From the past into the future Volkswagen returns to The Peak.
WHEN VOLKSWAGEN DRIVER Klaus-Joachim “Jochi” Kleint climbed out of his dust-encrusted race car on July 11, 1987 after almost 20 km and 4,000 metres elevation, he could almost have bitten his steering wheel in frustration.
Only 400 metres and the last three of 156 bends separated Kleint and his Golf I I—which had been converted by Volkswagen into a high-performance hill climber—from his dream of victory in the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb.
This crazy motorsports event in Colorado has become the most prestigious hill climb in the world since it was first run in 1916. Each year, more than a hundred vehicles now enter the event in 22 classes—from racing cars and production vehicles to motorcycles and race trucks—to try to become “King of the Mountain.”
1980S: VOLKSWAGEN REACHES FOR THE STARS THREE TIMES
After taking part in the two previous years, Kleint made his third attempt in the summer of 1987. He was leading on the basis of an intermediate time and victory was in sight, when a faulty ball joint started to slow him down. What did he do? Well, the German driver was a fighter, and retiring wasn’t an option. He stepped on the gas, engaged the clutch, changed gear and drove on. He fought doggedly, as if it were a matter of life and death.
Which it was, to a certain extent. The ideal line on Pikes Peak, which starts at an elevation of 2,800 metres on the Pikes Peak Highway (a public road for the rest of the year), is only centimetres away from an unprotected precipice. With a chassis which was in anything but ideal condition, it was a daring enterprise.
As the deep gorges of the Rocky Mountains came closer and closer, it simply became too dangerous. He had to abandon his record attempt only three bends before the finish line, accepting defeat at the hands of Walter Röhrl and his power-packed Audi Sport quattro S1. “It was an unforgettable experience and a unique car,” Kleint proudly remembers to this day.
The thin air in the Rocky Mountains is a tremendous task for technicians. Of course, it’s not a challenge faced by electric vehicles, which now have two classes of their own, as their power plants do not need an air supply or turbocharging. But, back then, the Volkswagen team did face the issue. Following third place in 1985 and fourth place overall in 1986, the engineers had to dig deep into their technical box of tricks for the third attempt.
“Volkswagen had developed a special Twin Golf with two engines—one turbocharged engine at the front and one at the rear—especially for my three Pikes Peak entries,” the tragic hero of 1987 remembers.
“The idea was to provide double power for the climb. It was an incredible car, from 0 to 100 in 3.4 seconds.”
To achieve this goal, Volkswagen broke new ground. The prototype boasted two GTI 16-V engines. With a capacity of 1.8 litres, KKK turbochargers and 326 PS each, these engines were to join forces for the record attempt.
Despite all the efforts made by the technical team, Kleint’s third place in the overall classification of 1985 remains the best result achieved by Volkswagen.
A NEW ATTEMPT ON JUNE 24, 2018
On June 24, Volkswagen will be making a new attempt to reach the pinnacle. After all, this is unfinished business.
Conditions are different to those faced by Kleint and Co. Since the end of 2011, the entire gravel course leading up to the 4,301-metre summit has been paved. But The Peak remains a daunting challenge.
“In sporting terms, you have one attempt to post a new best time,” says Sven Smeets, Director of Motorsport at Volkswagen. “Of course, you can practice and prepare yourself in the best possible way. But on the Sunday of the race, the driver is alone on the course with his car.”
The electric car developed for the event—the I.D. R Pikes Peak—represents uncharted territory for Volkswagen.
“Especially with an electric vehicle, we need to find the optimum compromise between performance, energy capacity and weight,” Smeets observes. “Everyone needs to reach perfection.” But, experience gained in the past with time trials on mountainous courses and on classical racing circuits gives him reason to be confident.
For the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, Smeets believes that the classical qualities of a racing car, such as chassis, aerodynamics, weight distribution and brakes, all count: “Shaping a potentially winning package from these elements together with the new electric powertrain is a fantastic challenge for a team.”
But, if it all comes together, the mission started decades ago by Jochi Kleint will finally reach its successful conclusion.
THE PEAK: REACHING OVER 4,000 METRES, THERE’S A 1,400-METRE ELEVATION CLIMB AND A SEVEN PERCENT GRADIENT OVER THE COURSE.