The Pikes Peak International Hill Climb is simply legendary. It first ran in 1916, when other motorsport monuments such as Le Mans and the Monaco Grand Prix hadn't even been thought of. But while the first competitors were true pioneers, and the Unser family ensured its status in America through the 1950s and '60s, it was in the '80s when Pikes Peak found international renown, when manufacturers such as Audi and Peugeot became involved.
Audi first came to Colorado's motorsport Mecca in 1984, when Michele Mouton scored the first of her two victories here in the Quattro. The following year, she broke the course record, a fact that went down badly with local hero Bobby Unser, who didn't take kindly to being beaten by a girl. “If you've really got balls,” Michele responded, “we'll turn around and I'll race you back down as well.” With 156 corners covering an elevation of 4,711 feet, he quite wisely didn't take her up on the offer.
It's precisely this altitude that causes the biggest problems for teams and drivers. When you're up that high, engines struggle to breathe and downforce is also diminished. As a rough idea, an engine loses one percent of its efficiency for every 330 feet climbed, so by the time any car reaches the top of Pikes Peak, it's about 30 percent less powerful than when it started. It's a similar story – although not quite to the same dramatic extent – for aerodynamics. Thin air provides less downforce than fat air, to put it simply. And if it's bad for the cars, imagine what it's like for the drivers. Many of them breathe through an oxygen supply, like mountain climbers – which effectively they are.
“I was skeptical at first but it actually makes a difference,” points out nine-time World Rally Champion Sebastien Loeb, the star attraction in his specially built Peugeot (RIGHT) this year. “The oxygen doesn't give you anything extra, but it stops you losing performance at the top: which is just as crucial.”
Loeb, now semi-retired from rallying at the age of 39, has come to Colorado hoping to recreate history for Peugeot. With Audi dominating Pikes Peak during the mid-1980s, its archrivals in world rallying, Peugeot, wanted a slice of the action.
And it was this battle between the two manufacturers that really put Pikes Peak on the world map. The French manufacturer made its PPIHC debut in 1987 with a lengthened and more powerful version of the 205 T16 rally car, which had become redundant when the FIA banned such super-powerful Group B machines at the end of 1986 after several accidents.
First time around at Pikes Peak, the reigning world rally champions were beaten by Audi, and so for 1988, Peugeot created the archetypal Pikes Peak car: the 405 T16. It became an overnight legend that inspired a cutting-edge documentary film: Climbdance, starring 1981 World Rally Champion Ari Vatanen. If you haven't seen it, watch it now:
The record Vatanen set that year would go unbroken until 1993. And now Peugeot is hoping to relive the glory days and shatter the benchmark once more, thanks to the custom 208 T16 Pikes Peak, which has an eye-opening power-to-weight ratio of one horsepower to 2.2lbs (1 kilogram) and is mostly made out of bits of Peugeot's now-defunct 908 Le Mans car.
Such a race-bred monster has only been a viable weapon for one year at Pikes Peak as, up until 2011, the course was run at least partially on gravel. Now entirely on asphalt, it's an all-together different prospect that has attracted its fair share of racing drivers. Porsche factory pilot Romain Dumas will fly in straight from Le Mans this week to drive a Norma sports prototype, having been beaten to victory in Pikes Peak last year (when he was driving a Porsche 911 GT3R) by just 0.017sec: the smallest winning margin in PPIHC history.
Simon Pagenaud is another French racing driver who this year makes his Pikes Peak debut, perhaps surprisingly, at the wheel of an SUV. But this is no ordinary school-run chariot: instead, it's a 532hp turbocharged Honda Odyssey.
And that's the charm of Pikes Peak, with its myriad classes (more than 20 in total) for cars and motorbikes, which somehow manage to combine rustic tradition with cutting-edge technology. It's become a showcase for electric vehicles, for example – with even the most successful driver on the mountain, seven-time winner Nobuhiro “Monster” Tajima (RIGHT) now powered by voltage rather than gas.
The altitude actually hands the electric cars an advantage at the top of the hill: there's no 30 percent power loss if your engine doesn't breathe air. The instantly accessible torque of an electric motor is also ideal for propelling the cars rapidly out of all those neck-snapping corners.
Tajima – the man who broke Vatanen's 1988 record in 1993 – thinks that an electric car can win overall. But he'll have a job to beat not just Loeb but also multiple ice-racing champion Jean-Philippe Dayraut who, on paper has the equipment best able to take the fight to Peugeot – a 900hp, 2,000lb Mini Countryman.
That's a brand-new car for this year, as is the new Hyundai RMR PM580T of Rhys Millen, who's the current course record-holder having set a time of 9m46.164s last year, as he edged Dumas. Millen's new car uses a Grand-Am chassis and lightweight bodywork, and thus Millen joins Loeb and Dayraut in the Unlimited class (which allows pretty much what you'd expect – anything!). The Hyundai is powered a 4.1-liter turbocharged V6 and is rear-wheel drive only, meaning that Millen will be banking on good weather: a safe but not certain bet at this time of year. Should all go well, he says his aim is to crack the nine-minute barrier – a formidable target when you consider that the 10-minute mark was broken only two years ago.
There's free practice on Tuesday and qualifying for all the different classes on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Qualifying decides the start order, an important consideration as certain times of day are more favorable than others for setting a quick time. Finally, on Sunday, it's race time – and maybe history will be made.
Tomorrow, we profile Jeff Zwart's highly successful Pikes Peak campaigns for Porsche.