One of the most iconic and memorable pieces of Nurburgring publicity in the last generation was the Top Gear Nurburging van challenge. The late great Sabine Schmitz drove a standard Ford Transit as fast as physically possible in a bid to do a sub 10 minute lap time… in a van.
Since then a number of other drivers and companies have had a go at setting the commercial vehicle record at the ‘Ring. This article looks at the history of Nurburgring van lap records and whether the current one is likely to ever be beaten.
Top Gear's Nurbugring van challenge - 2005
Back in the good old days when the 3 Top Gear Amigos Clarkson, Hammond and May were figure heading Top Gear on the BBC, Clarkson had his first publicised encounter with the Nurburgring. He was challenged to take a Jaguar S-Type diesel around the Green Hell in under 10 minutes from the bridge at the start of a tourist lap to the gantry at the end of it.
After much sweating, swearing and spinning he poetically managed a 9 minute 59 second lap, one second under his target. His driver coach, Queen of the Ring Sabine Schmitz, was not impressed. After telling her his time, her response was one of pure disapproval: “I’ll tell you something, I’ll do that lap time in a van.” Ouch, burn.
Fast forward to the next series and TG is back at the Ring. This time Hammond takes a 2005 diesel Transit and Sabine slips in to the driver’s seat to see if she can beat Clarkson’s lap time, true to her word.
It was obviously going to be a tall order, even for the two-time Nurburgring 24 hour winner Sabine. The Transit only had a little over 130bhp and 0-60mph took a pedestrian 21 seconds.
They completely stripped it out, even removing the passenger seat. The Zakspeed Dodge Viper race car was recruited to go ahead of the van, clear the way for traffic and use its massive rear spoiler to create a bit of a slipstream for the van on the long uphill sections.
Sabine, in the only way she knew, left nothing on the table. Every millimetre of track was used, every kerb stone was utilized. Despite everything the lap time was a 10:08. Sabine pushed as hard as she dared and said there was nothing more to come from the van.
Despite not beating Clarkson’s time, Sabine Schmitz’ Nurburgring transit van lap time was amazing. Nobody could have done it faster, and in fact nobody had. This was the fastest recorded lap of a standard van around the Ring.
Not only did we get to witness one of the most memorable pieces of Top Gear TV for a generation, Sabine and the Nurburgring were forever joined together in our minds.
REVO tuned VW T5 - 2013
8 years after Sabine’s lap, the British aftermarket tuning company REVO set their sights on taking the Nurburgring van record back to the UK. They built a one-off VW T5 2.0 TDI with 220bhp, Bilstein coilovers and Dunlop Direzza semi slicks.
Their driver of choice was Dale Lomas, Nurburgring expert and professional Jaguar Ring Taxi driver. Rather than trying to set a record lap time on a public day, they instead decided to put the van through its paces on a Nurburgring track day.
The unique thing about Nurburgring track days is that you can use the entire length of the 2km Dottinger Hohe straight. This means you can set full lap times, rather than just the Bridge to Gantry laps that miss out around 1 mile of track.
Dale spent the day pounding round and ended up setting an impressive 9:57 full lap, which equates to a 9:22 Bridge to Gantry lap time. 46 seconds faster than Sabine’s time in the Transit. Unsurprising considering the T5 had almost twice the power, but impressive nonetheless.
Rob Austin's VW T5 project Eifelgeist - 2018
In 2018, 5 years after the REVO T5 lap time and 15 years after Sabine’s time, another Nurburgring van lap record attempt took place. Rob Austin, three-time British Touring Car race winner, had his sights set on the ‘standard’ Nurburgring van record. He took a stock VW T5 with 150bhp to the Ring during tourist driving with an eye on Sabine’s lap time from a decade and a half earlier.
After stripping the van out and spending all day lapping, he managed to set a 9:58 lap time. Exactly 10 seconds faster than Sabine Schmitz in the Transit van, and 1 second quicker than Clarkson managed in the S-Type Jag.
Like Sabine’s, this was a Bridge to Gantry lap, so didn’t include the full length of the main straight. The REVO T5 lap time was still over 30 seconds faster, but this was the fastest recorded stock van Nurburgring lap time.
Whilst sub-10 minutes in a van is mighty impressive, it also shows just how fast Sabine’s lap was. With 15 years of technological improvements and engineering advancements, this T5 could only go 10 seconds faster. Rob Austin is a quick driver but he obviously didn’t know the Ring like Sabine did. Had she been behind the wheel, no doubt there would have been a little extra time shaved off.
Guy Martin's Nurburgring 'Supervan' - 2018
Guy Martin, legendary Isle of Man TT winner, petrolhead thrill seeker and low-key lunatic also wanted a slice of Nurburgring van history. So in 2018 he set about breaking the outright van lap record.
His weapon of choice was his own Ford Transit ‘Supervan’. This entirely custom Ford Transit had been built by Guy in his shed. On the outside it resembled a transit, but underneath it looked like a race car.
It had a full spaceframe chassis with an entirely custom suspension setup. There was a rear-mounted a V6 Ecoboost engine with twin turbos and a straight through exhaust pipes that produced somewhere around 700bhp. The power was put on the ground through a sequential gearbox mated to the rear wheels which were wrapped in sticky semi-slick tyres.
Guy knew his van well, but he didn’t know the Ring. The Supervan wasn’t road legal so he couldn’t get any practice laps in during tourist sessions in the van.
Instead they hired the circuit for 1 hour, and Guy asked Nurburgring motorbike lap record holder Andy Carlile to sit shotgun for the record attempt. Andy knew the circuit as well as anyone any was able to provide some time-saving pointers as Guy was lapping.
Guy’s target was the 9:57 full lap time set in the REVO VW T5. On his very first lap with very limited practice guy managed a 9:28 full lap. Almost 30 seconds quicker than the REVO lap time. They didn’t release a BTG lap time but it would have probably been a couple of seconds below the 9 minute mark.
As a speed comparison, flat out down the main straight the Revo T5 was doing around 115mph. Guy’s Supervan hit 145mph at the same point!
On his second lap, by the Karussell guy was 10 seconds quicker. But towards the end of the lap a turbo oil line came loose and started a small engine fire. The van cut out on the main straight and the lap was aborted.
Despite only getting one attempt at a lap time, Guy Martin smashed the Nurburgring van lap record. But one thing’s for sure; there’s a whole load more time left to come from Guy’s Supervan. A sub 9 minute full lap would easily be possible, resulting in a sub 8 minute 30 second Bridge to Gantry lap.
Guy sold the van in 2022 but the new owner promised to let Guy take it back to the Ring in the future for another record attempt. Definitely unfinished business here.
Nurburgring van lap records
The fastest van around the Nurburgring is Guy Martin’s Ford Transit ‘Supervan’. He set the Nurburgring van lap record time of 9 minutes 22 seconds for a full lap.
Below is a list of all of the fastest Nurburgring van laps:
- Guy Martin Ford Transit ‘Supervan’: 9 minutes 22 seconds full lap / roughly 8 minutes 58 seconds bridge to gantry – 2018
- Dale Lomas REVO VW T5 Transporter: 9 minutes 57 seconds full lap / 9 minutes 22 seconds bridge to gantry – 2013
- Rob Austin VW T5 Project Eifelgeist: 9 minutes 58 seconds bridge to gantry – 2018
- Sabine Schmitz Ford Transit Top Gear challenge: 10 minutes 8 seconds bridge to gantry – 2005
can the Nurburgring van lap record be beaten?
Guy Martin’s home built Supervan is an incredible creation and seriously capable on track. There’s no doubt that if he had another go he could break his own record, but now he no longers owns the van it might not happen anytime soon.
The other obvious contender is Ford’s Supervan 4. The 1900bhp electric van is tackling Pikes Peak this year, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it head to the Eifel mountains for a stab at the ‘Ring van record sometime soon. It was already spotted testing there at the end of 2022.