On a normal day, one can drive up Pikes Peak. It is a two-lane highway that goes all the way to 14,110 feet above sea level. Fringing the road is a forest littered with pine trees, shrubs and huge boulders. Climb higher and the timberline gives way to rocks, sand and dust. It really makes for a scenic drive.
Today, August 12, is not a normal day. There are spectators sitting 10 feet from the edge of the road, eyes and camera looking towards the Start Line. Climb higher and one could be sitting between the edges of the road and the cliff of the mountain. Dangerous? Without a doubt. Yet, this level of danger is somehow appropriate.
The 2012 Pikes Peak International Hill Climb reminds me of a rally race, except this one starts at 9,390 feet and finishes at the peak of the mountain. It is not a long road; only 12.42 miles (or about 20 kilometres) in length. The road is not straight but made up of 156 corners. The full set is here – long banking, hairpins and right angles, just to name a few. The level of challenge is high and making a mistake here is always going to be costly.
A few have already paid their dues. Racers from the Motorcycle, Sidecar and Modified Quad Classes have frequently punctuated the proceedings. Cars are not spared either. Word-of-mouth from up ahead say a one of the Unlimited Class cars left the road, gained some air and destroyed eight trees before coming to rest on the ground. No one was hurt, thankfully. Another got close to the Finish Line before the thinning atmosphere deprived the engine of air.
I have gotten used to the wailings of patrol cars, ambulances and tow trucks going up the mountain to ferry home stricken drivers and cars. The latest pause came courtesy of a bear-attack, or so word-of-mouth from up the mountain said. In truth, a drunken woman had decided that it was a good idea to assault a policeman. Yes, the event is hilarious like that.
Finally, the green flag is being waved. Almost immediately, I hear the remaining cars from the Unlimited Class create tiny supernovas in their engines. The race resumes thick and quick. One by one, the cars pass me by, trembling the earth beneath my feet. These cars look as if they were penned my mad racing geniuses – you only have to take a look at their large wings and equally deadly front spoiler and you’ll see what I mean.
The engines are loud. You know one is coming even before seeing its basic shape. When it is near, your senses receive an onslaught of sound and exhaust fumes, blasts that unlock something primal within.
After the Unlimited, the Vintage class offerings get in line for their turn up the mountain. Once that is done, a veil of silence suddenly falls on the event. I run back to the starting grid (it is a terrible idea to run at high altitude) only to find the cars from the Electric Class are lining up for their run up Pikes Peak.
The Mitsubishi i-MiEV Evolution gets into position first. Then one by one, the other racers stream in – some are being pushed; others are being driven on their own power.
The E-Runner, ‘Monster’ Tajima’s car this year, is late to the party. Earlier, I caught a glimpse of the engineers doing their best to keep the car cool with a crate-load of dry ice and coolant. Overheating problems?
I walk down the grid to check out the competitors. There are seven cars in Electric, but only six of them are built for this race. Body styles are as diverse; I see three prototype cars, two open-wheelers and an EV-converted BMW M3. Bringing up the rear is the production Mitsubishi i-MiEV. Time to head out and get back into position.
If the Unlimited Class was fast, the Electric cars are quicker. These cars move faster than you can turn your head. Blink, and it’ll disappear from view. And unlike the loud beasts of Unlimited, the EVs are as silent as a ninja. Except that the regulations requires every EV to be outfitted with a siren to warn spectators that there is a car approaching. Still, you will not know the cars are coming until it is too late, and you’ve missed your photo opportunity.
Tajima’s E-Runner is out first. The buzz of the motor is surprisingly loud, considering this is an EV. It clears the first section of corners and disappears from my view in mere seconds. Then, the Toyota TMG EV P002 flies past me in a flash; faster than the E-Runner. I hear a collective ‘whoa’ from the spectators. One, who is standing beside me, said in his Southern accent, “If the electric cars continue to run like this, the gasoline cars ain’t got no chance.”
Then, another red flag. A car and a tow truck are being scrambled up the mountain only to bring home the E-Runner. It caught fire on the way up, forcing a DNF on Tajima. It is a surprising endgame for him, as he was tipped to win the Electric Class.
The race resumes with the zippy yellow Lightning XP12. The i-MiEV Evolution shoots past me, followed by the blue Summit Her-02, BMW M3 and the production i-MiEV.
It needs to be said that the i-MiEV is the only car that is devoid of any modification except for the removal of seats to accommodate a roll cage, as per race regulations. Everything else – motor, battery and suspension – is kept as is. In fact, this is one car that you can buy off the shelf.
So Beccy Gordon and her i-MiEV have a different set of objectives for Pikes Peak, namely getting the car safely to the summit. The reason is simple; Mitsubishi wants to extract data from the run for research and development of future EV models, including electric sports cars and SUVs.
Battery efficiency, battery economy, energy recovery and power delivery are some of the factors that the engineers will look at after the race. In a sense, Pikes Peak is being used to test future technologies.
I run back to the pit area, breathless (I’m a slow learner), just in time to receive news that Masuoka and the i-MiEV Evolution have posted a time of 10:30.850. Energy under the Mitsubishi tent is high. A win would be the fairy tale ending the the team is hoping for. This is the first time Mitsubishi Motors is participating and competing in the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb.
However, hope is found to be out of reach. Official timing records the TMG’s time to be 10:15.380, making the Toyota the fastest Electric and sixth in best overall time. Second place and eighth fastest overall belongs to the Evolution.
Yet, it hasn’t stopped the Mitsubishi team from celebrating. They have, after the incident at the start of the week, managed to rebuild the car and get it race-ready in a very short time. And now, it has gone on to finish on the podium.
Masuoka can take pride in this number two position. Prior to this, he has never completed a full run up Pikes Peak with the Evolution. A mistake, which led to the car diving nose first into a ditch, prematurely cut short his time behind the Evolution’s wheel.
Again, there are smiles and handshakes inside the Mitsubishi camp. Beccy Gordon and her production i-MiEV have safely reached the summit. She drove in the rain on the final corners up Pikes Peak, which forced her to slow down a little. She posted a time of 15:10.557, making her the 126th fastest out of 132 vehicles that finished the race.
The HCE Lightning XP12 finished in third with a time of 11:00.857, the BW M3 crossed the finish line in 11:58.929 and the Summit Her-02 set a time of 11:58.974.
The Electric Class is not a new category. It is only this year that the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb has attracted more electric cars than ever before. Seeing first hand the enthusiasm of the crowd every time an EV rips by, I can safely say that the electric cars has a bright future in racing.
And it is only a matter of time before an Electric Class car will claim the fastest overall time on Pikes Peak.