Elon Musk has picked up the gauntlet thrown down by the Porsche Taycan — the Tesla Model S will record a lap time at the Nürburgring Nordschleife at some point next week. Will the Model S beat the Taycan’s 7:42 lap time?
Model S on Nürburgring next week
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) September 5, 2019
EVs & the Real Competition
In my recent articles on the Taycan, I’ve tried to emphasize that it’s a welcome addition to the range of electric vehicle (EV) options. Given that 97.5% of auto sales are still burning fossils, all EVs are (or should be) competing with fossil fuel vehicles (FFVs), and not so much with other EVs. It has been a difficult line to tread, since the broader media have long tried to play EVs off each other (“Tesla Killer” being the lazy and most commonly employed designation) and even some manufacturers have played this card to some extent.
Although Porsche has been mostly mature with the Taycan’s marketing, there has been an undercurrent of trying to emphasize characteristics that appear to one-up the specs of some of Tesla’s offerings. The Fully Charged video of the Taycan’s repeated acceleration runs, released around a month ago, fell into this same trap, framing the Porsche against Tesla. The test itself (if not the content of the video) was organized by Porsche, so make of that what you will.
Apart from anything else, since the Taycan is priced way higher than any other mass-produced EVs on the market ($151,000 and up), the idea that it “competes” with Tesla’s sedan models is unfounded.
Although the 97.5% of the market is where we should be focused, some degree of perceived competitiveness between EVs is understandable, likely inevitable, and even potentially a good thing. EVs are inherently more capable in almost all domains than combustion vehicles, especially in outright performance. Competition between EVs can potentially accelerate their overall rate of improvement to reach levels that quickly leave combustion vehicles in a cloud of their own smog. This will bring forward the point at which EVs are widely recognized by the general public as the superior technology, and the better choice. Heaven knows that we’ve seen some EV offerings from legacy automakers that are not-as-good-as-they-should-be. Whatever encourages them to up their game should be welcome.
Elon Takes the Bait
It seems that Elon Musk is not immune to a bit of provocation. Who knew? With the Porsche Taycan being formally launched earlier this week, on top of the accumulation of a slew of promotional videos by Porsche over recent weeks (highlighting various more-or-less-practical aspects of the Taycan’s performance), Musk has finally
cracked responded. He will send the Tesla Model S to the Nürburgring Nordschleife sometime next week to attempt a competitive lap time.
The previous generation of the Model S Performance was not designed to be optimized for the kinds of sustained peak performance that a few racetrack enthusiasts or long-duration, high-speed, Autobahn cruisers might have wished for. The vehicle simply reduced power on those rare occasions when pushed hard under these kinds of conditions. Of course, this was almost never an issue for most owners, who would at most subject their car to an occasional traffic-light grand-prix, and perhaps some spirited canyon driving. Even for typical sessions at the drag strip, queuing up for a few runs per hour, the car could put in a sufficient performance without any issues. In short, the car was reliably capable of more than enough real-world roller-coaster performance to delight the vast majority of owners, whilst just a few gearheads wished for a bit more sustained peak performance.
The Tesla Model 3 Performance was designed with improvements in sustained peak performance, with improved cooling design, more efficient motors (and perhaps more efficient cell chemistry), and a track mode that, amongst other things, manages pre-cooling to optimize modest-duration track sessions. This has been enough to allow the Model 3 Performance to set very competitive lap times at several popular circuits.
In April 2019, Tesla updated the Model S Performance (and other variants of Model S and Model X) with the “Raven” powertrain, partially borrowed from the Model 3. Tesla stated in the announcement that, amongst other things, it brings “improved lubrication, cooling, bearings, and gear designs” as well as “[significant] power and torque increases.”
However, as yet, owners and reviewers have done precious little rigorous real-world testing (or at least, publicized testing) of what these improvements allow in terms of sustained track and high-speed performance.
With the plan to send the Model S to the Nürburgring, Elon Musk seems ready to show what the Model S is now capable of.
Necessary Ingredients for a Decent Lap Time
We’ve already done an extensive analysis of the Taycan’s 7:42 Nordschleife lap time, finding that the Taycan is very fast through the twisty sections, clearly beating out combustion peers (and its Panamera sibling) over the first half of the circuit. Only on the high-speed sections, particularly the long back straight, does the Taycan give up its advantage.
Worth repeating one key point of that article here: the Nordschleife has an absurdly long back straight (1.78 miles, 2.86 km), allowing crazy high speeds (around 200 mph, 320 km/h) that make overall lap times here unrepresentative of a vehicle’s relative performance in real-world spirited driving. To put it briefly, vehicles with (unrealistically) high top speeds can gain an advantage over better handling vehicles with more modest top speeds. The track’s atypical characteristics also mean that Nordschleife performance is not even representative of what will occur on the vast majority of race tracks, which are typically much shorter, have much lower peak speeds, and are more twisty and technical in character, elevating vehicles that corner and handle well, over top speed specs.
Putting those important provisos to one side, the Model S Performance should be a close match to the Taycan on the Nordschleife. Elon Musk would presumably not have lined up the lap attempt if he knew the Model S couldn’t put in a roughly comparable performance. Unless perhaps in a fit of pique? But even for Elon, this seems unlikely.
Since Tesla long ago stopped releasing detailed tech specs for its vehicles, we actually have very little solid data on the peak power output and torque of the current “Raven” powertrain. The previous version of the Model S is sometimes quoted as 568 kW and 931 Nm, but I’ve seen no definitive data for the Raven — these figures may well have increased. Certainly the Raven’s quarter-mile time has marginally improved over previous versions.
Despite having larger dimensions and more interior space than the Taycan Turbo S, the Model S Performance is actually a slightly lighter vehicle (around 2260 kg vs. 2295 kg). If the above kW figures for the previous generation are correct (or improved upon), the Tesla has a slight power advantage (568 kW or more, vs. 560 kW). This gives the Model S Performance an approximate 3% advantage in power-to-weight ratio over the Taycan Turbo S. Again, the Raven powertrain may have improved this further.
The top speed of both vehicles is very similar (just over 160 mph). Even acceleration is similar, though with the Tesla favoring lower-end acceleration, and the Taycan (partly due to its 2-gear setup on the rear motor) favoring the upper end. The crossover point between the two in acceleration ability could be anyway between roughly 60 mph and 100 mph. Since the NordSchleife is a relatively high-speed circuit, with many sections well above 100 mph, on paper the Taycan’s high-end acceleration bias should be favorable, but the relative accelerator (and traction) responsiveness of the two vehicles (e.g., coming out of corners) is also a factor, and as yet an unknown.
The comparative center of gravity between the two is also an unknown, and this influences cornering speeds. This may also favor the Taycan (said to have a lower CG than the 911), but we just don’t know for sure. The Taycan Turbo S does have real-wheel steering, which should also give it an advantage in this area. Torque splitting response across all 4 wheels also helps cornering ability, and although Porsche has emphasized the Taycan’s much better performance over its FFV vehicles in this area, we still don’t know how its stacks up against the Tesla. The Taycan also has an adjustable rear spoiler (albeit of modest size) and other aero tricks, which should help with cornering grip and thus speeds, in the mid-to-high speed curves.
On paper, the Taycan does appear to have significantly stronger brakes than the Model S (420 mm ceramic rotors up front, vs. the Model S’s 355 mm steel rotors). This should hand the Taycan a significant advantage, and the Tesla will likely suffer on the Nordschleife with just 355 mm rotors.
Tires are an unknown. The Model S is at least sometimes supplied with Michelin Pilot Sport 3 tires, but Tesla could readily offer a more track-tuned tire variant. The Taycan’s spec sheet didn’t mention much more than basic information on tire dimensions and broad category (104Y XL type) — chime in the comments if you know more. What’s important for official lap times to be legitimate is that tires, brakes (and other equipment and specs) used on the track are readily available to customers as factory-fitted and road-legal options. The use of custom equipment, specifically fitted to artificially boost lap performance over the standard vehicle, are not viewed with approval.
This brings us to a potential advantage for Tesla. Since Porsche has already registered a lap time with a specific factory build of the Taycan, which will be delivered as early as December by some accounts, Tesla may have some as-yet-unannounced tweaks and improvements to the factory Model S Performance up its sleeve for next week’s lap time. So long as these improvements are also made available to customers in a similar timeframe to the Taycan Turbo S going on sale, that will make the lap time equally “official.”
New Specifications for the Model S Performance?
Given that Tesla is about to attempt an official lap time for the Model S Performance, this would be as good a time as any to introduce some upgraded specifications. Since the Model 3 Performance has a track mode, it would not be surprising if Tesla implemented a version of this for the Model S Performance also. Amongst other things, track mode allows more advanced pre-cooling control of the powertrain, which could be key to optimizing the Nordschleife lap time. Elon Musk has also talked about driver-adjustable settings coming for track mode — again, this could be a good time to implement such features.
Tesla is all about advanced software control, not just of the infotainment and cabin features, but the powertrain also. I could imagine a track mode feature that allows a “hot lap” with elevated power available for certain durations. (“Ludicrous lap?”) This kind of mode is legitimate in track-focused production cars, and Porsche itself implements such a feature in some of its vehicles, including the 918 Spyder. Even the Taycan’s peak 560 kW power is strictly an “Overboost power for Launch Control” feature, as they put it. Tesla thus has latitude to implement a similar kind of boost / hot lap feature, so long as it is also made available on customer vehicles.
Even if Tesla does implement some upgraded features for the Model S that laps the circuit — brakes and decent powertrain cooling are my preferences — some of these might not be the best choices for regular customers who prefer on-road practicality. This being the case, it’s possible that whatever version of the Model S laps the Nordschleife also gets offered as a distinct variant from the regular Model S Performance. Again, this is normal for performance cars (e.g., the Porsche 911 GT3 RS vs the more road-tuned versions of the 911).
Tesla’s Speed Of Response
In the old days of analogue engines and distinct model years, the gradual leapfrogging of lap times on the Nordschleife between different manufacturers was somewhat sedate and predictable. Even now, for legacy manufacturers that are not used to implementing powertrain performance updates over the air, this sedate culture is not much changed.
Tesla’s ability to quickly make changes to its vehicles’ performance is already well established. We’ve seen braking system performance improved in a matter of days via over-the-air updates. We’ve also seen several examples of powertrain performance (and efficiency) improvements rolled out over the air.
Whilst Tesla maintains its significant lead in software control of powertrains, and overnight improvements via over-the-air updates, other manufacturers who wish to compete with Tesla are in a tough spot. As soon as a challenger raises its head above the parapet, Tesla can potentially respond in a matter of days, and move the goal posts.
We may be about to see an example of this advantage demonstrated at the Nordschleife. What new features do you think Tesla might implement next week for its lap time attempt? What’s your guess on the lap time? Please jump in the comments and let me know.
Article images courtesy of Porsche, Tesla, and Nurburgring GmbH.