At Pikes Peak, VW just used an EV to smash a gas-powered record

The Volkswagen I.D. R, an electric race car that looks like a cross between an iMac and the Batmobile, just made history.

Piloted by French racing driver Romain Dumas, the I.D. R broke the overall record at the 2018 Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. The electric VW covered the 12.4-mile course in 7:57.148, not only annihilating the previous 8:57.118 record for electric cars Volkswagen set out to beat but earning the title of fastest car on the mountain – period.

Pikes Peak is the second-oldest race in the United States (after the Indianapolis 500), and one of the toughest. It’s also one of the few where electric cars compete head to head with good ole internal combustion. The car VW’s I.D. R beat to take the record was the Peugeot 208 T16, which was powered by an 875-horsepower twin-turbocharged V6 and made it up Pikes Peak in 8:13.878 in 2013 in the hands of another Frenchman, Sebastian Loeb.

VW’s dominant victory should erase any doubt that electric cars can match the performance of gasoline or diesel – even in one of the world’s most challenging races. And VW claims the I.D. R will inform the development of its future production electric cars.

Why Pikes Peak?

Volkswagen Motorsports director Sven Smeets told Digital Trends the brand came to Pikes Peak for the challenge it presents to both human and machine and because of unfinished business.

“The biggest obstacle, in fact, was the weather.”

“Thirty years ago, we didn’t make it to the top. It was something that we wanted to set right,” Smeets said. In 1985, Volkswagen showed up at Pikes Peak with a monstrous, twin-engine Golf hatchback; one engine powered each axle. This unorthodox (but, somewhat surprisingly, not unique) approach to all-wheel drive didn’t bring VW a win that year or when the automaker returned in 1986 and 1987. In its last year of competition, the Golf broke just a few corners from the finish line.

As VW’s previous experience proved, just finishing Pikes Peak is an achievement. Drivers don’t race against each other; they race against the mountain. The course includes 156 turns, some with sheer cliffs just beyond the road. Any driver that crashes through the barrier at appropriately named Bottomless Pit corner faces a 2,500-foot drop. But as the I.D. R rolled out of the pits, weather was the VW team’s biggest concern.

Volkswagen ID R Pikes Peak
Volkswagen

As team members and journalists stood around Volkswagen’s pit waiting for the I.D. R to be released for its run up the mountain, all eyes darted from the sleek race car to the clouds that were slowly replacing blue skies. From the start line to the finish line, the Pikes Peak course rises 4,725 feet over its 12.4 miles, and the weather can vary wildly on different parts of the course.

“The biggest obstacle, in fact, was the weather,” Smeets said after the record run.

But the climate at Pikes Peak also provides electric cars an important advantage. The summit of Pikes Peak is 14,115 feet above sea level and, just like human beings, internal combustion engines can have trouble breathing at such a high altitude. While gasoline and diesel cars can lose power in the thin air, electric cars like the I.D. R are unaffected because they don’t require air to generate forward motion.

Volkswagen ID R Pikes Peak
Volkswagen

That’s why competitors have been racing electric cars at Pikes Peak for decades. The first electric car to run the hill climb was a Sears XDH-1 — a Fiat 128 coupe converted to electric power by Sears, Roebuck, and Company. It took 35 minutes to climb Pikes Peak in 1981. Fast forward to 2016, and New Zealander Rhys Millen’s eO PP100 climbed the mountain in 8:57.118, setting a record for electric cars but failing to eclipse the overall record set by Sebastian Loeb and Peugeot. Enter Volkswagen, Romain Dumas, and the I.D. R.

The I.D. R

To understand why VW built the I.D. R, you have to go back to “Dieselgate.” After it was caught using illegal “defeat device” software in its diesel cars to cheat on U.S. emissions tests, Volkswagen has existed under a cloud of suspicion as thick and toxic as the blackest diesel smoke. But the company’s executives are trying to put a positive spin on things.

“The diesel crisis is potentially kind of a wake-up call.”

“The diesel crisis is potentially kind of a wake-up call, which gives us now momentum and consequence toward something, which we potentially would not have done in the same pace without that unfortunate disappointment,” Hinrich Woebcken, president and CEO of Volkswagen Group of America, said.

To show that it was cleaning up its act, VW put more emphasis on electric cars, promising to launch a handful of new models in the early 2020s. What better way to prove the automaker was serious about going electric (and counter lingering elements of the scandal) than to break the electric car record at Pikes Peak?

Volkswagen announced its Pikes Peak plans in October 2017, and the I.D. R was first shown in public six months later. The car was designed for Pikes Peak’s Unlimited class, meaning anything goes as long as certain safety regulations are met. So, VW built a car with two electric motors – one powering each axle – developing a combined 680 horsepower and 479 pound-feet of torque. The car weighs about 2,400 pounds thanks to extensive use of carbon fiber that helps counter the weight of its lithium-ion battery pack.

Off the line, Volkswagen claims the I.D. R will do zero to 62 mph in 2.25 seconds. That’s quicker than a Formula One car, although some production cars come close. Top speed is estimated at just under 150 mph. The car isn’t based on any production model, and VW used that clean sheet to develop elaborate aerodynamic elements that generate massive amounts of downforce, helping stick the I.D. R to the pavement once it’s up to speed. Porsche provided some of its expertise to the Pikes Peak project but the R shares no parts with the Le Mans-winning 919 Hybrid.

“We knew after the qualifying [runs] that the car had huge potential.”

Even the best race car is useless without a good driver, and Volkswagen also had that covered. Piloting the I.D. R was Romain Dumas, a three-time Pikes Peak winner, and two-time 24 Hours of Le Mans winner. Going into 2018, Dumas was the reigning Pikes Peak champion two years running. Not a bad resumé.

Up to the moment Dumas left the starting line, Volkswagen executives insisted they were only interested in breaking the record for electric cars, not the overall Pikes Peak record, which called for a much quicker time. While the I.D. R had been tested extensively and completed qualifying runs on sections of the course, it had never run the whole thing in one shot before race day.

“Of course, we knew after the qualifying [runs] that the car had huge potential. But with everything we had to do to make sure we got to the top, no, this [record] time was not on our map,” Smeets said.

The future

“The countdown to the future began today,” an elated Woebcken said in Volkswagen’s pit following the smashing of the record. “This I.D[R] is a messenger for the great family of full-electric cars coming on the road for American customers.”

Indeed, Volkswagen plans to launch an I.D. family of electric cars based on a new platform called MEB over the next few years. All will be inspired by recent concept cars, including the I.D. hatchback, I.D. Crozz crossover, I.D. Vizzion sedan, and the I.D. Buzz. Woebcken said that, for now, VW’s electric models likely won’t get larger than the compact I.D. Buzz, a modern interpretation of the emblematic rear-engined Bus. Internal combustion-powered models will continue to occupy larger vehicle segments and, like most other automakers, VW is planning more SUVs to meet insatiable consumer demand.

“We don’t see a quick transformation… into electric cars,” Woebcken said at a media roundtable, predicting that electric and internal-combustion cars will continue to coexist for many years. Even if Volkswagen decided to make its entire lineup all-electric, it would take time to imbue road-going models with the technology of a purpose-built race car like the I.D. R.

Volkswagen is heading down the road to an electric future, but it will take a lot longer to get there than it took the I.D. R to get to the top of Pikes Peak.

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