The last person still working at Peugeot Sport who formed part of the 1987-'89 Pikes Peak campaigns actually retired only a few months ago, but for the French marque it was still a case of history repeating itself. Just like Ari Vatanen 25 years ago, Sebastien Loeb pulverized the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb course record. And one of the people to watch him do it was Robby Unser, the last person to win Pikes Peak in a Peugeot in 1989.
“It seems incredible that so much time has passed,” said Unser, “Because, looking around, it feels just the same.”
Peugeot's computer had calculated a theoretical best time of 8m15s, based on data collected during Loeb's test runs. Loeb confounded expectations to deliver a 8m13.878s.
“I had a bit of a question to myself before I started,” said the nine-time world rally champion at the top of the Peak after his record run. “Do I push really hard, to try and set a really good record, or is it better not to push so hard and be safe to get to the finish? In the end I pushed hard and I think I got the most out of the car that I could. It's a good record: I think it will be quite hard to beat.”
The outcome of both Loeb's dilemma and his race was predictable, but the 208 T16 Pikes Peak squad was nearly defeated by the elements. With a number of delays to the action, Loeb's start time was pushed further and further back. Eventually he blasted off just before midday: the time when the rain was expected to fall. And just minutes after reaching the 14,110ft summit, Loeb was sheltering in the doorway of the souvenir shop from a hailstorm.
“The weather could have been a big problem,” he pointed out. “On the start line I could see the clouds gathering at the top of the mountain and I thought that if we didn't get going soon, we would be in trouble.”
If Loeb's victory was foreseeable, the battle behind him was far less clear-cut. There was little to choose between the new Hyundai RMR PM 580-T of former record holder Rhys Millen and the Norma prototype of Le Mans GTE winner Romain Dumas, with just seconds splitting them throughout the total of their practice runs.
What Millen called “the race for second” came to an abrupt end when Dumas suffered an engine failure as he was beginning his run. This altered Millen's tactics completely: from being on a mission to push flat-out, he was now able to take a slightly more conservative approach. He knew his car was good enough for second, and the result was a 9m02.192s, smashing his 9m46.164s benchmark from last year.
“I'd actually hoped to get under the nine-minute barrier but it was just a bit too cold and slippery at the top,” he said. “I reckon I still could have done it: there was comfortably another three seconds in the car, but it just wasn't worth jeopardizing my second place.”
The only person he had to be careful of was Jean-Philippe Dayraut, who had been on course for a record-breaking run last year before his brakes gave up. This year, the multiple ice-racing champion was back with a 900-horsepower Mini that certainly looked the part. Despite his love of slippery surfaces, Dayraut too felt that the weather and his car had let him down. A time that was nearly two and half minutes slower than that of Loeb – but still good enough for third – backed up his story.
“Brakes again,” he fumed. “These days, you really need a proper prototype if you want to do well here. Probably this is my last time here…”
Nonetheless, not only the podium finishers (all from the Unlimited class) but the entire top four were actually within last year's record – just.
Paul Dallenbach, in fourth, used the same Hyundai Genesis Coupe with which Millen won overall last year and beat him by a tenth of a second. Dallenbach's time was enough to establish a new record in the Time Attack class (9m46.001s) and just behind him there was a momentous new record set in the Electric class too, courtesy of the inimitable Nobuhiro "Monster" Tajima.
As the Japanese driver raised the fighter-jet style canopy of his E-RUNNER, a mixture of snow and hail pelted his head. “So, so slippery!” shouted the most successful driver in Pikes Peak history. “I was really struggling for control but I tried as hard as I could: there was nothing else I could do. These aren't quite the worst conditions I've ever driven in – I remember once when we had full snow at the top – but nearly.”
Imagine Tajima's delight after he learned that he had set a time of 9m46.530s: faster than he had managed in 2011 with the mighty 910-horsepower twin-turbo Suzuki SX4, when he became the first man ever to dip under the 10-minute barrier.
A measure of the conditions was provided by Porsche driver Jeff Zwart, who finished third in Time Attack and 10th overall at the wheel of his unique turbocharged Carrera Cup car.
“This was my 14th Pikes Peak and I don't remember it ever being as slippery as this before,” he said. “It was really just a question of trying to get the car to the finish without any problems. You can prepare perfectly and get all your practice runs right, but the one thing you can't control is the weather. That's just part of the game.”
And getting to the finish is easier said than done – Englishman Pat Doran, for example, lost the brakes of his Ford RS200 Pikes Peak from the Devil's Playground onward, but still managed to end up 11th overall.
One of the questions that many people were asking themselves after Loeb's extraordinary triumph was how long it might take for his record to be broken. Rhys Millen had a different question: Will it ever be broken? “That upper part of the road is getting worse and worse,” he pointed out. “It might just be that nobody ever goes quicker.”
It's rare that you actually witness history being made. But today was one of those days.
• For an in-car video view of Loeb's run to the top, click here.