Prologue. On June 25, 2017, Romain Dumas crosses the finish line of the 95th Pikes Peak International Hill Climb with a time of 9 minutes, 5.672 seconds, securing his place in the sub-10 minute club and winning the event overall for the third time.
To Dumas, this result is an abject failure.
He's fallen short of his goal of nine minutes flat or below due to a spark plug malfunction, his car falling victim to the harsh, high-altitude racing environment. From this, Dumas concludes the path to future success at Pikes Peak had to be electric, but he knows his small privateer team was incapable of constructing the car to prove it. Not without help, anyway.
October 18, 2017: Work on Volkswagen's first factory entry into the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb since its ill-fated 1987 campaign begins, approved by the board of director over the summer.
- The Plan: An electric prototype, designed to surpass the 8:57.118-minute EV record Rhys Millen set in the eO PP100 in 2016. At Volkswagen's disposal: motorsport-grade electric drivetrain components, experienced technical director François-Xavier "FX" Demaison, and the budget of one of the world's largest automakers.
- The Goal: Use the setting of the electric vehicle record to promote the 'I.D.' marque, and further refurbish the post-Dieselgate perception of Volkswagen.
- The Problems: Inadequate facilities for constructing carbon-fiber monocoques, no experience developing cars that race more than two miles above sea level, and no driver with Pikes Peak expertise.
- The Solution: Bring VW money and tech to Romain Dumas and Norma, who had the chops to handle both the build and the racing at 14,000 feet. A match made in heaven for racing in the heavens.
Even with their powers combined à la Captain Planet, the joint venture faces the daunting task of preparing an electric prototype in less than eight months, while factoring in the needed live-fire testing time. Chief among challenges is designing the I.D. R to handle the unique environment in which it was destined to race. Pikes Peak's starting line is at 9,390 feet, where the atmospheric density is a mere 72 percent that of sea level; at the 14,110-foot checkered flag, it further declines to 60 percent.
Traditional motorsport engineering relies on abundant, stable air pressure for pneumatic tires, aerodynamic downforce, cooling, and horsepower. With the I.D. R there would be no worries about the engine suffering an automotive pulmonary edema, as electric cars are immune to power loss as they scale mountains. But all the other problems remain regardless of propulsion type; tire pressures fly out of whack as altitude increases, cooling margins become slimmer, and downforce disappears.
On top of the environmental challenges, the race's regulations introduce additional complications. If a run is aborted due to a red flag, the car must be rechargeable in 20 minutes, which pushes the limits of modern fast-charging technology. (Extra credit if that power can be made green to match the I.D. brand's ethos.)
If Volkswagen is to take the record, it needs serious expertise—but the barebones Norma aero department and Demaison's breadth of knowledge won't suffice for making the I.D. R capable of making enough downforce while racing miles above sea level. A specialist is needed.
Veteran technical director Willy Rampf, whose projects include the only Sauber Formula 1 car to win a Grand Prix and the quadruple World Rally Championship-winning VW Polo R WRC, gets a call from Volkswagen. The company wants Rampf to reprise his role with the company to develop the I.D. R's aero package.
He asks where he needs to sign.
October 19, 2017: Volkswagen reveals its intent to return to Pikes Peak to the public.
Rampf, Demaison, and a minuscule Skunk Works of no more than 30 personnel toil away on the car for months, simulating every last imaginable detail. A goal weight 10 percent beneath that of the 1,200-kilogram (2,646-pound) eO PP100 record holder is targeted, forcing added complication onto the battery capacity and weight calculations. To keep mass down, two electric motors are to be used (instead of four), and they're linked via reduction gear to traditional differentials front and rear. Regenerative braking will harvest energy during the race to allow for a smaller battery pack.
Computational fluid dynamics—common in high-level motorsport—are relied upon for aero development for the low-pressure racing environment. Though a Porsche wind tunnel is used to test correlation between digital models and reality, it cannot replicate Pikes Peak and its thin air. There is confidence that the design will behave at altitude, but real-world performance remains hypothetical.
January 31, 2018: Romain Dumas and Volkswagen announce to the public that they have joined forces for the Pikes Peak campaign, though the I.D. R name remains unspoken; the car is not ready to be seen.
March 21, 2018: The first concept renderings of the I.D. R make their public debut. Manufacturing and assembly is underway with the aid of 3-D printing, allowing the rapid prototyping of more than 2,000 components during the car's development.
April 22, 2018: Volkswagen shows the I.D. R in the flesh in a livestream hosted at Pôle Mécanique Alès Cévennes, a racetrack in France. The car is mechanically complete, but the bodywork is still bare carbon fiber, and does not bear the gray livery hinted at in concept images.
Performance figures begin to trickle out of the program. The electric motors create 680 horsepower and 479 pound-feet of torque, all kept in check by a traction control system. Combine that with the car's sub-1,100 kilogram (2,425 pound) weight, and the I.D. R is good for a zero-to-60-mile-per-hour time of 2.25 seconds.
Outspoken detractors point out the car's immense power deficit when compared to the eO PP100 it was designed to beat, which raced with almost 1,600 horsepower and 1,859 pound-feet of torque. A small weight advantage and more developed aerodynamics are thought by many not to be enough to give Dumas the tools he needs to dismantle Rhys Millen's record. Dumas is unworried.
"I have real faith in Volkswagen Motorsport," he says. "The team is highly motivated and has already shown on many occasions that it is capable of achieving success right away on unfamiliar terrain."
April 23, 2018: Morning dawns on humming generators and battery tenders, which prepare the I.D. R for Dumas to take out for his first track test session in Alès. The generators burn glycerol, a clean-burning byproduct of biodiesel manufacturing. Like the most advanced of internal combustion race cars, the I.D. R has an IV drip of coolant running through its twin batteries, to bring them to the ideal temperature.
Dumas clambers into the I.D. R for a shakedown test, and the car whines its way out on track. He fiddles with the torque split controls, which allow minor adjustment of the car's normally-50:50 power split between the front and rear axles. Both the regenerative brakes and the carbon-ceramic friction brakes work, and the maximum of 2,200-plus pounds of downforce help stick the I.D. R to the track.
Though it may pack Volkswagen's most technologically-advanced electric drivetrain, elements of the I.D. R use established technologies. There is no torque vectoring—it would add weight and development time—just a motor and differential at each axle. Heat recycling tech, too, is absent. The I.D. R is equal parts cutting-edge and old-school, and Dumas is impressed.
"It was absolutely fantastic to see the completed I.D. R for the first time, and to take it out for its first spin," he gushes afterward. "What Volkswagen has managed to put together from scratch over the past few months has my greatest respect. I had obviously seen initial pictures of the car—but it is even more spectacular in the flesh. We now have a packed schedule of testing ahead of us, and I am looking forward to every meter!"
Time to test the I.D. R on its home continent is limited. Before long, every component is boxed up for the trip to America.
May 30, 2018: In Colorado, Dumas must practice with the I.D. R at altitude, and come to grips with having less downforce than he experienced at the car's shakedown in France. Out at Pikes Peak International Raceway, he runs lap after lap to fine-tune the I.D. R's setup as best he can in preparation for the hill climb. Unlike in his endurance racing career, Dumas needn't compromise his ideal setup with teammates; the car is tailored to suit him alone.
Come the end of May, he meets the mountain again—leaving behind much of what he knows about how the car behaves for the second time, as atmospheric conditions differ from those where he past tested the I.D. R. On top of the experience gained from his multiple prior victories at Pikes Peak, weeks of watching onboard footage from the mountain and studying telemetry has prepared Dumas for the course—which, due to its length and complexity, he likens to the Nürburgring. Now testing at 9,390 feet and higher, Dumas accumulates experience on the mountain itself in preparation for race day. He continues to accrue course knowledge, and readjusts the car's setup to suit the environment.
June 8, 2018: Pre-dawn testing continues on the mountain. A small set of North American journalists are invited to watch a test. The team Volkswagen entrusts with its Pikes Peak program demonstrates its determination; crew start their day at zero-dark-thirty for just a couple hours' practice, consisting of just a handful of runs up the mountain.
Dumas and the I.D. R are the clear leaders in the unlimited class, but are they on track for the electric record? Simulations and data extrapolated from sector times in practice suggest so, but Volkswagen keeps this confidence a secret.
Pikes Peak's weather can change violently in a matter of minutes or miles; even in June, there can be summery sun at the foot of the mountain and snow at the summit. The mountain occupies territory in the sky that clouds normally don't share with land; it's common for sections of the course to be enshrouded in fog. Should nature cooperate, Volkswagen and Dumas believe they can attain the electric record—maybe even the overall record—but they aren't here to fret over stretch goals.
Dumas decompresses in a round table conference with the press, where he discusses the challenges of racing Pikes Peak. His final practice wraps up Sunday, with 14 days until showtime.
June 20, 2018: Qualifying determines the running order for the race. Come race day, motorcycles and quads will run as a group first, starting around 8 o'clock in the morning. Cars will follow, in descending order from the fastest. Qualifying itself is run on a small section of the mountain, on which Dumas bests his closest challenger, Simone Faggioli, by more than 11 seconds.
June 24, 2018: As the motorcycle field proceeds up Pikes Peak, clouds encircle the upper sections of the mountain. Less than ideal, but Volkswagen has no choice other than to roll Dumas to the starting line. After matting the throttle at launch, he stays flat through the first corner, exiting at more than 100 mph. His target is Rhys Millen's 8:57. Loeb's time would be icing on the cake.
Dumas mentally divides the mountain into three sectors. The bottom is a mid-speed section that favors agility, putting the I.D. R's extreme downforce to work. Second is a grind of hairpins and long straights, where the I.D. R's four-wheel-drive and neck-snapping acceleration replicate its success from the first sector. Approaching the summit, with air thinner than ever, the hairpins turn into constant high-speed corners. The I.D. R's drag decreases, but power doesn't. Downforce and tire pressure difficulties, however, worsen. Dumas describes the tundra of the mountaintop as "crazy fast," a term that can also be applied to his driving.
Down at base camp, the tension rises as Dumas ascends. The eyes of Demaison, Rampf, and every engineer, executive, and mechanic in the Volkswagen program are on the timing screen, which reports Dumas' superb pace. Fingernails are chewed bloody.
He crosses the finish line in the mist, and the I.D. R's transponder reports his finish time to the race's timing screens: 7:57.148. With an average speed of 90.538 miles per hour, Dumas has not only blown away the electric record by just shy of a minute, but he's destroyed the overall record by 16 seconds. This is the first sub-eight minute run in Pikes Peak's history.
Back at mission control, jubilation breaks out as Dumas's time tumbles across the screen. Dozens of Germans whoop, embrace, and wipe tears away—men and women, executives and mechanics alike. Hands shake to a soundtrack of clinking champagne glasses, elated German, and the rapid shuttering of cameras. Markers come out to label shirts printed with blank boxes so the final time may be written in on the spot.
Not only does Romain rewrite the record, he forever changes the way people will discuss Pikes Peak records. Before the I.D. R, there was Loeb's overall record, and there was Millen's electric record behind it. Now, there's Dumas's overall record...and Loeb's internal combustion record behind that. This isn't to say Loeb's (or Dumas's) time won't be beaten by a future internal combustion entry, but for now, people will describe the records at Pikes Peak in electric terms.
Epilogue: Despite the I.D. R's tremendous success, both Dumas and the car's design team left performance on the table. Dumas tells Autosport he could find another 10 seconds in better conditions, and there's plenty of technology the engineers could use to trim time further. The I.D. R uses no active aerodynamics, brake vectoring, or heat recycling technology, all of which open up new handling and drivetrain possibilities. What are the chances of a hypothetical I.D. R Evolution?
"What we achieved now is really even more than we dreamed of," Rampf tells The Drive after the race. "It is all a management or board decision how we continue."
I ask Demaison a similar question: Does he even want to develop such a car?
"Sure. I mean, to race here is the best because you have no rules," Demaison says. "For engineers, it’s fantastic. What else can you dream of? I mean, it's great."
As for the technologies he would like to play with, those listed above aren't necessarily shoe-ins; the I.D. R program is part of the marketing department, and the marketing leads will decide the direction in which the car's development is taken. If it even continues.
"We will have to follow the marketing decision, you know," says Demaison. "If the marketing people allow us to do a crazy car, we would be more than happy to do [that] in the next generation car."
We've yet to hear back from Volkswagen officials with regard to future development of the I.D. R, but one thing was confirmed: The car will continue to race. Its next known appearance will be the Goodwood Festival of Speed in July, where it's expected make an exhibition run. With fewer weather worries, maybe Romain will enjoy more than a cruise to the top of the estate—Jonny Cocker's 47.34 second electric record from 2013's event should be easy prey for Romain and the I.D. R.