Apart from attracting the likes of nine-time World Rally Champion (WRC) Sebastian Loeb, this year’s event saw previous records tumble in nearly all categories, with contestants and fans battling hail, heavy rain and the high altitude to race to the sky.
The 19.99km hill climb is one of the best known events of its kind, with 156 turns and a finishing altitude of 4300m, it’s more of an endurance race than anything else. You can read our introduction to Pikes Peak story here.
The event is one of the purest in the international motor sport calendar, with limited regulations and a very easy-going attitude to organisation.
Pikes Peak is located about 90 minutes out of Denver in Colorado USA. Its high altitude makes it one of the highest vehicle-accessible points in the world. The hill climb, which first ran in 1916, was setup to attract tourists and investors to the area but in the last few decades has become so much more than that.
This year’s race was a battle between Peugeot’s Sebastian Loeb and himself. Although Hyundai’s Rhys Millen, the previous world record holder and Pikes Peak champion, was in contention, the Peugeot 208 T16 Pikes Peak was in an entire league of its own.
The 652kW AWD Peugeot not only broke Millen’s record of 9:46.164, but did it in style, coming in at a staggering 8:13.878 minutes. To Millen’s credit, his Hyundai RMR PM580-T, with 597kW of power, also broke his previous record, finishing the race in 9:02.192 minutes – 48:31 seconds behind Loeb.
It would be unfair to compare the two vehicles as the difference between the Hyundai and Peugeot was staggering. The rear-wheel drive Hyundai’s engine was a production version of a 3.8-litre V6 found in the Hyundai Genesis. Millen says it remained 90 percent original despite the turbocharging and upsizing to 4.1-litres.
In contrast, Loeb’s car was essentially a LeMans LMP1 racer in disguise, with very little if anything to do with the Peugeot 208 production car, except perhaps the outer shell. The 1 horsepower per kg (800hp:800kg) power to weight ratio was also the best on the grid for four-wheelers.
Unlike Hyundai, which is entering the World Rally Championship and upping its involvement in racing, Peugeot has for the most part pulled out of all motor sport, but this 208 T16 Pikes Peak racer was a one-off purpose-built vehicle to tackle the mountain and set an unbeatable record.
The idea was to recreate the original victory by Ari Vartinen, so beautifully captured in the 1989 short film Climb Dance.
Nonetheless, watching Loeb scream up the mountain was not as spectacular as one may have hoped, and not nearly as iconic as Vartenan’s efforts on gravel 24 years ago. Red Bull, which sponsored both Peugeot and Hyundai teams has released a video of Loeb’s race to the top which you can watch below.
For a nine-time WRC champion, the Pikes Peak-rookie Frenchman appeared relaxed and unnerved by the occasion, taking it very easy and not pushing the high-tech racer anywhere nears its limits, which made us wonder if he could’ve made it into the seven-minute barrier.
Despite the 146 vehicles on the grid, the race for second was always going to be a battle between Mark Webber’s teammate for next year, Romain Dumas in his LeMans based Norma M20FC PP, and Rhys Millen in the Hyundai Genesis. The two were 0.017 seconds apart in last year’s race, with Millen edging Doman’s Porsche 911 GT3R out in the narrowest of recorded margins.
Unfortunately for Dumas – who was second runner in the Unlimited class after Loeb – his vehicle suffered a gearbox failure and he retired from the race.
Millen then took his Genesis to an easy second, admitting after the race that he took it a bit easier than he may have otherwise, knowing that Dumas did not finish. We suspect finishing just three seconds outside of the eight-minute barrier will haunt Millen for another 12 months.
The Hyundai was the fastest of the two-wheel-drive cars up the mountain and certainly one of the crowd favourites. Another Genesis coupe piloted by Paul Dallenbach won its class in the Time Attack category with a time of 9:46.001.
Other vehicles that were a big hit with the crowd were the bikes, both petrol and electric. The exhibition class, which included a 1950hp Detroit Diesel Series 60-powered truck and a Honda Odyssey with an Indy car engine inside, was also loved. The crazy men on side carts further added to the viewing highlights.
The electric-car category was also in full force this year, with Honda, Mitsubishi and Toyota all running pure-electric four-wheelers up the mountain. Unlike internal combustion engines, which lose roughly one percent of power per 100m above sea level (which equates to about 30 per cent by the end of Pikes Peak), the electric engines remain strong throughout the climb.
The factory involvement of Hyundai, Peugeot, Mitsubishi, Honda and Toyota in the Pikes Peak Hill Climb is a sign of the competition’s importance. But the real value of Pikes Peak is for the fans that brave the conditions to climb the mountain.
For Australians interested in attending the event, the best route is to fly to Los Angeles and then out to Denver. A rental car will be the quickest way out to a hotel in Manitou Springs (we can recommend the Cliff House), which is located at the foot of Pikes Peak.
Arriving a few days early is a must, as one needs time to adjust to the high altitude. It’s best if you make a few trips up the mountain before race day, spend sometime at the Summit (highest point and finishing line) as well as other locations to let your lungs have some practice extracting precious oxygen from the thin Colorado air.
Drink plenty of water and bring painkillers in case you encounter altitude sickness (which only affects a small proportion of people).
Given the small and narrow roads to the top, there are obvious challenges that come with taking competitor and spectator vehicles up the mountain, which means accessibility is rather restricted.
There are plenty of locations one can watch the race from, in fact the organisers are so relaxed that you can pretty much stand on the edge of the cliff and watch the racers scream past just a few centimeters away.
This is not exactly recommended and this year a contestant had a collision with a female photographer, which at last account led to serious injuries and an amputation. Ironically that contestant (a Cobra) went on to win its class after recovering from the collision!
We found the best location to be Devil’s Playground, which is situated about 80 per cent of the way up the mountain allowing for amazing views looking down but also a good flat view of the final stretch to the summit. There’s plenty of parking but absolutely no food facilities (which are at the Summit), so bring plenty of water and food to last the whole day.
It’s best to arrive early, really early. Not only does the road close but also the traffic on race day makes Sydney’s afternoon rush look like fun. We made our way out of the hotel and to the Peak at around 4am, which meant we actually arrived around 6am (even though in regular commutes it would take no more than 30 minutes).
The race starts around 8 or 9am (usually 9am but this year it was moved forward to combat the forecasted rain) and by that stage the mountain is full of enthusiastic fans that have positioned themselves on all the best vantage points. Although this year was one of the highest on record for attendees, there was plenty of space to find a great spot.
During the practice day the weather warmed up to t-shirt level by 9am but on race day our deeply padded snow jacket was barely enough to cover us from the freezing winds, hail, heavy rain and extreme fog. Best to prepare for both circumstances.
The important thing to remember about Pikes Peak Hill Climb is that once you go up the mountain, you simply cannot get down until the race is over and the competitors have gone down.
In our case, we left the hotel at 4am and arrived back around 9pm. It’s a long day to spend at 4300m above sea level and the traffic going up and down adds another 5 hours to the round journey. Nonetheless, it’s an absolute must for any car enthusiast’s bucket list.
Click the Photos tab to check out the full gallery from the event.