Hardest race on Earth
It’s a brave driver who takes on Pikes Peak, writes JEREMYHART
THE most revered and feared race track in motorsport is the old Nurburgring in Germany. It is 20km, has 100 corners, pitches and rolls through the Eifel mountain range, and was made famous when Niki Lauda crashed his Ferrari in flames in 1976 — a smash that ended Formula One racing on the historic old course.
The ’Ring is still used for longdistance races and is home to test teams from most of the world’s main carmakers.
But not even the Nurburgring can compare with America’s most challenging course.
It’s not Indianapolis, the streets of Long Beach or the Bristol oval, which hosts the most popular Nascar race each season.
The historical home of American motorsport is at Pikes Peak, above Colorado Springs on the eastern fringes of the Rockies.
It might be a few metres shorter than the Nurburgring, but the hillclimb for the 87th annual Race to the Clouds has half as many bends again — 156 — and sheer, unprotected cliffs that plummet 1000m into oblivion. It climbs from 2800m to 4200m at an average 7 per cent gradient.
Double world rally champion Marcus Gronholm says: ‘‘I had heard about Pikes Peak and seen the famous film shot on the mountain with Ari Vatanen 20 years ago, but only when you come here do you realise how much of a challenge it is.’’
The Flying Finn has retired from rallying, but guest drove earlier this year for Subaru and keeps sharp by driving a range of Fords.
Gronholm and Swedish rallycross champion Andrea Eriksson are the two biggest names in world motorsport to attempt the hillclimb in 20 years. And both are rookies.
Since the hill’s heyday in the 1980s, when Vatanen starred in Climb Dance in his Peugeot, more and more sections of the hardpacked gravel highway to the summit have been paved by conventional bitumen. Within two years the whole road will be asphalt.
For Gronholm, attacking the mountain in its natural state is an opportunity too good to miss.
‘‘This is one of those events that are great to tell people you came and did,’’ he says.
Gronholm and Eriksson’s weapon of choice in trying to break the back of this mighty mountain is a 630kW four-wheel-drive Fiesta, based on the top-selling road car in Europe.
‘‘The car is far more powerful than a world rally car,’’ Eriksson says during one of the three dawn practice sessions for the race.
‘‘The altitude sucks out almost 30 per cent of the power by the summit, so it’s best to come with plenty. Traction is the other key thing. We fit huge wings to keep the car fixed to the mountain. It is no place to go off . . .’’
Practice in 2009 is a challenge for the two Scandinavians.
Eriksson slides wide in the Boulders’ section near the summit, slamming his Fiesta into a rock. It takes two days to straighten the car in time for Sunday’s race.
‘‘I lost power into the corner, and without power you lose some control,’’ he says. ‘‘I tried to stop the car with the handbrake, but unfortunately it was one of the few corners with rocks on the outside. The car rolled on to its side, which left it and me with a few sore places.’’
In one year, 1994, the record at Pikes Peak dropped 39 seconds. But since then the record has only crept down by three seconds.
Now it sits precariously balanced on the edge of the 10-minute barrier — 10min01.41sec — by Japan’s Nobuhiro ‘‘Monster’’ Tajima. He is back to defend his title in a twinengined Suzuki prototype and, like the Ford drivers, is trying to break into the nine-minute zone.
Wary of predicted afternoon storms, Tajima chooses to run in the Unlimited Division, including the Fiestas and a modified Group B Ford RS200 driven by Britain’s Mark Rennison, to run before lunch.
Rennison goes first in the mod- ified 1980s rally car but, with no real experience of Pikes Peak, his time is 12 minutes 11 seconds.
‘‘I’ll be back hopefully and give this a good crack,’’ he says.
Next up is Eriksson. With his damaged Fiesta straightened he launches off the line with gusto. His earlier crash means he has not practised the first section of the course at speed. And so, caught out at Engineers Bend a third of the way up, he loses control and crashes again. Now all eyes are on Gronholm. ‘‘The car has been at its best on the first section and was today,’’ Gronholm says.
‘‘It handles so well on the sweeping tarmac, but it was clear from the start we had a little misfire. I pushed on and by the mid section I was hopeful of a good time. Not a record time, but a reasonable one.’’
But as Gronholm nears the final section of dirt highway near the summit, the turbo fails and the interior starts to fill with smoke.
Undaunted, he presses on to the peak, left-foot braking to keep what power remains on tap. But the brakes, too, start to feel the strain and as he crosses the finish line, just over 11 minutes since the start, flames erupt from the wheels.
‘‘With no turbo it was game over. It’s a shame. I think we could have managed a 10-minute-40-second time,’’ he says.
And so it’s Tajima who does the job again, but even he cannot crack the 10-minute barrier. His winning time in the wild, wicked little Suzuki is 10 minutes 15 seconds.
But there is a challenge to be met and the men declare they’ll be back.
‘‘We’ll just have to come back next year. This car has huge potential,’’ Gronholm says as he packs for home.
Chasing race record:
double world rally champion Marcus Gronholm attacks the ascent, but falls well short of victory.