There was a time when men duelled in the street over matters of honor, with nothing more serious than a discourteous glance often inspiring a bloody gunbattle the following morn. Now in the civilized world there are still glimpses of this somewhat backward competitive behavior, but there's less blood to mop up.
See in those days a boy's toy was generally his Smith & Wesson, but things have moved on and names like Porsche, Ferrari and BMW have replaced the sidearm as the fashion statement of choice. Now grown men compete with laptimes, horsepower figures and 0-to-60-mph speeds, not flesh-rending lumps of projectile lead. It's probably just as pathetic in a psychological sense, but it's a lot more fun and the kids can come too.In the tuning industry the argument is not just about honor, being the officially recognized Top Dog is worth big bucks. So like the celebrity gunslingers who turned out for the big paydays, so the big names head to Hockenheim every year to lock horns at the Tuner Grand Prix. But this year one gunslinger brought a Mach 10 machine gun...
The concept is remarkably simple. It all takes place over one day and competitors have half an hour of practice followed by a half-hour session, where the fastest laptime takes all. There are no combined scores, no prizes for horsepower, just a shootout for the quickest time on a blazing hot Hockenheim circuit. It's not scientific, but it's a hell of a crowd pleaser.
While it is well supported, the Tuner Grand Prix is in its 10th year and there was still only a small portion of Germany's abundant supply of tuners at the event. Perhaps some big names feared humiliation, and reasoned it was better to steer clear. The stopwatch does not lie after all and this is all about speed and efficiency, not extravagant straightline performance.
All the tuners employed Hockenheim specialists or seriously experienced racing drivers. Lotus Specials even had Le Mans ace Andy Wallace down to drive its VX220, but the Briton was delayed testing proper racing cars and so was replaced at the last minute. Wolfgang Kaufmann piloted the first two finishers in the Open Class and won the GT and Funcar Class. The car is undoubtedly the star, but it may well be the driver that makes the difference.
The cars were separated into rough categories: Diesel, Compact, Limousine, SUV, Coupe/Cabriolet, "Fun Cars," GT and Open. It was bound to be a mixed bag, but watching how cars handled under extreme pressure and how they compared on the clock was all part of the fun. Admittedly the SUV class only had three entries, but Gemballa's winning time would have put its GT600 in the midfield of the Coupe and Cabrio skirmish. This was a good day for Gemballa, which won the GT Class and SUV competition, but it and everyone else was gunned down by a Dutch featherweight.
Donkervoort wanted to prove that a lightweight car can demolish all the horsepower in the world. It did this with the D8 Sport and the 270-bhp RS. It barely fitted the spirit of the event. Based on the classic Lotus Seven it is essentially a road-legal racecar in the first place. So while others sweated blood to extract the maximum performance from real road cars, they never really stood a chance.
The RS has a power-to-weight ratio of more than 500 bhp/ton, leaving the other contenders in the shade. The reminder of the Open class were a couple of Elises, an Audi TT, a bi-turbo Golf and the big bang Porsches, including Gemballa's 650-bhp GTR Evo, based on the 996 Biturbo, and TechArt's monstrous GT Street S that took all the plaudits last year. This time it was blown away by Donkervoort and the hard work of Gemballa, but even the leading Porsche was a second off the Dutch entry.
The 30,000 people come to see wild and wonderful cars--particularly aggressive interpretations of Porsches, BMWs, Mercedes and Audis. They paid to see 600bhp behemoths powersliding through the Sachs Kurve and it was no surprise that the demo runs by Porsche's awesome GT proved amongst the highlights of the day. They did not hand their money over to see a flyweight with aerodynamics carve round a racetrack on invisible rails. Still, it was a sobering lesson in the true essentials of speed.
Donkervoort then took the fun out of the "Funcar Class," putting its D8 Sport against privateers in Golfs and a surprisingly spritely Fiat Uno that took second--7.1 sec. down on the inevitable winner.
Gemballa took second in the Open Class but stormed to victory in the GT class, for which the Donkervoort was not eligible. This, then, was the place where the heavyweights could battle it out punch for punch. It was a pure Porsche affair, with just one Mercedes entered by Vath, which finished last and struggled with an auto 'box kicking down and slewing the car sideways on the exit of bends.It was another Gemballa versus TechArt battle, but the GTR Evo was the star of this day. After 16 laps in the allotted session, Kaufmann produced a time of 1 min. 08.862 sec., 0.9 sec. clear of the dethroned TechArt.
"Second is nowhere at this event," explained the dejected Ralph Niese, part of the marketing team at the German tuner and the inspiration for European Car's visit to the Tuner Grand Prix. Cargraphic, ENCO, Schmid Motorsport and CC Racing all encountered the similar sour taste of defeat with their own interpretation of the 996 GT2 and GT3. Cargraphic took the opportunity to use its new GT3 RS, and with a little more fettling time this could well have improved on its third place.
Big cars cornering hard, even those with four-wheel-drive, will always look more spectacular than small ones. So it was here with the hulking 570-bhp Audi RS6 turned out by Motoren-Technik-Mayer flinging itself through bends with the quality of an acrobat and the brute force of a tank. In this fight it was horsepower that proved the superior weapon, much to the delight of the crowd, as the popular MTM entry stormed to a time of 1m12.453s, which was enough to win by two seconds. Team Balke's RS4 managed second, ahead of Digit Power's Mitsubishi Lancer Evo 8.
Wendland Motorentechnik, not the biggest name in the tuning world, propelled itself to stardom with victory over the likes of Gemballa's near legendary Boxster-based Roadster GTR3 and Ella Tuning's Nissan 350Z in the Coupe/Cabrio class. It's Boxster bears close comparison to Porsche's original as well as I do to Brad Pitt, and ace driver Timo Kluck used it to maximum effect to take a narrow 0.2-sec. margin of victory. Wendland added the Diesel Class to its tally of honors, in a field of two entries, with its diminutive Polo.
Rothe Motorsport romped to victory in the Compact Class with its almighty Audi S3 GT. It won by 5 sec., but the closest competitors drove a Honda Integra and a Seat Leon Cupra R, so the base machine can account for a good deal of the difference.
It's only when the groups are cross-referenced that the true skills of each car shine through, however. MTM's RS6 would have finished fourth in the GT class and Rothes Audi would have finished second in the big-power Limousine Class and in the midfield of the Open Class. The transparent performance comparisons on the same track in near perfect conditions is what the fans come to see.
This year's battle for honor was overshadowed a little by Donkervoort's presence, but Gemballa, MTM and Wendland came up with their heads held high, looking forward to a bumper order book on Monday. As for the others, and maybe a few more, they'll be back next year determined to win back their honor, their title and the customers.It's that important, but at least it's not life and death anymore.
The drift competition provided a circus sideshow to the main business of the Tuner Grand Prix, and numerous professional drivers proved just how hard it is to keep a slide going through three consecutive corners by putting seriously expensive cars precariously close to the wall.Zakspeed's Viper ended in the gravel, understeering off having failed to spin the wheels at all, and he was far from the only one. Few managed to do anything special, and the drift competition was more embarrassment than entertainment. When the DHL-sponsored racing truck tried it, showering the crowd with gravel, it was time to move away.