Every two years, German's biggest tuning magazine, Auto Bild Sportcars, and Continental Tire get together to hold a top-speed shootout for the German tuners at Nardo.
The 2007 event was taken by MTM's twin-engine TT Bimoto, with a stunning 242.7 mph. The second fastest petrol-powered car was Sportec's SPR1, which recorded 235.1 mph, and would have gone even faster if not for the failure of a small oil pipe.
While this event has traditionally witnessed big v-max numbers from some radically modified cars, a couple tuners have been using fuels other than gasoline or diesel. In 2007, the E85 bio-ethanol-fueled 9ff Cayman CT-78 that finished fifth overall with 208.9 mph also established a new speed record for alternative fuel cars.
This year, the 650-hp Audi A4 Quattro-based, methane gas-powered Hohenester HS650G moved alternative fuels up to an impressive second place on the podium. Looking for all intents and purposes like a near-stock Audi A4 on lowered suspension and larger wheels, it blitzed most of the supercharged and turbocharged petrol-powered supercars on its way to a 218.5 mph alternative-fuel speed record at Nardo.
In fact, the Hohenester car had previously been clocked at 226.6 mph at the Papenburg test track in Northern Germany, and could have gone even faster at Nardo. Unfortunately, the quality of methane available in Italy is not as high as in Germany, and its lower calorific value restricted its bi-turbo V6 engine's output.
Despite being built for speed, unlike the normal-looking Audi, the third-placed Edo Competition Lamborghini Gallardo LP600-4 was some way adrift, stopping the clocks at just 211.1 mph.
The winner by a country mile was 9ff's 850-hp 997 Turbo-based TR1000. Not far off stock in appearance, the black Turbo looked fairly unspectacular as it whizzed around the banking, but its 233.5 mph v-max set the bar for the day.
Once upon a time, a tuned Mercedes was just a more interesting version of a well-built but rather boring car. A glance at the latest Nardo lineup shows just how far Mercedes has come in recent years. The most "normal" car there was the 500-hp Lorinser LV8; the most spectacular looking, the 816-hp MKB SL65/12 TT; and the most heavily modified, the Brabus GLK V12.
With 750 hp and a more modest 4,365-pound curb weight, it was expected that the GLK V12 would easily walk away with the SUV category over the bigger and heavier (5,600-pound) and less powerful (680-hp) Cayenne Turbo-based TechArt Magnum.
Imagine the shock and horror when the GLK V12 ran to 196.6 mph, and then the Magnum turned in a 199-mph maximum. Something wasn't right. A light drizzle was playing havoc with some of the runs. It soon turned into rain and everyone ran for cover.
The sun soon returned, and as the track dried out it was decided that the cars affected by the weather would be allowed to make a second run. This time, the GLK V12 turned in a 200.3 mph v-max, and honor was restored.
It was still a close run thing, and shows that the larger Cayenne is actually more aerodynamic than the square-cut GLK. Drag increases with the square of speed, so as you go faster, you need disproportionately more power for the same speed increment.
This problem also applied to one of the most purposeful-looking cars at Nardo, MKB's take on the SL65 AMG Black Series. Looking really cool in both senses of the word, in metallic white rather than the more commonplace black or gray, this car adopted the same mantra as the Brabus GLK, using smaller-than-normal rear wheels to minimize drag.
Built for handling and grip rather than ultimate top speed, the 140mm-wider bodywork and big spoilers boosted frontal area to 2.14 square meters, playing havoc with the drag coefficient, which goes up from around 0.30 to 0.39.
"The standard footwear is 9.5x19 and 11.5x20 front to rear, with 265/35-19 and 325/30-20 tires specially developed for this car," said MKB Technical Director Pano Avramidis. "We reduced both rolling resistance and induced drag by using 9.0 and 11.0x19-inch wheels with 235/35 and 325/30 rubber instead."
Using larger turbochargers boosting at 1.5 bar, new exhaust manifolds, larger water-cooled intercoolers with 50 percent greater efficiency and a bigger oil cooler, the SL produced a nominal 751 hp, but Pano said there are more modifications in the cards to take the horsepower count up to 800.
Where the standard SL65 Black Series is electronically limited to about 199 mph, the clocks stopped at 205.2 mph for this one. We speculated that with so much less drag, a standard body width SL65 would have easily exceeded 214 with this level of firepower.
After the fire and brimstone of big V12 power, the mere 500 hp of Lorinser's LV8 seemed rather paltry. But bearing in mind that it has only 43 hp more than standard and a top speed de-limit, its 195.6-mph run was fast enough to frighten any of the junior league supercars.
When you take into account the fact that Nardo's banking scrubs some top speed off any car compared to a level autobahn, the unassuming C63-based LV8 is near enough a genuine 200-mph saloon. For people who do not have seven-figure bank accounts, this offers the most impressive real-world affordable bang for your buck.
Another car that had a second go on the banking was the Geiger Corvette. Previously renowned for wide-body conversions, Geiger applied very minor cosmetics to its Z06 beyond the lurid Kermit Green paintwork and black hood. With a lowered compression ratio and a pair of big turbos, the Vette had a claimed 790 hp with 840 Nm of torque. Two Corvette strengths are a modest weight and price, and for just about $220,000 (€150,000), you can have a car fast enough to make the eyes of a Ferrari or Porsche driver water. Unfortunately, a minor engine bay fire scuppered the Vette's run on the first day when it had already reached a commendable 208.5 mph. The next morning repairs were made and the mess from the fire extinguisher cleaned up, after which the car ran again. This time it reached 197 mph, but since only the first day's top speeds were counted for the results, it was a pyrrhic (no pun intended) victory.
One of the best sleepers at Nardo was the Manhart Racing M3 5.0 V10 Touring. Essentially a 3 Series Touring with M3 front and rear arches to contain a wider track and big wheels and a 550-hp V10, it ran to 317 km/h. It may not have been the fastest load carrier at Nardo, losing out to the Abt RS6, but I will never forget the scream of its V10 as the Touring accelerated away from the camera car.
This event was also the public outing for the first tuned Panameras, with a black 540-hp Edo Competition and a blue 550-hp 9ff car battling against the timing gear. The Edo car's 189.8-mph v-max was just 1.5 mph faster than Porsche's claim for the stock Turbo. The extra drag from the 21-inch wheels was no doubt to blame for soaking up much of the 40 hp added by Edo's Stage 1 engine conversion. Low-profile rubber creates both induced drag and rolling resistance, and just the bigger footwear alone can lop a good 6 mph off top speed. So the same engine upgrade on an otherwise stock car would see an even higher top speed within the bounds of the rev limiter. However, even bigger 22-inch wheels did not stop the 9ff car from reaching 191.1 mph with just 10 hp more, although 9ff claims its new front spoiler helps aerodynamics.
Finally, as if to prove that a station wagon can still be faster than a much lighter supercar, Abt's 700-hp RS6 clocked an impressive 208.3 mph, and in the process beat up its 560-hp supercharged R8 cousin, which only managed 195.3 mph..
Top Speed Driving
The science of high-velocity testing
The warm and stable climate slightly inland along Italy's southeast Mediterranean coastline near Brindisi makes the 12.6-km-long (7.8-mile) Nardo circular high-speed track the perfect spot for the motor industry to test cars year round.
The first lap on the banking is always a warming up affair. Like joggers limbering up, drivers pace themselves, building speed progressively to warm their cars' vital fluids properly, and look for any potential mechanical or stability issues. The second lap is the big one, where top speed is recorded for posterity. The third lap is cooling down time before returning to the paddock.
There are four lanes on the banking-the inner one is canted at a mere four degrees, while the top lane has 2.5 degrees of tilt that allows you to run a car hands off at 160 km/h (100 mph).
From personal experience, I can say that the faster you go, the narrower the track appears to be. Approaching 190 mph, the four lanes start to take on the appearance of a wide two-lane road, so you really don't want to be running in the fourth lane up by the Armco barrier. The best place to be on a banzai run is the line separating the third and fourth lanes.
Another phenomenon is the fact that the faster you go, the quieter things become in the cabin. I remember doing a run in a Carlsson-tuned E55 AMG a few years ago, and as the speedo needle settled just short of 320 km/h (198.8 mph), it was like sitting in a commercial jet, the engine and wind noise subsiding as the car whistled around the banking.
All the tuners provided full specifications for their cars, and one of the things we noted was how close these cars got to their claimed top speeds despite tire scrub on the banking.
On a car capable of over 300 km/h, more or less 186 mph, you can normally factor in around 10 km/h (6.2 mph) for tire scrub. The tuners had all established their top speed claims based on runs on a flat autobahn, so the fact that many of the cars came very close to their claimed top speeds on banking was all the more creditable.
In conclusion, and in the best tradition of all such events, a word from our sponsor is in order, as almost all of the cars at this event were running on ContiSport Contact Vmax tires, officially rated to 360 km/h (223.7 mph).
On relatively light cars like Porsches, such speeds are not an issue, but when you're talking about two and a half tons of TechArt Magnum, that kind of velocity puts a serious strain on any tire.
Nardo's banking is designed so that there is no lateral force up to 240 km/h, almost 150 mph. Over that speed, the onset of lateral g-forces adds to the stress on the suspension, wheels and tires.
The Magnum's 22-inch wheels were shod with a variant of the Conti Vmax in a 275/35ZR22 size called ContiCrossContact UHP, designed for heavy, high-performance SUVs like this. Conti's ultra-high-speed tires have a specially designed structure and tread pattern that delivers high levels of stability at speed while breaking up resonances.
The Continental Sport Contact Vmax holds the Guinness Book's records for the fastest rated road-legal production tire, and there are very few places left on the planet where you can explore its outer limits. Nardo is one of them.
Brabus GLK V12
Everyone expected Brabus to bring the E V12 that made its debut at Frankfurt, but as development work is ongoing, it was not to be. What nobody was prepared for was the GLK V12.
"The GLK is based on the C-Class platform, so the GLK V12 is basically a Bullit with a GLK bodyshell," says Jorn Gander, Brabus' Deputy Engineering Chief. The V12 fits straight in, and sits low in the chassis on a bespoke front subframe, while the rear subframe and differential are straight from the Bullit. Like the Bullit, the GLK V12 is rear-wheel-drive, with a 40 percent locking limited-slip differential.
The 6,233cc bi-turbo V12 is built to the latest 750-hp V12 S specification now offered for all Mercedes V12 and Maybach models. The extra 20 hp comes from larger turbochargers, redesigned manifolds and revised ECU mapping. As before, peak torque is held down to 1,100Nm (811 lb-ft) to avoid transmission and axle meltdown.
The Brabus Widestar body styling kit for the GLK normally accommodates 9.0 and 10.5x21-inch alloys with 255/35 and 295/30 rubber. To fill out the big arches convincingly, the track is further widened using 20mm and 35mm spacers.
However, as reducing drag for the Nardo top-speed event was a priority, Brabus used 9.0x 21-inch wheels and 255/35 tires with 16mm spacers on each corner. Carbon-fiber wheel covers with a painted-on Brabus alloy wheel design help the barn-door aerodynamics of this chunky SUV.
The GLK V8 I drove recently had non-adjustable sport suspension, but the 4,365-pound GLK V12 uses a re-rated version of the fully adjustable coilover suspension from the Bullit.
The springs are linear in front and progressive at the rear, while the dampers have independent adjustment for bounce and rebound control. The brakes use 380mm vented discs in front with 12-pot callipers, and 360mm discs with six-pot callipers at the rear.
While the Brabus GLK V8 feels like a factory car that Mercedes should add to the standard model line-up, the GLK V12 is a brutal device that can shred the egos of unsuspecting supercar drivers with a twitch of your right foot-the ultimate Q-car.
TH2 RS-Berlin Airlift
Most of the German tuner cars that turned up at this year's Nardo event would give any enthusiast wet dreams, but the contender that raised my eyebrows the highest for its sheer ingenuity was a van.
I noticed the TH Automobile TH2 RS on the afternoon I arrived, when we assembled in one of the garages for a sandwich. Cars taking part in the event are kept undercover in two adjoining garages overnight, and as I was standing around in one of them chatting with the tuners, I heard the familiar deep growl of a tuned Porsche Turbo exhaust.
I turned around expecting to see a sleek be-spoilered 911, but instead got an eyeful of Kermit green VW T5 bus backing into the garage. It was one of those situations where the brain either goes into overdrive or shuts down completely.
Mouths hung open as the green bus came to a halt. The driver moved over from the centrally positioned driver seat, opened the door and smiled as he got out.
Then he casually walked around to the other side and opened the side door to give us a better view of the interior. What followed was like the mountain scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind as everyone peered inside. At that point, he could have walked straight past us waving gold ingots and nobody would have noticed.
Stripped out and clad in lightweight side panels, with five lightweight carbon race seats, the interior was otherwise as bare as Mother Hubbard's proverbial cupboard.
The central driving position takes its cues from the McLaren F1, the instrument pack is Porsche GT3, and the dashboard is a bespoke molding, created at great expense to match the high quality of the rest of the van, whose new front end even has bi-xenon lights.
I collared Sven Thomsen, owner of Berlin-based TH Automobile, whose company specializes in the installation of Porsche 996 and 997 mechanicals in VW T4 and T5 vehicles.
Thomsen explained that because the boxy VW T5 bus has nearly twice as much body area as a 911, it is not immediately obvious that the green paintwork is the hue applied to the current Porsche GT3 RS. Its black-painted 20-inch alloys mimic the GT3 RS look too, as do the twin centrally positioned exhaust outlets.
Apart from the obviously expensive interior work, the T5 shell has been the subject of extensive re-engineering to convert it from a front-engine, front-drive configuration to accept the rear-engine, rear-drive Porsche 996 GT2 drivetrain and some Porsche suspension elements.
Unlike both the stock T5 and the GT2, the TH2 uses air springs made by a Dutch company, coupled to H&R dampers and a ride-height lift system. The ECU lowers the ride height in two steps for better handling and aerodynamics.
For Nardo, TH recalibrated the suspension ECU to lower the front end by 30mm over 220 km/h (136 mph). This reflex camber setting reduces lift over the front axle as well as drag.
The basic engine is 996 GT2, tuned by 9ff to the same spec as the motor in the 9ff 9f-T6 that ran to 372.2 km/h (232.7 mph) at Nardo in 2004. Back then, this engine made around 750 hp at 6590 rpm with 622 lb-ft of torque at 6000 rpm, but the TH2 has a more advanced camshaft grind and some other small mods to up the big numbers to 800 hp and 664 lb-ft of torque.
9ff's Jan Fatthauer explained that his team built the engine for TH Automobile, where it was installed. The vehicle was then returned to 9ff for a custom exhaust system and ECU mapping.
The gearbox is GT2 with an uprated clutch, and a dual mass flywheel to retain comfort. Fifth (0.85) and sixth (0.71) ratios are very high for top speed and economical cruise. However, like the previous generation Corvette, sixth is so tall that top speed is reached in fifth. Stopping power comes from big brakes, 390mm discs with six-pot calipers in front and 365mm discs with four-pot calipers at the rear.
"The radically different vehicle weights and gear ratios meant a unique program for the ECU," Fatthauer explains. "Also, TH's bespoke water and air-cooled intercoolers do a good job of lowering intake temperatures, but have a bit more back-pressure than ours. Because of this we had to run 1.4 rather than 1.3 bar boost for the same power. The turbochargers are our KKK hybrids that are built from a combination of K24, 26 and 29 parts and are a 9ff exclusive." Because the T5 is almost 900 pounds heavier than the GT2, it needs more torque low down, but with 1.4 bar of boost tuned to deliver 900-920Nm, this isn't really a problem.
Despite its blunt shape, the TH2 exceeded all expectations at Nardo and screamed around the banking at 194.2 mph. That's 1.19 mph faster than the latest 997 Turbo.
The next step in TH Automobile's journey to build the ultimate VW bus will be 4WD. The choice is between using 996 Turbo running gear or splicing the Porsche power train with VW's Synchro AWD system. Watch this space!
9ff TR1000-top-speed king
9ff has won the Nardo top-speed shootout three times with various modified 911s. On top of that, in April 2008 the 987-hp 9ff GT9 achieved 255 mph at the Papenburg high-speed test track in northern Germany.
Compared to the handcrafted GT9, the black TR1000 that 9ff brought to Nardo this year looked positively tame. If not for its distinctive 9ff alloys, most people would have thought it was a near-stock 997 Turbo.
Although it posted an impressive enough top speed to win the event by a significant margin, the TR1000 suffered from an unforeseen electronic gremlin that stopped it from going even faster.
This was the first 997-based car 9ff has ever built to take part in a top-speed event, and due to the late arrival of some components from suppliers, the car was brought straight to Nardo with no prior opportunity for testing.
On his flying lap, Jan Fatthauer discovered that the TR1000 simply would go no faster than 375 km/h, or 233 mph, officially clocked by the independent timing crew and his own on-board GPS-based timing gear.
Subsequent diagnostic interrogation of the ECU revealed that the Porsche PSM system simply could not accept that the car was doing that speed, and refused to allow it to go any faster.
"There is no such limit in the ECU mapping of the 996-based cars we used for previous top-speed attempts, so we had no idea that Porsche had programmed a 375 km/h speed limit into the 997's ECU," Fatthauer says.
However, just over a week later, with the offending line of code purged from the ECU, the TR1000 ran to 392.1km/h (243.6 mph) at Papenburg. So now we know just how fast 9ff's 850-hp TR1000 can really go.
These things happen, and it goes to show that top-speed testing is just as much a science and art as any other form of motorsport. No matter how well you prepare, luck can also make the difference between just another fast run and a new world record.