In 1805, Zebulon Pike, a US Army officer and explorer, explored the Louisiana territory his young country had just bought on the cheap, hunting for the source of the mighty Mississippi River. A year later, he led expeditions through the Spanish settlements of New Mexico and Texas. But in November of 1806, he and his men met their match in Colorado, while trying to scale a mountain that towers 8,000 feet above the surrounding region. Deep snow and a lack of food convinced them to abandon their struggle toward the summit.
A road now leads to the top, 14,115 above sea level, but the climb remains formidable. Which is why, since 1916, the mountain named for the man it defeated, has played host to the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. The 12.42-mile course’s 156 corners—many without guardrails—test drivers’ skills. The 4,720 feet of elevation gain challenge their vehicles: The air gets so thin, oxygen-dependent internal combustion engines lose about 30 percent of their power on the way up.
That’s why the ID R, Volkswagen’s bid to win the annual race this weekend, has an enclosed cockpit and a huge spoiler, but no engine. Competing in the anything-goes “Unlimited” category, the automaker’s engineers gave their race car two electric motors, driving the front and rear axles, for a total of 680 horsepower. The motors pull their power from a lithium-ion battery that’s divided into two blocks, mounted alongside and behind the driver. And because they don’t rely on oxygen, they don’t lose power as they boogey uphill.
For VW, the hill climb is a handy showcase of its electric technology, a reminder to the world that it’s trying to move past Dieselgate, and that it's expanding its electric offerings with the electric crossover ID Crozz, due in 2020, and the much-anticipated ID Buzz, a revival of the classic 1960s microbus. (There’s also the original ID, a Golf-sized hatchback that isn’t destined for the US.) But taking part in the race is only effective if it puts forward a viable competitor.
The ID R can accelerate from 0-60 mph in 2.25 seconds, faster than a Formula 1 racer, but the key here is being able to do it again and again, regaining its speed after slowing down for each corner. (Regenerative braking alone will generate 20 percent of the energy the climb demands.)
That’s no easy thing for batteries. Tesla’s cars post hedonistic acceleration times ahd hundreds of miles of range, but reviewers who take them to the track have been disappointed.
So VW adjusted everything about its car’s power source to counter that, right down to the makeup of the batteries and they way they're mounted into packs. “We first tested various chemical compositions of the individual battery cells, then expanded the tests to modular level,” says Marc-Christian Bertram, head of electrics and electronics at Volkswagen Motorsport.
Electric cars might not lose power in thinner air, but Pikes Peak presents them with a different disadvantage. Race rules say a team has exactly 20 minutes to prepare its car for a second attempt, if the first has to be suspended for safety reasons, like a sudden change in weather (not unusual for the region). In a gas car, resetting involves a quick top-up of liquid fuel. For the VW team, rapid recharging of the battery became a key focus—otherwise a storm front might spoil its shot at victory.
VW uses a generator to produce the electricity (burning environmentally-friendly glycerol) and supplies it to the car via two 90-kW chargers. That’s a lot faster than the outlet in your garage, but slower than a Tesla roadside supercharger, which tops out at 120 kW. Keeping the current lower limits how hot the batteries get. Although the team has air coolers to bring the temperature down again—lithium ion batteries are happiest at around 86 degrees Fahrenheit—VW's race engineers can’t cool them too dramatically, or condensation builds up. Moisture could damage the packs, or even freeze if the air temperature drops. They’re confident this setup gives them the best chance of being charged up, and ready to roll, in the tight time frame.
The track’s current record for an electric vehicle stands at 8 minutes 57 seconds, versus 8 minutes 13 seconds for a gas car (a Peugeot 208, in 2013). In a qualifying on Wednesday, VW’s ID R not only took the fastest time, securing pole position, but beat the next-quickest, conventional, car by 11 seconds.
The team isn’t done tweaking, though. “We’ll improve the car, by thinking about different setups," says driver Romain Dumas, a three-time winner of this race. "Myself, I have to look at the video, and try to gain some tenths of a second.”
VW says it’s learning lessons from this sort of racing, like the best ways to charge quickly, that can make their way into its production cars. And showing an electric that can best old-fashioned engines in one of the world’s most challenging races doesn’t hurt either.
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