The Record Breakers

How Lexus shocked the world in 7 minutes and 14 seconds.

This is a tale of a supercar, three passionate men, and a record-setting lap—all played out on perhaps the most challenging motor circuit in the world.

The supercar is, of course, the Lexus LFA, and the men are Lexus Chief Engineer, Tanahashi Haruhiko; development supervisor, Naoaki Ito; and test driver, Akira Iida.

And the record? Why that would be last September’s LFA lap time of 7 minutes, 14 seconds around the north loop of Germany’s legendary Nürburgring racing circuit.

But that’s the end of this story—so let’s start at the beginning.

The north loop, or Nordshleife, is a unique motor sports venue—a dense concentration of driving challenges that auto manufacturers use to test their performance cars.

Over the years, the top, power-oriented automakers have been tracking their lap times in a quiet game of one-upmanship—and everyone closely watches each other’s results.

“The Nürburgring was a dojo for us,” explains Chief Engineer Tanahashi, using the Japanese term for a revered martial arts training house. “It was the best place in the world for the vehicle to train.”

It’s here that the team has been fine-tuning the LFA every six months since 2004, and it’s here that the team has recently been developing the LFA into a new performance package—The Nürburgring Package, available this year—in which the tires, suspension, and aerodynamics are all enhanced.

However, while justifiably proud of his team and the LFA’s evolution, Tanahashi has been uncomfortable with a focus on breaking records.

“Many people judge vehicles purely on records,” he explains. “But that is not how Lexus engineers think.” For Tanahashi, tuning the LFA at Nürburgring was about furthering his goal of a making a genuinely fun-to-drive supercar.

Akira Iida’s thinking, however, is different. Iida is a pro driver, and his world centers on proving himself and his vehicle—against the clock and against other drivers.

“My goal through all of this was for the LFA to be the top among production vehicles,” he says. “We spent a lot of time considering how to make this new performance package different. But to be convinced, to visualize what we’ve accomplished, outsiders need numbers. Therefore, we needed to get the [record] time.”

At the beginning of last September, the time to beat—for a single north-loop lap in a production car on commercial tires—was 7 minutes and 20 seconds.

Sitting spiritually between Tanahashi’s engineering viewpoint and Iida’s competitive spirit is Naoaki Ito, leader of the LFA technical development team and supervisor of the Nürburgring tests. His view strikes the balance:

“The LFA has tremendous potential that is unimaginable to some,” he says. “And it’s important to realize that we developed the LFA with an emphasis on overall sensual performance, not just attacking a lap record. Nevertheless, the performance of the new package would be the result of continual efforts from all of our tests, and we wanted to confirm this ability at least once.”

So for Ito, beating the 7:20 mark in the waning minutes of the team’s 2011 Nürburgring testing would be a good indicator, but not an all-consuming target. There were too many variables over which they had no control, from temperature and humidity to the presence of other test vehicles on the circuit.

But Iida, the driver, saw this as a prime opportunity—the last one for six months—to send shockwaves through the auto world, and so he took the bold step of suggesting to Chief Engineer Tanahashi that he change his driving approach.

“There is an accepted theory on how to drive a sports car,” Iida says. “But I thought I could not break the record if I followed it. I had an idea, and I asked Mr. Tanahashi to let me try it.”

Iida’s plan: activate Vehicle Dynamics Integrated Management (VDIM) on his test run. This was a bold move. Conventional wisdom holds that VDIM, while excellent for normal driving, is an impediment to maximizing a car’s performance on a motor racing circuit. For this reason, enthusiasts typically disable it when driving on a track. But Iida’s plan was to use the system to his advantage.

His reasoning was sound, though—the LFA’s VDIM is the most sophisticated Lexus has ever developed. And after all, the Nürburgring is essentially a collection of streets and highways—precisely what the technology was made for.

And, as the auto world now knows, Iida’s gamble worked. The LFA lapped the Nordshleife in a blistering 7:14, shaving six seconds off the previous mark.

For Iida, behind the wheel, the performance represented all he’d hoped for.

“I just felt a sense of unity with the car,” he says. “I was concentrating so hard, I didn’t check the time until the final straight. Then, when I saw it, I started crying with happiness and clapping—not for me, but for the car, and for what we had achieved together. When I reached the team, they had tears of joy as well.”