VW ID R
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.