It’s con­quered the Pikes Peak hill­climb. Now it’s our turn to feel the full force of VW’s ID R


It’s smashed the Pikes Peak hill­climb record. Let’s hope there’s no more smash­ing when Ol­lie Mar­riage drives it

Deep within, maybe some­where around the brain stem, where in­for­ma­tion is still be­ing gath­ered and pro­cessed, a far­away voice is scream­ing into the heavy du­vet sur­round­ing my con­scious­ness that all is not fine, all is a long way from fine, and I re­ally, re­ally need to wake up and pay at­ten­tion. RIGHT NOW.

This is the part that’s still re­spond­ing to events out­side. The most per­ti­nent of which is that the VW ID R Pikes Peak is cur­rently do­ing about 120mph. Be­cause what I’m ac­tu­ally ex­pe­ri­enc­ing is g-LOC. Loss of con­scious­ness due to g- force. Ev­ery­thing goes quiet, soft and smooth. And quite pos­si­bly drooly. I’ll be hon­est: it’s very re­lax­ing. Well, un­til the cor­ner ends, at which point the rude awak­en­ing: a snap back into yowl­ing, gasp­ing con­scious­ness as the brain and body un­lock and try to fran­ti­cally re­mem­ber what it is they have to do next.

That’s how it feels to drive a high-down­force racer, a car ca­pa­ble of pulling four or five times the force of grav­ity. Still think you’d cope? Well, I now know that I don’t, which is a stark, cruel real­i­sa­tion. How you phys­i­cally cope with this and re­tain the men­tal acu­ity to keep a 670bhp be­winged mon­ster on a nar­row strip of tar­mac sur­rounded by 1,000ft drops is why I, and prob­a­bly you, are not like Ro­main Du­mas.

Be­cause here’s an­other thing: when he drove this very car to an all-time record (7mins 57.148secs) on the fa­mous Colorado moun­tain back in June, he wasn’t just fight­ing the car, he was fight­ing na­ture. At the 2,865m al­ti­tude start line, the hu­man body is al­ready sig­nif­i­cantly oxy­gen-de­fi­cient, let alone at the fin­ish an­other 1,440m and 156 black­out-in­duc­ing cor­ners fur­ther up.

Here’s a ques­tion: what else strug­gles at al­ti­tude? The in­ter­nal com­bus­tion engine. That’s why VW can make a car 200kg heav­ier and 200bhp less pow­er­ful than Séb Loeb’s Peu­geot 208 T16 go over 15secs faster. Du­mas had 670bhp all the way; Loeb had a con­stantly de­plet­ing scale from some­thing like 650bhp to 450bhp.

The ID R wasn’t the first elec­tric car to scale the moun­tain – that was the Sears elec­tric car back in 1981 (in 32:07), nor was it the first out­right win­ner – that hon­our go­ing to Rhys Millen’s Drive eO PP03 in 2015. Given the suit­abil­ity of elec­tric to al­ti­tude and the short sprint that is this 12.42-mile course, it’s hard to see a way back to the podium for the in­ter­nal com­bus­tion engine.

Ex­cept that a core part of the VW ID R is from an ICE car. The car­bon tub is taken from a Norma hill­climb car. “Of course, if we did our own mono­coque and could in­te­grate the bat­ter­ies, we would have a much bet­ter so­lu­tion for weight, stiff­ness and pack­ag­ing,” lead en­gi­neer Dr Ben­jamin Ahren­holz says. “We made some mod­i­fi­ca­tions, but this one [chas­sis] is quite lim­ited. We did not have much time.”

In the cor­ners, I fall asleep. My head lolls to the side, I snug­gle up against the seat flank and my pillowy brain de­cides I’m per­fectly fine to set­tle down for a nap.

He’s not kid­ding. The whole pro­ject, from blank com­puter screen to car be­ing trans­ported out to Amer­ica, was done by a core team of 30 in un­der 250 days. For ap­proach­ing 200 of those, the car only ex­isted vir­tu­ally.

Parked out on the end­less apron of VW’s Ehra-Lessien test fa­cil­ity, a prairie-like square of as­phalt surely vis­i­ble from space, the ID R could still be vir­tual. The back­drop is sur­real, and that wing is com­pletely out of pro­por­tion, shad­ing a sig­nif­i­cant acreage of VW’s real es­tate. I am a help­less moth. My armspan falls piti­fully short of its width. How have they bal­anced out front down­force against this? Oh jeez, you don’t no­tice the front un­til you crouch down – the di­ve­planes are the size of oven trays and the split­ter could be used to grade roads, ex­tend­ing out ei­ther side where its wide line is con­tin­ued by quite the most ridicu­lous set of side skirts, wires pre­vent­ing them de­form­ing when the ground ef­fect gets go­ing.

Ahren­holz won’t talk ex­act down­force, other than to say that “it’s more than an LMP1 car, cer­tainly more than the car weighs”. Look past the bits that stick it to the road and it’s also a damn good-look­ing rac­ing car, hip high, nar­row of cock­pit, the pro­por­tions sur­pris­ingly con­ven­tional, given the Pikes Peak Un­lim­ited regs ba­si­cally let you do what­ever the hell you like.

Un­der­neath the car­bon body­work, the 40kWh bat­tery pack, about 25 per cent of the to­tal weight, forms an L-shape around the driver, send­ing con­sid­er­able volt­age to an elec­tric mo­tor on each axle. The wheels are mag­ne­sium, the brakes by Al­con, and by re­gen­er­a­tion too. 20 per cent of the en­ergy nec­es­sary to get to the sum­mit was har­vested through the elec­tric mo­tors. On bat­tery alone, it would not have reached the che­quered flag.

En­try is through the roof. The doors are re­moved so I can stand on the tub wall, lean over to grasp the steel rollcage, then swing my­self over so I’m stand­ing on the seat. I’ve seen sim­i­lar ma­noeu­vres per­formed on a vault­ing horse. My trou­bles have barely started. Dur­ing the build-up to the test, VW had asked how big I was (you can’t be sen­si­tive around rac­ing cars). My re­ply was con­fi­dent: 175cm and 72kg. Not big. Si­lence at the other end, then: “Yeah, that sho-o-o-uld be OK.” Now I know why. I think snakey thoughts and wrig­gle butt, hips and shoul­ders down past rollcage and head­rest.

I’m in. I’m not get­ting out in a hurry. It’s snug. Two things strike me – my eye­line is level with the top of the wheel, hem­ming my view, and a pair of or­ange ca­bles like ship­ping hawsers run along the main bat­tery cas­ing to my right. They look in­tim­i­dat­ingly high volt­age. I’m just glad they don’t start hum­ming when I tog­gle the main ig­ni­tion on. I wait for the light on the dash. Green is good, sig­nalling it’s OK for the team to touch both car and ground with­out giv­ing the elec­tric­ity a handy route out.

Di­eter Dep­ping, the car’s test and de­vel­op­ment driver, passes the steer­ing wheel in. It’s less baf­fling than most: “You have the same dis­play as Ro­main,” says Dep­ping, “just tyre pres­sures, bat­tery charge and speed read­out.” As far as con­trols go, it’s just ac­cel­er­ate, brake and steer, not even a gear-se­lec­tor.

Di­eter re­treats, the flimsy door latches into place and I go through the rest of the start up pro­ce­dure. LV first, then HV-Req. I hear the click of re­lays as my high volt­age re­quest is granted, then press Drv Mode. For a sec­ond, noth­ing hap­pens, then far away, a jet engine be­gins to whirr. Weird, that wasn’t men­tioned in the brief­ing. Ahh, the pumps for the wa­ter-cooled elec­tric mo­tors. The noise builds, be­com­ing in­creas­ingly shrill and pen­e­trat­ing and, when it reaches a peak, the ID R do­ing a

pass­able im­pres­sion of a Rover-BRM, I gen­tly press the ac­cel­er­a­tor, and with a slight jud­der, I’m away.

Now, let me come clean. When VW said we could drive the ID R at its top-se­cret Ehra-Lessien test track, I was giddy with ex­cite­ment. This is where the McLaren F1 and Bu­gatti Vey­ron set their speed records, and I looked on Google Maps at the sheer va­ri­ety of tracks and routes and won­dered where VW would put me to sim­u­late Pikes Peak.

A big patch of tar­mac. Not quite what I had in mind. Not a tenth of a de­gree of gra­di­ent, the big­gest drop the one off the kerb in the car park. If it’s pos­si­ble for Pikes Peak to have an in­verse, this is it. Let’s be hon­est – it’s prag­matic. I’m the first per­son af­ter Ro­main and Di­eter ever to drive the ID R. It’s got the power of a Lu­di­crous Tesla P100D, but less than half the weight and presses four fat Miche­lin slicks into the tar­mac with vast force. Keep­ing it (and me) out of harm’s way makes sense. Also, VW isn’t fin­ished with it yet. Next year we’ll see the ID R again, do­ing… stuff.

I’m wrong. I re­alise this within about 100 yards, eyes open to the pos­si­bil­ity of turn­ing in wher­ever I like at what­ever speed I like and just see­ing what hap­pens. I do drive around the outer oval, just to get the sen­sa­tion of nar­row­ness, of trees rush­ing past, and it’s ad­dic­tive. With the mo­tors whin­ing and fizzing and in­stant

“It’s got the power of a Lu­di­crous Tesla P100D, but less than half the weight”

ac­cel­er­a­tion just a flex away, it’s pure pod racer. And be­sides, it’s good to get rid of the top bit of charge be­cause un­til the bat­tery drops be­low 89 per cent, you don’t get any re­gen brak­ing, and that makes a big dif­fer­ence to how the pedal re­acts.

The ac­cel­er­a­tion is plain bonkers. A cou­ple of years back I drove Audi’s R18 LMP1, a car so fast it seemed to leap the first 100 me­tres of any straight. But af­ter that it grad­u­ally wound it­self back out of hyper­space. In the VW, there’s no let-up. Well, not un­til 137mph, its top speed lim­ited to pre­serve bat­tery. It’s all the good stuff we love about elec­tric – the in­stan­ta­neous re­sponse and mega torque dump – but at a level where you can’t de­scribe the speed, only your re­ac­tion to it. And in that realm there are more lev­els: un­com­fort­able squirm­ing and, beyond that, laugh-out-of-fear. That was the Audi, but here’s a new level: shocked si­lence. So sud­den, so vi­cious, that it’s a form of paral­y­sis. And we haven’t even got to a cor­ner yet.

That a car is ca­pa­ble of in­flict­ing such pun­ish­ment is un­usual, that it’s so ca­su­ally ac­ces­si­ble is ridicu­lous. Af­ter a few laps, I stop for a quick de­brief with Di­eter, which in­volves a lot of shak­ing my head in dis­be­lief. He checks the tyre tem­per­a­tures and says “OK, it’s all good, this time when you leave, just point it straight and give it ev­ery­thing off the line.”

This is why you don’t need launch con­trol. I have an in-car cam­era and tell it that I’m go­ing to try and read the speed as I ac­cel­er­ate. Here’s what hap­pens. I nail the throt­tle, all four slicks spin, I watch peels of smoke come off the tyre tops and the first fig­ure I see is 80mph. By the time my mouth tries to form the words, the speed is beyond 100mph. It’s got there in 3.7secs.

The brakes are now warm as well, al­low­ing me to ex­pe­ri­ence the cu­ri­ous sen­sa­tion of my face get­ting sucked off my skull. Cones mark a var­ied, track-length course around the prairie. I try to men­tally keep up, to per­suade hands and feet to re­act be­fore sig­nals ar­rive from my brain, to take in what’s hap­pen­ing. It’s the pre­ci­sion that stuns me, the fact I can be go­ing so fast, yet be so ac­cu­rate. Du­mas, a man who’s won Le Mans in a Porsche 919, de­scribed the ID R as the “most im­pres­sive car I have ever driven in com­pe­ti­tion”. He also said, “I thought I was sit­ting in a rocket.” I know where he’s com­ing from.

Ab­surd grip usu­ally makes a car feel blunt, dull around the edges, but this is un­be­liev­ably pos­i­tive, su­per-sen­si­tive to throt­tle and steer­ing and so, so crisp. A cou­ple of times through medi­um­speed cor­ners I man­age to overdo it, to pro­voke lift-off over­steer. That’s more alarm­ing, as I’m ba­si­cally switch­ing the aero off, at which point I feel the car phys­i­cally pop up as the sus­pen­sion un­loads. Takes a bit of gath­er­ing up.

When the aero’s not work­ing, the ID R does hop and por­poise slightly, but with air’s force added… well, let me di­rect you back to where we came in. And it does, it re­ally does, feel quiet and smooth and sta­ble and se­cure and ef­fort­less. But maybe that was be­cause I was spend­ing half of ev­ery lap in dream­land.

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