COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo.—All it took was two visits to the annual Pikes Peak International Hill Climb for it to steal our hearts. The second-oldest motor race in the United States—only the Indy 500 predates it—is unlike virtually every other professional motorsports event we cover. And this year’s edition proved to be novel in its own right.
Last weekend, we were on hand to witness French racing driver Romain Dumas and car maker Volkswagen stamp their authority on all 12.4-miles (19.99km) of the course, destroying the course’s existing record and setting the first sub-eight minute time in race history. What makes the feat even more interesting around Ars is that the car in the record books is all-electric, marking perhaps the first time in major motorsport that a battery electric vehicle has beaten the internal combustion engine fair and square.
In retrospect, if any car has an advantage at Pikes Peak it’s the EV. The start line is already at 9,390 feet (2,862m) above sea level; the finish line is an even higher 14,110 feet (4,300m) and much of the course is above the tree line where there’s 40 percent less oxygen to breathe. Consequently, internal combustion engines will lose power—significantly—as they climb the route, even with the aid of forced induction or crafty fuel mixtures.
But electric motors don’t care about partial pressures of oxygen, and these will output the same power and torque whether they’re at the top of the mountain or the bottom. And with only one run per car allowed on race day, there’s little reason to be anxious about range. Carry just enough battery to get you to the top, keep it in its optimum temperature window, . It could result in history.
For decades, completing the course in less than 10 minutes seemed like a fantasy. It took until 2011, the last year before the entire route to the top was paved, for Nobuhiro “Monster” Tajima to break that barrier with a time of 9:51.58. The following year, Tajima switched to electric propulsion and by 2015, the EVs were getting really serious.
Rhys Millen beat Tajima for the fastest run of the day with a time of 9:07.22 that year. Then in 2016, we embedded with Tajima’s team, which once again faced off against Rhys Millen and his Drive eO electric racer. Back then, Millen had the fewest problems and even beat the nine-minute mark. Though none of the EVs were able to match Romain Dumas’ gasoline-powered performance in his Norma M20 on that day. The Frenchman—still jet-lagged from having won Le Mans the previous weekend no less—completed his run in 8:51.445.
In the lead up to the 2018 race, VW’s stated goal was clear—beat Rhys Millen’s 2016 EV record. Everyone I spoke to from the team was singing from the same hymn sheet, though almost always with a wry smile or twinkle in their eye. The EV accolade would be nice, but there’s only one Pikes Peak record that has meant anything since the transition to all-tarmac: it’s the one formerly set by Peugeot and Sebastien Loeb.
The record we thought would stand for ages
In 2012, Peugeot had a bit of an image problem. It was set to continue its racing battles with Audi, fielding a clever new hybrid in the then-new World Endurance Championship and at Le Mans. But beating Audi wasn’t cheap, and the optics of spending tens of millions of euros a year to do that while firing thousands of workers were pretty bad. Just weeks before the season started, Peugeot even killed its racing program. Several months on and with a new CEO running things, the hostility towards a motorsport program had faded. A bit of motorsports glory would offset a good deal of recent bad news, the thinking went. Whatever the plans, it had to be quick cheap really really fast. Usually, you only get to pick two of those.
Peugeot had success at Pikes Peak in the late 1980s, and the company did much to popularize the event with the short film, . The film is just five minutes long, less than half the time driver Ari Vatanen actually needed to cover the distance on his way to 1988’s fastest time. But the footage of Vatanen at work showed us the racing driver as artist as well as athlete. Man and car put on a balletic performance of drifting and car control. Back then cameras were still heavy and fragile (or very expensive), and there was no Internet, so good in-car footage was hard to make and harder to find. quickly became one of a handful of works like , , and Steve McQueen’s that inflamed the passions of many a driving enthusiast.
By 2013, the Internet meant there was a way to reach many more eyeballs, particularly if Red Bull could be persuaded to take on that task. The company could, it turned out, which left a few months for Peugeot Sport to build a car and for nine-time World Rally Champion Sebastian Loeb to learn the course and prepare. The car was called the 208 T16; the only thing it shared with the road-going 208 was a vague similarity in size and shape (minus the wings, of course). The one at the rear was borrowed from the Le Mans car, which also donated suspension and brakes. The engine was a turbocharged 3.2L V6 that it had supplied to the Pescarolo Le Mans team, and Peugeot’s rallying program provided a transmission and suitable all-wheel drive system. Body panels were ultra lightweight carbon fiber, and the chassis was a tubular frame design that kept weight as low as possible.
With 875hp (kW) in and a car that weighed just 1,929lbs (875kg)—plus one of the world’s very best drivers behind the wheel—a new record seemed certain as long as the weather cooperated. It did. Loeb reached the top in 8:13.878, a time that many openly thought might never be bettered.