Friday, June 29, 2018

Volkswagen at Pikes Peak


The only time I ever drove the road to the top of Pikes Peak was back in the 1980s when the final miles were still gravel. Because the air is so thin and the road had so many treacherous drop-offs, I approached the whole project carefully�even though I was driving a rental car. By the time I got to the top (14,115', 4302 m) the car was hardly producing any power and I was worried I could even restart it if I turned it off.

I came away impressed by the courage necessary to race such a road and the technical problems facing anyone who wanted to do it fast. It required almost a half hour to drive a stretch of road the serious racers could cover in ten minutes.

So now we see that a new record has been set by an electric car. The final nails are being driven into the coffin for the internal combustion engine. This was the first time that an EV won an all-comers competition against ICE cars. It will not be the last.

It's a good thing that EVs are proving their objective superiority. It wasn't so long ago that owning an EV was an exercise in how many hardships one could endure. That has changed.

Other links:

Why electric vehicles will continue to dominate Pikes Peak after record-shattering run

How the VW I.D. R Went from Daydream to Pikes Peak Record Holder in 249 Days



7:57:148�Volkswagen makes racing history with record-breaking electric race car

Electric power beats the internal combustion engine fair and square in major motorsport.

JONATHAN M. GITLIN - 6/29/2018, 6:30 AM

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, et voila. 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 and cheap and 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, Climb Dance. 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. Climb Dance quickly became one of a handful of works like C'�tait un rendez-vous, Faszination on the N�rburgring, and Steve McQueen's Le Mans 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.

If only all corporate apologies were like this

Like Peugeot 2013, it's fair to say the VW of 2018 also has an image problem. The company remains squarely in the aftermath of the diesel emissions cheating scandal. With no future for diesel, VW is all about electric cars now. Some of this is court-ordered, like the $2 billion investment in a new network of high-speed charging infrastructure. But the courts didn't order it to develop a new architecture for EVs (called MEB), which we'll start seeing in a range of new cars bearing the I.D. name. According to Hinrich Woebcken�CEO of VW's North American region�success will require good charging infrastructure and good cars, but car makers also need to inspire passion about EVs. That's precisely where the I.D. R Pikes Peak comes in.

Like Peugeot five years ago, VW turned to the mountain to debut its creation. VW Motorsport director Sven Smeets similarly had a tight timeline: just nine months for the car and 10 additional weeks to test it. And like the Peugeot 208 T16, the I.D. R Pikes Peak has almost nothing in common with any road-going car that might share its name.

The I.D. R might just be the most beautiful purpose-built racing car to turn a wheel in anger since the turn of the century. At first glance it looks like one of the prototypes that race at Le Mans or Daytona. Then you notice the proportions; it's a short car in length and height but makes up for it in width. It's actually small enough that you get in it through a roof hatch, but despite its relative lack of size it has a lot of stage presence. It would be hard not to when sporting such massive wings.

The Pikes Peak rulebook factors in here. The I.D. R was built to compete in the Unlimited class, which is pretty much what it sounds like. As long as the car meets the safety requirements, go bananas. The front and rear wings are much bigger than you'd get away with in any other series; ditto the floor extensions along the sides. The bigger the wings, the greater the downforce they can generate. But the aero bits have to be huge because the I.D. R has to chase cornering speeds at altitudes where there's 35 percent less air to work with than at sea level.

It's also a function of the I.D. R's electric powertrain. The main cooling requirement is the battery pack, and as long as it stays in the right temperature window everything is fine. (Exactly what this temperature was, nobody would say.) There's no engine to feed with air and few radiators to cool, so the body isn't scarred with intake ducts, scoops, or vents.

With such little time to design, build, and test the car before the 2018 race�scheduled for Sunday, June 24�VW used a proven hillclimb prototype as its starting point. Specifically, the carbon fiber tub and suspension come from a Norma M20 race car. And the two electric motors�one for each axle rated at 250kW (335hp)�are very similar to the motors being introduced into Formula E when season five starts later this year.

I was unable to find anyone who could tell me which Formula E team's motors provided the starting point, but the most obvious candidate would be the Audi team (after all, family's family). Porsche also chipped in a little on the aerodynamics side of things, but forget any rumor you heard that the I.D. R is related to the 919 Hybrid or R18.
A purpose-built racer

Also, forget any ideas about VW using the I.D. R to stress test some aspect of the new MEB electric vehicle platform. The lithium-ion battery pack�approximately 43kWh in capacity�is bespoke to the car, and the cell chemistry has been optimized for power density and performance rather than energy density and range. The car has not been designed with tech transfer as the aim; the point was to set a new Pikes Peak record.

But which record? From the moment the car broke cover in April until the moment it crossed the finish line on Sunday morning, VW remained on-message. The goal was to set a new EV record, which just meant going faster that Rhys Millen's 2016 time of 8:57.118. The time set by Loeb in 2013 was considered almost untouchable, of course, particularly in a car that was both less powerful and heavier than the Peugeot racer. (VW repeatedly told us it weighs "under 1,100kg" [2,425lbs], but if you guessed that no one was prepared to give us the car's exact weight, well done.)

The size of the wings alone should have made it plain that the true goal was a new overall record. Together with the decorated choice of Dumas in the driving seat, the ambition was practically screaming in our faces.
If you're going to build the fastest car, you might as well hire the fastest driver

You might think a day job as a racing driver on a factory team would be enough, but everyone needs a hobby and Dumas' is hillclimbing. For the past few years he's travelled to Colorado immediately after Le Mans to tackle Pikes Peak. What's more, it's an entirely private effort, racing on his own dime and not an OEM budget. He's proven good at it, with overall wins in 2014 as well 2016 and 2017. Every driver I've spoken to about the challenge of racing Pikes Peak tells me there's no substitute for experience, and it's hard to imagine that Loeb knew the road as well in 2013 as Dumas did in 2018.

Any doubts in my mind were dispelled shortly after sunrise on Friday. Barring weather or technical difficulties, Dumas and the I.D. R were going to smash the record, probably setting a time that started with a seven. I had made the predawn trip up to Devil's Playground, a cool 13,000 feet up, to watch the I.D. R's final practice session. Between 5:30am and 8:30am, competitors in certain classes were free to run the final two-and-a-bit mile stretch as often as they wanted.

From my vantage point, I could see the cars make a standing start, negotiate a fast right kink, then disappear behind behind a blind left. It was quite the sensory experience. Exhausts popped and banged as ECUs juggled fuel-air ratios to compensate for the lack of oxygen. Some cars left exotic aromas in their wake, betraying some fuel additive or other. After all, rockets bring along their own oxidizers, so why not race cars? Mostly these just further inflamed mucous membranes already unhappy with the rarefied air, although someone was running something that evidently came in Tropical Punch flavor.

When Dumas went out on his first run, what noise there was came from the whine of the electric motors and the annoying siren that EVs are required to run during the race. In the blink of an eye, the car was at racing speed, then it was gone from view. According to the stats, the I.D. R will reach 60mph from a standstill in 2.2 seconds. Only a rallycross car is faster off the line, but the EV does it with so much less fuss.

My own yardstick was to put this in the context of the various LMP1 hybrids exiting the final corner at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. One year the Toyota TS040 had the best punch out of the corner and down the main straight. The next, Porsche had found a way to get the 919 Hybrid to Vmax in even less time. Well, none of those cars compare to the way the electric VW picks up speed from a slow corner. It can't match the top speeds of those Le Mans cars, but that track has some very long straights and many fewer corners per mile than Pikes Peak.

With no rulebook to hold them back, VW's engineers have given the I.D. R a full suite of traction control, antilock brakes, and so on, all meant to give the driver as stable and forgiving a platform as possible. Dumas was more than happy with the car. "I just want the race to start," he told after these practice sessions. "The Car is set up to be as easy as possible to drive. I cannot say it�s relaxed but it�s OK, I like the car a lot to drive. We tested on a race track yesterday [Pikes Peak International Raceway], and this car is really really fast even compared to a lot of LMPs I�ve driven."

In a hill climb, the competitors race one at a time against the clock. Here at Pikes Peak, that run order is determined during qualifying, with the bikes running from slowest to fastest, then the cars running from fastest to slowest. Dumas, therefore, would be the first four-wheel run on race day�his qualifying time was seven seconds faster over the same stretch of road as Loeb had been in 2013.

Thankfully for all involved, the bike classes encountered few problems (in 2016, the cars didn't run until almost noon as a result of several red flag periods caused by accidents and icy conditions up top). It was time for the I.D. R. to leave its climate-controlled tent for the start line�just as soon as the horde of journalists assembled in front of it could be persuaded to make room.

Just under eight minutes later, the job was done. Dumas hadn't just beaten the EV record, he obliterated. His new record bested the old electric-one by almost exactly a minute. Loeb's overall record had fallen, too, by almost 16 seconds. Job done, history made. more

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