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Porsche reopens a renovated Nardo test track

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An aerial view of the Nardo Test Facility. Photos courtesy Porsche Engineering Group GmbH.

Constructed by Fiat in 1975, the Nardo test track was originally built to allow vehicle endurance and high-speed testing year-round. In the decades since, the facility has expanded to include over 20 different test tracks and test labs, able to simulate an incredible variety of conditions and elements. Owned by the Porsche Engineering Group GmbH since 2012, the Nardo Technical Center reopened on July 11, following a seven-month, €35 million ($39.4 million) upgrade.

Located in Italy’s Apuilia region, off the heel of “the boot” that forms the country, Nardo sits on the Gulf of Taranto, off the Ionian Sea.  Snow is a rare occurrence there (five storms of measurable accumulation since 2011), with January temperatures averaging a high of 55 degrees Fahrenheit and low of 40 degrees. Summers are relatively mild, too, with average July high temperature of 90 degrees, and over the past 12 months (a wetter than average year), sunny weather still prevailed on 212 days. For high-speed testing of automobiles and commercial vehicles in non-extreme climates, that’s just about as good as weather gets.

The repaved test track, with its new Porsche Engineering-designed impact barrier.

The original test track was a banked circle measuring 12.6 kilometers (7.8 miles) per lap, with four distinct lanes permitting a variety of speeds with neutral steering (without steering input from the driver). The outermost lane, Lane 4, can be lapped at 149 mph (the track’s speed limit, without prior planning and authorization), followed by Lane 3 (118 mph), Lane 2 (87 mph) and Lane 1 (62 mph). For commercial vehicles, including trucks and buses, there’s an inner ring that can be lapped in the same fashion, at a speed of 87 mph.

The commercial vehicle high-speed track sits inside the automobile track.

Fiat sold the Nardo facility to Prototipo SpA in 1999, and the company began an expansion that added ride comfort and noise test tracks in 2002 and a handling test track in 2008. Today, there are tracks simulating special pavements (rails, cobblestones, washboards, potholes, long waves and twists), a dust and gravel oval, an off-road oval and serpentine course, an Africa road (surfaced with dirt, dust, stones and rock), a mud road, a reverse gear course, a cross-country road (said to be the most punishing course at the Nardo facility) and a tire laceration road (surfaced with sharp stones and reserved for use by Porsche employees). There are low-friction pavement sections, water troughs (from 8-inches up to 63-inches deep), concrete gradients as steep as 30-percent, curbstone impact testing areas, and dynamic platforms for testing acceleration, braking and low-grip handling of both cars and commercial vehicles.

Not all vehicle testing at Nardo takes place on- or off-road. The site also includes a climatic chamber, a fire test site (for certification of plastic fuel tanks), a wheel alignment bench, balance scales, fresh- or salt-water spray and a mobile workshop with a portable vehicle lift. So limitless is the testing that can be carried out onsite that Porsche Engineering Group’s client list includes over 90 companies in the automotive industry.

The vehicle dynamic platform.

The recent upgrades included a fresh repaving of the circular high-speed test track, installation of a new guard rail designed specifically for Nardo by Porsche Engineering, and complete renovation of the 26.2-acre dynamic platform. Development of the facility, in Porsche’s own words, is “continuously ongoing,” ensuring that the company can meet the needs of automotive clients today, and in the future. Even today, the facility provides the ability to test fast-charging of electric vehicles, autonomous technologies and even vehicle-to-vehicle communications.

That forward-looking mindset dovetails well with Nardo’s history, which includes a variety of tests and records set by unconventional and experimental vehicles. In 1977, Niki Lauda drove a variant of the Ferrari 312 T2 Formula 1 car, equipped with four rear wheels (two per side, each identical in size to the front wheels) at Nardo, looking for an aerodynamic advantage. None was found, and the idea was promptly abandoned.

The experimental six-wheel Ferrari 312 T2, lapping at Nardo in 1977.

Mercedes-Benz set an Italian speed record at the facility in 1979, when a twin-turbo C111-IV prototype reached a “flying lap” speed of 404 km/h (251 mph), and in 1980 VW drove its ARVW aerodynamic research vehicle to six class records and two world records, achieving a speed of 224 mph while still returning 20.77 miles per gallon fuel economy.

In 1994, a pair of records were set at Nardo, including the fastest speed for a roadworthy “greengas” vehicle, a specially modified Bugatti EB110 GT fueled by natural gas that achieved a speed of 344.7 km/h (214 mph). The Bertone ZER (Zero Emissions Record) electric vehicle set the second record, achieving a speed of 303.977 km/h (188.891 mph) in the flying mile.