source: Audi Australia Magazine
A dream job certainly, but one that requires extraordinary skill behind the wheel and an ‘automotive mind set’ – meet Frank Stippler, Audi Sport test driver extraordinaire.
When Audi Sport goes testing, it spends an inordinate amount of time at the track they call The Green Hell – the famed Nürburgring Nordschleife. To be an Audi Sport test driver then, amongst a raft of other skills and qualities required, an intimate knowledge of this most challenging of race tracks is essential, and no one knows it quite like Frank Stippler.
Stippler has more experience than any other Audi Sport driver on the Nürburgring. From 2004 to 2019, the German covered approximately 375,000 kilometres on the legendary German race track. He has twice won the Nürburgring 24 Hours in the Audi R8 LMS. As a test driver, Stippler has developed high-performance sports cars from Audi Sport customer racing on the Green Hell from the very beginning and also numerous models from the S and RS model series from Audi.
Frank Stippler completed his first laps on the Nürburgring in 1979, when he was four years old. At the time, the ‘Ring’, as drivers and fans call the famous circuit in the Eifel, consisted solely of the Nordschleife. This layout is 22.8 kilometres long. In 1983, it was shortened to 20.8 kilometres, when the additional new Grand Prix circuit was built.
His Ring debut was at the tender age of four, so obviously he was not in the driver’s seat for this one.
“My dad bought an Alfa Romeo Bertone in 1975, the year I was born,” says Frank Stippler. “As a development engineer, Papa improved the engine and other things over time. From relatively early on, I joined him during his on-track testing at the Nürburgring.”
His own driving debut was after his 18th birthday in 1993. His car was a Fiat Panda, which he had taken over from his mother after getting his driver’s licence.
“This car had an 850-cubic engine, an incredible 25kW, and a top speed of 120 km/h,” he remembers.
“At that time, I could only afford tourist tickets for a maximum of seven to 10 real laps during my regular trips to the ‘Ring.’ Then in the evening, shortly before falling asleep, I continued to go around the Nordschleife, whilst lying in bed with my eyes closed, doing this until I virtually managed the exact same lap times as before on the track. I have mentally recapitulated and saved all of the corners and the braking, shifting and accelerating points a few hundred times.”
As a 15-year-old, Frank Stippler began restoring a classic Alfa Romeo himself and prepared it for historic races. At 18, shortly after his first practical Nürburgring driving lessons, he entered historic motorsport. Soon after, he also started in current touring and sports cars. After training as a car mechanic, he added a degree in mechanical engineering. In 2003, he achieved his engineering diploma, won the Germany classification of the Porsche Carrera Cup and won his second championship title in the international Porsche Supercup.
So as an engineer and double champion, Stippler was appointed as one of the Audi factory drivers in 2004.
“In addition to my first racing assignments, I was involved in the further development of the Abt-Audi TT-R, taking the DTM car that was designed for sprint races and adapting it to be an endurance racing car, especially at the Nürburgring.”
Stippler built a reputation not only for being able to drive a car extremely fast, but also in being able to sense and describe every reaction of that car. Audi engineers and customer teams increasingly took notice of his feedback and he became more and more involved with development and testing of new S and RS models.
This is how Stippler continues to grow in his dual role as a racing and development driver. After two years in the DTM for Audi, he went to GT racing and found another dream job with the brand with the four rings: “From 2008, I was involved in the development of the new Audi R8 LMS customer racing project.” This spectacular GT racing car with a 5.2-litre naturally-aspirated V10 engine in front of the rear axle also takes decisive development steps in practice with Frank Stippler at the wheel on the Nürburgring.
“It’s a very, very long way until everything works perfectly on a racing car, when the entire package, consisting of the chassis, engine, gearbox and tires, is absolutely flawless and very fast against extremely tight competition,” he says.
Stippler has driven a total of 375,000 kilometres in tests and races for Audi at the Nürburgring – 300,000 kilometres in production models, 75,000 kilometres in racing cars. Nevertheless, he still enjoys every lap of the ‘Green Hell’.
“The fascinating thing about the Nordschleife is that it basically only consists of key points. On its almost 21 kilometres, this track is very fluid to drive in one go. This is unique and is what makes it so special for me.” The fastest sections of the track around the medieval Nürburg castle ruins are his favourite ones. “Corners like ‘Flugplatz’ and ‘Schwedenkreuz,’ which can just be driven at full speed, depending on the downforce of your car,” he explains.
“Even when testing road cars from Audi, we go full speed,” he says. This is the only way, according to Stippler, that the final few weak points of the years of pre-development work of a production vehicle can be identified and ironed out.
For each new RS model, there are at least 8,000 kilometres of endurance tests on the Nürburgring Nordschleife. That easily corresponds to a car’s entire lifetime. “It is crucial that I drive on the limit, and yet, also very sensitively. To be able to feel everything that I do not yet consider correct, and to be able to put it on paper in a way that is also understandable for my colleagues from the technical department.”
On board each pre-series model, Frank Stippler’s testing always includes a number of highly sensitive measuring devices, but his experience remains a very decisive factor. Most recently, Stippler was the man behind the wheel of the new RS Q8 for its record-breaking run at the Nürburgring, but he has many favourites.
“The new Audi RS Q8 with hybrid technology, with which we beat the existing Nürburgring Nordschleife lap record for SUV-type vehicles by 12 seconds,” was quite an achievement, says Stippler. “On the other hand, the current fourth-generation RS 4, in which we have developed one of the most harmonious, homogeneous vehicles overall. For me personally, the Audi A4 RS Avant is the best production car in the world,” says Stippler.
After more than 15 years of intensive Nürburgring experience working for Audi, the ‘Green Hell’ can still surprise even Frank Stippler. “So far, I’ve been lucky, but with the fast-changing rain showers that are typical of the Eifel region, even so much knowledge of the track is of little use to you,” he says.
This is a track that demands respect, patience and countless hours of practice – even if you are Frank Stippler.