Pikes Peak: how electric vehicles are changing the landscape of motorsport's wild frontier
Hillclimbing is one of the oldest forms of motorsport, in which drivers hurtle up an uncomfortably steep, incredibly narrow course (ideally with a generous sprinkling of switchbacks) against the clock in a bid to see who’s got the best handling skills/ most reckless approach / fastest car. It’s a big thing in some European countries like France or Austria, and a very big thing in the US. And the biggest thing in hill climbing in the US is Pikes Peak International Hill Climb (normally, and sensibly, shortened to Pikes Peak).
And, as is the case with a number of motorsport disciplines, electric cars are beginning to hijack it with their combination of stellar performance and zero tailpipe emissions.
The race to the clouds, steeped in motorsport folk law. One of a handful of places where the European racing world looks to the United States and wants to compete. You don’t see Audi or Mercedes competing in NASCAR or Indycar but in the 1980s the Germans and French sent fire breathing monsters to Colorado to compete on the famous Rocky Mountain climb.
Every year, the 12 mile road up the mountain side is shut and competitors on all forms of motorised transport race up the hill; motorbikes, quads, production and specialised vehicles. However, 4 wheeled ones are the fastest things going around corners, and purpose built race cars are even better. These are the ones that draw the most attention, the most buzz on social media, and the most prestige.
Now why is an Electric Vehicle solutions company writing about a hundred year old race to the clouds where burning dead dinosaurs is considered the best way to get from the bottom to the top?
Because it isn't! In the last few years Pikes Peak has just seen an influx of electric vehicles ready to take on the challenge. First let's have a quick science lesson.
Here comes the science...
An internal combustion engine works in four steps. Suck, Squeeze, Bang, Blow.
Suck - intake the ambient air (more on this later)
Squeeze - it compresses this air then mixes it with a flammable substance
Bang - a spark of electricity ignites the mixture in the chamber and forces the piston down, providing a force that in turn pushes the car forward
Blow - after this chemical reaction, the engine expels this waste gas into the atmosphere.
This burning happens on average at a ratio of 14 parts air (oxygen) to one part fuel.
This is why petrol and diesel cars create gases that cause harm in cities when we breathe them in. This is also what leads to them being inferior on the hillclimb at Pikes Peak. The race to the clouds climbs up the mountain which stands at more than 14,000 feet above sea level. The air changes density as you climb the hill, the air is thinner at the top than at the bottom. Meaning that 14/1 ratio becomes closer to 10/1 meaning less of an explosion is created and therefore less power is used to push the car forward. This effect just doesn't happen in an electric car; it stays consistent all the way up the hill. The driver knows they can push it, knowing where the limit is.
It isn't only purpose-built race cars that throw themselves up this beast of a climb, it’s thrown up “normal” Tesla drivers just wanting to have an audacious attempt. One driver was so focused on keeping his Model S cool he invested in a Model S-sized tray of ice to keep the temperature down before 12 minutes of abuse it was about to be subjected to by Blake Fuller. He set the fastest production EV time which still stands today.
Recent history...and the EVs emerge
The first person ever under 10 minutes up the hill Nobuhiro Tajima, swapped his Suzuki for a purpose build electric car in 2011 because an electric motor provides the same amount of power the whole way up and because there is less stress to the engine. He was the EV trailblazer, setting the fastest (at the time) all -electric powered time up this hill.
In 2013, Pikes Peak caught the eye of the one of the greatest drivers on the planet, Sebastian Loeb. He’s won the WRC world rally championship 9 times, competing against - and besting- some of the greatest names ever in the sport. In what could well be the last hurrah for an internal combustion engine vehicle on Pikes Peak, and with the not insignificant backing of Red Bull and Peugeot, he set the world on fire, 8 minutes and 13 seconds to do the 12.42 miles up the mountain.
Then, in 2018, Volkswagen arrived and electricity bit back. Le Mans winner Romain Dumas was brought in for his wealth of experience in driving prototype vehicles. They went a full 15 seconds faster in the fastest EV ever built, the I.D. R.
The development of this car took two years, based on Porsche's Le Mans prototype race car, with two motors; one at the front and one at the back, to push and pull the car through the corners. Using dual motor technology creates unprecedented road holding; allied this to the torque and control that are the hallmarks of all electric cars (not just record breaking hypercars) .
7 minutes 57.148 seconds
That's the new benchmark, and that benchmark is electric.
The final runs of Pikes Peak International Hillclimb are this weekend (30th of June).
If you'd like to learn more about this technology in your normal road car, you can sign up to one of our dedicated workshops.