Hard­est race on Earth

It’s a brave driver who takes on Pikes Peak, writes JERE­MYHART

Herald Sun - Motoring - - Front Page -

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.

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