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Motorsport Stories: Pikes Peak or The Race to The Clouds

The Pikes Peak Race, won this year by Sebastien Loeb, has a special story that spans over nearly 100 years and has earned a place in the motorsport elite in an original way.

There are only three years left until the race at Pikes Peak will celebrate a century of existence, but it needed the presence of one of the emblematic pilots of the motorsport world to gain the much deserving popularity in Europe as well.

Sebastien Loeb, because he is the one we were talking about, brought a breath of fresh air to the competition and even if he was not so familiar to the American public, perhaps things have changed after he managed to shatter the previous record of the race.

But what it is Pikes Peak? How did this race appear for the first time? Who has won before? It is time to find the answers to all those questions.

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How did the Pikes Peak race come to this world?

Pikes Peak is one of the most famous mountains in the United States, located in the center of the country, near Colorado Springs. The mountain derives its name from the 1806-1807 expedition led by Captain Zebulon Pike from the U.S. Army in order to document the south of the Louisiana territory.

A century later, the United States was already the “playground” for many businessmen, including Spencer Penrose. With money gained from businesses, the entrepreneur used to do many charitable investments in Colorado, responsible for building hospitals and Zoos. In 1915, he invested $ 500,000 to rehabilitate 31 kilometers of road linking the city of Colorado Cascade to Pikes Peak, and the result was the Pikes Peak Highway.

Penrose, however, was unsatisfied by the relatively low number of tourists and decided to increase their number by organizing a race. A race that has been named for marketing purposes The Race to the Clouds because when you’re on top, you can literally touch the clouds.

A race that is formally known as the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb (PPIHC) or, in short, the Race at Pikes Peak.

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The Pikes Peak Race challenges

Pikes Peak is not just a race of 19.9 kilometers with 156 turns, for the main challenge is the gradually increasing altitude. The race starts at an altitude of 2862 meters and ends at the top of the mountain at an altitude of 4300 meters, resulting in a difference of 1438 meters corresponding to an average angle of climb of 7 degrees.

The maximum ramp is of 10.5 degrees, while the maximum slope is of 10 degrees, which makes the route a difficult one. By 2011, the competition was held on a mixed course of asphalt and gravel, but since last year the entire surface is asphalt.

The difference of almost 1,500 meters has negative effects on both the pilot’s skills and the car. For example, the gradual rarefying of the air makes the pilot’s reflexes slower, while the engines lose 1% power every 100 meters, about 30% power, an experience that rally drivers commonly encounter in the Mexico Rally from the World Rally Championship.

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’30s and ’60s: Unser rules Pikes Peak

The first edition of the Pikes Peak race took place in 1916 when Rea Lentz was named the first winner of the competition after being clocked 20 minutes, 55 seconds and 40 hundredths. Few details are known about the editions that followed, but the fact is that since the ’30s, the competition was dominated by the Unser family.

Firstly, Louis Unser has earned the reputation as patriarch of the race at Pikes Peak with nine victories, before he handing it over to his nephew, Bobby Unser, who made himself noticeable in the years after World War II. Credited with one start in Formula 1, the American born in 1934 was noted by three career victories in the 500-mile race at Indianapolis, but also eight victories at Pikes Peak in the period from 1956 to 1966 and a total record of 13 wins.

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A woman marks the European Assault

Almost 70 years passed until among the participants in the race at Pikes Peak there were the first Europeans. It was going to be the beginning of the end for American dominance in a race almost unknown on the Old Continent.

The first Europeans enrolled at Pikes Peak were the Norwegian Martin Schanche, who competed with the Ford Escort Mk3 and Michele Mouton, a French woman pilot who had already won a reputation through the four stage wins obtained in WRC. At the wheel of an Audi Sport quattro, she managed to win the race at Pikes Peak in 1984 and 1985, the second time breaking Unser’s record after being clocked with 11:25.390.

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Unser’s rematch

Audi took advantage of the record beaten by Mouton and, for the 1986 edition, approached Bobby Unser with the intention of proposing to take revenge at the wheel of an Audi Sport Quattro S1 E2. Although he already had 52 years, the American accepted the proposal and made a really good impression during the race, which he won after beating the record set by Muton by 16 seconds. The new record at Pikes Peak was 11:09.220.

Could it have been even better than this? Obviously, but to prove that they needed a great pilot: Walter Rohl. Double world champion in WRC in 1980 and 1982, the German took the wheel of the same Audi Sport Quattro S1 E2 and, in 1987, set a new record at Pikes Peak: 10:47.850!

1988: Ari Vatanen and Peugeot 405 Turbo 16

After six years of Audi domination, the people at Peugeot have decided to discontinue the German domination and participated in the 1988 edition. The French had participated the year before, but this time they have done their homework carefully and equipped the Peugeot 405 T16 Pikes Peak with full steering. It became the first full steering car to compete at Pikes Peak and a premiere brand among rally cars.

Originally built for the Paris Rally – Dakar, Peugeot 405 T16 Pikes Peak received a new chassis made of Kevlar fiber, while the turbo engine was positioned very close to the ground just before the rear axle.

Ari Vatanen got behind the wheel, who won the world title in the WRC in 1981, and Finn managed to break the record from the previous year after being clocked 10:47:77. How did he do it? Here are some secrets revealed by Vatanen himself: “You cannot fully drive on this road, you always have to have a backup, a margin of error. If you go out in the decor, then we can say that the ejections space is very soft, but after that a painful landing is waiting for you.”

The story of his impressive victory was portrayed in a short-film called Climb Dance and reassembles the romantic atmosphere of motorsport in the 80s.

Tajima “the Monster’s” war with Rod Miller

Peugeot won a victory at Pikes Peak in the following year as well through Robby Unser, however a new era followed at Pikes Peak, the one of Nobuhiro Tajima, who would have earned the reputation of Monster Tajima. His adventure began with a Suzuki Swift who won the 1992 and 1993 editions, but after Rod Millen’s victory in 1994, he got on a Suzuki Escudo with which he noted a third success into his account in 1995.

The Japanese failed, however, to repeat the success a year later as the same Rod Miller proved to be faster driving a Toyota with which he had four consecutive victories in 1996-1999. There followed five seasons with two winners from Sweden, including Per Eklund who triumphed with a Saab 9-3 in 2000 and 2002, but few predicted what was to follow.

No more than six victories signed by Tajima “the Monster” shattered everyone’s expectations. Using four Suzuki models, Tajima managed to win the race in 7:38.900 on a shortened route. In 2011 he became the first pilot to finish and win the race in less than ten minutes, namely 9:51.278, with the help of a twin-turbo V6 3.1l engine which provided 910hp on a Suzuki SX4cu.

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Sebastien Loeb’s year

After a victory gained by David Donner last year, this year was marked by the participation of Sebastien Loeb. After nine world titles in WRC and, in parallel, participating in a GT Series and the Porsche Supercup race in Monaco, the French could have had only one goal at Pikes Peak. No, not the victory, but breaking the record.

In his support came a Peugeot 208 T16 Pikes Peak built for this event which has impressed since the official presentation by the technical specifications. The car is powered by a 3.2-liter V6 engine that develops 875 horsepower, while the transmission, carbon brakes and aerodynamics have been borrowed from the Peugeot 908 Le Mans Series.

Since the car weighs 875 kg, the power / weight ratio is an impressive 1:1, while Loeb needs only 1.8 seconds to reach 100 km / h. Equally impressive was Loeb’s route during the competition, as the Frenchman was clocked 8:13.878 and broke the previous record by almost a minute and a half.

“You you have the aerodynamic down force of a Le Mans cars with a better acceleration than a Formula 1 car, and the script is a bit similar to the rally. The car comes out of corners like a cannonball, and the traction is incredible. With so much investment in this program you cannot make any mistakes. It’s a 20 km route during which you take risks. There was a certain pressure that I felt before the start, that’s true.” – Sebastien Loeb.

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