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17th of July 2018

Automotive



The Neat Engineering VW Used to Smash the Pikes Peak Record

If you had any remaining doubts about the performance and power of electric cars, then you should spend eight minutes (ok, just under eight minutes) watching the Volkswagen ID R smash the Pikes Peak Hill Climb Record yesterday. The all-electric race car not only set a new record for EVs, but set the fastest time ever, by any car, even ones with high-performance, gas-gulping, engines.

Pikes Peak is the second oldest race in the US, after the Indianapolis 500, and it is one of the world’s most iconic: 12.42 miles of 156 twists and turns rising nearly 5,000 feet in elevation.

The previous record, eight minutes and 13 seconds, was set in 2013 by Sebastian Loeb in a Peugeot 208. That car had a 3.2 liter, twin turbo, V6. The fastest electric car finished the race in eight minutes, 57 seconds.

The VW ID R made both times look like leisurely Sunday drives, setting a new time of seven minutes, 57.148 seconds. It’s a major affirmation of Volkswagen’s choice to run an electric car, powered by two motors and two battery packs wrapped around the driver’s cockpit.

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The steep climb has traditionally taxed internal combustion engines, because the air gets thinner the higher they go; by the time they get to the top, the engines produce 30 percent less power than they did at the bottom. Electric cars don’t need to inhale any oxygen at all. That gives them a potential inherent advantage, but until now they haven’t been able to beat the best conventional cars.

“For Pikes Peak, to break records, you have to go to electric cars, I think that’s been proven now,” says Sven Smeets, Volkswagen’s motorsport director.

That’s not to say the team had it easy. It developed the car from scratch in just eight months, and built a low, sleek, machine that weighs less than 2,500 pounds, even including its heavy batteries. Power output is 670 hp, which VW says will get the car to 60 mph in 2.2 seconds (so, faster than a Formula 1 car). Everyone knows that electric drivetrains can perform insane acts of acceleration, thanks to Tesla and its ludicrous mode. The problem is that once the battery starts to heat up, which can happen after just a couple of full-power sprints, performance falls off. Fast.

Louis Yio/Volkswagen

To save weight, the team chose not to use water to cool the battery packs, but relied on air cooling instead. That worked in simulations, but they’d never had a chance to run the full course in real life (qualifying runs are performed on a shorter section of the road), so everyone was nervous before Sunday’s sprint. “Our battery management worked,” says a relieved Smeets. The driver, Romain Dumas, had full power all the way to the top.

Your next electric car won't be able to perform the same feats, though. The ID R has batteries that are "way ahead" of anything currently on the streets, according to Smeets. The team tweaked the chemistry of the cells so they would have maximum power and temperature tolerance, and, crucially, they didn’t have to consider range, like a traditional electric car designers do. At the end of the relatively short race, the packs were already out of charge. Nobody's going to buy an EV with 12 miles of range, no matter how fast it is.

The team believes the ID R could actually set an even faster time on the climb. Weather for the Pikes Peak race can vary wildly from cool to way-too-hot, and from clear to wet and rainy. On Sunday, conditions were just about perfect, but one section of track was a little damp from early morning fog. The driver (and his tires) had to scramble through it: “He was understeering a lot, which he didn’t face when he did it in the dry, during tests,” says Smeets.

The Pikes Peak International Hill Climb runs just over 12 miles up the side of the mountain. It has 156 corners, some of them without guard rails.Volkswagen

Understeering forced Dumas to take a few corners slightly more slowly than ideal, so the team thinks that in perfect conditions, the car could perform even better.

VW is already looking at other opportunities for the ID R race car to prove the power of electric propulsion, but the vehicle was designed specifically for this challenge. (Its full name is the ID R Pikes Peak.) It has huge spoilers front and back to produce the downforce needed in thin air, which might be overkill on a track at sea level.

Motor racing is traditionally a showcase and testing ground for advanced automotive technology that will eventually make its way into regular cars. For electric vehicles though, development in road cars is happening so quickly, that road- and race-vehicle engineers are learning from each other. VW, for example, is working to bring three new members of the ID range to market (any electric vehicle it's making gets called an ID, for some reason), including a Golf-sized hatchback for Europe, the ID Crozz crossover SUV, and the ID Buzz microbus. Whether they adapt battery-management techniques from race winners or whether ultra-rapid race machines get range extensions from production car investments, everyone comes out a winner.

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