The world's most famous hill climb is also being electrified with more and more participants driving up the challenging 19.9 km in battery-powered vehicles. Volkswagen succeeded to come with terms with the past (31 years after falling short from achieving glory), pulverizing the previous record held by the 9-time World Rally Champion Sebastian Loeb, which dated back to 2013.
How do you explain Pikes Peak? Almost 20 km of hill climb, 156 breathtaking corners, 1440 meters of altitude difference and more than a century of tradition ... no matter how much these figures tell us they are clearly a reductive definition.
It is on the mountain that shares the leading role in the state of Colorado with Aspen (the steep elitist stage for affluent skiers) that takes place one of the most brilliant chapters on the cult of the automobile on the other side of the Atlantic and which has received varying doses of attention from this side of the big ocean. In the 1980s there were historical duels between Audi and Peugeot and Europe was always paying close attention, especially when Mouton and Rohrl (in 1985 and 1987, both in Audi quattro) and Vatanen (Peugeot, 1988) were the fastest to climb to the peak. In fact, in 1987 VW had high hopes about its participation in Pikes Peak, after two evolutionary appearances in the previous two editions with a tailored-fit Golf with two turbocharged 1.8-litre GTI 16V engine producing 326 ps each (one in the front and one in the rear) to give German driver Jochi Kleint a shot at glory. This technical solution helped to counteract the effects of the rarefied atmosphere and increase the total output to give wings to this specially tuned Golf: 3.4 s from 0 to 100 km/h immediately conquere4d everyone´s attention. But drama happened and on July the 11th, 1987, 153 corners after the start line, the Pikes Peak Golf succumbed three miserable curves (and 400 meters) from the triumph, due to a suspension proble. The 650 ps Golf (which VW has just restored) had been able to beat rivals of the calibre of a Lancia Delta S4, a Ford RS200 or a Peugeot 205 GTi Turbo but it could not just cope with hill climb rough 100% gravel track, at the time.
Although the 1987 Pikes Peak Golf was powered by gasoline it actually has many aspects in contact with the 100% electric I.D. R 100% that was prepared in record time (nine months from the decision to move forward with the project until its world reveal at a race track in southern France) for VW's payback time with the Mountain. Both cars feature two engines/motors, four-wheel drive (each pair of wheels is driven by each engine/motor) and a kerb weight of just over a ton (1020 kg Golf and "less than 1100 kg" the I.D.).
VW´s mission, to wrap up the unfinished business since 1987, was one the key animation point in this year's hill climb. The I.D. dressed with the number 94 (for lack of a more inspired idea, as "I" is the ninth letter on the alphabet and "D" the fourth ...) had its eyes set on the Pikes Peak electric record, established in 2016 by Rhys Millen (in the prototype and eO PP1100 created by himself) with a time of 8m57,118s. The choice for an all-electric race car is consistent with VW's recent shift to "battery-powered" propulsion, so the Pikes Peak electric record was the first natural goal after the project was announced. But it was clear that even Loeb's hill climb record (almost 24 s faster) in the Peugeot 208 T16 in 2013 (8m13,878s) was in the sights of the German team, although officially not admitted.
Much has changed in Pikes Peak International Hill Climb since the first edition took place in the summer of 1916. At that time all the competitors needed to do to race was to show up at at the starting line with a car or a motorcycle, the whole hill climb was unpaved and there were no racing categories. Today there are more than a dozen categories between cars and motorcycles (which are the first to start climbing at 8 am on Sunday), much higher output vehicles and much more competent chassis, for the best possible use of the since 2012 completely asphalted track. Even comparing with the ace paces of the not so distant 2011 Pikes Peak edition (the last one that was only partially paved) the speed has increased exponentially, as explained by Romain Dumas, the I.D. R driver: "Today we go through corners at 150 km/h which before 2012 could not be negotiated at speeds above 80 km/h".
Pikes Peak has been evolving over the decades: in the early days and up to the mid-1920s, single-seaters and open buggies dominated (they continue to have a category today), then the closed bodies of American stock cars made their way to the hill climb (cars which were visually close series production, but loaded with "anabolic steroids") trying to face defeat the strong Formula Indy contingent. In the 50's Porsche gained prominence with its central engine cars and in the 70's again very light buggies were leading the pack. When the last hundreds of gravel were covered by smooth tarmac the hill climb records finally fell below the 10 minute mark, a feat celebrated by Nobuhiro Tajima, behind the wheel of the famous "Monster" Suzuki. The fast and fearless Japanese (which would go on to win Pikes Peak no less than seven times) managed to again stay under the 10 minute mark in 2013 with an electric prototype, but overshadowed that year by Loeb´s record setting climb which lasted until now.
This year VW "landed" at Pikes Peak with a very professional structure light-years away from the more amateur team´s structure that usually compete here. Even when Peugeot brought Loeb in 2013 in the 208 T16 the resources and investment had nothing to do with what we saw this year with the German manufacturer. This huge difference is a bit frustrating for the
traditional Pikes Peak competitors (some of which have won here with prototypes that they themselves had built) also because the race organization does everything to make sure records keep falling: in 2013, for example, the starting order was changed so that Loeb could go up the ramp with dry conditions since there was a rain shower forecast for the end of the morning and that would make it impossible to beat the record (which he ended up pulverizing). Among the people who did not appreciate this VIP treatment were the motorcycle riders (usually the first ones to go to the road) who had to wait from 6 in the morning (time of arrival at the starting line) until 2 in the afternoon to start their hill climb...
This means VW did not have serious compettion in the fight for victory in 2018 and was left at ease to purge the ghosts from the past as it soon became clear with the qualifying time 11 seconds faster than the second-place finisher – the Norma driven by Faggioli - (and only in the first section of the ramp with just over 1/3 of the perimeter of Sunday's race, up to 8.3 km). The main obstacle could be meteorology, as the rain threat for Sunday's race left everything in suspense as then the new record (even the electric one) would surely be out of reach. That element could not be controlled, so VW focused on the overall preparation of the pilot and the car.
The rarefied atmosphere does not affect an electric car as much as one with a combustion engine (which undergoes a 30% reduction in output at 3000 meters altitude because "less air get to the lungs"), but the thinner air causes a 1/3 lower downforce which is at the mountain peak (4302 metres). That explains why the I.D. R was heavily contoured with aerodynamic profiles, especially the gigantic front spoiler and rear wing. The human element also suffers a lot at altitude, as Dumas explains: "There was no time for great preparations (no gas chambers that I have ever used to adapt to the Dakar, where we drive at almost 5000 meters in the Andes) to the air here because the previous week I was racing at Le Mans. So the jogging sessions I did in Geneva, where I live, 1500-2000 meters above sea level were the best we could practice in... ". Still, the French driver took some oxygen in a bottle with him on board to get puffed up whenever feeling dizzy, a practice that has become relatively common in recent years after a few episodes in which drivers lost consciousness, passed out... simply put: lost it.
Number 94 I.D. R used an all carbon fibre bodywork, just like the monocoque, then there is aluminium applied in the chassis (made by Norma, with which Dumas won in 2017 and with which Faggioli ran to the second position this year) and steel in the antiroll cage inside. The four-wheel drive system has front and rear double wishbones and the aerodynamic load generated by the large rear wing exceedes the total weight of the car, which is just over one ton. Sprint from 0 to 100 km/h is almost instantaneous in 2.25 seconds, meaning it is faster than a Formula E (2.9 s) and even a F1 (2.6 s).
Numbers which morphed into an overwhelming impression when the I.D. R blitzed like a rocket past me on the first corner after the starting line making it easy to predict that
- with a fully dry race track and visibility still clear - VW would most likely smash Loeb´s record to pieces in this centennial race as it did: 7m57,148 mean it became the first car under 8 minutes, leaving Loeb's absolute record 16 seconds away and digging a one minute gap to Rhys' electric record (2016). For this kind of differences you don´t really need a stopwatch, and probably a calendar would serve just fine (but, again, reflecting the serious investment and technical resources VW injected into this project against the semi-amateurism that is the norm in the teams participating in Pikes Peak. Simone Faggioli, 10-time European hill climb champion (and the world's leading specialist in these races to the point where the VW driver himself admitted that it would be difficult to beat the Italian on identical cars), could not do better than finishing second, 40 s off Dumas´s pace.
Driver Car Time Record Year:
- Romain Dumas 7m57,418s Electric/Overall 2018
- Sebastien Loeb 8m13,878s Overall 2013
- Rhys Millen 8m57,118s Electric 2016
Tech data VW I.D. R:
- Motor Electric (2)
- Power 680 ps (: 2)
- Torque 650 Nm
- Suspension Independent on 4 wheels, with double wishbones
- Transmission 1 speed
- Brakes Carboceramic discs
- Length/Width/Height 5200 mm/2350 mm /1200 mm
- Wheelbase 2850 mm
- Weight <1100 kg (driver included)
- Acel. 0-100 km/h 2.25 s
- Top speed 240 km/h
Relation between altitude and output on engines and motors:
|0 metres||Sea Level||100%||100%|
|2862 metres||Starting line||71%||100%|
|4302 metres||Finishing line||57%||100%|
Tomorrow: Interview with Romain Dumas: "You have one shot to be perfect"