The alarm is set for 3am but I’m wide awake well before it rings. It’s the effect of jet lag to a large extent, but also adrenalin building up in anticipation of my first encounter with the mountain. The mountain is Pikes Peak in Colorado, home to the longest, highest and most extreme hill climb on earth. The starting line alone is at an elevation of 9,390ft and the finish at the summit is 14,110ft above the ocean. It’s 20km (19.99km to be exact) long with 156 corners, most of which have no guard rail, no run-offs or gravel traps, but sharp drops where, if you slide off, a parachute is more likely to save you than a roll cage.
It’s the spectacular terrain and altitude that has made the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, as it is formally known, one the greatest motorsport events in the world. First held in 1916, it’s the second-oldest race in America after the Indy 500 and has seen some of the world’s best drivers blast up the mountain in insanely quick cars. The race cars too make Pikes Peak so very special because this is possibly the only international race in the world where cars don’t have to conform to any regulations. The Unlimited Class, as the name suggests, has no limits and competitors can bring just about anything on four wheels, as long as they meet the required safety standards.
Temperature-controlled plastic tent keeps I.D. R’s batteries at optimal temperature.
The paddock has the feel of a club event. There are no motorhomes, no security, no strictly out-of-bounds areas. It’s one mad fest of all kinds of machinery – from fully prepped factory cars to privateers in 30-year-old bangers with fully blown engines. I couldn’t get over Tim Hardy’s 1987 E30 BMW 325i, which he had pumped up to develop 650hp! There are even big trucks, dune buggies, purpose-built single-seaters, and, of course, electric cars.
Massive turbochargers and humongous wings are the order of the day, because, at this altitude, the air we (and the engines) breathe is in short supply. You need forced induction to squeeze as much of it in the engine and lots of aero to compensate for the lower downforce experienced in the thin air. There’s a proliferation of spoilers, diffusers, splitters and all sorts of aero devices in the quest to increase downforce. Most of the Unlimited Class cars have rear wings the size of a garden bench. It all looks fabulously dramatic, and the sound and smell of the engines running rich, spewing out neat petrol is a heady experience. In true American style, Pikes Peak is a celebration of internal combustion. But, this year, Volkswagen is here to spoil the party with its purpose-built, full-electric I.D. R Pikes Peak racer.
RACE TO THE CLOUDS
The bus with all of us journos onboard leaves the Mining Exchange hotel at 3.30am sharp. We have to reach Devil’s Playground, the best viewing area on the mountain, some 14km from the start line at an altitude of 13,000ft, before 5.30am. That’s when the 20km course is closed for practice to start. There’s only one road up to the summit and everyone has to use it; spectators, officials, marshals, media and competitors alike.
The view from Devil’s Playground is simply outstanding and lives up to the Hill Climb’s other name – Race to the Clouds. The early morning sun has just popped above a thick blanket of clouds that extend all the way to the horizon; it’s a truly magical sight and the race hasn’t even started. It’s Friday and we are here for the final practice run that’s split class-wise, over three sections of the 20km road. The Unlimited cars are on the final run and a large parking area has been converted into a makeshift pit area for all the competitors. The still mountain air is broken by the sound of racing engines ricocheting off the rock face, and from my fantastic vantage point, I can hear the cars for a good minute or so before they fly into view.
Gigantic turbos needed to make engines breathe in thin air.
And then came something I was not prepared for. A high-pitched siren that sounded like an ambulance; it turned out to be the VW I.D. R Pikes Peak racer approaching the start line. Because electric cars are so quiet, the organisers insist they create some artificial noise to warn spectators and scare animals away. That’s why there’s a regulation that electric cars have to be at least 120dB loud, and hence the siren!
Romain Dumas, two-time LeMans winner and three-time winner of Pikes Peak, jumps into the I.D. R from the roof, which opens like a submarine’s hatch. Strapped in and ready to go, he’s flagged off by the course starter and rockets out of sight. The I.D. R is gone in a whoosh as if it wasn’t there.
No motorsport event is complete without Porsche.
A fast walk at this altitude isn’t advisable for someone as unfit as me but I had to rush to another spot to get a better view of the VW I.D. R whizzing past on its next practice run. Watching the I.D. R was a bit of an anti-climax because you always equate speed with noise and this electric racer sounds more like a low-flying aircraft than a high-strung racing car. It’s visibly faster than anything else but the only sound you really hear (apart from that annoying siren) is tyre roar, and the car’s diffuser and massive rear wing shredding the air.
Dumas’ qualifying time of 3min 16.083sec on a shortened section of the course gave a hint of VW’s goal to break not just the 8min 57.118sec electric car record, but also Sebastien Loeb’s outright record of 8min 13.878sec. Not only was Dumas’ time faster than Loeb’s for the same run, it was set on the lower section of the course, where the lower altitude doesn’t give an electric motor as
big an advantage. That advantage would only increase in the climb to the top, as the I.D. R’s performance would be unaffected, unlike an internal combustion engine car, which would lose 40 percent of its power at the summit.
Dumas broke the record just in time. Snow came an hour after his run.
Still, VW Motorsport bosses kept mum about their intentions and didn’t go beyond saying that it was the EV record they were after. Anyone who has raced at Pikes Peak knows that it’s best not to speak too soon. And that’s because the weather here is so unpredictable that you can experience bright sunshine, rain, slush and snow all in a morning. To set a perfect time you need perfect conditions, and, hence, the biggest threat is always the weather. As the locals say, in the end “the mountain decides” who will win and who won’t.
THE MOUNTAIN DECIDES
There’s no racing on Saturday as the teams and drivers are still recovering from the previous night’s fan fest in Colorado Springs. The entire circus is set-up in the heart of the town for fans and enthusiasts to see all the crazy machinery and meet the drivers before Sunday’s race.
The weather forecast on race day ominously showed a 20 percent chance of rain, and all that the VW team could do was pray. Thankfully, the morning went smoothly with the early morning mist making way for a bright blue sky. The I.D. R sat cocooned in a temperature- controlled plastic tent, all prepped and ready. “Batteries work optimally in a very small temperature range so you have to be constantly cooling and heating them,” said Francois-Xavier Demaison, Volkswagen Motorsport’s technical director.
The race started with the bikes, which always go before the cars, and if everything went according to plan, Dumas would start his run around 9.30am. But it doesn’t always go according to plan. A bike crash and a helicopter evacuation of a spectator who collapsed because of altitude sickness stopped the race by 45min. And as Dumas waited, he watched the clouds envelope Pikes Peak. “It was very stressful just waiting in the car. I didn’t want to come out as that would have made me even more stressful!” he said.
The stripped-out, modded Beetle powered by a 250hp, 2.0 diesel.
He was finally called to the start line just after 10am, and he shot off like a rocket when the flag dropped. Standing patiently around 500m after the start, I almost missed the I.D. R, which flashed past so quickly and was gone before I could hear its siren.
Dumas pushed hard in the first sector, which is the fastest section of the course where the tarmac is also at its grippiest. He took it easy in the second sector but enjoyed the way the car rocketed out of the hairpins. “The car had a bit too much understeer and I think we selected harder tyres than we should have,” said Romain. The conditions got a little slippery here with the moisture-laden clouds laying a thin film of dampness on the road. “There wasn’t much grip in the second sector and I didn’t want to take chances.” The third sector or the final lunge to the summit was again sunny, so he pushed harder and strung it all together to cross the finish line in a stupendous 7min 57.148sec, averaging 145kph! Not only had Dumas and the I.D. R eclipsed the electric car record by exactly a whole minute, but they outright vapourised Loeb’s record by over 16sec. And he could have gone faster! “I think I could have gone another 10sec faster but I didn’t want to take risks because at Pikes Peak you only have one shot. It’s not like Nordschleife or LeMans where there is always another lap to make up,” said a relieved Dumas.
Dumas’ time of 7min 57.148sec makes him the fastest man ever on the mountain.
Romain Dumas and the Volkswagen I.D. R have made history. This is the first time the 8min barrier has been breached, and this is the first time an electric car has set the outright fastest time on the mountain. “For a race like this, with a distance of 20km, the perfect package is an electric car,” said Dumas. For Volkswagen, it was a vindication of its belief that the I.D. R could do it despite being developed in a record seven months.
It’s also the mountain that Dumas must thank. It waited for him to cross the finish line before dumping hail and snow on the summit. So it’s true what they say. At Pikes Peak, it’s the mountain that decides.
Q&A TOP OF THE WORLD - ROMAIN DUMAS TELLS US ABOUT HIS RECORD RUN
With your win, do you think the electric revolution in motorsport has started?
Last year when I finished the race I said the future at Pikes Peak will be electric. That’s for sure. But I’m not sure if this is the start of a revolution, especially when I see a Formula E race!
How much of a margin do you give yourself driving up the mountain compared to LeMans?
In LeMans we are driving at 99.9 percent but here I am driving at 90 percent. The problem at Pikes Peak is that we don’t have any time for testing, we test just three times before the race so I have to keep some margin.
Did you set up the car to have a bit more understeer and be less edgy on this treacherous course?
Yes the car is set up with a bit of understeer because it is always easier to manage an understeering car than one that oversteers, especially when you have a lot of trees and rocks on the side.
What else did you do with the set-up?
We tried to get the maximum downforce and played with the dampers, rolls bars and camber a little bit. But I have to say the balance of the car was really good.
What did you for seven hours at the summit?
Just sat in a small restaurant and had a cheeseburger.
PEAK CHARGE THE RECORD-SMASHING VW I.D. R
Romain Dumas’ outright record and first-ever sub-8min time in the 102-year history of Pikes Peak is thanks to the astonishing technology that powered the VW I.D R. Twin electric motors, one for each axle, develop a combined 680hp and 650Nm of torque. The I.D. R weighs less than 1,100kg and can accelerate from 0-100kph in a ridiculous 2.2sec; faster than a Formula 1 car!
Competing in the Unlimited Class gave VW engineers a lot of freedom to build a bespoke car to conquer the mountain. A lightweight structure was key, and according to Willy Rampf, technical advisor to the Pikes Peak project, computer simulation played a vital role in designing parts that were not oversized or overweight.
Racing in thin air where downforce on an average is 35 percent less than on a racetrack at sea level meant a lot of focus was put on achieving the maximum downforce for optimal cornering speeds. This is why the
I.D R has such a massive rear wing; it “compensates for some of the lost downforce,” said Rampf.
The core of any EV, even a race-bred one, is the battery pack, and the I.D. R’s lithium-ion battery has been designed to provide the best power density, and sacrifice range for the highest-possible power output.
Still, the VW Motorsports team wished they had more time to develop the I.D R because getting the car to the start line within the impossibly tight seven-month window meant outsourcing components, which wasn’t optimal. Rampf feels he needed more time “to get a better understanding of the batteries and battery management system which would have given us more pace.” It went down to the wire with engineers in a race against time to get the car race-ready. “Five days before the event the car wasn’t running properly.” But, in the end, the VW Motorsport team threw it all together to set a record in record time.