found he could not get by the factory Porsche 962 of Jacky Ickx. Bellof followed the veteran racer for three laps, and on lap 78, he attempted a risky overtaking maneuver in the daunting Eau Rouge corner.
The two cars touched. A stunned Ickx spun into the wall. But Bellof’s car hit the wall head-on, then caught fire. Although Bellof was pronounced dead at the hospital, likely he was killed on impact, apparently suffering a basal skull fracture of the sort that ended the life of many drivers, including Dale Earnhardt. He was 27. His death came just a few weeks after another Porsche racer, fellow German Manfred Winkelhock, was killed in a 962 at Mosport in Canada.
Although Bernhard was only 4 years old when Bellof was killed, he quickly became a fan as his own racing career took flight. Bellof was, like Bernhard, a German who got his start in karting, “and I was very much drawn to his story,” Bernhard told Automobile at the ’Ring. In fact, he said, the consensus was that Bellof may well have become an F1 champion, much like another young driver who was a fan of Bellof’s style, Michael Schumacher.
Bernhard became friends with Bellof’s family—Stefan followed his talented older brother, Georg, into racing—and Bernhard counts among his friends Bellof’s father, now 92. In 2015, honoring the 30th anniversary of Stefan Bellof’s death, Bernhard raced while wearing a helmet painted to match the one Bellof wore.
So when Porsche began considering a run that would challenge Bellof’s all-time record qualifying lap around the Nürburgring, Bernhard was immediately the only name on the list of potential drivers. Bernhard spoke to Bellof’s family, and with their permission, the “Tribute” campaign began.
Porsche took one of the 919s that had competed at the 24 Hours of Le Mans and did a massive retrofit to enhance the car’s performance at the ’Ring. The car received active aerodynamics that greatly enhance downforce, but only when it is beneficial. It got brake-by-wire, 200 more horsepower, and some sticky new Michelin tires—nine complete sets sat packed in tire warmers as the record attempt progressed.
Although Bernhard had tested the car briefly at the Nürburgring, the final decision if, and when, the record attempt might be undertaken was a tightly kept secret—until Friday morning when the event was scheduled to begin at 8, precisely 35 years and one month after Bellof set his record. At 8:01 a.m., Bernhard rolled off for his first attempt.
The track has not changed much in 35 years, but it’s not identical. To make sure they were comparing apples to apples, Porsche used a 12.9-mile configuration that was within several meters of the distance Bellof covered.
Surrounded by an enthusiastic phalanx of mostly European media—Automobile was one of only two U.S. outlets invited to the attempt—Bernhard’s first timed lap, a pure shakedown, was nearly as quick as Bellof’s record race lap. With every lap—all run with a new set of Michelins mounted and following consistent tweaks by the Porsche race team members that swarmed over the 919 at each stop—Bernhard got faster and faster.
And then the lap that Porsche was happy with: 5 minutes, 19.546 seconds. Even at that, the team was just slightly disappointed—the track warmed up very fast and was dirtier than computer projections suggested. No one said as much, but it seems likely the real goal was to knock a full minute off Bellof’s 6:11 record, but no one complained about the 5:19.546, and certainly not Bernhard. His tweet shortly after his record run said it all: “Having experienced the lap today I have an even higher respect for Stefan Bellof and what he achieved on the @nurburgring Nordschleife 35years ago.”