Friday, June 29, 2018

Volkswagen, Dumas electrify the automotive world with all-time Pikes Peak International Hill Climb record.

Race-car driver Romain Dumas atop the Volkswagen I.D. R Pikes Peak electric race car.
Photo: Volkswagen U.S. media website.
As covered in our article just over a month ago, Volkswagen said they would do it. And on Sunday, they did it.

Those of us who have been watching the advances in electric vehicle technology have known it for a while. But in case you haven’t been paying attention, something happened at Pikes Peak this week to add a big, public, exclamation point to the reality that electric vehicles aren’t just for tree-huggers any more.

On Sunday, race-car driver Romain Dumas strapped himself into the I.D. R Pikes Peak, an electric race car built in just 250 days by Volkswagen Motorsport, and set an all-time record in the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb—a motorsports event with a history that spans nearly a century—and proved that electric vehicles are officially badass.

Dumas, a four-time winner of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, shattered the time of defending record-holder Sébastien Loeb by a full 16 seconds, completing the harrowing 19.99 km course in 7 minutes and 57.148 seconds. In doing so, he also made history by achieving this victory in an electric vehicle, in a field that included cars with conventional, internal-combustion drivetrains.

In case anyone reading this doesn’t know it, the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb is kind of a big deal.

Germany’s infamous Nürburgring may be one green hell of a ride. But the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, nicknamed “The Race to the Clouds” in reference to a thickly fogged stretch that Dumas had to deal with quite literally toward the end of the course, has its own physics that puts cars and drivers to some uniquely challenging tests.

In a statement issued after Dumas’ record-breaking run, Tag Heur, a Swiss precision timepiece manufacturer that has served for three years as the official timekeeper of the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, cites some statistics about these challenges that are enough to make even a couch-potato motorsports enthusiast feel a little winded.

According to Tag Heur, “The starting line is located at an altitude of 9,390 feet (2,862 meters) where atmospheric density is 71% of the density at sea level, reducing engine performance proportionally. When drivers reach the summit at 14,115 ft…, torque will have diminished to 59% of its optimal performance. At this altitude, a vehicle’s ability to accelerate is reduced nearly by half and the atmospheric pressure is a challenge for both driver and engine…. As oxygen levels decrease during the rapid ascent, mental agility is impaired, reflexes are dulled and muscles begin to cramp.”

Imagine seeing those sheer, deadly drops just beyond the edge of the road as your powertrain strains to maintain breakneck speed on those challenging slopes. And imagine yourself steering for dear life to negotiate those 156 harrowing turns, with impaired mental agility, slowed reflexes, and cramped muscles—and sometimes facing thick fog to boot.

To have a hope at a record-breaking performance, Pikes Peak drivers must contend with these forces at speeds that in some stretches exceed 150 mph.

Volkswagen also had to tackle some significant technological challenges to achieve this record-breaking performance in an electric vehicle.

In a statement, the automaker noted that “The time was defined by the regulations: In case of the race being suspended, it must be possible to completely charge the car in under 20 minutes. The electricity required was provided by generators at the foot of Pikes Peak. Glycerol, which in chemical terms is a sugar alcohol, was selected as the fuel. A by-product of the manufacture of biodiesel, for example, Glycerol combusts with virtually no harmful exhaust fumes or residues.”

It was clear that Dumas, as he triumphantly stood atop the vehicle after crossing the finish line, was stoked by the all-time record-setting achievement.

“We exceeded even our own high expectations with that result,” Dumas said. “Since this week’s tests, we have known that it was possible to break the all-time record. For it to come off, everything had to come together perfectly—from the technology to the driver. And the weather had to play ball too. That everything ran so smoothly is an incredible feeling, and the new record on Pikes Peak is the icing on the cake. I still cannot believe that Volkswagen and my name are behind this incredible time.”

Incredible indeed. Last Sunday might have felt like just another Sunday for those of us who weren’t paying attention to what was happening at Pikes Peak. But it was a benchmark moment in the history of motorsports and electric vehicles.

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