Interview: Lars Kern

Kern spends his work week developing and setting record laps in Porsches.

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October 28, 2021

Lars Kern has become a bit of a social media sensation among Porsche enthusiasts. As the development driver that’s responsible for setting fast lap times at the Nürburgring Nordschleife, he’s become a YouTube star for Porsche, with onboard laps of record runs on the ‘Green Hell’ that most recently include lap records in the 991 GT2 RS (6:43), Taycan Turbo (7:42), the 992 GT3 (6:59), and the new Cayenne Turbo GT (7:39). The videos of his laps in the GT2 RS and the 992 GT3 have well over 500,000 views.

In his time off as a development driver, he also likes to race. Along with Laurens Vanthoor and Zach Robichon, he won the GT Daytona (GTD) class in the 12 Hours of Sebring back in March in the Pfaff Motorsport 991 GT3 R. We caught up with Kern at the Six Hours of Watkins Glen weekend to talk about his career with Porsche.

Excellence: How did you end up with a career at Porsche?

Kern: My Dad was with Porsche, so there was always a connection there. I grew up with Porsche. We were living around six kilometers from Weissach, so it was all around me. I started racing cars when I was 16 with some amateur Cup stuff in Germany, but it never really amounted to anything. I went to university and studied to be an engineer. About halfway through my studies, Porsche contacted me about a job because I had some involvement with them in driving schools. They gave me a job as a test engineer and it developed from there.

I never planned it like this—that I would be doing all the Nürburgring stuff. I always thought you had to grow up at the Nürburgring to be quick there. When I started at Porsche, Timo Kluck did all the lap time stuff, and he grew up about five kilometers from the Nürburgring. But they gave me a chance to drive there, and I was pretty good, so they gave me some development work. They once brought Nick Tandy (a former Porsche Motorsport works driver who is now with Corvette Racing) to a lap record run, and everybody was sure that Nick was going to be faster than me. But it was the other way around. So, I guess they thought I wasn’t too bad. I was always in the right spot at the right moment with the right people. I’ve been with Porsche for ten years now.

Excellence: What did your father do with Porsche?

Kern: He was involved with the Cayenne Transsyberia project and was in charge of quality. He was not really a sports car guy, and he left the company about seven years ago (Jürgen Kern was a development engineer for the Cayenne and won the 6,000-mile Transsyberia Rally from Berlin to Siberia in 2006).

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Kern celebrates the Taycan’s record run for a four-door all-electric sports car on the Nordschleife in 2019 with Stefan Weckbach, the VP of the Taycan line.

Excellence: At what point do you get involved in the development process with the Porsche road cars and SUVs?

Kern: It varies from project to project. Some projects are more focused on driving dynamics and some less. I’m involved pretty heavily as soon as they want to do a run at a record (on the Nürburgring Nordschleife). There’s no average office day for me. They use me for media and motorsport in addition to the development drives. I’m not a specialist in one area like the chassis, for instance. I’m a whole car development guy and think I can transfer pretty well what I feel in the car to make the car quicker or better to drive for customers.

Excellence: What other tracks do you use for development besides the Nürburgring?

Kern: We have the track at the test center in Weissach that we use, and we also test at (the Porsche-owned) Nardò Ring in Italy. When we do race car development—we do a European tour to several European tracks.

Excellence: How important are lap times at the Nürburgring to Porsche? Is it important for them to know that they’ve improved a car and made it faster there, or is it just for marketing purposes?

Kern: First, we use it to get an idea if we did a good job, and we always do this no matter which model. It shows that we aim for the same goal no matter which car, the Cayenne or the 911. They all must do the same test, and it’s always our aim to have a good car there because it’s representative of all kinds of tracks around the world. If it works there, it works everywhere. In the end, if it turns out that it did really well versus the competition, then we start to involve marketing and P.R.

Excellence: How difficult is it to go out and drive different cars that serve totally different purposes on the Nürburgring? Is it difficult to change your mindset from driving a model like the 991 GT2 RS in development testing and then get into a Cayenne? (Kern set the new Nürburgring lap records in the 911 GT2 RS and the Cayenne Turbo GT on the same day).

Kern: Until two weeks ago, I would have said that it’s nearly impossible to jump from one model to another and do a [record] lap time right away. I normally aim to do one thing on one day and then maybe change to another car the next day—especially with a car like the GT2 RS, because it’s so quick, and you have to get everything perfect to get the best lap time out of it.

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The win at this year’s 12 Hours of Sebring was the first big victory in the U.S. for Kern.

The day I drove the GT2 RS was not optimal because I knew I only had five or six laps to get used to everything and then put in a fast lap. In an ideal world, we’d have the whole week to test and three hours at the end with no traffic, but it worked out. We knew what we had with the GT2 RS, but the window [to set a record lap] was pretty small. With the Cayenne, we had no idea because, before that day, it was never as quick. We even had used tires for the first run in the Cayenne, and it was a record lap right away. On the second lap (with new tires), it was two seconds quicker.

Excellence: With developing a car like the GT2 RS or GT3, is it hard to balance the fact that owners may drive them on the track but also want to drive them on the street every day?

Kern: In the end, it’s the chassis guys who do that kind of thing. My main job really comes down to finding out how the car really drives on the Nürburgring. From time to time, I get the opportunity to drive the cars on the street as well, but that’s not my main focus. I think if a car handles and is comfortable to drive quick on the Nürburgring, that translates to the street as well.

Excellence: How much has your job changed over the ten years that you’ve been with Porsche as technology has changed, with things like the driver assistance systems, more advanced traction control, and electric motors?

Kern: In the end, things like Porsche Active Suspension Management, electric steering, and electric motors don’t change the job of the driver. It’s just a different system. When I do a lap at the Nürburgring, I don’t care where the power comes from. Electric motors generate torque right away, which is something you like as a driver because you always know what you’re going to get. For me, the Taycan was really nice to drive because it was so easy to drive in a certain window.

Excellence: To me, electric motors seem like more of an appliance, and they lack some of the character of internal combustion engines. Does Porsche work to try to build some character into cars like the Taycan?

Kern: We try to make a difference in how a car drives, how it feels, and maybe even how it sounds, but in the end, it’s a different kind of story (with electric cars), and we need to look at it differently.

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His lap record of 7:38.9 was 3.3 seconds quicker than the previous SUV record on the Nordschleife, set by the Audi RS Q8.

It’s beneficial that you have instant torque and power in a car like the Taycan, and, for me, as a driver, it’s something I really like. The area where you gain the most time is at the exit of a corner, where the Taycan can put good power down and has good traction. It’s a different kind of car, but it’s still fun to drive quickly. I know that all the 911 fans are pretty critical of it, and nobody likes to hear me say that I’m positive about it, but I think we’re going to see pretty light cars with a lot of power. It’s not far away with the way the technology is advancing.

Excellence: How much of your job as a development driver carries over into racing and vice versa?

Kern: I think going from a street car to a race car doesn’t really help. For me personally, it does help to know how much grip and aero you can generate on a race car and what to do with it and which aero balance to run. As street cars come closer to race cars in performance, I think it’s quite beneficial to learn that kind of thing from the race cars.

Excellence: How liberating is it to go from developing road cars and trying to set a fast lap with the compromises they have to getting into a race car that has no compromises when it comes to performance?

Kern: Yeah, in a race car there’s only one target: to go as quickly as possible. For me, it’s always difficult. My main thing is street cars, and, from time to time, I drive race cars. It’s not easy to get all the potential out of the race car because it can take so many inputs, whereas the street car cannot. You have to be calm and easy on the track with a street car, but you can drive the GT3 R pretty rudely.

When I get into the race car, I have to remember that I can brake harder and steer quicker. So when I start driving the race car on weekends, I’m always keeping a little back at first. But it sure is enjoyable to have that much grip and power. In the race car, you also have to balance the car among three drivers. Larry (Laurens Vanthoor) wants the car and steering more on the edge, and Zach (Robichon) and myself want a car that’s nice to drive over a distance and don’t want the car to be too much on the nose.

Excellence: Have you had aspirations to be a race car driver full-time and focus on that?

Kern: At the moment, I’m pretty happy with the balance I have. It’s really nice to have a little piece of everything, because in the end, Porsche is about our customers, and I’m really connected to them through the street car development. Even when somebody buys a model like the Macan or a Panamera, it makes me happy to know that those cars still drive like a Porsche. This is what drives Porsche and is what drives me. Our main focus is to build cars that are enjoyable to drive.

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Kern in action at the Six Hours of Watkins Glen this year in the Pfaff Motorsports GT3 R.

Excellence: How do you like racing in the U.S.?

Kern: I really love it. The role of being a third driver with Pfaff Motorsports happened through Laurens (Vanthoor) because they needed a silver driver, and I’m the only silver-rated driver at Porsche (IMSA uses driver ratings to determine the level of drivers that are allowed to be in a car in the GTD class). I’m really happy that I’ve had the chance to run races over here because they’re on tracks that you really want to drive on. I’ve been impressed by how high the level of racing is here and how professional the teams are, even on the GTD level.

Excellence: Do you have a favorite track in the U.S.?

Kern: I’ve only driven at Daytona, Sebring, Watkins Glen, and Road Atlanta, but Road Atlanta is my favorite.

Excellence: I assume the Nürburgring Nordschleife is your favorite track in the world?

Kern: For me, the Nordschleife is just where I hang out for 20 weeks a year. I still like to go quick there, but it’s become normal for me. It’s my job.

Excellence: Do you have a favorite section of the Nordschleife?

Kern: Yes, everything after the Karrussell through Hohe Acht and Pflanzgarten, where everything is mid-speed, and you really have to place the car and use the balance. It’s pretty tricky.

Excellence: Do you have a most memorable race for Porsche that stands out?

Kern: I think it was my first win at the Nürburgring in 2017 (driving a 991 GT3 R in the VLN season finale with Manthey Racing) with works driver Fred Makowiecki. I jumped into the cold water of being in a factory car, and Freddy wondered if I would make it with the pressure of being in that car. Obviously, it worked out, and it was something great for me.

The 12 Hours of Sebring win this year with Pfaff was my first big win, so I was very happy to have that too.

Excellence: Do you have a favorite Porsche street car? What car would you take if you had to keep it and drive it every day?

Kern: I think because I did so much with the GT2 RS that I have a connection to that car. But, on the other hand, I say the newer the better, like with the 992 GT3. We drove it on the Nordschleife, and we had no idea we could make such a big step (from the previous car). It makes me really curious about the 992 GT3 RS, and we’re already in the same lap time window as GT3 cars on the Nürburgring.

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