All-time record falls as Volkswagen wins Pikes Peak hill climb with its electric racer
June 28 2018,
by COSTA MOUZOURIS
July 26, 2018
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado – You could sense the tension in the air just by reading the forced smiles on Volkswagen’s executives. Strolling around the paddock in the early morning hours of race day at the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, they shook hands cordially and exchanged pleasantries with race fans, but then reverted to stern expressions when discussing the race amongst themselves. They had a lot to worry about, after all. The weather — cool, overcast, and at places, foggy — wasn’t ideal for setting a record pace. While the I.D. R electric race car had set a fast pace in separate sections of the mountain circuit during testing, and had qualified fastest, it had not yet attempted the entire run; engineers were not certain the battery could last the entire race distance, being it was the most compact it could be to save weight. And to add to their stress, a couple of previous high profile attempts at the Race to the Clouds by the company had ended prematurely due to mechanical failures.
The car itself, which is a prototype lookalike with two electric motors and AWD, was revealed only in April of this year, and it did not exist just a few months before that. The project itself only came about in October of last year, taking about 28 weeks to go from idea to full race team — with a purpose-built race car. Their goal was to break the electric car record of 8 minutes 57.118 seconds at Pikes Peak, set by New Zealander, Rhys Millen, in 2016. Frenchman Sébastien Loeb had set the outright record of 8 min 13.878 sec in 2013 driving a purpose-built, 875-horsepower Peugeot 208. To put chance on their side, Volkswagen hired two-time Le Mans winner and 2016 WEC champion, Romain Dumas, to drive the car.
Those execs were also concerned about the team’s performance because Volkswagen has made a big commitment and investment to electric propulsion for the future. The company has announced the release of three electric cars in the coming years, beginning with the I.D. in Europe in 2019, the I.D. Crozz in North America in 2020, and the I.D. Buzz sometime in 2022, maybe sooner.
Breaking an electric-car record at a hill climb in the U.S. might not have the prestige of winning a 24-hour endurance, but the race poses unique challenges, including a 20-km course with 156 turns, and power-robbing elevation change. Pikes Peak is also the second-oldest car race in the U.S. and it attracts big-name competitors from around the world. The world would also be watching, as Volkswagen had invited media from around the world to Pikes Peak to witness the attempt. As Volkswagen Canada’s Thomas Tetzlaff put it: “If we don’t break the electric car record, there’s no story.”
Dumas rolled out of the paddock tent a few minutes before the 10 am start, just as the sky began getting darker and reports of fog along sections of the course were coming in. Unlike gasoline-powered race cars that draw spectators’ attention with bellowing exhausts as they fire up, the Volkswagen I.D. R drew crowds when its ambulance-like siren wail turned on. This device is mandatory on electric cars because, aside from some gear whine, they make no other sound to warn spectators and trackside safety officials that they are coming.
Dumas took that start and zipped quietly around the first bend, as we headed to the hospitality tent to watch his progress up the mountain. Unfortunately the television screens were down, so despite this potential technological milestone of a race, we gathered around a single speaker to listen to a crackling AM broadcast of the race, much as they probably did in the early days of the event.
The I.D. R has several advantages over a gasoline powered race car that are especially beneficial at Pikes Peak. One of them is instantaneous torque output. Its two electric motors produce 480 lb.-ft. of torque each, and that torque is available as soon as the motors start to spin. This high torque output combines with the I.D. R’s AWD to provide tremendous corner-exit acceleration — and Pikes Peak has a lot of turns, many of them hairpin-tight. The other, bigger advantage is that the electric motors are unaffected by elevation change. While gasoline engines begin to starve for air as they approach the 4,302-metre summit and lose as much as 20 per cent of their power, electric motors maintain full output regardless of elevation.
Dumas put these advantages to use by driving flawlessly up the mountain to the finish. When the first report of the unofficial time of 7 min 57.148 sec crackled through the speaker, I was certain it must have been for a section of the course and not for the finish. When the announcement came that it was the official time and I heard the cheering, my jaw dropped. Not only did Dumas break the old electric car record by a minute, he also broke the outright Pikes Peak record by more than 13 seconds.
Volkswagen executives were genuinely ecstatic now. Champagne was passed around, interviews given, and most importantly, history was made. For the first time in the 102 years since the race was first run, the fastest car to the summit did not have an internal combustion engine. I predict that it will take a long time — if ever — for this record to be broken by a gasoline-powered race car.
Although many challenges remain before electric cars become more mainstream, this remarkable feat will no doubt energise Volkswagen’s push towards fully electric mobility. As Hinrich Woebcken, CEO of Volkswagen Group of North America told me: “The countdown for the future has begun today.”