Near silence. Followed by total silence. Before a prolonged period of profanities. That was the scene from the side of the Pikes Peak Highway shortly after 10 on the final Sunday morning of June.
The watching world had just been introduced to the future; America, perhaps briefly, had embraced electric. That was the impact Volkswagen Motorsport’s I.D. R had on the second oldest race in the United States: the Pikes Peak International Hillclimb.
With Romain Dumas and his battery-powered prototype a handful of seconds up the road and out of sight, a rather large chap took a slug from his bottle of Coors, pulled a tired-looking ‘STP’ cap from his head, gave it a scratch and nudged his pal.
“Shoot,” he grinned, “I think we just saw our first UFO…”
From the moment Dumas passed under the start gantry, and for the next seven minutes and 57.148 seconds, jaws continued to drop. Dumas ignored the fog, damp roads and edge-of-the-world drops to average 90.538mph through 156 corners in 12.42 miles.
Five years ago, nine-time World Rally Champion Sébastien Loeb took a 3.2-litre twin-turbo Peugeot 208 T16 (loosely speaking a 908 HDi) up America’s mountain in 8m13.878s. Everybody bowed to the Alsatian’s brilliance, bestowing on him the lifelong tag of ‘King of the mountain’ while announcing Loeb’s benchmark would stand for the rest of time.
It might well have done had it not been for a single point at a Volkswagen board meeting in Wolfsburg on September 2 last year. The point in question was dealt with quickly. Time was of the essence.
“I got a text from that meeting saying the Pikes Peak programme was go,” said Volkswagen Motorsport team principal Sven Smeets. “Immediately, I told F-X [Francois-Xavier Demaison, technical director] and we got started. We had six months to turn a rally team into a race team and make a prototype for Pikes Peak.”
Securing Dumas’ services were central to the project. He jumped at the chance.
Other than the driver, there was one more component of the Dumas team Demaison wanted: the Norma M20 RD Dumas had used to win in Colorado 12 months earlier.
“Because we had so little time, the easiest thing was to ‘electrify’ Dumas’ car from last year,” said Demaison. “We knew we could modify the monocoque to take the battery and we could then keep the suspension, steering and all the other components. So that’s what we started to do…”
The overhaul of the chassis was a given, but then the vast majority of other areas changed as well.
“Why?” said Demaison. “Because we are engineers and that’s what we do – especially on a project like this.
We were running with the car in the unlimited class. Here you need some safety and a wheel on every corner. Asking an engineer if he wants to make a car for this class is like asking a blind man if he would like to see.”
The absence of technical restrictions were, however, tempered by the lack of time.
Demaison continued: “We wanted to make our own monocoque, but it would have been two months just to do the tooling. We modified last year’s Norma.”
Out of the WRC at the end of 2016, Volkswagen Motorsport was given a two-pronged mission statement to involve itself in customer racing with TCR and R5 cars and electric motorsport with the I.D. R and the world’s most risky race.
Dumas said: “You have one chance. If you get one corner wrong, you can’t come back to the beginning and try again. You are finished. And if you get it wrong on some corners, then you go for the big jump…”
Dumas got every corner right. Like Volkswagen got every aspect of the I.D. R right.
The two things that stood this car out against anything else on the mountain are the mind-blowing acceleration from the batteries and the downforce generated by a 2.4-metre wide rear wing.
“Battery technology is evolving all the time,” said Demaison. “When we started the project in September, our American supplier was working on a prototype with more power for less weight. By January, we began to run this battery in parallel to the original, but we went with the evolution. What we needed was power, not so much energy density; we needed full power for 20 kilometres, not something with charge and range for 300 kilometres.”
Ultimately, the I.D. R only had enough battery for 80% of the hill, the remaining 20 came from re-generation under braking. But the battery’s biggest edge over internal combustion was its ability to deliver 100% power throughout – even in the thin air of the 14,000ft finish line.
It was that thin air – 40% less dense at the finish than it would be at sea level – which shaped the car’s aero; if the battery was tech-driven, the wings were all about biggest being best.
“If you have a lot of downforce down here,” said Demaison, “you can still have some up there… the bigger the wing, the more aero you can get. It’s simple.”