To much fanfare, Tesla unveiled this month its Model S Plaid flagship sedan. The design of the electric vehicle, chief executive Elon Musk boasted, was a “limit-of-physics engineering” feat. To back up that claim, he reported it had just clocked the fastest sprint time of any series-production car on record, EV or not.
“Because physics is the law, and everything else is a recommendation,” he crowed to the faithful gathered at Tesla’s Fremont factory.
Musk went on to detail another company achievement that day: the latest number of superchargers in the company’s network. Auto aficionados the world over picked up on what Musk sidestepped that day: the whole Nordschleife question.
What Musk did not want to admit: the Porsche Taycan, Tesla’s stiffest competition, still holds, two years on, the official speed record on the Nürburgring’s Nordschleife circuit, the world’s most renowned race track and the ultimate proving ground for performance car supremacy. The event left car enthusiasts wondering whether Tesla had the engineering knowhow to change that result any time soon.
To be fair, no street-legal electric sedan, Model S Plaid included, can be expected to match or beat what Porsche accomplished that day: conquering this winding 13-mile stretch of unforgiving asphalt that slices through Germany’s dense Eifel Forest, not far from the Belgian border. (I drove it three summers ago, and found it the most exhilarating and frightening driving experience of my life—and we like to drive fast in Germany!)
In August 2019, Porsche garnered headlines for clocking a lap time of just 7 minutes, 42 seconds with its debut electric vehicle, the Taycan.
Musk of course caught wind of the record. In what sounded like a direct challenge, the Tesla CEO, mere days later, proclaimed the Model S was headed to the track to have a go. Ex-Formula 1 pilot Nico Rosberg even offered to get behind the wheel.
Not so fast
Instead of romping off with the record, the PR stunt, staged in the autumn of 2019, backfired. Images of broken-down Teslas hauled off the track by tow trucks went viral while reports emerged that Musk had employed a heavily modified car rather than a series model.
The Germans were not amused.
“With the greatest of respect, you cannot expect to simply show up and race for the record. The Nordschleife exposes a car’s every flaw,” says Hans-Gerd Bode, a communications expert who formerly served as chief spokesman for Porsche and Volkswagen Group. “Musk has seen now that it’s not as easy as he thought, and should he try again, he’ll prepare for it properly to avoid another humiliation.”
The Nordschleife circuit has it all: fast stretches, hairpin turns, blind corners, varying tarmac surfaces and constant elevation changes. Some bends unpredictably turn in halfway through, and in most areas the lack of a run-off before the tree line means there’s barely any leeway for error.
Branded, respectfully, “The Green Hell” by racing great Jackie Stewart, the Nordschleife (“North Loop”) was deemed too dangerous to host Formula 1 competitions after three-time champion Niki Lauda nearly burned alive during a horrific crash in 1976. Only eight years later did the F1 return on a safer, purpose-built Grand Prix Track—in the graphic above, it’s the smaller, looped appendage at the bottom—currently measuring just 3.2 miles in length.
Ultimate litmus test
Had Musk reached out to Nürburgring veteran Lars Kern, he might have been warned of the folly. The Porsche in-house “factory-driver” isn’t famous like Rosberg, but he’s among the fastest when it comes to production cars.
Experts like him know the brute power of a Model S Plaid that gifts it such enormous straight-line acceleration is useless as soon lateral G forces start to buffet the vehicle about in a curve.
“If a car is fast on the Nordschleife, it’s fast everywhere. Enthusiasts the world over know it as the ultimate litmus test,” Kern told Fortune, fittingly interviewed from behind the wheel.
That’s why so many car makers bring their new models—EVs, prototypes and all—to the Nordschleife: to test the limits of speed, and physics.
At Nürburgring, even if you have a vehicle capable of breaking records, the chances are stacked against you. If the track doesn’t foil your efforts, Mother Nature just might. The track is situated in a hilly region with famously unpredictable weather.
Due to the near 1,000 feet elevation difference from the lowest point to the highest over four miles away, one part of the track can be slick from moisture while the other is dry. Only if the conditions are perfect, is success possible.
“If it rains, then you’re out of luck and all you can do is hope you can quickly get another slot,” says Kern. “One time during the pandemic when we had the track to ourselves, we had to abort because the tarmac was covered with pollen from lack of use. So it’s always a gamble.”
The aging effect
When maneuvering through the world’s longest permanent race track, the challenge is instinctually knowing how fast the car needs to be on the approach—at the apex and the exit of each of the 73 corners. “There’s no time to look at the speedometer,” Kern says.
To help imprint this dizzying number on memory, the course is broken down into 30 sections that each have their own distinctive name: Tiergarten in honor of a former burial ground for animals that died in combat, or Galgenkopf, where the gallows used by the Earls of Nürburg were once found.
The Nordschleife’s main attraction for automakers is not fast lap times, however. During the secretive Industry Pool days when the track is closed off to the public, manufacturers fine-tune the steering, brakes and suspension of their upcoming models to act like one harmonious orchestra. Mercedes once estimated the wear and tear subjected by the track ages a vehicle sevenfold, while others such as Hyundai believe the figure is closer to eighteen.
“Since its completion in 1927, the Nürburgring has been used by the entire industry to engineer their cars,” says Mirco Markfort, head of the company that operates the circuit. “The Nordschleife earned its reputation as the most demanding track worldwide over the course of its history.”
With no attempt to return to Nürburg on the horizon, it seems as if Musk learned his lesson: there is physics—and then there is the Nordschleife.
Subscribe to Fortune Daily to get essential business stories straight to your inbox each morning.